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“Ben Is Back”: Fictional Character, Real Story


Two movies were released in 2018 that dealt head-on with addiction. There was “Beautiful Boy” based on David Sheff’s 2008 bestseller. And “Ben Is Back” which was released in December as an original screenplay.

Both highly intense dramas feature teenage sons and the massive disruption their addiction causes families, marriages, households, friendships, sibling relationships, even the family dog.

They concentrate on the horrifying but very real opioid problem plaguing America’s youth. Which in many cases, as with “Ben Is Back,” begins with a well-intentioned physician-prescribed pain killer.

It follows precisely what Beth Macy researched and stated in Dopesick: Dealers, Doctor and the Drug Company that Addicted America, that “four out of five heroin addicts come to the drug via prescribed drugs.” Ben is one of those. It starts in a medicine cabinet. It ends in the sketchy alleys of heroin addiction.

Not a Movie Review, But a Recovery Review

Both movies are hard to watch for similar reasons, but if you’ve recovered from addiction, “Ben Is Back” is particularly difficult because the main character, Ben, doesn’t understand the freedom possible in recovery. And no one seems to intervene as his life continues to circle the drain despite his being sober.

Our fear is that a parent, addicted person or family member will see “Ben Is Back” and then think, “Oh there’s no use in even trying to get well because his life still looks pretty turbulent.”

From our own experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth of millions of people who’ve recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. The film is tragic in many respects and unfortunately it’s accurate in what happens to many lives. And the story of Ben (actor Lucas Hedges) and his mother Holly (actress Julia Roberts) doesn’t need to be.

Attendance Does Not Equal Abstinence

College-aged Ben has completed treatment, is in sober living afterward and on Christmas Eve Day, he surprises his family with an impromptu visit. Ben’s mother takes him Christmas shopping at a mall when Ben is overcome with the familiar obsession to use heroin after 78 days of being clean. He’s been advised when this urge arises to do one thing: get to a meeting immediately.

It’s our experience, shared by the creators of the 12-Steps back in the 1930s, that meetings serve three purposes:

  • Provide a place in which to study the 12-Steps
  • Find newcomers with whom you can share the solution afforded by the 12-Step
  • And enjoy the fellowship of people who’ve found the same solution

Meeting attendance is an important part of most people’s recovery, but meetings are not the sole solution. The reason is pretty logical: if meeting attendance alone was the solution, then everyone who attends meetings would stay sober. And if meetings alone kept people clean and sober, then meetings would be held in enormous sports arena around the clock, and again, everyone who attended would stay sober. Voila!

Ben treats his urge with a meeting: a temporary reprieve.

It’s the process of going through the 12-Steps which removes the obsession to drink or use. It was not the intention of the founders of the 12-Steps for meetings to replace that experience. In fact, during the infancy of the 12-Steps, meetings were once a week, and their only purpose was to introduce those with a desire to get sober to the solution and usher them through the 12-Steps.

The Role of a Sponsor

Based upon the script, Ben’s reliance is not only on meetings, but also a sponsor.

A sponsor serves an important purpose in the lives of those following the 12-Steps. They act as a “guide” through the completion of the 12-Steps. They are not a nanny, financial advisor, legal custodian, relationship vigilante, or someone to run roughshod over every aspect of a person’s life. Furthermore, sponsors are not therapists or doctors capable of handling complex clinical or medical issues which are better left to professionals. Even the strongest sponsor with significant sobriety is still human. And we alcoholics and addicts are individuals who are beyond human aid.

Sponsors are people who’ve completed the 12-Steps, had a spiritual awakening, and as a result of that have the time and willingness to share the solution with a newcomer. Both Ben and his mother speak of and rely upon the advisement of his sponsor in a way that seems counter-productive to what the 12-Steps ask of those who work them.

The most important thing a sponsor can do is not to “have an answer for everything” but to lead a new person to their own personal spiritual awakening, providing guidance along the way.


Spiritual Awakening: Out with the old, in with the new

The 12th Step states, “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and practice these principles in all our affairs.” That’s a very exciting, challenging and uplifting charge which comes at the end of the 12-Steps.

It also begins with the words, “Having had a spiritual awakening…” Being a changed person in whom the obsession to drink or use has been lifted.

The Big Book, the blueprint for other 12-Step programs, defines a spiritual awakening as, “Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.”

In other words, out with the old, in with the new. If my old ideas based upon self-reliance and solely other people failed me, I’m going to rely upon a spiritual solution that changes what is in my head.

Or stated another way, we are not going to rely totally upon meetings (made up of fallible humans) or a sponsor (an imperfect human) to run our lives, instead we are going to seek the closeness of a Higher Power with only the guidance of mere mortals.

SPOILER ALERT: But it won’t spoil the movie

This isn’t a movie review so we won’t share the twists and turns which make it a powerful experience, but it appears that Ben had not had the spiritual experience that is attainable through working the 12-Steps.

“Ben Is Back” was like watching a predictable horror movie in which everyone in the audience wants to yell, “Don’t look in the closet!” We found ourselves wanting to shout, “Ben! Just do the work and you’ll get the freedom! We promise!”

As movie-makers they are not responsible for creating a storybook script that accurately conveys the 12-Step experience. But we as people who know that the 12-Steps will work—when combined with medical and clinical expertise—and want the movie viewer to know why the young man had not yet found a solution for lasting sobriety. Many people in Ben’s shoes do find the solution.

Ben is a fictional character, but his story is all too real.

We know a way out and are both personally and professionally ready to share it 24/7/365. Call for a free, confidential addiction screening at 561-841-1296.

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If you or someone you love has a substance use or mental health disorder, Origins Behavioral HealthCare can help. We will work alongside you to provide the most comprehensive treatment available.