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the island of conclusions

Personal Demons (spoilers for 4.16)

the island of conclusions

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Personal Demons (spoilers for 4.16)

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This isn't an episode reaction as much as some thoughts and questions about one of the issues brought up by the episode.

When I first got hooked on SPN, about a year ago, I kind of assumed that if the Winchester family tragedy had an allegorical dimension, it had to do with the way the YED's predation figured for the trauma of a broken home.  You know: it wasn't divorce that turned us into a struggling, single-parent family, it was a yellow-eyed demon, though the results were the same.

But now that I've been poking around in canon and fanon for all these months, I think that the "natural" demon that the "supernatural" demon is most often read as standing in for is not divorce, but rather substance abuse.

I think this is interesting, and don't quite know what to make of it.

Substance abuse--particularly alcohol--has a long-standing presence in canon SPN, and discussion thereof: Sam's famous line in "Nightmare," that with a bit more tequila and a little less demon-hunting, he and Dean would have ended up like Max, has spawned copious speculation about just how much of an alcoholic John really was (and if you want a reminder of just how much the brothers' relationship has changed since S1, take a look at the end of that episode!).  And if the question didn't really come up much in S2-3, it has returned with a vengeance in S4, where excessive use of alcohol has come up several times already: Dean's heavy drinking to deal with his post-Hell PTSD in YF, WT, and HaH; Sam's heavy drinking in the months after losing Dean in IKWYDLS.

So, while I agree that the whole angel-demon war has taken SPN to a very different place than where it started in S1, there is a strange continuity on this issue at least....

And alcoholic Johns, Sams and Deans show up with surprising frequency in fanfiction (along with the occasional, memorable, heroin addict!Dean).  Mostly in AU fiction, of course, as if in the absence of "real" demons, other, more personal demons arise in their place.  (I list a few such stories at the end; I'm sure there are more).  The jury seems to be hung as to which of the boys has a more "addictive personality"--though the tendency runs deep in the Winchester line, according to fan writers and readers.  I'm not sure I've ever read a piece of fanfic about divorce, however, though I'm sure one exists, since everything exists.  (I know I'm treating fanon as continuous with canon here, a practice you may not agree with.  But it seems to me that one of the ways fanfiction functions work as an interpretation of what's really happening on the show, even, or perhaps especially, AUs).

And now it seems as if addiction  is poised to enter the story arc in a central and fairly mind-blowing way.  There was nothing subtle about the way Sam sucking Ruby's blooded was coded as an addict getting a fix from a dealer.

So, my question is just:  Why so interested in addiction, SPN?   At first glance, as I said, I didn't think of SPN as a narrative of addiction, except maybe in that Brokeback Mountain, "I just can't quit you," kind of way.  And I still don't.  But something is clearly going on here.

Is it just that substance abuse is a more significant threat to 21st-century personal and familial ties than divorce ever way?

Or is that the show has always been interested in the addictive properties of emotions: revenge, love (particularly the kind of love outside the bounds of "normal" heterosexual romance).  Are these more physical addictions simply a new way of exploring that dynamic?

SPN has, of course, also always been interested in problems of agency, control, denial--also central to the dynamic of addiction.

But I feel there's something I'm not getting here, so let me know if you have any insights.  I'm more interested in the show's overall interest in addiction than in any given character's addictive personality--though that is pretty fascinating, and is already lighting up the boards.  (as indeed it already was last week,  for example in bardicvoice 's meta about last week's episode, here).   Sam's emergence as a power!demon-blood!addict seems perfectly in keeping with the way his character has developed; but I'm interested in why the problem of addiction has a larger presence on the show than just Sam's personality flaw.

Some addiction stories (this is an unscientific selection of mostly well-known fics--I'm sure there are many more).

</a></b></a>kimonkey7 's A Good Man is Hard to Find. (heroin-addicted!Dean)

vee_fic 's  Drive!Verse  (S1 AU, alcohol-abusing!Sam, nicotine-addicted!Dean--who's also addicted to painkillers, but only because he's permanently disabled).

candle_beck 's   Look the Other Way  (AU, no supernatural, implied alcoholic!John, alcoholic!Sam)

kroki_refur 's But for the Grace (alcoholic!Sam in an alternate reality)

innocentculprit 's Please Exit Hell Quietly Through the Rear Doors (S4 alcoholic!Dean)

red_handed 's Can't Feel a Thing (heroin-addict!Dean, 4.10 tag)

  • This response will be shorter than I'd like it to be because I'm in a hurry, but...

    I'm one of the few who have always seen the running theme as codependency, which often (though not always) is concurrent with substance abuse. The family's underlying need to take care of each other, no matter what the consequence to themselves or people around them - it smacks of codependency.

