From Breaking Bad to Nurse Jackie to The Wire, viewers have long been acquainted to the addict’s storyline. The recovery journey, on the other hand, has rarely had its time in the spotlight. That is, until Freeform’s new scripted drama Recovery Road premiered on January 25, giving audiences a rare opportunity to follow the ups and downs of someone living in recovery.
Maddie, played by Jessica Sula, is a high school teenager who is forced to come to terms with her alcohol and substance abuse addiction and get sober in a sober living home. Though Sula is no stranger to teen drama (she previously played Grace Violet on the British teen drama Skins), she definitely sees a distinction between her current role as Maddie from any other role that she’s played in the past. As she recalls it, Maddie’s story is a “totally different teen experience.”
“Maddie and Grace [on Skins] are such separate beings. They’re opposite girls,” she explains. “Skins dealt with the topic of addiction but they did it in the format of that show. Recovery Road is all about sobriety—and that’s something that you don’t see every day.”
To research the role, Sula first attended an Al-Anon meeting with a friend. “I was very nervous, but everybody was very welcoming, very sweet,” she said. It was an intimate and eye-opening experience, so much so that she actually couldn’t get herself to go back. “I just felt like I couldn’t be there because they were being so honest; I felt intrusive.”
After that experience, Sula decided to conduct as much of her research through documentaries and books. One particular documentary especially hit home—literally. Swansea Love Story follows the heroin epidemic going on in Sula’s very own hometown in Wales. She admits, “That has been there from my experience growing up. I mean, I didn’t see it but I knew it was there.”
Unfortunately, this is how teen addiction strikes most of the general public. Everybody is aware of its existence, but nobody is comfortable enough to address it. Even more disturbing for some is talking about the reality of life after active addiction—the fight to survive even after the initial point of getting sober. “People are living it every single day—it doesn’t just go away,” Sula says as she recognizes the problem. “When we learned about Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s ‘one day at a time.’ I never even thought about that before.”
Whether or not people are interested in the topic of recovery, a show like Recovery Road forces everyone to be exposed and ready to participate in a dialogue—at the very least, an inner one. This is a long time coming for those who have walked this road, but have done so without much of a voice. Now, those in recovery have the chance to speak and people are finally listening. Sula herself recognizes the importance of being a part of such an initiative. “It’s important to have a story on TV that isn’t just about being an addict,” she says. “For too long [recovery] has been hushed and something you should be ashamed of.”
Ultimately, Recovery Road does what a lot of other television shows are doing so well these days: portraying humans just as they are, warts and all. What’s perceived to be “good” and “bad” is not so cut and dry anymore, and neither are the paths to getting there. It’s especially exciting for Sula to explore this as a female actor.
“We as women, we’re not allowed to be flawed sometimes. We always have to be kind and open and polite and either homely and mason-like or just an out-and-out bad girl, being like the ‘bitch,’” she says. “To have someone who is just a person and she happens to be a woman too and she has all of these feelings and emotions, I think is a step in the right direction.”
Perhaps that’s the most important thing in all of this: taking steps. By having Maddie’s unpredictable journey play out as it would in the tension of teenage life and sobriety, we’re actively taking steps in validating and humanizing the recovery experience. After all, at the end of the day, Maddie’s story is really an universal one. Sure, it may have more dips and peaks than the “typical” human story, but living in the tension between dark and light is a challenge that we, as people, all have to contend with.
Sula calls this the “in-between” and the storyline plays out differently for everyone. For Maddie, it’s placed her in a sober living home with a myriad of other characters and storylines. For others, it may lead to a variety of other things. Whatever the case, one thing Recovery Road makes clear to viewers is that there isn’t just one cookie-cutter path to life that we should follow. Instead, we all have our own individual roads—and, whether or not that means sobriety for everyone, we’re all in need of some recovery.
You can tune into Recovery Road every Monday on Freeform (formerly ABC Family) at 9pm/8c.