Note: This post contains spoilers about the film “The Way Back”
In the new Warner Bros. film “The Way Back”, Ben Affleck plays Jack, a construction worker struggling with alcoholism. Estranged from his wife and disillusioned with his future, Jack seems to have nothing left to live for. Jack’s life begins to change after he is hired to coach basketball for his high school team, but the ghosts of his past still haunt him. Thankfully, through the persistent counsel of friends and family, Jack eventually seeks professional help for his addiction.
While the film is fictional, the story is all too familiar. According to a recent SAMHSA study, in 2018 there were about 139.8 million Americans aged 12 or older who were past month alcohol users, 67.1 million were binge drinkers in the past month, and 16.6 million were heavy drinkers in the past month. Alcohol remains the most abused substance in America. (View full report here.)
Billed as a film about basketball and second chances, “The Way Back” is actually much more focused on the correlation of grief and addiction. As the story unfolds, audiences learn that Jack’s son died at a young age, and his marriage disintegrated quickly after. Grief can be a breeding ground for addictive behaviors. When people fail to find healthy ways to cope with grief, substance abuse can feel like an easy solution. However, we know that substances don’t solve problems, and the escape soon becomes a trap of its own.
As Jack focuses more and more on his coaching, it begins to seem like things will be better. He stops frequenting his favorite bar, and we no longer see him drinking beer in the shower and vodka at work. But when Jack’s friends find out their child has cancer, it is too much for him. he situation triggers the grief he’s suppressed, and he quickly relapses. Failing to cope with the death of his son has put his own life in jeopardy.
Recently we released a series of studies on addiction education through a biblical perspective. The third book in the series is titled “Understanding Grief & Addiction”. In it, readers learn how to identify, and begin to work through, grief points that have been causing harm. It also discusses ways to grieve in a healthy way. You can learn more about this resources on our online store.
When Jack finally seeks help at the end of the film, his therapist says something simple, yet profound. “You can’t change the past. But you can choose how to go forward.” That simple line says a lot about the worldview of the film. We are not helpless against our addictions and other struggles. There is always an element of choice, a chance to change our actions and move forward in a healthy way. Jack has to choose. Does he continue to spiral out of control down a road that certainly leads to an early death (and the potential of hurting other people, too)? Or does he say, “Enough is enough. I am going to get the help I need to live a better life for me and for those around me.”
If you know someone struggling with substance abuse, don’t stop encouraging them to seek help. Unfortunately, sometimes they have to hit rock bottom before they are willing to change. Jack’s friends and family consistently encouraged him to stop drinking and to make better choices, but at the end of the day, he had to make that decision for himself. Continue to pray for your loved ones and provide support (without enabling them).
And if you yourself are struggling with addiction, know that you are not alone, and there is hope within reach. Thousands of individuals have walked through the doors of Adult & Teen Challenge over the last 60+ years and have emerged truly transformed. Jesus is waiting for you. The choice is up to you.
Note: This film is rated R for strong language. If you are sensitive to profanity, you may want to sit this one out.