Soaps aren't running out of ideas with alcoholism relapses – it's reality

Soaps aren't running out of ideas with alcoholism relapses – it's reality

02/01/2021

Like all addictions, relapses are an all too common reality even post recovery. An addiction never fully goes away and always sticks with the person – whether it is drugs, alcohol, self harm, eating disorders or gambling.

Soaps like Coronation Street and Emmerdale regularly tackle issue based storylines, which is something I have always thrown my support behind.

Soaps have the platform to educate and represent and to raise awareness around what real people go through, endure, defeat and are defeated by in real life.

The shows regularly do a good job of showing the true reality of the situations. Where they often fall down is the long term aftermath – showing a character suddenly snap out of an addiction is a false reality.

Sure, it’s the easy solution to send a character off screen and have them back miraculously cured by some unseen therapy. If only it were that easy.

Soaps have to suspend reality to an extent –  they don’t want their character to be defined by grief, addiction or past trauma. These things reshape humans forever and when you have an iconic character, it’s a risk to add this ‘issue’ to them.

As an audience, we could feel the same – Coronation Street once gave Sinead ‘life changing injuries’ in a bus crash which she recovered from within weeks and were never mentioned again. EastEnders had a character ‘permanently scarred’ in a fire only for her to return, post spin-off, as the unburned Kat we all knew and loved.

This is convenient for writers to rediscover the characters’ origins and move their story on. But it is a disservice to viewers watching, sitting with physical or emotional scars which don’t just disappear because the make-up time is too much or the storyline doesn’t fit.

Just as regularly, soaps get it right. Chris Tate was left permanently disabled after the plane crash and remained the same character and a fascinating, often loathsome and complicated staple of Home Farm for over a decade more.

Luke in Hollyoaks has been a stalwart of the show from the very beginning and one of his earliest storylines, over 20 years ago, was being subjected to rape. To this day, Luke is still impacted by this – it is a trauma that has been revisited both in his own story arc and his son Ollie’s – and yet he has had storylines outside of that trauma and retained what Luke always was – a bit cheeky, loyal and fun.

It’s great when soaps do this – the signs in Corrie are positive that Yasmeen has been permanently changed by her ordeal with Geoff and we have seen Jean constantly impacted by her bipolar condition in EastEnders – when she stops taking her medication, we see how that condition which is managed but always with her, materialises.

So now we move on to Peter Barlow, Laurel Thomas and Phil Mitchell. Many fans on social media are ‘bored’ seeing Peter fall off the wagon and claim that Coronation Street is running out of ideas.

However, the soaps are being true to the nature of an addict. It takes a huge amount of strength to constantly stay sober and with the traumas characters go through in soap, the temptation to nullify that pain can only be increased.

Laurel in Emmerdale will be tempted by the demon booze once more and that is fairly understandable given her recent ordeal of choosing to terminate a pregnancy.

Peter and Phil are flawed and broken men, with alcohol always remaining a part of their lives. Most of the time, things are okay with them and they aren’t eyeing up the nearest bottle. But, as in most situations, there are times when relapses are a higher risk.

If soaps were to say that once an alcoholic beats their addiction once, they’re immune – they would be insulting the many who face the daily battle against addiction. It would also undermine the believability and the journey of the characters.

Far from copying their own storylines, they are continuing long running arcs which is exactly what long term serial dramas have the privilege to do. If you follow a character from childhood, to adulthood, through joys and traumas, it would be wrong to ignore something which once controlled their whole life.

Are Coronation Street and Emmerdale being lazy by revisiting Peter and Laurel’s alcoholism? Absolutely not – they’re being honest and responsible to a very sensitive issue. If a third tram crashed onto the Street, we could understand cries of ‘oh come on’. But an alcoholic seeking refuge in booze after a hard time is sadly all too real – particularly with increasing reliance on alcohol during lockdown and the pandemic.

According to Alcohol Change Misuse, In England in 2018/19, there were 1.26 million hospital admissions related to alcohol consumption (7.4% of all hospital admissions), 8% higher than the previous year. In the same period there were 358,000 admissions where the main reason was due to alcohol, 19% higher than ten years previously.

Alcohol is a damaging factor in the lives of so many people – so if the soaps can show that relapses can happen and be overcome, then it can only help those at home to feel understood and continue to believe the battle goes on but it is winnable.

Statistically, the longer one remains sober, the chances of relapse dwindle. But we have to understand that this doesn’t come easy – and storylines like this highlight the care we have to take around those vulnerable to addiction. Just because they are free of the grip for now, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look out for warning signs and be aware that it could manifest itself again.

Sorry if you find these storylines boring – for many people, it’s all too real and very much not boring but life consuming. The more we shine a light on what could be classed as an epidemic in society, the closer we get to showing understanding, empathy and working towards even better treatment.

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