The Queen’s Gambit Tells An Addiction Story

Riveted to the mini-series The Queen’s Gambit, I found myself watching a perfect portrayal of addiction and society’s use—or should I say, abuse—of alcohol, something that I am now in recovery for.

My son encouraged me to watch this series. He and I spent countless hours together at local, state, and even national chess tournaments. As a proud mother, I watched him win four state chess titles in elementary, middle, and high school. But my son connected to more than the chess plotline of the show: the lead character, Elizabeth (“Beth”) Harmon, suffers from an addiction disorder, just as I did while my son was growing up.

When the last scene ended, tears flooded my eyes with so many competing thoughts, including:

  • recognizing the lead character was me just a few years back, and feeling her pain so viscerally,
  • feeling so secure and safe in my alcohol-free life now but knowing this is not something to take for granted, and
  • realizing just how painful it is to watch someone in active addiction, something I put my own family through.

At times, The Queen’s Gambit was painful for me to watch because, like a chess game where many future moves are analyzed, I was doing the same for Beth’s future and knew she was probably headed for the pitfalls of addiction.

I found it so ironic that the lead character was masterful at visually analyzing many strategic moves on a chess board, but could not see the likely trajectory of her own addictive behaviors for much of the series.

While I will try to limit any potential spoilers for those yet to watch (and I think everyone should watch it!), in this blog I will be giving a general sense of the storyline (but not the ending!). So, if you want to, stop reading and come back later. But do come back and then comment. Please!

Beth Harmon is orphaned as a young girl at the age of nine after a traumatic early life. She ends up at a Christian orphanage and learns how to play chess via discrete meetings with the institution’s janitor in the basement. Eventually, she is adopted by a couple, and ultimately her chess playing continues via local, state, national, and, eventually, international tournaments. We watch Beth Harmon grow up.

Initially, I thought The Queen’s Gambit was a great mini-series on chess with a significant second story line on addiction. But now having watched the whole series, I feel this is a fantastic story about addiction, brilliantly weaving in a second storyline on chess. The Queen’s Gambit offers a textbook example of addiction, and for me (and I believe for others in recovery as well), this is an ideal opportunity to hold love and compassion in our hearts while we reflect and digest.

From our alcohol free vantage point, we can safely and clearly reflect on all the hardships and cycles of active addiction through Beth Harmon’s poignant journey.

 

The many risks and behaviors of addiction are fascinating to study, but often only if they are someone else’s. In other words, for us women in recovery, this is a compelling way to witness a similar version of our past selves, whereas when we had the starring role in that story…uh, not so much fun. From our alcohol free vantage point, we can safely and clearly reflect on all the hardships and cycles of active addiction through Beth Harmon’s poignant journey. I suspect many rehab programs will use clips to demonstrate certain predictable behaviors.

 

There were several key addiction themes woven throughout the series, beginning with Beth’s early childhood, and how early-age trauma laid the foundation for her descent into addiction. From there, she falls victim to the alluring deceptions that are predominant in addiction.

 

Numbing with substance use “works”
until it doesn’t; it’s always a progression.

 

 

Through the narrative of Beth’s life, The Queen’s Gambit illustrates eight key issues that set the stage with any addiction:

