I am watching Elementary. It is an excellent show. I am interested in nearly every artistic incarnation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s infamous character, but Elementary is maybe my favourite so far. That has a lot to do with Johnny Lee Miller, the introduction of prominent, powerful female characters, and a script that more than passes the Bechdel test, but one of my favourite features of the show is their engagement with Sherlock’s addiction problem. The show imagines a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, self-exiled to New York City after a transformative stint in rehab after a life implosion brought on by heroin addiction. Consequently, Sherlock’s sobriety is the constant background music to the show, hovering like a spectre over his relationships and his work. I like it. I like the mental hopscotch that has been done to take the very victorian characteristic of occasional recreational drug use to escape from “the dull routine of existence” to its inevitable consequence. It might not be to everyone’s tastes, I know some people might struggle just to haul themselves over the mental hurdle of a female Watson, but I enjoy seeing the life of Sherlock cast through a redemptive lens.
It also affords me a great opportunity for quote mining. The writers of this show love to throw in the classic Conan Doyle quote, and I do like to play a sort of bingo with it, but the other day I was caught off guard by the writing for other reasons. Speaking about his sobriety in the episode “The eternity injection,” Sherlock says the following:
“If you must know, Watson, I’ve been feeling a little bit down of late. It’s the process of maintaining my sobriety. It’s repetitive. It’s relentless. And above all, it’s tedious. When I left rehab, I… I accepted your influence, I committed to my recovery. And now, two years in, I find myself asking, ‘is this it?’ My sobriety is simply a grind. It’s just this leaky faucet that requires constant maintenance, and in return offers only not to drip .”
I felt something when I heard that. I heard in it the complex nuance of recovering from something; the brutality monotony of the hard work that goes into just being…. normal. It sometimes feels like endless work just to interact with food at the same level that other people interact with it. To eat three meals a day, to like food, to stop myself slipping into bad habits, sometimes it is just a grind. Because the promise of good habits is not extraordinary living. It isn’t guaranteed happiness. It’s just… not the other things. It’s not sadness. It’s not addiction. It’s not depression. It’s not a hospital. It’s not death. It’s the promise of not being something.
And of course, that is an amazing thing. It is! To not be exhibiting anorexic behaviours, to be eating regularly and not terrified, it is amazing! It’s amazing in perspective to where I was and where I have been. But through the long lens of the future, the lens that Sherlock is looking through as he contemplates a life dedicated to sobriety, a life where it might never get easier, it seems less amazing. It seems like downright drudgery. In the episode, Watson responds to Sherlock in the manner that any good friend might in a situation where someone shows that they are tired of doing the things they need to do to stay healthy:
Watson: You have your work, you have me. You’re alive.
Sherlock: I’ve told myself that many times. So many times it has become unmoored from all meaning.
Watson’s response is right and good of any friend: it is that recognition of the path veered away from. It is my own partner’s response when I become morose about my progress with regards to my mental health. When I get upset or discouraged by my continued panic attacks or bouts of anxiety, he is prone to reminding me of how bad it has been in the past. When I get angry about where I am with my eating, the constant maintenance it takes to stay healthy, he reminds me how bad “unhealthy” really was. Most of the time it helps. It grounds me, and takes me out of my head. Because that is the truth. The truth is it’s not as bad as it has been. But then there are other times when his words don’t do that, when they can’t pierce the fierce frustration I am experiencing, for the same reasons Sherlock expresses. Sometimes the problem isn’t that it’s been worse before. Sometimes the aching, horrible question inside is: Is this really as good as it’s going to get?
That can be a draining feeling, and the sensation of a life lived constantly fighting against the part of yourself that leads you to be unhealthy is exhausting. We often talk about recovery as a fight that you are going to win. The reality often feels more like a fight where you have reached the point where you can fight back, and maybe for a long time, but it doesn’t really look like there’s a win on the horizon. Does recovery feel like winning? No. Oftentimes, I feel like I should feel happier by now. I should feel better. I should be further along. Then I start to realise I might never be happier, or better, or further along. With this type of thinking, you start to become unmoored from all meaning, and from your own reality. The prospect of the future becomes more depressing and more important than the past that has been overcome.Weirdly, having enough distance from the despairing times doesn’t always make you happier. Sneakily, brutally, your perspective gets twisted the further into recovery that you progress. So instead of constantly thinking, “Thank God I don’t have to live that way anymore!” one starts to think, “Do I really have to live this way forever?”
These are not nice thoughts. These are not even right thoughts or good thoughts, because like I said and my partner constantly reminds me, being in recovery from something is amazing. It’s beautiful, and scary, and relieving, and transformative. And perhaps there is better coming. Perhaps there is total recovery, a complete win, a moment where you stand on your mental mountain and know that the one ring is gone and you are free. But I’m inclined to think there is more of Frodo and more of Sherlock in recovery than there are promises of complete wellbeing. But maybe. Hope is not a crutch. It’s an act of faith. And I still have some, even though it has been seventeen years.
These are not nice thoughts, but they are true. Because it is hard and monotonous, but that’s the reality. And we keep on going. That is what drew me so powerfully to the quote from Elementary, and what continues to draw me to the narrative I find in the show. The narrative that maybe life will never be great, but it’s better. It may not be nice, it may not always be encouraging, but it is something else. It is true.