We Will Love You Until You Can Love Yourself

The Wire (2002 - 2008)


Recovery from addiction is not a story that lends itself well to onscreen storytelling. Active addiction, though it doesn’t always feel this way from the inside, can be darkly glamorous. There’s the repetitive downing of sweaty glasses of top-shelf scotch, gambling and spending sprees, wildly self-destructive romantic relationships, and the satisfying telling of uncomfortable truths. Recovery is something altogether different. It’s a repetitive, quotidian slog propped up by a tiny string of leaps of faith. It’s the belief that a shattered self can be made whole by a regimented routine (meetings, feedings, and exercise) and the regular repetition of the most anodyne of clichés (“easy does it”; “one day at a time”). It’s a series of seemingly imperceptible psychic changes that allow the addict to not only function without their drug of choice, but to grow into a morally cognizant being. It means living life, in the parlance of 12-step recovery, “on life’s terms.” This is no hero’s journey; salvation comes from embracing your sweet and total ordinariness. It’s a reckoning with your shame and self-loathing, and your redemption is achieved not through great deeds, but through a series of small, decent things you just keep on doing. 

As a recovering addict, it’s a complicated thing, this desire to “see” myself on the screen. Addiction affects so many; there are so many variations to the basic narrative, dependent on age, race, gender, region, and drug of choice. Even now, I’m torn between the lure of respectability politics (“show them we can lead productive lives!”) and a suspicion of bows that are too neatly tied (“no shiny, happy people!”). But the more I think about it, and the longer I stay around, what I want most are movies and shows that just give addicts some love. I want us to be seen as lovable: capable, resilient, and inherently worthy, regardless of whether we’re using. I’m not looking for the exact story of how I drank or how I stopped, but rather to feel a soul-deep kinship with a fellow traveler, to see the strange little stations of the cross, a journey toward life on life’s terms that, even if you’re not a believer, is undoubtedly marked by a kind of broken, inexplicable grace. 

The story of recovery that rings truest to me is from The Wire, notably a series full of lovable fuck-ups and bad dudes. It has a masterful hand with moral ambiguity and a deep allergy to easy solutions. Amidst The Wire’s sprawling saga of urban life, the story of Bubbles, a genial and industrious heroin addict, is a Dickensian tale of bravery, misfortune, twists of fate, and cathartic resolutions. His narrative is given space and time to document the halting, staggering journey that can lead an addict to recovery. With a richly textured and deeply felt performance by Andre Royo, it’s a complex portrait of an addict as a whole and wholly extraordinary person, rather than just the sum of his symptoms and antisocial behaviors. It’s particularly astute in its perspective on shame, and how relationships with fellow addicts help one accept one’s past—acceptance that is essential to staying sober. Royo’s Bubbles ends up thriving because, through his work in 12-step recovery, he crawls out of hell and comes to see himself as fallible but worthy of love and respect.

Bubbles appears early in The Wire’s first season, as a criminal informant (aka CI, or “snitch”) for narcotics detective Kima Greggs. Bubbles agrees to help Greggs’s detail chase the Barksdale drug organization after a Barksdale dealer badly beats his drug buddy, Johnny. 

The Wire takes place in a world where even the compromised cops and brutal gangsters believe “a man has to have a code,” and Bubbles is, above all, loyal to his friends. Bubbles counters the assumption that addicts are entirely selfish and incapable of caring for others. 

As a CI, Bubbles is enterprising and clever: he comes up with a series of stratagems to help the police. When he pretends to sell hats on the street, he skillfully uses his sales patter to get a red hat on all of the major players so that the cops can photograph and identify them later. He’s charming, smooth talking, and studiously non-threatening; the dealers don’t suspect a thing. When Greggs’s partner McNulty sees the photographs, he hands Bubbles a hunk of cash. Greggs says that McNulty is only spoiling Bubbles, but McNulty “[respects] the work.” This is how we come to know Bubbles: as a sharp, tireless hustler who still can’t stop himself from nodding off in some hovel every night. 

