Since their introduction to the TV viewing public in 2016, the Pearsons of This Is Us has become one of North America’s most beloved fictional families. Now in its fourth season, the show is known for storylines that depict real-life challenges with accuracy that can be both uplifting and heartbreaking. One of these challenges – addiction – is shown as a multigenerational issue affecting almost all members of the family in some form.
While it is important to remember that This Is Us is a work of fiction and should not be used as a manual for life, there are some key things the show gets right about addiction.
Addiction can be passed from generation to generation
It is widely agreed among scientists that genetic makeup accounts for about half of a person’s risk of developing an addiction disorder. This certainly appears to be the case in the Pearson family. Jack Pearson and his brother Nicky were raised by an abusive alcoholic father; both of them later went on to become addicted to alcohol themselves. The next generation is affected as well: several years after the death of Jack Pearson, his son Kevin battled the twin demons of alcohol addiction and opioid addiction.
It can be argued that the eating addiction experienced by Kevin’s twin, Kate, is another manifestation of the addiction gene. And although their adopted brother Randall, who is unquestionably a workaholic in the truest sense of the word, does not have any biological connection to the Pearson family, the story reveals that both of his birth parents were addicted to drugs.
However, just because addiction can be passed from one generation to the next, that doesn’t mean DNA is entirely to blame. Having the genetic predisposition for addiction certainly puts the individual at higher risk, but when that person’s primary caregiver is an addict, learned behaviour becomes a factor. Jack and Nicky lived with an alcoholic father, and they later experienced trauma as a result of being in Vietnam. Years later, all three of the Pearson children witnessed their father turning to alcohol during stressful times – it would make sense that each of them learned how to retreat into their own addictive patterns when the going got tough.
Addiction does not discriminate
This Is Us does a masterful job of showing that addiction can happen to anyone from any walk of life, at any time. On one end of the spectrum, we see Nicky in his dilapidated trailer, and Randall’s birth father William, in his run-down low income apartment. On the other end, we see movie star Kevin, who has so much money that he never needs to work again, and Randall, whose upmarket lifestyle is in stark contrast to that of his biological father.
Addiction comes in many forms
When we think of addiction, we tend to think of alcohol and drug abuse, and at least six major characters in This Is Usexperience this. Other forms of addiction are addressed, though: Kate’s excessive eating, her husband Toby’s sudden transference of addictions from food to exercise, Randall’s unhealthy obsession with working and being the go-to problem solver. While work, exercise and eating are, in and of themselves, healthy and necessary parts of life, a line gets crossed when “enough” becomes “too much”.
Addiction is usually triggered by something
There is a misconception that people with addictions are irresponsible and incapable of making good choices. The reality is that while a genetic predisposition increases risk, addiction is frequently precipitated by some kind of life event or stress.
Jack and Nicky Pearson both went to Vietnam; both experienced unimaginable trauma that played a big part in their alcohol addictions.
Randall’s workaholic tendencies started early, when his placement in a school for gifted students coincided with the onset of panic attacks brought on by a constant quest for perfection.
Kevin’s addiction problems had teenage roots as well: a serious injury put an abrupt end to a promising football career. A resurgence of the injury during adulthood led to a prescription for painkillers, which in turn led to an addiction.
Kate’s eating disorder appears to have been triggered by an as-yet undisclosed incident with a boyfriend about a year after Jack’s death.
Relapse is part of recovery
Many movies and TV shows depict addiction and recovery as a linear process. The individual becomes addicted, they hit their own personal form of “rock bottom”, they go to rehab and get better, and then they go home and live happily ever after.
Kevin’s story is depicted more realistically. After an ugly DUI incident, he is forced into rehab. He seemingly recovers, but seeing a bottle of whisky in his uncle Nicky’s trailer during a stressful time proves to be too much for him. He relapses and falls right back into his addiction. Everything comes to a head when he is too drunk to drive a pregnant Kate to the hospital after she goes into preterm labour.
Although we do not see any instances of relapse after this, the spectre of addiction never quite leaves. However, the key message is that someone can experience an addiction and suffer one or more relapses, and still recover and go on to lead a successful, fulfilling life.
Photo: Kevin Pearson (played by Justin Hartley), “This Is Us”