Mariska Hargitay Saved My Life
As I watched Law and Order: SVU in early sobriety, I’d think: If Mariska can solve major problems in an episode, there has to be some hope for me.
Unlike my first drink or even my first 12-step meeting, I cannot remember my first episode of SVU. I know it happened after I got sober, somewhere in that strange first year limbo where staying in always felt safer than going out. Back when I was still drinking, I had found similar comfort in the arms of Dick Wolf’s original Law & Order franchise. But when I put down the booze and bong, regular old mafia hits and drive-by shootings just didn’t do it for me anymore. I needed something stronger. I needed rape, lots of it. And sodomy. I needed Mariska Hargitay. I needed SVU.
Though it took me a few seasons to realize that I had unintentionally bonded to this heroine of the night, the one thing I did know was that watching Detective Benson and her ruggedly handsome partner, Elliot Stabler, in action made me feel better about the world. And more importantly, it made me feel better about my world.
According to Dr. Lawrence Rubin, a Professor of Counselor Education at St. Thomas University in Miami and a frequent blogger for Psychology Today, “Law & Order and other crime shows can provide some sense of mastery and control over the world around us. There is both a catharsis and an escape there, which is perhaps why people who are struggling with their own realities find such relief in watching them.”
I would start the episode in a morbid state over what was wrong with my life and, in one short hour, I’d be left feeling that somehow the problems of life could be solved.
In terms of women and the show, he says, “Though SVU can certainly perpetuate the victimization of women, it makes sense why women would be attracted to it. Mariska Hargitay is a superhero. She is a product of rape so women identify with her tragic past and yet she is a tireless crusader for women who have been victimized. She is much more than a cop: she is a classic hero, equivalent to Superman or Batman. Her life’s mission is to help women who cannot defend themselves and yet she’s vulnerable and fragile and that allows women to connect to her.”
And so perhaps it makes sense that I connected. As a fellow single woman whose life was filled with work and not much else, I related to Mariska’s plight—her fear that she would never have a family and that she would end up alone, her lonely nights when she would actually leave the station and her desire for redemption, whether her own or others. Sure, there were days where if had I been rigorously honest, I would have called into work and said, “I can’t come in. I’m suicidally depressed and the only thing that seems to work is a Law & Order: SVU marathon.”
But here’s the funny part: it really did. Somehow, I would start the episode in a morbid state over what was wrong with my life (money, love, work) and, in one short hour, I’d be left feeling that somehow the problems of life could be solved. Was it that Benson and Stabler tracked down and tried the head of sex slave ring? Did the chemistry of Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni help me to believe that unspoken love was good enough? Or was it simply the vicarious pleasure I got from watching a tough woman slam some dickhead guy into the hood of a car and ask, “Who’s the bitch now?”
Turns out that it could have been any of them. As Dr. Rubin explains, “Plato in his Poetics talked about tragedy and drama. He believed people are drawn to it for catharsis—to experience the drama and then to be able to walk out the amphitheater and say, ‘Thank goodness it wasn’t me.’ And I would imagine for someone in recovery, this would provide an even greater release. They have this opportunity to experience intense feelings in the safety in their own homes. I know many alcoholics who have had more than a fair share of tragedy and so there is a control in getting to experience something like that from a distance.”
I know that whatever craving I might have started with—for drugs, booze or just the desire to stay in bed and never shower again—would diminish after six hours of relaxing perp walks. It may sound ridiculous but Mariska helped me to come out of the chaos and misery of early sobriety and find some meaning once again in life.
Though I knew watching a marathon of episodes about rapists and child molesters probably wasn’t the healthiest form of therapy, I also recognized that there was a certain relief I experienced in knowing that although my life felt dark and miserable, the fact that there was a solution to problems even more dark and miserable than the ones I was facing meant there was also probably a solution to mine. I would emerge from my SVU weekends renewed and restored, ready to go become the hero in my own life—a problem solver and not a problem maker.
According to Rubin, this makes sense. “I think there’s an element of fantasy resolution in those episodes that people can escape into,” he says. “There’s a neatness and tidiness there that people wish they could have in their own life. There’s high drama and pain that’s resolved. Though people recognize that it’s contrived, it still gives them an opportunity to process how trauma gets resolved.”
This isn’t to say that I’ve graduated from SVU. Though I am nearing my sixth year sober and now have a job and husband I love, there are still many days when I need to turn the lights off, crawl into bed and find the deep serenity that no meeting, no book and no meditation can provide. Instead I need the knowledge that though rape and sodomy might happen weekly on NBC in New York City, Mariska will always solve it by the end of the hour.
Kristen McGuiness is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Fix who wrote previously about old timers in AA and sober travel, among many other topics. She is the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life.