Review
Culture
6 min read

Who’s by your side?

It’s tough to watch A Good Person. Its laser focus and tenderness prompts Lauren Windle to recall her experience of addiction and recovery.

Lauren Windle is an author, journalist, presenter and public speaker.

An old man accompanies a young woman into a wood-panelled hall, both look aprehensive.
Morgan Freeman and Florence Pugh in A Good Person
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

I don’t watch films about addiction. When I first got clean and sober almost nine years ago, I soaked in any piece of content I could find on drugs, drug use and recovery. At the time it was just YouTube clips of Russell Brand and the occasional memoir of a starlet who turned to cocaine before discovering yoga. After going to a 10:30am showing of Amy Winehouse documentary film Amy and bawling through the entire film, I decided to call it quits. I don’t need to see horrific stories of desperation – I’ve lived one. I am not a casual observer of addiction narratives; I’ve got skin in the game.  

In 2018 I went to see A Star Is Born thinking I was watching a rags-to-riches tale of an unlikely popstar. I quickly realised we weren’t there to witness the female protagonist’s ascent, so much as the male protagonist’s decent. I got back in my car and had to wait a quarter of an hour for the fit of hysterical tears to pass before I drove home. I had the same realisation watching A Good Person.  

Going in I knew that I had signed up to a film with Morgan Freeman and Florence Pugh. I knew that Pugh’s character Allison “had it all” before a “dramatic accident changed everything”. The ground here sounded so well-trodden that I thought I may need my wellies to navigate it. I knew that there was some element of addiction, but I envisaged a reasonably light touch depiction of a few too many nights on the sauce. 

I knew I was wrong when, about half an hour in, Allison lay on the cold bathroom floor to soothe her withdrawal from prescription opioids. She was sweating, shaking and breathless and from then on, it all felt distressingly familiar. The trajectory of her decline was too quick, too obvious, too accurate. As Allison bargained, manipulated and begged for drugs, I saw myself. As Allison looked directly into the mirror and said: ‘I hate you’ to her own glazed reflection, I saw myself. As Allison was dragged out of a stranger’s house party unable to stand up straight, I saw myself. 

The hopelessness, the false starts, empty promises and rare moments of lucidity rang so true, that I would find it hard to believe writer Zach Braff hadn’t experienced his own similar hardship. Either that or the recovering addicts they hired to consult on the project deserve a bonus of investment banker proportions.  

When Allison eventually reached out for help and asked a woman to sponsor her, the loving directness that came back was reminiscent of those I was given by my first sponsor. It was virtually word for word what I remember being told when I, nine days sober, made the same terrifying request. The experienced mentor told her: “Some beat it, some die.” And she’s right.  

Any of my friends who went to an in-patient treatment centre were told to look around because in five years a decent number of their cohort would be dead. And they were always right. Some people give up and let the tide of addiction pull them under. They feel exactly as Allison did when she told Daniel (played by Morgan Freeman): “I’m not sure I have the will.” And when she confessed in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting that: “Without [the pills] I want to die.” 

In the 2015 film Amy, the one that convinced me to stick to rom-coms, there’s a scene that stuck with me. Amy had been invited to perform at the Grammy’s but was denied a visa because of her well-documented drug use. It was arranged for her to live perform in London and it would be broadcast on big screens at the event. When the date came around she was in a stint of sobriety. She performed beautifully and won five Grammys. One of her friends burst into her dressing room to celebrate the momentous achievement but all Amy said was that it wasn’t as good without the drugs.  

 

You learn to love the cage you built around yourself and stop dreaming of more, because you are blind to anything beyond the walls you’ve created.

Getting into addiction means silencing that feeling in your Spirit that says that something isn’t right and you should go home. It’s consistently pushing through when you get a pit of your stomach urge to cut and run. Because you want the drugs, so you know you’ll have to take the chaos they’re packaged in. At some point you stop remembering that you ever felt uncomfortable, and you start to think you enjoy where you are, what you’re doing and the people you’re doing it with. You get Stockholm syndrome and life before your captor is a distant memory. You learn to love the cage you built around yourself and stop dreaming of more, because you are blind to anything beyond the walls you’ve created. You’re not happy, but what other options do you have? You could trade the misery of addiction for the misery of abstinence, but either way you’ll be miserable so you might as well do it with the drugs. 

Except, that’s not true. When we’re living our lives right, we’re living them in complete freedom. Slaves to no substance or behaviour with the freedom to say yes to what we want and, crucially, the freedom to say no. It’s the present Jesus gave us in the resurrection but so many of us, myself included, hand it back like it came with a gift receipt. 

I wish I’d known the dreams that would be realised, the friendships forged and the profound moments I would experience on the other side of those first, excruciating months of sobriety.

What I wish I could have told Amy at the Grammy’s, Allison in that NA meeting and myself when I first said the words: “I think I’m addicted”, is that there’s so much more than what you can currently see. I wish I’d known the dreams that would be realised, the friendships forged and the profound moments I would experience on the other side of those first, excruciating months of sobriety. I would have wanted to know that in time my grip would loosen, my knuckles would go from white back to their fleshy hue and I would be able to breathe again. It wouldn’t feel like a compromise or half a life or as though something was missing, but I would feel more fulfilled and alive than any drug would ever allow me. 

A Good Person demonstrates the chronic and repetitive condition of addiction with a laser sharp accuracy that, for someone with lived experience, could burn. But it’s also a tender reminder of the power of unlikely friendships forged from a mutual understanding of adversity. It made me think of the woman who scooped me up as I backed away from my first ever support group meeting and said: “You can sit next to me.” It made me grateful for the woman who mouthed “it’s going to be OK,” at me across the table as I sat there listening with tears rolling down my face. It reminded me of the awe I felt the first time I heard someone speak about the insomnia, shame and self-hatred of drug addiction, and I realised I wasn’t the only one. The film showed the transformative effect of consistent community in a way that I hope encourages people to turn up to one of those meetings like Allison and I did. I pray that it is the turning point in many people’s lives.  

Should you go and watch it? Absolutely. Just don’t ask me to go with you. 

Review
Culture
Music
1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.
Beyoncé.com

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
 
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  

 

Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen) 

 Amen