In that first season, Bubbles is the police detail’s mascot; you get the sense that he’s constantly hanging out in the office or in surveillance cars because he’s fun to have around. He’s socially astute and empathetic—Greggs trusts him enough to tell him she’s a lesbian, and when McNulty complains about his divorce, Bubbles divines that McNulty cheated on his wife. “Hey Bubs, how come you got all this wisdom and your life’s so fuckin’ hard?” McNulty razzes him. “I been wondering on that myself,” Bubbles replies. It’s a moment of clarity, a suggestion that his life could be different.   

Bubbles’s character, and the strength of his addiction, comes into stark relief in a scene where one officer, Sydnor, is going undercover. Sydnor shows off his disguise around the office, and the cops ask Bubbles for his opinion. He eyes the look with unerring precision. The outfit needs more stains, and Sydnor has to lose his wedding ring (“Shit, you married to the needle, boy. That shit been pawned off”). But most important is the lack of “dead soldiers” (smashed up crack vials) pressed into the soles of his boots. “You wanna know a fiend for real,” he says, “check the bottom of his shoes.” 12-steppers often say “self-knowledge is not enough”—meaning the awareness that one is an addict is not enough to stop you from using. Bubbles knows the body and habits of the addict—from head to toe—but his rueful smile shows he still feels stuck in that body, that guise. 

Then Bubbles, purely by happenstance, stumbles into 12-step recovery. When his buddy Johnny is arrested and ordered to attend meetings, Bubbles goes with him. He’s the one drawn in by the alluring but seemingly improbable promise that a day sober could be better than a day high. And, as often happens in 12-step meetings, this possibility is made real to him via the magnetic testimony of another addict. This one is a scraggly sage named Walon. Played with utter conviction and unexpected tenderness by singer-songwriter Steve Earle, Walon is an instantly recognizable type to anyone familiar with 12-step meetings. An “old-timer” (someone with many years of sobriety) with a well of experience and a total lack of bullshit. Walon tells the story of his using and recovery matter-of-factly. He has a crooked smile, a lilting drawl, and a charisma that comes from radical honesty. His story sometimes has the boo-hoo enumerative wit of a country blues song—he says that using helped him lose a good wife and a bad girlfriend. Yet he repeats the promises of 12-step recovery with a hard-won lucidity: “I want to be clean today more than I want to be high.” He “sounded strong,” Bubbles says later. 

When I watch Bubbles watch Walon, a kind of sparkle and warmth unfurling from somewhere within him, I’m immediately back in those early meetings. I remember the kind eyes, the wry gallows humor, or the almost eerie serenity I’d see in the hodgepodge of folks I found in VA hospitals and church basements. Their words and gestures were tiny shimmering promises: the revival of long-dead feelings, new experiences that lay somewhere beyond the constant gray numbness of the increasingly necessary yet increasingly unsatisfying high. I remember my arms sometimes reaching forward, unconsciously, as if I could touch that thing that surrounded them.

Lots of 12-step meetings give out various coins or chips or keychains representing different amounts of time sober. Bubbles, eagerly, perhaps not quite knowing what he’s doing, takes a 24-hour keychain, even though (as Johnny teases him) he doesn’t have the full day. This half-earned talisman, this promise to the future, is a sign of a desire for sobriety. It’s another impulsive choice, an inexplicable moment of self-preservation. 

When Bubbles does manage to get a few days sober, The Wire gets that utterly quotidian magic of the newly sober person’s sensory perceptions totally right. It’s a clichéd scene, as he basks in greenery and looks at children frolicking in the park. Bubbles, newly cleaned up and dressed in slacks and a button-down (faded, from a former life) sits on a bench. He slowly takes in everything: the children playing, the sounds of nature, the way the light catches on branches and blades of grass.

It’s all shot so cheesily, like background footage for a made-for-TV movie. The grace and the glory all come from the dynamic shifts and gradual awakenings of Royo’s performance: his face registers each new dimension of everyday presence with a joyfully and rightfully skittish wonder. “Lord,” he exhales, smiling shakily, rightfully awed and afraid. 

When Bubbles meets with Walon again, we get a sense of how much (for Bubbles, just as it was for me) the cycle of addiction is perpetuated by shame and self-loathing. Walon tells Bubbles more personal details of his story, without a drop of self-pity. He contracted HIV and gave it to his wife, but he’s at least grateful that he didn’t pass it on to his daughter. The ever-thoughtful Bubbles, clearly meditating on some private pain, asks, “How you carry it?” Walon says that though he’s made amends to his exes (an important part of 12-step recovery), the thing that has kept him sober is being able to forgive himself. “Love yourself some, brother,” he tells Bubbles, “and then drag your sorry ass to some meetings.”

