Editor’s Note: This article contains a content warning for alcoholism.
We’ve had the conversation about why representation matters so much a million times (and we should continue to), but the idea of representation extends to so many different groups of people than we realize most of the time. The power of seeing yourself and your story on page cannot be overstated and, as a young adult who had lived through a fair amount of struggles, the rawest parts of my soul were stripped clean and represented in Siryn’s story. She was hurting but scared to be vulnerable, she was a survivor, she was an alcoholic –but she was human.
So often when we read about stories of addiction, they’re about abusive drunks or addicts who have abandoned their families because they couldn’t quite kick the habit. And sure, the people who were hurt by people who have used deserve to tell their stories –but what about the other side? When all we’re portrayed as is monstrous people who can only hurt those around us and never heal, it’s not just sad, it’s dehumanizing. And Theresa Cassidy was different.
I never had a family to leave, never had abusive tendencies, or lashed out at those close to me. While I was using, my worst victim was always myself, though I know very well I certainly inconvenienced my friends at times by being someone they had to drive home, pick up off the street, ignore drunk texts from, or worse — I puked in their cars. Theresa was the same way, and it’s so rare that we see this in media, an alcoholic whose worst and pretty much only victim is just herself. We see her make a fool of herself in front of her friends while drinking quite often, like in X-Force #26 when she comes on to Shatterstar, much to his annoyance.
These are the moments that we look back on and feel sad over once we’re clean. Because these aren’t really the “funny party stories” a lot of other people have about times they did embarrassing things while drunk. I read this now and I see it for what it is: it’s a cry for help in front of all her friends. I’ve lived that cry for help, making a fool of myself in front of people in harmless ways week after week, whether it be a storm of annoying drunk texts or falling over in the middle of the street while trying to walk home. And the cycle goes like this: make a fool of yourself, profusely apologize to whatever friends you did whatever harmless stupid thing in front of in the morning, and hide the bottles so no one knows how much you actually drank.
We live in a culture that romanticizes the concept of trauma and suffering, but not the realities of it. “Support victims,” we always say — but that support is longer than just the initial battle cry. That support extends to encouraging us to get help when we adapt bad coping mechanisms — and yes, sometimes our trauma will take us down harmful or even self-destructive paths, but we can always heal from that too. Siryn’s story was that for me, a way of looking inside my soul and realizing I too could be more than my bad habits.
Alcohol was a coping mechanism for her, and perhaps no comic portrays her struggle better than X-Force #31. Warpath is the one in this series who is continually there for her, the one who picks her up and takes care of her when she passes out and even encourages her to quit several times over. When she travels back to Ireland, the site of so much of her trauma, her impulses to drink are never higher.
She reaches for the bottle when she’s faced with reliving childhood trauma because that’s the impulse she knows. It’s the part of addiction no one talks about — how deep does the pain in a person’s heart have to be to decide that it’s better to be out of control of one’s actions than it is to be conscious of your own thoughts? How severe is the anguish that we would rather stop the pain for just a few hours despite knowing we’ll wake up sore and sick by morning?
After a while, drinking feels like an act of self-hate just as much as it feels like an act of self-medicating. Theresa pretty much says so herself in X-Force #28 when she screws up a mission and chooses to drink her feelings away. She can tell Jimmy — an all-around wonderful guy — really likes her, but she won’t allow him to. “You can’t like me. No one can. I hate myself,” she says. And perhaps there’s no better depiction of what it’s like to be in that place than that panel. When you’re staring at the abyss and you hate yourself and what was done to you that deeply, you find yourself turning down good things (like a chance to date Jimmy) in favor of further destroying yourself. It’s the moment you look back on and weep over when you finally start healing because you can’t believe you ever hurt that much. You can’t believe you ever destroyed yourself that much.
When I was at my lowest, drinking became an escape. If memories of my trauma came up, I wasn’t sure how to deal with them — so I whisked them away by getting utterly smacked. If I was off my ass drunk, I’d either finally let myself cry because I wasn’t 100% conscious that I was doing it and couldn’t feel the shame in having those negative emotions, or I’d tell people how much I appreciated their friendship before simply going to sleep. That’s all I ever did while drunk, cry or laugh until I could finally just sleep without nightmares. It was self-medicating in the most destructive ways because the more I did it and the more I relied on it, the more alcohol I needed over the years to continue to feel that effect. Soon enough, you’re drinking two entire bottles of wine just to feel anything at all.
And that’s what Theresa does — she carries a whole bottle and drinks it top to bottom. Even in the rain, when the smart thing is to go inside, she’s reaching for the bottle. It’s relatable in the most haunting of ways, watching someone choose the bottle even when it’s pretty clearly the worst option in that moment.
