British Comedy “Catastrophe” Portrays Lifelike Alcoholism

catastropheBefore you read this article, please be aware it contains plot-spoiling information about all seasons of Catastrophe, a British series debuted on Channel 4 and now available in the US since 2015. If you haven’t watched all of the show, or if you plan on watching in the future, you may want to choose a different one of our articles to read.

The show is about a man and a woman, Rob and Sharon, who meet in a bar, end up sleeping together, and it results in Sharon getting pregnant. Over time, they marry, have another child, and the content of the show is all of the drama that has come about as a result of this so-called catastrophe.

When they meet in the pilot episode, Rob is a recovering alcohol who has not consumed alcohol in quite some time. However, in the finale of season two, he ends up drinking the entire minibar’s worth in his hotel room. Here begins the show’s realistic depiction of alcoholism. Rob had a lot of sober time under his belt, but as can happen to any recovering alcoholic, he relapses during a hard time.

It is during season three of Catastrophe that Rob’s alcoholism begins to take his life over, for apparently at least the second time. What began as a minibar episode of relapse to end to the previous season becomes full-fledged alcoholism. The most realistic aspect of Rob’s addiction is how ‘well’ he hides it, especially from Sharon.

How You Drink and How Often You Drink

Early on in the season, Rob orders a cocktail at lunch with his former boss. He is on an unpaid leave. This is already an indication that he is drinking again, but it’s when he downs the whole thing in one gulp that it really hits home. He’s not only drinking again – he’s addicted again. See, plenty of non-alcoholics order cocktails at lunchtime. There is a way to do it responsibly. Slamming the whole thing like you’re at a college frat party is a surefire sign of alcoholism. Alcoholism is defined by how you drink, and how often.

On his way home afterward, he literally covers himself in cheese and potato chips in order to not smell like booze. Now, in the context of the show, this comes off as funny. But picture this happening in real life. This is actually desperate and saddening. Rob even lies to his wife Sharon and says he was at the movies.

In the next episode, Rob goes to a job interview drunk and the interviewer calls him out on it. He’s also been gaining weight – a possible indication of heavy drinking. Later on in the season, there are signs of a growing alcohol problem: finding a miniature bottle of vodka and being unable to not drink it, being drunk when his friend Chris randomly stops by, and even falling over drunk onto a sidewalk.

Rob eventually acknowledges his problem in a conversation with his mother, played by the late Carrie Fisher in her last role. “I know it would be a really bad thing to drink right now,” he tells her, “but I want to… a lot.” And that’s alcoholism, as real as it gets.

Rob in Real Life

As written by Mary Elizabeth Williams for Salon, the show “has from the beginning quite brilliantly communicated that whether we drink or not, we live in a drinking world. We pour wine at dinner parties. We clink glasses as work events. We meet our buddies down at the pub.”

The ability of Catastrophe to depict alcohol’s place in real life is relatively unique to television. The honesty is raw. However, there is good reason for the show to be able to realistically depict alcoholism, and it’s because of the actor who plays Rob. He is also named Rob. He is Rob Delaney, comedian, actor, writer, winner of funniest man on Twitter, and recovering alcoholic with over fifteen years and three months of sobriety.

Rob on the show is in some ways Rob in real life.

In the late 1990s, when Delaney was in his twenties, he was a self-described “disastrous, dangerous, ridiculous alcoholic.” He got so bad that he eventually began routinely wetting the bed. He attempted to order queen-size plastic sheets from a prominent mattress manufacturer, in order to be able to continue in this manner. When told they only exist in child-size, Delaney had them ordered.

Delaney wrote of this experience in 2013 for The Guardian, linked above. “In a moment of utter sobriety, I was 100% at peace with the fact that I was a voluntary, habitual, adult bedwetter and I was comfortable discussing it frankly with a stranger.” Delaney also wrote in this article about how he hid his alcoholism from his then-girlfriend. “My girlfriend at the time was bummed out by my drinking but not horrified,” he wrote. “She never really saw it all, since I’d try to keep it together around her.”

Perhaps Delaney never poured cheese onto himself in real life, but it’s easy to see parallels between the two Robs, beyond sharing a name.