But Bubbles’s first attempt at sobriety is not to be. He tells Greggs that he wants to get clean and needs some money for his own place. She promises to give it to him, but then she’s badly shot during an undercover operation gone wrong. In the days that go by, we see him bravely fight the siren song of the young dealers plying their trade on the streets. By the time Greggs remembers her promise to Bubbles and sends McNulty to get Bubbles the money, he’s already relapsed. The happy-go-lucky, never-no-mind facade that Bubbles uses to navigate the world slips a bit here; he’s genuinely heartbroken by Greggs’s injuries, and just as heartbroken that he’s let her down by relapsing. “Don’t tell her,” he softly but firmly pleads to McNulty. Something’s fallen out of Bubbles’s normal equanimity—there’s a starkness, an insistence to his plea that wounds me a bit every time I see it. How many times had I not wanted someone—someone I respected, someone who’d looked kindly on me or even trusted me—to know about the 2/3rds-empty bottle of Famous Grouse pushed to the bottom of my satchel, the one I’d told myself I didn’t even like enough to steal? It’s the shame that tells you to hide instead of asking for help. 

Bubbles’s long relapse—his time “back out”—lasts the majority of The Wire’s middle three seasons, through bloody drug wars, ineffective policing, and major political realignments in the city. But his parallel narrative is not one of inevitable and incessant decline: for a long time, he manages to truck along—thrive, at points—while still using. His hustle is unstoppable. He runs a couple of schemes: he steals copper wiring out of under-construction row houses to sell for drug money. Here again, Bubbles’s perceptive eye sees opportunity all around him; there’s no barbecue set or slab of scrap metal he can’t quickly spot and appraise, then happily trot off to be traded in. He reaches a sort of user’s equilibrium, but his moral conscience starts to get the better of him. When Johnny suggests stealing an aluminum ladder off of a working man, the anguished guilt that crosses Royo’s face as the scheme goes down suggests a growing moral consciousness that he can no longer square with his way of life. When a more desperate, compulsive scheme inevitably goes awry, Bubbles makes a mad dash to steal narcotics off of an open ambulance—he gets busted and is back to work as an informant. (Greggs tells Bubbles that he ought to be ashamed trying to get a CI deal over a crime like this, and he looks suitably disgusted with himself.) But this actually begins a stable period of his life, as he starts to become a professional snitch, making a regular living from informing. The street code says you only snitch when you’re caught. But Bubbles, getting older, is looking for something more steady—something with the circadian certainty of the routine often recommended by 12-step recovery. 

Sober or not, Bubbles is a survivor, always moving forward. Through the third and fourth seasons, he sets up a little depot out of a shopping cart, first selling white t-shirts and then a variety of other goods. Still the charming, affable salesman, it seems at least a sustainable kind of life, even while using. But the vicissitudes of life on the street always threaten to upend his barely-maintained stability. Throughout the fourth season, events set Bubbles down a path of tragedy, shame, and reckoning that will lead him eventually to a hard-earned serenity. Bubbles is tormented by another heroin addict who repeatedly beats him up and steals his money and merchandise. Meanwhile, he falls in with a teenage boy named Sherrod, making him his apprentice in order to keep him out of drug dealing. Sherrod moves in and out of Bubbles’s orbit, clearly craving his care. But Bubbles’s precarious equilibrium is ruptured in a terrifying, melodramatic moment. Bubbles hides a poisoned heroin vial, expecting that his tormentor will steal it from him. Instead, Sherrod turns up and uses it, dying accidentally. This is horror, pure and simple; a most dramatic, knock-out blow to his sense of himself and his humanity.

