The first of Louis Theroux's new series is a revealing and harrowing documentary about alcohol addiction.
Theroux is allowed into King’s College Hospital, London, which has a specialist liver unit where patients are detoxed and then treated as outpatients by specialists.
It’s a place where alcoholics at rock-bottom may find themselves, “people who are drinking not just to excess, but to total oblivion”, says Theroux, who is trying to “understand the mindset of people addicted to Britain’s favourite drug, and the difficult choices faced by those close to them”.
It really is sobering. First, because detoxing can be dangerous, and second, because patients often relapse and turn up again. This is what has happened to 32-year-old Joe, who had been sober for more than four years, but has had episodes of what he describes as “self-annihilating drinking” after a break-up.
He’s bright and articulate, but gets things together only to lapse, appearing at King’s in a terrible state. He wants to detox, but when he starts to withdraw, it’s “like I’m dying as a person”.
Another patient, Peter, is similar, in that he has detoxed a number of times and is warned that the process will eventually lead to liver damage. He has the support of his girlfriend, Mariana, but she has lived through his cycle of extreme drinking and recovery and is wondering how long she can go on coping with it.
There is not much talk about care outside the hospital, such as counselling or AA, although when Theroux catches up with Peter, he is finally getting help for his anxiety.
The least hopeful of the three that Theroux follows is Aurelie, who on waking immediately has a drink to stop her shakes. Her boyfriend is horrible to her and she tells the liver specialist at King’s that she is surprised she is still alive. She is also now more afraid of stopping drinking than of dying.
Cheer up. This isn’t even the most depressing of the five-part series. In A Different Brain, Theroux follows people recovering from a traumatic brain injury; in Heroin Town, he is back in the US, embedding himself in an Appalachian community that has been devastated by opiates; for Trafficking Sex, he’s in Houston, North America’s hub of human trafficking; and finally, he’s looking at guns, race and crime in Murder in Milwaukee.
This article was first published in the January 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.