Is Reality TV Escapism or Therapy?

I am a 28-year-old social worker who has been working as an addiction counselor for the past four years. It just so happens that, while helping people with their addictions, I’ve developed a quiet one of my own. 

Most of the clients that I see have experienced intense trauma and come into rehab to delve into and heal from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. They are often leaving terrible, toxic, and abusive relationships. They share their stories while I listen and gently nudge them to go deeper into their pain. I hold space for them in group and individual therapy sessions and sit with an empathetic ear. I let them know they aren’t alone, that there’s someone here, that they don’t need to be in dark places. Some clients are in deep states of depression, suicidality, and anxiety. They typically come from severe, pervasive, and devastating poverty. Many sold drugs or their bodies to get by. They come to us when they have reached rock bottom and can no longer be numbed.

This work is exhausting. After being the sounding board for their unresolved grief and hurt, I ache as well. I find myself needing relief. Having a glass of wine to unwind has never been something that calmed me down or served as an escape… but television does.

Reality TV, to be exact. It started with Vanderpump Rules, and progressed to The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Before I knew it I was canceling plans to sneak home and binge watch these programs. I became absorbed in the drama, gossip, and stupidity. I knew it was wrong. I should be spending time with my friends! I should be doing something more productive or healthy! I should be watching something that will actually teach me something! But I couldn’t stop. Hours and my bedtime will pass as I let the episodes roll on, one after another. There are times I get excited when my boyfriend works late so I can get my fix. 

Years passed without giving too much thought to this secret guilty pleasure of mine. I made excuses for it. Maybe it’s because I’m from Jersey, and was in high school when Jersey Shore came out? Maybe it’s nostalgic? I made fun of myself to the few that I did divulge my secret to. The response was typically the same: “You watch that crap? I would have never expected that!” 

It wasn’t until work got stressful, my late-night binges got even later, and my lack of motivation to go out and have real life experiences started taking over, that I began to think more critically about my consumption.

I saw a direct correlation between how re-traumatized I was from work and how consumed I was with the Housewives. I became more excited when I could indulge alone, and started retreating more from engaging with real people. 

And then I realized the root of my obsession. All day I work with people with real problems. Terrible, horrendous, dark problems. Tuning into what’s going on in Beverly Hills, with the rosé-drinking owners of multi-million dollar homes and thousand dollar bags was an escape. Tapping into a world where 40-year-old women fight over their “friends” saying something catty about their disgustingly small bred dog is intoxicating. Their problems are dumb, and it’s calming to observe a world where those problems matter to someone. It’s comforting to know that the world isn’t only filled with wonderful, amazing people being abused and tortured by life. 

One housewife badmouthed another’s plastic surgery, while another was accused of selling stories to the press and/or flirting with someone’s husband. There’s one episode where one is stressing over getting her five-year-old’s million dollar birthday party together (they didn’t have the right sized tables — mic drop, I know). All hell breaks loose when a caterer is late or when one of the nannies calls in sick. Telling their staff of people that work for them what to do daily is downright tiring, to be honest. They seem truly affected by these digressions and inconveniences. And that is satisfying — not to see their pain, but to see what pains them. 

It’s an escape from my clients’ terrors and the quiet normalcy of my own life. I can sit with the pain of a housewife tormented by insignificant gossip. I can root for them and also not care less about what they’re upset about. They typically don’t have real problems but they have real suffering. This also serves as perspective for me. That someone could have a mansion, a car, a plane, a walk-in closet bigger than my apartment and — still — be completely miserable. For me, it’s more satisfying than even the most educational documentary.

So does this realization help stop my binging? Nope! Does it enable my addiction? Probably. What it certainly does though is explain my behavior. It allows me to critically analyze my poor choices, and do nothing about it. I’d cry about it but there are bigger problems in the world.  

Madeline Levy is a social worker, living and working in New Orleans, Louisiana. She’s written a book of poems titled Perfume and Cigarettes which was published in 2015.

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