12-steppers frequently speak of an addict’s “bottom,” the event or moment when things get so bad and so undeniably unsustainable, even the long-term addict has an ounce of willingness to give up their drug of choice. “Bottom” seems so insufficient a descriptor for what has happened to Bubbles. Even if his story is heightened for dramatic effect, the keening despair and pitiful clarity that he experiences are all too familiar. “Just lock me up and be done with it,” Bubbles says with an eerie calm after he turns himself in to the cops. He seems at peace with that outcome, and yet the despair yanks him backwards as he tries to hang himself in the interrogation room. Later, when he’s revived, Bubbles brutally mocks himself for pretending he could live a normal life, and be a good influence on Sherrod. “Like I ain’t who I am, right? Like I’m pretending I ain’t been a dope fiend my whole damn life.”’ 

After this tragedy, Bubbles only gets the possibility of recovery through a rare act of bureaucratic grace. Sgt. Landsman, normally so concerned with clearing every homicide that comes through the department, decides not to charge Bubbles but to send him to a psychiatric hospital. “Sad-ass motherfucker’s carrying more weight than we’ll ever put on him,” he concludes. It’s only when the state curbs its natural impulses to incarcerate that the addict has a shot at recovery. It’s not an opportunity all real-life addicts are afforded, and moments of grace like this are often necessary but rarely evenly distributed.

Bubbles’s first crawling steps toward sobriety are wrenchingly poetic. Greggs finds Walon and manages to bring him to Bubbles in the hospital. Walon asks if Greggs thinks his suicide attempt was real. “Bubs’s got some problems, but insincerity ain’t one of them,” she answers, echoing an idea (you hear it in 12-step rooms a lot) that addicts often feel hypersensitive to the world around them; they drown in a surfeit of feelings. Wise Walon brings things back to the problem of shame: “Shame’s some tricky shit, ain’t it? Makes you feel like you want to change, and then beats you back down when you think you can’t.” Greggs can’t bring herself to see Bubbles (“maybe later”), and this, too, feels right. What has to happen for Bubbles to even begin to overcome his shame is something only another addict can understand. Instead, Greggs watches uneasily through the window as Walon approaches an affectless Bubbles, clad in those thin drawstring-less pajamas they put you in when you’re a new admit on suicide watch. Bubbles first recoils from Walon’s touch, yelling “I don’t want to feel nothing!” as the other man struggles to embrace him.  

This brief scene moves me uncontrollably. It brings me back to my own relapse, during a bleak Christmas over a decade ago. There’s something absurd about psych-ward Christmas decorations, always a little sad and perfunctory, but still somehow required to be there; at least sometimes, they manage to tune out the poppy, upbeat carols that play constantly. Everyone knows that the holidays are tough on people’s mental health, but ending up in the psych ward on Christmas still seems to be a sign of a particular fucked-up-ness that makes you feel deflated, numb, and unfit for public consumption. The reasons for my Christmas relapse were not nearly as dramatic as what brought Bubbles back into 12-step recovery, but I, too, was accepted and met with a love I felt unworthy of. I remember my sponsor across the visiting room table, smiling as she asked me if I still wanted to be sober. I remember the groups of big tattooed men and the women with fishnet stockings and multicolored hand-knit caps who brought meetings into the ward every day, warning me to stay away from the brooding boy bunked at the end of the ward who never took off his plaid bomber hat while writing his poems.

I first saw The Wire not long after this bad relapse. The warmth of camaraderie I felt with Bubbles was accompanied by a longing that almost made me want to reach into the television and cheer him on, this man who showed me parts of myself and of so many people that I’d grown to love, their words sticking with me even if I never saw them in a meeting again. As I worked to rebuild my sobriety, Bubbles’s story showed me how much my own shame had choked me, and taught me to appreciate how the ability to share one’s shame is necessary to recovery, to becoming the kind of person who can love themselves enough to live life on life’s terms.            