    Is it just that substance abuse is a more significant threat to 21st-century personal and familial ties than divorce ever way?
    This might be rhetoric, but... well, to me? Yes. My parents are still happily married, but substance abuse has come in and out of my life more times than I'd like to admit. I've played the part of the codependent, and I've played other parts that... well, I'd really rather not get into.

    (It honestly makes it hard for me to read fics based around substance abuse. Not because it's a difficult subject to stomach, but because they are very rarely accurate. Believe me when I say I've seen everything. Um. Except crack. Managed to avoid that one so far.)
    • I'm with you on the co-dependency!

      and I didn't mean that to sound purely rhetorical, sorry! I'm grateful not to have had too much personal experience with substance abuse, but from what I've seen it can be destructive in ways that divorce isn't necessarily (okay--that I do have personal experience with--and believe me, there's an upside!).

      I find those stories hard to read too, and I'm never quite sure why...maybe for the reason you mention...

      thanks for reading
  • It's true that there are certainly plenty of reoccuring themes of dependency in SPN, substance abuse, but also an unhealthy amount of dependency on the family unit. I had never heard of Mary's loss being a metaphor for divorce before, perhaps because I would expect divorce to leave different things in its wake than being widowed.
    • Yeah--I was completely wrong in that first assumption (or, you know, ::cough::projecting::cough)--NOBODY reads it as a metaphor for divorce. Which is kind of interesting in itself, given the enormous number of AU versions of Winchester history that get written. But I don't know what you can say about an absence...

      But, yeah, SPN certainly is about the consequences of extreme dependency on the family unit! Maybe what's interesting about Sam's demon blood addiction, if that's what it turns out to be, is that it's a dependency *outside* the family unit--separating him through lies and needs from what's left of his family: Dean.

      thanks for reading!

  • I find it very interesting that you bring up divorce as a possible symbolic meaning in SPN, as it hadn't even crossed my mind when even brief consideration suggest that it should have. I can only think of one fanfic even mentioning divorce, and that was kind of as a rather random starter to a long string of Wincest PWPs, and it was one of the boys who'd been married too (don't remember which one...)

    And alcohol addiction has been there as a theme since the pilot; Sam says that Dad must just be "working a Miller time shift." and is probably up at the cabin with "Jim, Jack, and Jose." I'm surprised you didn't mention that.
    • Oh, of course! I totally and stupidly forgot those lines from the pilot--thanks for the catch! (so, I guess in this, as in other things, there is a like-father-like-son thing going on between John and Sam...).

      That's interesting that you haven't seen any fanfic about divorce either (I was kind of expecting someone to say "but haven't you read the famous story XX by XX?"). As I said up-thread, it's hard to say something about an absence, but it is a little weird, given the many, many ways the Winchester story has been re-imagined in AUs...

      I probably should try posting a query at the storyfinders com, just to satisfy my curiousity...
  • You asked for offered thoughts so here are some of mine, I'll let you decide the relevance or lack of it.

    One of the things that has grabbed me about the show over and over from the first time I was exposed to it was how someone, Eric, writers, someone must have been raised with an alcoholic (or drug dependent) parent, because everything about Sam and Dean's lives and history was an exact, uncanny match for the life of a child of an alcoholic (or, I assume, drug abuser).

    I only know this because of my own personal experience. It constantly freaked me out, until it just became something I accepted, how similar the Winchester family was like my own. Three people, single parent, and a life which separated the children from others by the secrets they had to keep. This is what life is like for the child of an alcoholic. It shapes us into the people we are. In my case, it was my mother and sister and me. I was the youngest, my sister, the oldest child, was the one who left, like Sam, but every element of the Winchester's lives (apart from killing monsters!) was present in mine, just sometimes scrambled as to who took what role.

    My belief that Eric, or failing that someone or ones who worked on the development of the premise, must have lived in such a household is rock solid. It just feels like something you'd have to grow up with to be so easy with, and even more than that, giving the situation a "noble" excuse for existing, i.e. it was John hunting monsters to revenge Mary's death rather that just some other personal or inexplicable reason for putting his children through all that, that is something the child of an alcoholic parent might do. Create the situation they hated, but give it justification, because we love our parents! We are torn and want there to be a reason for the hurts we endure, for the conflicts we are brought up with. The lies we learn to tell even as small children, that isolate us, in order to protect the parent's secret. The abuse of neglect.

    I've really hated the lies Sam has been telling this season, while acutely conscious that he wasn't the only one. But Sam was the child who escaped, at least for a while. He's been booed and negatively judged by some fans for that but I always saw it as a hugely positive thing. His independence, his self reliance. His need, like Mary's, to get out of the life, have a normal life. But the story shows us that the family spell can not be escaped from. Your brother (my sister) is the only one who can truly ever "know" how life really is.