She drinks the entire trip to Ireland, and in a way, being at the center of her worst traumas becomes a way for her to finally face them. While visiting her mom’s grave, she takes out a flask (I got my first one just like it at 17). But when confronted with facing her uncle, she finally decides that this is the end — she won’t repeat his mistakes or her own. She pours out the flask and decides to quit right there, taking the advice of Warpath who had supported her recovery from day one.
Quitting is always something suggested before we accept it because it’s hard to kick the bad habit when we’ve been using it to medicate for so long. But when you finally decide you’re done? When you put your foot down and say, “It’s time for me to actually heal from what was done to me?” It’s such a powerful experience. It’s the moment you feel actually reborn and excited to face a new day for the first time in your life. It’s the moment you realize you are a survivor, that you are a warrior. It’s the moment you say to yourself: “No matter how much you hurt me, violated me, or traumatized me, I won’t hurt myself anymore.”
“Mistake” is such an important word to use here in these scenes, especially in this day and age where people seem to want you to go to the grave with immense shame for all your mistakes no matter how small. Of course, drinking was a mistake, but there’s something so miraculous happens once you start the healing process: you accept your imperfections at last. I’ve seen people repair broken relationships with family members, grieving people come to terms with the loss of loved ones, and so many people finally healing from years of hurt.
Yes, she made a mistake — but the beauty is, once you’re done making one, you can learn from it. I’ve certainly made a ton of small and stupid mistakes during those few years of binge drinking — I was a drunken fool in front of the wrong people on a very public scale, got sick in a friend’s car, and passed out in places I shouldn’t have been. But accepting your mistakes is part of healing and no one wants to admit it, but there are so few things that you can’t come back from.
Theresa’s overreliance on Warpath is honestly such a special thing, and it goes beyond the story’s obvious romantic implications. People often say that as a queer person, you never “come out” just once — and this is true, you’re forced to tell people you’re queer all the time and you never quite know how they’ll react or see you after. Being an addict is kind of the same way where you never just say “I had a substance abuse problem” once, sometimes that information is even outed against your will, and you never truly know how anyone is going to react once the cat’s out of the bag like that. Sometimes I’m more afraid to tell people I had a substance abuse problem than I am telling them I’m queer because even the most “accepting” people still don’t know how to treat addicts like we’re not tainted for it.
And if someone doesn’t like you? Well, that’s the one thing they’ll always bring up. “She’s a former addict — do you really want her around?” It doesn’t matter how many times you apologize for even one-time offenses –the drunk texts, for falling asleep in someone’s car, for someone having to watch over you. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been sober. Your existence will always cause a moral panic for people because you dared. Dared to be imperfect. Dared to recognize a problem. Dared to change.
But there’s such a stigma around addictions and those who have used drugs or alcohol to cope in the past that once you tell people this deep secret, they almost always treat you differently. They’re scared of you, even though you’ve never done a thing to them. The amount of times people have decided to distance themselves from me after hearing I had a drinking problem honestly hurt. “I have trauma in my family surrounding alcoholics, so I’m not sure we can talk anymore” is something said to me so often and it stings so deeply, even though I know no one meant to hurt me by saying it. I’m not your alcoholic father. I’m not your abuser. I’m me — the same person you were speaking to two months ago. Why does this one fact change everything about how you see me?
It sometimes feels like people will never see us as more than the addiction we’ve worked like hell to kick, like I’m walking around with a big sign that reads “ADDICT” in flashing neon letters. Sometimes, it even feels like people want to take their trauma with other alcoholics out on me, like I can personally somehow fix what someone else did to you or that I’m responsible for it in the first place. It feels like I’m constantly being told “your worst moment is who you are forever,” no matter how long I’ve spent unlearning those impulses in counseling.
“They want you to constantly be ashamed of who you were, not be proud of who you are.”
The thing about addiction is, once people know, they don’t treat you like a person anymore. And the moments you open up are the loneliest of your life because you watch the way people change around you, how their faces fall, how they suddenly stop texting. I’m no longer the bright, funny, smart person I was yesterday — I’m the big scary addict who used to have a drinking problem. It’s almost like they hear the word “addict” and fill in the blanks for whatever your worst crime just had to be, no longer listening to a word you say. And it sucks really, to not be proud of the massive accomplishment that is, quite literally, saving your own life because no one wants you to. They want you to constantly be ashamed of who you were, not be proud of who you are.
And that’s part of what makes Warpath so special in this story, he treats Siryn like a person. Because the minute that people know you used to have a drinking problem, you remember the first person who treated you like you were human. Those people will probably never know what that small act of basic kindness meant, to just be treated like a person instead of a problem, but when it happened to me, I cried right in front of them because I wasn’t used to receiving any kindness at all. You’re a boogeyman, you’re a nuisance, you’re a pathetic loser — then one person finally tells you that you’re just human and it’s suddenly the most comforting thing in the world.