The addict’s ability to deflect or avoid their shame is something that’s well drawn when we first see the newly-clean Bubbles at 12-step meetings. In the first one, a woman speaks, riffing off a common theme in 12-step shares: the lines that the addict promises themselves they’ll never cross, only to break these promises. This woman’s personal examples are raw, and she delivers them with a wary smile. First, she’d decided that she wouldn’t have sex for drugs, then that she’d never have sex with more than one man at a time, then that she’d always use condoms. Her delivery is stark, brave, and without shame. After the woman finishes speaking, Walon suggests that Bubs fill the remaining time in the meeting by sharing. He’s clearly ill at ease, and while he starts talking about his using, he veers into making jokes about heroin addicts dropping off. David Foster Wallace, a great poet of 12-step recovery, observed that 12-step attendees are a tough crowd. They’re very attuned to, and skeptical toward, any speaker who’s performing or trying to impress. The anxious newcomer struggles with this. The part of you that wants to get better also wants to belong to the group. It’s easy to try to deliver some material you haven’t come by honestly, jokes that reflect a perspective on using that only emerges after a lot of time and work. Bubbles’s evasive performance is his disease talking—once again, he’s the easygoing charmer who conceals or brushes off the severity of his condition. A common 12-step adage is “you’re only as sick as your secrets,” and Bubbles’s refusal to process Sherrod’s death keeps him in the shame that perpetuates addiction. 

Walon tells Bubbles all of this: 12-step meetings include a lot of perverse gallows humor, “but in between all the jokes, there’s a lot of truth to be spoke.” Bubs is still tap-dancing around the hard truths you have to reckon with in order to laugh. Walon references the “searching and fearless moral inventory” of the dreaded fourth step, where the addict must look back on the wreckage wrought by their using, and accept responsibility for it. For Bubbles, this means reckoning with Sherrod’s death. Bubs, like many addicts, wants to avoid the raw emotions that surface with the fourth step. He deflects, claiming “I don’t feel nothing!” Walon calls this out for the obvious bullshit that it is. “That was never your problem. Not even as a low-bottom dope fiend, that was never the problem.”

Bubbles will eventually share about Sherrod’s death at his anniversary meeting. “I’ve been carryin’ his passing a long while…but [it’s] not so bad like it was,” he says as Walon nods. “Ain’t no shame in holding on to grief,” he continues, “as long as you make room for other things too.” It’s the beginning of the process of acceptance and integration: contemplating the possibility that despite the very worst of your past, you’re a person of inherent worth who’s made significant changes. The “big book” of AA promises that, after completing the steps, “we will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.” It’s a tough and ongoing process, accepting the most shameful bits of the past as part of you. As parts that have, in some ways, shaped you for the better. 

This kind of radical self-acceptance takes time for Bubbles as well. We see the obstacles he faces in a scene where he gets an HIV test and Walon comes for moral support. The first HIV or STD test taken after getting clean is a terrifying and complex experience, filled with mixed emotions. Shame, of course, as memories (be they of shared needles, or coming out of blackouts in strange beds) flood your brain, with an answering desire to punish yourself. When he finds out that he’s negative, Bubbles feels a weird sense of disappointment, like he deserves the virus because of “all the shit I done.” In the tradition of all great sponsors, Walon sees through this. “This is you trying to make the past be everything, mean everything” he says. “You don’t even wanna think about the here and now…Shame ain’t worth as much as you think. Let it go.” The sponsor-sponsored dynamic, where Walon directly but lovingly hits Bubbles over the head with the same simple truths, is one of the most honest portrayals of how addicts help other addicts.

As he grows more comfortable in his sobriety, Bubbles lets go in a radical and radically public way when he allows a journalist to write a profile on him. Royo perfectly juxtaposes the pride and anxiety coursing through him before he takes this momentous step. When Walon tells him that the piece captures all of him, good and bad, Bubbles decides to let it go to print. Breaking his anonymity and telling the whole world his story is a bold move, declaring that he can live with himself, no matter who knows all of him. Royo makes you feel the lightness to Bubbles, lighter than any of the happy-go-lucky airiness he feigned while using. 

The 12-step newcomer will often hear the phrase “we will love you until you can love yourself.” It’s an incredible promise: that you will be accepted and cherished despite your shame, and despite your abysmally low opinion of yourself. The Wire’s telling of Bubbles’s story is so satisfying to me, I think, because it puts the audience in the position of that welcoming 12-step community. We grow to love Bubbles, warts and all, over five seasons: we cheer on his steps toward a better life and love him even when he stumbles. To finally watch him grow to love himself is like a little taste of what it means to truly love, accept, and champion an addict, an experience that much of screen culture fails to (or even bothers to) capture. It’s the rare show that truly sees the addict and says, “Love yourself some, brother.”