Warning: This article contains some spoilers for season 2 of Jessica Jones.
It's no surprise that Jessica Jones has won the hearts of fans and critics alike. Its lead character is a witty, kickass detective with superpowers who faces down misogyny in ways big (snapping the neck of a villain who tells her and other women to "smile") and small (calling out rape culture). She's also, in the words of sometimes-love interest Luke Cage, "a hard-drinking, short-fused mess of a woman."
"Hard-drinking" is a major theme in the show. In nearly every episode, Jessica is seen with a drink (or even an entire bottle) in hand, and while her drinking habit is sometimes played for laughs, it hints at a complex relationship that Jessica Jones explores: the connection between trauma and addiction.
Jessica herself developed an alcohol addiction as a coping mechanism for her PTSD after being under the mind-control of the first season's villain, Kilgrave. ("[Drinking is] the only way I get through my goddamn days after what you did to me," she tells him at one point.) Jessica may be the only character who has been diagnosed with PTSD, but she isn't the only one who deals with substance use and trauma. Her best friend, Trish Walker, overcame a drug addiction after being abused as a child, and her neighbor-turned-coworker, Malcolm, spends much of the second season recovering from the drug addiction that Kilgrave forced him into.
Not everyone who has PTSD develops an addiction, but Dr. Gupta says that alcohol and other substances can be a coping mechanism for trauma, unhealthy as they may be.
If someone has a PTSD diagnosis, they’re at a much higher risk than someone else without PTSD for developing an addictive disorder.
Sumati Gupta, PhD
"Extreme anxiety, worry, and despair can lead to enormous physical and emotional pain. So, yes, there is a relationship between trauma and addiction," Serani says.
Throughout the series, Jessica grabs a bottle of liquor after moments of distress (and, honestly, in moments of no immediate distress) — most notably when she goes through PTSD-induced flashbacks. Trish, who has remained sober for 10 years, turns to self-improvement (namely fight training) to cope with feeling out of control. However, in the second season, she deals with the end of a relationship and a fight with her formerly abusive mother by turning to a drug that enhances her senses. Though many of the characters in Jessica Jones turn to substances to deal with emotional pain, Dr. Gupta says, in real life, there is usually a genetic component to addiction.
"People typically have a genetic vulnerability for addictive disorder, and then that’s activated — or not activated — by something that happens in our lives," she says. "So, if someone was at risk for substance use disorder and experienced trauma and developed PTSD, they’re at a much higher risk of then also having an substance use disorder."
The show hasn't explored whether or not Jessica's addiction could be genetic — it is mostly portrayed as a direct result of her trauma. But, in the real world, Dr. Gupta says that the number of people who have both PTSD and an addiction is likely smaller than you might think. According to the National Center for PTSD, only about eight out of every 100 people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, and a study in 2012 found that 46% of those who suffer from PTSD also develop a substance use disorder.
[Addiction] can actually prolong the PTSD because you’re not dealing with it directly.
Sumati Gupta, PhD
"People conflate rape with PTSD, but most people go through traumatic events and don’t develop PTSD," she says. "Most of us have an innate ability to cope. It’s really a very small minority that ends up with PTSD, so when we talk about people who have both PTSD and substance use, it’s really a tiny minority of the population."
Still, it's important to know that if you're suffering, help is out there, and that turning to a substance isn't going to help in the long run.
"It can actually prolong the PTSD, because you’re not dealing with it directly; it can prevent you from seeking help in terms of therapy; and it makes interpersonal relationships difficult," Gupta says.
While therapy is the gold standard in terms of treatment of both trauma and addiction, Dr. Gupta says that we also can't understate how a good support system can help someone who might be suffering from either one or both issues, whether it's a friend to confide in or support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
Having great friends and family isn't a replacement for therapy, but it's still important to have someone you trust that you can talk to. Jessica may have written off therapy as "bullshit," but as we see her begrudgingly go into court-mandated anger management and allow Malcolm to get a little closer to her in the second season, there's hope that she'll begin to accept help and let other people care about her.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information.