That’s the other thing about addiction, our triumph makes others uncomfortable and they never want us to move past from our mistakes no matter how small. But I don’t hate myself — I hate the way I ever felt when I thought I had no other outlet. I don’t hate the person I am, not anymore. Hating myself led to me destroying myself for years — I’m a warrior, I’m a survivor. I learn from my mistakes and spent so long getting clean and bettering myself. Once you make it through that darkness, you can stare into that endless abyss and know you are never falling back into it. You know you beat it. And if I had to write the next chapter in Theresa’s story it would be just that: acceptance for her past mistakes, and pride in the woman she is today.
As an addict, our battles are never-ending. When people refuse to see me as a person, and refuse to acknowledge my growth, when they tell me I’ll never be more than the girl who got so drunk she had to be carried home, or spammed the group text with Britney Spears lyrics at 4 a.m. — sometimes it makes me so sad I want to turn back. What’s the point of quitting if that’s all I’ll ever be? And every time I successfully fight those impulses to fall back into bad habits, I feel like I’ve won. Theresa’s story takes these beats in X-Factor volume three, when she’s faced with the death of her father and even the death of her child without turning back. These scenes always resonated with me as being completely realistic because that’s what it’s like, repeatedly fighting the urge to return to your worst coping mechanism especially when things get so bad you feel the grief is unending.
One of my favorite panels of all time is when she drinks water from a wine bottle, declaring that if God actually loved her, he would turn the water into wine. And since X-Factor also depicts Theresa having a bit of a religious crisis because she doesn’t think God could actually love her if he lets her suffer this much, it’s pretty clear this is her way of demonstrating her self-hatred. She knows that water will never be wine and by god, what better way to say “self-hatred” than to reference the worst coping mechanism you’ve ever had. Because I said it before and I’ll say it again, at some point, the drinking does feel like an act of self-harm.
We talk about the importance of representation so often and we rightfully should, but Theresa’s story is one we often forget to tell. The one that says not all addicts are abusive monsters, the one that says it’s OK to heal. The one that shows there is life after you put down the bottle or stop taking the pills. These stories don’t just humanize us and tell people we’re not the stuff from your nightmares, they tell us it’s ok to get help — and that is the part that saves lives. My today is better than my yesterday, and if I hadn’t gotten help and left that dark place, I never would have known. My pain was not beautiful and it was not graceful but it was real and I conquered it.
The stigma around addiction is so insane that when I finally started my rehab, I was actually told I wasn’t allowed to post about it or talk about it in public because it “sets a bad example for kids” and might accidentally trigger people who had trauma with alcoholics in their family. But I’m not your alcoholic father. I’m not your abuser. And if I had seen people openly talking about getting help and encouraging others in similar positions to do the same, maybe I would have saved my life sooner. The stigma around recovery isn’t just heartbreaking –it’s detrimental.
Being an addict is like being chased out of a town with pitchforks — I’ve gotten death threats for saying it, people sending me messages encouraging me to relapse, and all sorts of cruel, inhumane things. And at some point, you just get tired of addressing it because you know some people are never going to see beyond the sickness you worked so hard to heal from. The minute they know, they always ask very invasive questions because they no longer see you as a person – -they feel entitled to your story.
So why am I sharing it now? Not for those people. The truth is, those people will probably always see me as the big scary addict, the boogeyman under the bed — but I’m sharing it to be the voice I needed to hear, the voice I only ever saw reflected in rare stories like Theresa’s, the one that says you can learn from your mistakes and you can get help. You are so much more than the worst moments of your life and my god, it is so much better on the other side. Siryn’s alcoholism isn’t her whole story — it’s just a chapter in it. It’s not all there is to her, it’s just a piece of her history and she’s still a bright, smart woman despite the fact that she also just happens to be an alcoholic. She’s a team leader –and she’s awarded that title even after this low point in her life.
I don’t have to give the whole sob story about what led me to start drinking (no matter how many people seem to demand it when they ask me invasive questions after discovering I had a past with substances). I don’t need to tell anyone what I’ve seen, what I’ve lived through, what was done to me — you just need to know I fought like hell to come back from it and I came back victorious. Stories like Theresa’s are so reflective of what so many of us face, a deep pain, a constant battle, and most importantly, knowing we are never turning back.
If you are struggling with alcohol addiction, call the SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) National Hotline at 1-800-662-HELP.
Like what we do here at AIPT? Consider supporting us and independent comics journalism by becoming a patron today! In addition to our sincere thanks, you can browse AIPT ad-free, gain access to our vibrant Discord community of patrons and staff members, get trade paperbacks sent to your house every month, and a lot more. Click the button below to get started!