By Desiree Bowie
Source: The Fix
The new TV show explores the stigma of mental illness, substance use, and loneliness while calling attention to life-saving medications like Suboxone.
With the exception of Mad Men, Shameless, and Nurse Jackie, I rarely ever learn anything new from television about the addictive mindset or the nuance of being an addict in recovery. I can now add the new USA drama series, Mr. Robot, to the list of shows that showcase addiction and mental illness in a unique way. The show deftly deals with addiction and mental illness, two issues that can often walk hand-in-hand, and the showrunner and writers do it well.
A little back story: I have been the copy editor on The Fix staff for nearly a year. While I have never had to deal with substance abuse myself, I have seen its effect on too many people in my life. On a daily basis, I read copious amounts of addiction and recovery information and this information has now become a part of my life. I find myself slipping addiction statistics into friendly conversations or wanting to illuminate friends on the growing heroin epidemic that is quickly infiltrating our society. I am no longer shocked that “regular” people are unaware of prescription painkiller abuse, or the reality of living with alcoholism, or the fact that naloxone is a game-changing medicine that can save lives. It’s not like they’re covering this information on the local news. The effects of the War on Drugs is only recently starting to trend in the news cycle with Obama granting clemency to a record amount of non-violent offenders but the coverage is microscopic compared to that of a celebrity’s impending divorce or a popular wrestler’s alleged racist tirade.
Addiction is not glamorous and is rarely discussed without stereotypes in the mainstream so I don’t look at people any differently for lacking addiction awareness. But my veil has been lifted and I can see my daily work is quite ubiquitous. Addiction is everywhere, including the entertainment I love. It can be found in the books I read and throughout the plots of the TV shows I watch. The addict trope is often portrayed in a derivative manner with the same set of familiar outcomes—the characters walk away nice and clean or eventually something terribly permanent happens. Mr. Robot has arrived to challenge the tired tropes with a different take on addiction and mental illness.
The psychological thriller centers around a young computer programmer named Elliot (Rami Malek) who works in cyber security. The audience is introduced to Elliot while he is riding the subway and in the middle of a possible schizophrenic paranoiac episode. Elliot informs us via voiceover that he has developed a relationship with the voice inside his head, whom he affectionally calls “friend.” He internally wonders if he should name the voice but decides against it. He then begins to tell his “friend” of a top secret conspiracy about a powerful group of people that are secretly running the world.
“What I’m about to tell you is top secret. A conspiracy bigger than all of us. There’s a powerful group of people out there that are secretly running the world. I’m talking about the guys no one knows about. The guys that are invisible. The top 1% of the top 1%. The guys that play God without permission…and now I think they’re following me.”
As Elliot sits uneasily in a moving subway car wearing his signature black hoodie, he sneaks a glance at two men in suits whom he believes are tailing him, though they never actually make contact. Elliot is an unreliable narrator and this device serves two purposes: To make us distrust what we see on screen and to allow us inside the head of an introverted, socially anxious paranoid schizophrenic.
Paranoid schizophrenia is one of the most common types of schizophrenia in the world, but it is not the only type of schizophrenia, there are a handful of subtypes including: catatonic, disorganized, residual, and undifferentiated. There is no uniformity within the illness; Half of all people with the illness have not received any treatment; and between one-third and one-half of all homeless adults have schizophrenia. The suicide rates of schizophrenics is very high with 10% of adult male sufferers dying by suicide. According to NIMH, people with schizophrenia “are much more likely to have a substance or alcohol abuse problem than the general population.”
People who suffer from this illness are usually relatively stable, though they experience auditory hallucinations, delusions of persecution, or of having a “special mission,” among other symptoms. Though he regularly sees a psychiatrist, Elliot has not been clinically diagnosed, as he makes rigorous attempts to hide his symptoms from the people around him. As the show progresses, we start to see examples of a larger conspiracy brewing in Elliot’s workplace, which eventually leads him to take on a “special mission” with an anarchist hacker collective called Fsociety, which is lead by the enigmatical Mr. Robot (Christian Slater). Every decision and person that arrives into the story seems to fit a perfect piece of the conspiratorial puzzle. As a viewer, there is an ominous feeling of distrust because you get the feeling that this entire call to arms exists only in Elliot’s head.
While the show has definite Fight Club undertones (which is one of the reasons I love it), it does manage to depict a more realistic version of a paranoid schizophrenic than the 1999 cult classic. In Fight Club, the character with schizophrenia is depicted as an aggressor, when in real life, schizophrenia can have an almost dulling effect on the individual. The documentary, Living with Schizophrenia: A Call for Hope and Recovery features firsthand schizophrenic accounts that illustrate the debilitating nature of schizophrenia and the stigma attached to the illness. These accounts sound similar to Elliot’s journey, which also includes substance use disorder.
“If it weren’t for QWERTY, I’d be completely empty.”
Elliot is a drug addict. He uses morphine to stave off his loneliness. Like many drug users, he has a code. “The key to doing morphine without turning into a junkie is to limit yourself to 30mgs a day. Anything more just builds up your tolerance. I check every pill I get for purity. I have 8mgs Suboxone for maintenance in case I go through withdrawals.”
This is the first TV show I’ve ever watched that has mentioned Suboxone, the medication used to treat narcotic opiate addiction. The drug is quite controversial though it has helped many users manage their opiate addiction when taken properly. I was absolutely thrilled to see it showcased and explained on a major cable network show because the more people that know about Suboxone, the better. The drug has the potential to save lives and sometimes it takes bringing things to the mainstream to promote awareness and make necessary change.
Elliot explains that Suboxone is difficult to get a prescription for so he is left no choice but to get it illegally. This is an all-too-familiar tale for users of Suboxone. Elliot gets his Suboxone from his neighborhood dealer Shayla (Frankie Shaw) but when her supply goes dry, he is forced to break his own code and retreat into the arms of morphine to get through his day. Elliot’s morphine addiction reaches peak levels just as he is forced with the decision to either digitally snitch on Shayla’s abusive supplier or shut his mouth and maintain his morphine addiction. He chooses the former and proceeds to go into heavy withdrawal.
We watch Elliot attempt to follow through with a major hacking scheme despite being in the early stages of withdrawal and he fails miserably. The hacker collective and Mr. Robot check into a motel and babysit him while he goes through a brutal few days of morphine withdrawal’s greatest hits—sweats, nausea, tremors, and nightmarish visual hallucinations. Elliot makes it out the other side, but just barely. The few days post-withdrawal prove to be more difficult than he expects.
Mr. Robot is a tense, entertaining, thriller that manages to address mental health and addiction in a nuanced way. There isn’t another dramatic show on air that handles the chaotic balance of mental illness and drug addiction with such attention to detail. What I love the most about it is the unpredictability. I don’t know if Elliot will remain sober; I don’t know if/when his schizophrenic episodes will progress and I don’t know if Mr. Robot and Fsociety are real or just figments of Elliot’s imagination. I applaud showrunner Sam Esmail and his team of writers for being fearless enough to break the stereotypes involved with addiction and mental illness, and for creating such a layered character in what could have been a flat one-dimensional portrayal in lesser hands.
Desiree Bowie is a copy editor for The Fix and a freelance writer.