Rob Delaney, Recovery Writer

Starting as early as 2010, Delaney has written in various publications about his life and his road to recovery. He has performed stand-up comedy on the topic, and has appeared on several television programs. It’s his writing that stands out as a testament to how low alcoholism can make you sink, and how it’s always possible to recover.

Tumblr

Depression is a very common precursor to drug and/or alcohol abuse. Delaney suffered for a long time from a deep depression, one he called “suicidal” and “unipolar” in a piece he wrote on Tumblr in 2010. He says that between 2003 and 2010, there were two distinct periods of extreme depression that were the two hardest experiences of his entire life. You can truly begin to see how bad depression can be when you understand what other life experiences Delaney considered less awful.

From his Tumblr piece: “To illustrate how horrible [the depression] was, being in jail in a wheelchair with four broken limbs after the car accident that prompted me to get sober eight years ago was much, much easier and less painful.” What a testament.

There’s more on the car accident later, but more important is the message Delaney is sending with the piece. He says he wrote it only so other depressed people might read it and realize help exists. He praises how far the mental health system has come, and strongly recommends that depressed people use medicine, regardless of the stigma.

Vice

Delaney wrote a rather vulgar piece for Vice Magazine that same year, this time talking about comedy and how it has helped him stay sober and happy. For this reason, we hesitate to link to the article.

It is here he mentions the car crash that changed his life. Rob Delaney was drunk, alone, and driving someone else’s car around Los Angeles when he blacked out and crashed into the city’s Department of Water and Power. He was the only one hurt, but had no idea upon coming to. He actually asked his arresting officer if he had killed anyone.

Delaney suffered “two badly broken arms that would require surgery and knees that were ripped open to the bone.” He spent his jail time in a wheelchair. It was when he would fall out of it and hit the floor, unable to support himself, that he would think about getting sober after all.

Since then, he has attended therapy, taken depression medication, and most importantly, has stopped drinking. “And therapy, plus not drinking, plus taking my little pills, allows me to put one foot in front of the other and put one word after another and produce the comedy that makes me, and often others, happy,” said Delaney in the piece. “Not only do I not want to die, but having gotten sober and treated my depression, I actually want to be happy too.”

Interview with Slate

In a spoken interview with online magazine Slate, Delaney spoke about how the next step after recovery was to do stand-up comedy. It’s wonderful that he chose this direction, as it has given us a wonderful actor who is very funny, and has even been nominated for a daytime Emmy.

Delaney talks about how entering rehab felt like going home for him – that he belonged there. He says he had to wait about a year after the accident to be fully healed, but went right on stage once he could.

Most crucially though, he talks briefly about how it felt to be an alcoholic. “I can only speak for myself, but I will say that back when I was drinking, if I had no alcohol in my system and then I added it to my system, it felt like sort of a chemical equation being completed. Like, I felt incomplete, and then, with alcohol, I almost had the thought, ‘Oh, here I am. Here’s me.’”

Feeling incomplete without alcohol is yet another surefire sign of alcoholism.

The Finale

The very end of season three of Catastrophe shows Rob (the character) searching for a parking spot. His car is then hit by another car. The bigger problem is that Rob is drunk. Now, we all sometimes draw parallels to our own lives using TV, but for Rob Delaney, this is extremely close to home. The show has taken a cue from Rob’s real life, and has shown us how devastating alcoholism can be, in the form of a car crash that started with a drink at lunch.

The show is funny, but the premise is not. Every 53 minutes, another American dies due to an automobile accident involving a drunk driver. That’s almost 30 people a day. Rob the character and Rob the actor both survived their crashes. Some are not so lucky. However, an alarming number of people drive impaired.

By self-report, according to the CDC (linked above), there are approximately 121 million instances of someone in America driving drunk every year. This means across the country, on any given day, there are 331,507 motorists drunk on the road. That’s an average of 6,630 drunk drivers in every state, every day.

Now it’s easy to see how someone dies because of it more often than every hour.

If you have feelings of depression, thoughts of suicide, are abusing drugs and/or alcohol, or any combination of these, please seek help immediately. That is no way to live life. However low you think you are, you can always climb back up, and you will. Things simply get better. They just do. If you don’t believe it, ask Rob Delaney from the past, who went from having broken limbs in jail to being nominated for an Emmy.

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