    So Sam's lies to Dean made me sad and uncomfortable, while I had no problem with him lying to Jessica. Of course he would. The past is shameful. We know it while continuing to accept the justifications our parents indoctrinate us with.

    I've become a spoiler whore this season, and I had seen the hints about demon blood addiction, but it really only caught up with me a couple of weeks ago and I had a "duh!!" moment, when I realized what was happening with Sam. Because lying is what an addict, an alcoholic does. They cover their substance use with a cunning that is instinctive and in many ways unconscious. When confronted, they keep lying. Watch any of those intervention shows on TV, if you get cable there's one on A&E. I can't watch it. Too close to home.

    And I'm going to wrap this, because it's turned into an essay but, yeah. The entire show as a metaphor for substance abuse?

    Definitely right on the money.
    • Thank you for this! It's really eloquent, and clarifies a lot of things for me. It makes perfect sense, now, that the problem of substance abuse would be tangled up with the "culture of secrecy" (and shame) that SPN shows characterizing the hunter world.

      And maybe that's what differentiates the problem of substance abuse from the other things that break up families, like divorce, which, while it can be brutal, isn't surrounding by secrecy and shame (these days, anyway).

      I agree with you about Sam, BTW--leaving a dysfunctional family situation can be a hugely brave and positive thing. So it is particularly painful to see a family pattern repeating itself.

      (since you shared your feeling of "family" connection to SPN, I'll share mine: as a single mother of two boys, who just *happen* to be four years apart, and whose father pretty much disappeared from their lives when they were 9mos and 4, I found the resemblance kind of uncanny the first time I saw the show! so of course I thought there'd be divorce!fic...But I guess the show is open all kinds of resonances..)

      Again, thanks for sharing your ideas with me!
      • I'm glad my rambling was useful. :-) And thanks for sharing your story of recognition with the show. It makes sense to me and yes, that would be uncanny. My family was single parent because of my parents' divorce. And my sister idealized our absent father, while my mother and her family made him out to be the bad guy in the event. I didn't even meet him till I was thirty, after my mom's death.

        Thanks for asking the questions and thinking about this aspect of things, and writing about it.
        • Families! It's amazing the range of things we all survive. Thank goodness for fiction--and I'm not being flippant about that--
  • I think the issue of addiction is so prevalent because it's a manifestion of inner demons and a way of showing that those inner demons are more destructive than the literal ones (Ruby and Alastair would have never been able been able to get under Sam and Dean's skins if those inner demons of anger, powerlessness, guilt, and low self-worth weren't already so strong).

    In a weird way, it feeds my hope that Supernatural can have a happy ending. Sam and Dean will never be able to function in the normal world or stop fighting evil, but they can conquer their inner demons and find peace with their lives.

    Your initial read of S1 of demons as an allegory for divorce and broken homes supports the later allegories to substance abuse - the inner demons Sam and Dean face come in large part from their upbringing.
    • Yes, SPN does a great job of showing that the supernatural doesn't hold a candle to the kind of things that go on inside one's own head! And I like the idea that recognizing that could lead Sam and Dean to some kind of peace--
  • A very interesting allegory. But does this mean that the Winchesters' dogged and continued hunting tradition stems from some kind of adrenaline addiction, a side effect from seeking closure via vengeance?

  • I don't know if you want writers butting in on your speculation, but FWIW, I picked alcoholism not at all because it's an addiction but for the psychosocial role it has historically played as an anaesthetic. I think about the lifelong functional alcoholics I've known, especially the men, and they mostly drink to numb their feelings and to avoid open assessment of their crummy lives and decisions.

    I think the show doesn't know how to work with its own myth of masculinity: because the characters are manly men who don't talk about their feelings, we never see any outlet for the massive overstimulation and trauma they experience. But because the show needs to up the drama quotient regularly, it keeps showing the characters more and more stressed out. It's not much of a leap to put those two facts together and come up with a cheap, easy-to-acquire, socially-accepted chemical depressant to explain the fact that the characters don't handle their feelings at all onscreen.
    • Wow--I didn't even think to hope that writers would drop by to talk about why they'd chosen to include alcoholism in their work! Thank you--and I love that story! (and I'm a bit embarrassed, because now that I think about it, "Clangs" isn't really *about* addiction, but more, as you say, about denial, and the fracturing of "reality" in the face of trauma).

      But yeah, I agree with you, the show doesn't know how to deal with the myth of masculinity it sets up (and goodness knows, it's not alone there--that's a pretty widespread cultural problem!). And that's an excellent point that alcohol is a socially acceptable way to both suppress feelings, and, in the occasional, irrepressible drunken outburst (which the character can deny knowledge of/ responsibility for later) to let them out.

