AMERICAN BEAUTY: THE TRUTH BEHIND THE WHITE PICKET FENCE
The movie American Beauty opens with an overhead shot of a pristine neighborhood. Tree-lined streets shade rows of white houses with immaculately kept lawns. In one of those lawns, by a white picket fence—the universal symbol of domestic happiness—a woman crouches to clip a rose, her pruning shears matched to the exact shade of her gardening clogs. It is the American dream embodied: perfect neighborhood, perfect house, perfect family.
Later in the movie, that same family sits down to dinner in their perfect dining room, and everything falls apart. The language gets pretty salty here, so I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that there are plenty of four-letter-words and escalating anger, culminating in what can only be described as an act of asparagus aggression.
These scenes exemplify a greater truth about families everywhere: No matter how perfect things look on the outside, you can never know what goes on behind closed doors. In fact, sometimes the families who strive the hardest to present a happy, put-together front to the world are the ones with the most deep-rooted issues. The star football player could be shooting heroin in his bedroom at night while his mom slams chardonnay downstairs; the straight-A math student might be purging her dinner and exercising in the middle of the night; the hedge fund manager might be stealing painkillers from his elderly mother. The team at Serenity knows that these things happen much more often than anyone would think—we know because many of us have experienced similar situations firsthand.
The star football player could be shooting heroin in his bedroom at night while his mom slams chardonnay downstairs.
Beginning the journey of recovery requires families to go behind the white picket fence and into the dining room—that is, to drop the pretense and really start talking about the disease they’ve all been living with. For families of addicts, this can be incredibly difficult to understand and accept. There can be a fear of losing the image they’ve spent decades creating, as well as a denial of the fact that recovery needs to involve the whole family. When only one person is an addict, it’s easy to view recovery as an individual process for him or her.
But the reality is that addiction is a family disease. Think of it like Lester Burnham throwing the plate of asparagus at the wall: sure, it was him who threw it, but the dynamics of the family were part of what led him to that action, and the entire family is affected by it and has to deal with it.
Without family support and communication, all of the difficult self-work of the addict can be undone upon returning to family life; on the flipside, without family support and communication, the family members can experience emotional and psychological distress themselves, as the experience of living with an addict can be deeply traumatizing. Recognizing the nature of the disease, and taking steps to address it as a family, is an essential and critical aspect of true transition.
No matter how neatly the lawn is mowed or how crisply the napkins are folded, no family is exempt from the challenges of this process. White picket fences are nice, but a functional family inside is nicer. And by working hard together on this journey, having both is possible.