  1. Numbing with substance use “works” until it doesn’t; it’s always a progression. Beth uses mood altering substances and then alcohol to numb the pain of her childhood trauma and her various uncomfortable living environments. And, as with any addiction, it begins with little consequences, and then eventually escalates until it destroys her.
  2. Lack of self-awareness about one’s addiction, even when obvious to everyone else. Everyone around Beth can see she has an addiction, but she doesn’t. This pattern is universal in people with addictions.
  3. Unresolved early age trauma breeds addictive disease. Beth lives with early-age trauma, most notably abandonment. Sadly, this is very common in children, physically and emotionally. Whether using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or the chakra system, the reality is that if one’s sense of security and survival is shaken at an early age, this is a huge predictor of addiction behaviors. Beth never comes to terms with her trauma, and so she represses her thoughts and feelings instead.
  4. Bouncing from one addictive behavior to another. Known as transfer addiction, it is extremely common if not universal for those with a primary addiction to have a secondary addiction as well. Alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, food (sugar), prescription drugs, sex, money (gambling or shopping), and technology are examples. They all ignite the dopamine center in the brain (limbic system) and cause craving. Beth uses numerous addictive substances and behaviors to extremes. There is no middle ground.
  5. Isolating ultimately leads to self-sabotage. As Beth’s addiction escalates, so does her isolation, to the point that she drinks alone and shuts out the world. The further down the addiction path we travel, the more we tend to isolate. We don’t want people interfering with our drinking, don’t want people to see us, and don’t want to explain anything to anyone. Isolating regularly begins the darkness and agony of addiction where it’s hard to visualize a way forward.
  6. Trying to manage an active addiction is pointless: “I will only have one drink.” Awww, if I could have a dollar for every time I said that, I’d be a self-made millionaire. Despite the finest of intentions, it’s near impossible for someone with alcohol use disorder to just have one drink. As the AA saying goes, “One is too many and a thousand is never enough.” Our minds, bodies, and spirits are totally hijacked when our primary drug of choice is ingested or otherwise experienced. It’s hard to say when this happens, as it’s different for everyone, but there is a distinct point of no return when our social drinking turns to addictive drinking. For Beth, this transition happened almost immediately.
  7. It’s impossible to be the best version of yourself while drinking. We tell ourselves these stories because of early experiences with our drug of choice. Rockstars think they perform better stoned, some think they socially interact better while drinking, some think they perform sexually better while intoxicated, etc. Beth thinks she plays better chess while under the influence of tranquilizers. The truth is that while one area or skill might be enhanced with the use of addictive substances in the short-term, we degrade ourselves on every level when we drink or use—falling far from the best version of ourselves. What’s more, any perceived benefits of substance use will deteriorate over time.
  8. Blind to our own gifts. While this is common with all people—men and women, with or without addiction—in my experience, women with addiction disorders often don’t see their own talents and skills. In fact, women with addictions often feel they need to be perfect to feel equal to our male counterpart. Adding to the phenomenon of feeling inadequate, women with addictions often seek external validation to feel more self-confident, rather than using an internal measure. At times, Beth seems almost ambivalent about her own incredible intelligence as displayed by her chess talent, but instead longs for ways to be a woman of glamour. When a European model arrives on a scene, she is captivated by her charm, clothes, and perceived glorious lifestyle. In reality, as the model explains, there is nothing there but an addictive lifestyle.

 

The truth is that while one area or skill might be enhanced with the use of addictive substances in the short-term, we degrade ourselves on every level when we use—falling far from the best version of ourselves. What’s more, any perceived benefits of substance abuse will deteriorate over time.

 

Pause here and deeply reflect with mental clarity on the difficult journey from active addiction to sobriety, and honor how far you have come in your recovery. What can you relate to? How has your life changed since then?

In early and long-term recovery, we can strengthen our alcohol free life by using the six strategies shown in the series that center on protecting our sobriety and bringing us love, stability, connection, and authenticity.

 

Pause here and deeply reflect with mental clarity on the difficult journey from active addiction to sobriety, and honor how far you have come in your recovery.

What can you relate to? How has your life changed since then?

I invite you to explore these strategies for success in living a purposeful, joyful, alcohol free life:

  1. Know your WHY. In my coaching program we talk a lot about personal recovery mission statements, articulating exactly why you want to be in recovery and what it will bring you. What do you want to create? What will being sober bring to you, your family, and your life? What will you gain? And I encourage this process to conclude with a commitment statement, such as, “I’m 100% committed to living an alcohol free life and will focus on my daily routine of strategies to heal my mind, body, and spirit and strengthen my recovery.” This exercise can anchor a recovery! Beth’s WHY is to be the best chess player in the world, not because she is interested in any fame or glory, but because she wants to be the best in her god-given talent. Beth finally understands her addiction is holding her back from her goals. Also, she realizes her true happiness can be found only with an alcohol free life.
  2. Be willing to accept help. The key for changing the course of active addiction is to get help. Often, family and friends will conduct an intervention, which may or may not be successful. Other ways include voluntary action by going to a recovery meeting or rehab center, or involuntary consequential actions, for example, a traumatic fall leading to hospitalization. One way or another, accepting help for your addiction is the turning point. Beth did not accept one friend’s attempt to intervene, but eventually allowed a second friend to help.
  3. Surround yourself with your community of healthy, sober friends. To combat isolation, and to begin to learn from others going through the same thing as you, it’s critical to have a community of friends who have your back. Studies show you are as healthy as your friends are, and taking this a step further, you are as sober as your friends are. For Beth, her addiction patterns increase when she is living with her adopted mother, who clearly has a raging alcohol and prescription medication addiction. Likewise, Beth’s patterns change when she allows into her life her best friend from the orphanage, who both understands addiction and lives a healthy lifestyle.
  4. Process emotions in a healthy way. Allow emotions to flow. Feeling is part of healing. Beth is incredibly stoic throughout her youth and teenage years. No tears, just a fierce girl conquering life just as she does the chess board. And this is many of us, somewhere along the way being taught subconsciously or consciously to repress our emotions. Trapping emotions is a one-way ticket for disease; it’s just a matter of which type. When Beth finally lets the tears flow, her pain begins to release.
  5. Stay on a healthy routine (especially with regard to food and sleep) to set yourself up for success. A healthy routine creates a healthy lifestyle, resulting in improved well-being and lower risk of relapse. This is so simple (although I know it’s not always easy) and something I encourage all my clients to embrace. Deciding in advance what the key nuggets are for you to strengthen your recovery and heal towards transformational growth is the path forward. When Beth focuses on her sleep, playing chess, good eating, and fun sports play with her best friend, she sets herself up to succeed. In the scene following her first loss to world champ USSR’s Vasily Borgov, Beth also witnesses the likely scenario when an unhealthy addictive routine is left to run its course.
  6. Choose an environment conducive to recovery. Establishing a safe, clean, and comfortable environment is key to setting anyone up to succeed with anything in life. This is no different with addiction. When making the transition from addiction to early recovery, it is common to stay away from restaurants, clubs, bars, and certain friends. Creating a clear boundary for yourself on this is powerfully supportive. In the show, Beth chooses to stay in her hotel room in Moscow rather than heading out to party.