      It kind of reminds me of one of the standard explanations for the appeal of slash: that it puts masculine men in situations where they must express "un-masculine" feelings. Since the CW isn't going to give us M/M sex, we get booze instead.

      again, though, thanks for the insight into how you composed that amazing story!
      • Oh, you're free to laugh at me: I was ego-googling.

        You know, when Metallica threw out Dave Mustaine as their lead singer (he later went on to form Megadeth), the reason they give for it was that they were incompatible kinds of drunks: the rest of the band were silly drunks, and he was a violent drunk.

        We know Sam is an angry, confrontational drunk from that one time in the 2nd season; but I don't think we've seen Dean well and truly in his cups. (I haven't watched the current season at all.) Of all of them, he's the mushiest, so fanon probably has him as a sentimental drunk. Me, I think he'd be a silly one.
        • no, no, I ego-google myself, but only have boring professional stuff to do it about, not great fanfic stories! glad you did--

          I was thinking of the Sam S2 scene, actually (and, not to spoil you, if you have plans to watch S4 sometime), but angry, confrontational drunk!Sam continues. Dean, so far, has been a sullen, anesthetizing drunk (except for a brief, silly moment in Yellow Fever, an episode I otherwise disliked). And my unscientific survey says that in S4 fanfic, binge-drinking (but not alcoholic) Dean is mostly of the fighting and whoring variety (there are some great stories along that line). But I'd love to see silly drunk!Dean. I agree he's the mushiest of them--

          I forgot to say that the thing I loved most about "Clangs" was the ambiguity about Dean's war experiences. It made me want to do a separate list of AUs where Dean enlists. Not because I have any meta-thoughts about them, just because I like them so much. It makes such perfect sense, but writers have different takes on why...
  • Hi. *waves* Just dropping in with my two cents...

    I never really set out to write an addiction story with 'Good Man', but rather a withdrawal story - in all senses of the word. I admit that, as a shameless whump!whore, my inspiration was the idea of a pained, sweaty, emotionally raw Dean trying to get beyond his self-inflicted woe. It turned into something else.

    The idea of divorce is, I think, a very valid one if you're looking at it on the level of the emotional fall-out it leaves in its wake; much like the death of a parent, divorce can be (for the child) a death of family, innocense, childhood, trust...and I think Dean embodies/harbors many of those emotional moorings.

    The heroin was somewhat arbitrary in my mind. What became important was that it allowed an escape from/coping mechanism for the issues and feelings Dean was incapable of dealing with or facing. Like a lot of people who are intelligent and resilient, he finds himself over his head and drwoning before he realizes he's even in the water. *shrugs* At least, that's what I meant to illustrate.

    I think SPN has presented three very strong and flawed men in the Winchesters, and with the religious themes embuing this season, it's difficult to not apply the analogy of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. None of those three are without flaws/questionable tactics, either.

    Anyway. Blahblah. I've probably totally missed the point and rambled on to the point of sounding like a complete whack-job. I only meant to say, I think the reason I wrote Good Man the way I wrote it was to find my own way through to an end I could accept, using a character with whom I (possibly over-) identify.

    Take from that what you will.

    • Hey--thanks for dropping by! ::waves back:: (you know, when I posted this, it never occurred to me that authors might come by and let me know what they were thinking--but it's happened twice, and I totally love it!)

      I love "A Good Man," and what you say makes perfect sense for how it reads. I think I should have specified in my post that there's a difference between *real* addiction and the literary depiction of addiction, or addiction as a literary device of sorts that gets you through to another goal. So, it makes perfect sense as a way to explore things about Dean one wouldn't have access to otherwise (and yes, not just the whump!, though I'm a whore for that too). Some of the things you said are similar to what vee_fic said about drinking!Dean in "Clangs" (above on this thread)--it makes sense that Dean would turn to drugs/alcohol as escape/ sedation when he reaches the limits of his otherwise quite mind-boggling competence. It's interesting that that plot line is a little different than the addiction plot line going for Sam now on the show, which brings the aspects of addiction that are about control more prominently into the foreground....I'm pretty interested to see where that goes!

      On a side note, I often find myself identifying strongly with Dean too, and I think it's kind of fascinating that SPN has created a (in some ways) hyper-masculine character with whom many women identify. I tried to write a bit about Dean's maternal qualities (here (spoilers up to 4.15): http://ariadnes-string.livejournal.com/1736.html)--but I think there's more to say about it...I think those cross-gender identifications are a big part of the appeal of the show and the pleasures of reading/writing fanfic...

      Thanks again for your thoughts on this!
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