If Star Trek shows us a better future, it seems only natural to imagine it would be one in which the destructive nature of addiction is completely eliminated. In our modern world addiction is still so stigmatised and misunderstood, and that mindset informs our ideas of what a “perfect future” will look like. It’s tempting to say, “in the future people are better so no one has addictions.” Wouldn’t that be a wonderful reality? But humanity, and its future, aren’t that simple.
We’ve seen examples of addictions of sorts in Trek before. TNG’s Reginald Barclay suffered from a type of addiction to the holodeck. His obsession with the technology wasn’t framed as an addiction in the same way substance abuse is framed. Yet his obsessive need and absolute exclusion of reality in favor of the holographic world he preferred is very similar to the obsessive need for that next fix that people with substance misuse disorders also experience.
Beyond Reg and his obsession we get two obvious examples of addiction in Trek. In Enterprise, T’Pol grapples with an addiction to Trellium-D after incidental exposure on an exploratory mission to the Vulcan ship Selaya. Her spiral into addiction may seem strange and out of character to the casual observer, but as a child of addiction, it made perfect sense to me. Despite her discomfort she felt a rush of emotions (a high) and chased that feeling she had been craving long before the initial exposure. For T’Pol the draw of each new fix was irresistible, causing her to risk her safety, sanity, and status aboard the ship. It wasn’t until her very life was at risk that she sought help.
Watching her withdraw from Trellium-D, confused and uncomfortable, was perhaps not the same as withdrawal symptoms to contemporary drugs, but was a great way to show the disorientation and struggle of someone recovering from addiction.
Her emotional reaction after her recovery begins and the way it affects her relationships is totally understandable and realistic. When you make decisions, big life changing ones, while using drugs that alter who you are on a fundamental level, you struggle with the ramifications. Even if the decisions you make are things you may have wanted to do it’s still hard to face those decisions head-on knowing how those results came about. If Enterprise had been renewed for more seasons it would have been interesting to see T’Pol struggle with relapse in the aftermath of the Terra Prime story arc.
Star Trek’s most recent installation Picard also included an addiction story line in its first season. Jean-luc’s good friend Raffi Musiker is a recovering addict who faces relapse. Where T’Pol’s story ended before it really tackled life with addiction, Raffi’s story shows a realistic depiction of a life in recovery.
We meet Raffi after she has already lived in addiction and started her recovery. It’s implied that, like T’Pol, Raffi succumbed to addiction as a reaction to stress and instability in her own life. The attack on Mars and the subsequent fallout she and her friend “JL” faced and the abandonment of the Romulans became a catalyst for addiction.
However, what Raffi and T’Pol’s stories fail to mention or even imply is the biological component related to addiction.
When Enterprise first aired in 2001 I was 10 years old and living in a newly post-9/11 world. Enterprise’s first season was filled with the growing pains and hopeful optimism Star Trek is known for. When season 3 began Enterprise was struggling to live into the new reality of the US and global conflict. I was 12 and I watched Enterprise every week with my dad. When T’Pol began experimenting with Trellium-D my dad was also beginning his own journey into addiction. When I reflect on my childhood I think of my early teen years as the time I was “raised by meth.” In the US drug addiction, meth addiction in particular, is portrayed as a flaw of character, an inherent weakness of morals, and the sign of someone who is decidedly selfish. This is simplistic and ignores the fact that many people, like T’Pol, Raffi, and my dad, are struggling with something in themselves pushing them to do things they know are destructive.
For all of its flaws and shortcomings Star Trek including an addiction storyline at all is amazing. Neither T’Pol nor Raffi are depicted as weak, amoral, or irredeemable because of their addiction. As Picard continues into the next season and beyond it will be interesting to see how they address Raffi’s continued recovery and what temptations and relapses she may face.
For myself, an adult child of a recovering addict, the most realistic part of Raffi’s story was her interaction with her son. She goes to him, desperate for reconciliation, but he had heard her promises before, been burned by her before. No matter how much he wanted to believe her he had to trust their history. He has a family to think of now, a child of his own he has to protect. Being the child of an addict is difficult, you live two lives. One is the life of a child who loves their parent, wants to be happy with them, wants to preserve that relationship. The other is a life of stark honesty, disappointment, and even blame. While reconciliation is not always possible I can only hope that Raffi’s story stays true to life and shows that sometimes addiction is just something you struggle with and isn’t the only thing that defines you.