Your best authentic self is ready to emerge in your alcohol free life. Life in recovery is full of limitless possibilities never thought possible, or even previously considered, while in active addiction. An addicted woman is like a caterpillar, while a woman in very early recovery can be represented by a chrysalis, full of potential to emerge a completely transformed living creature with wings to fly and color to share, just like a woman thriving in recovery, offering her boundless beauty to the world. One can only speculate where Beth takes the rest of her life, as she is only 20-something when the series ends.

As a recovery coach, I meet versions of the lead character, Beth Harmon. I often work with incredibly gifted women in early recovery who have had success in their personal and professional lives; however, along the way they began using alcohol as a coping strategy for the usual stresses of raising a family, maintaining a healthy marriage, managing financial needs, achieving a rewarding career, and so on. And they ultimately descended the slippery slope of drinking until they found themselves unable to live without alcohol, and with lingering unhappiness all around them. Alcohol is the greatest bait-and switch-scheme in our world today. Society is holding up the illusion that alcohol is full of joy, promise, social connection, and all of life’s treasures, when that couldn’t be further from the truth In their early sobriety, we work to strengthen their recovery and begin to heal the body, mind, and spirit to be able to thrive in an alcohol free life.

 

Your best authentic self is ready to emerge in your alcohol free life. Life in recovery is full of limitless possibilities never thought possible, or even previously considered, while in active addiction. 

To the Beths still in active addiction, I want you to know there is an incredible life awaiting you once you get help.

To the Beths in early recovery, I urge you to continue to strengthen your recovery and heal your body, mind, and spirit so you can rebuild your amazing life.

And, to the Beths who are in long-term recovery, I ask you to continue to shine your lighthouse for all the world to follow. You are the queen piece on the chess board, full of limitless possibilities for success, happiness, and vitality.

And we ALL can get there, one move at a time.

You are the queen piece on the chess board, full of limitless
possibilities for success, happiness, and vitality.

2 thoughts on “The Queen’s Gambit Tells An Addiction Story”

  1. How do you suggest that people get a “recovery community,” if they don’t want to go to AA? I went to AA for 10 years, and I could not stand all the gossip and judgment I encountered there. I have a community of friends, but not all of them are abstinent from alcohol—though I would venture to say that none of them have “raging” (or even small) alcohol problems.

    1. Wonderful question Frannie! I highly recommend SheRecovers.org, where “all women in or seeking recovery are celebrated and supported. We accomplish this by inspiring hope, reducing stigma and empowering women to increase their recovery capital, heal themselves, and help other women to do the same.” We have 2 meetings a day, called TOGETHER ONLINE (hosted by recovery coaches, of which I am one) via Zoom, and this is a great place to start. Also, I would consider a recovery coach (even for 4-6 weeks) to help the transition. In my early recovery, I had 3 coaches over a year period, and all were key to my success. There are other programs which are also well regarded, but I feel SheRecovers is the total package. Hope to see you at a meeting, and/or feel free to email for other ideas. Love& light!

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