The World’s Best Pedigree Is No Match for Alcoholism

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addiction on TV
Kathryn Dennis and Thomas Ravenel of Bravo’s Southern Charm

My name is Becky and I’m a TV addict. I gave up drugs and alcohol more than 15 years ago, but I can’t kick Bravo (or A&E, MTV and BBC America). Not to mention Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime TV. Being a recovering addict who is also a TV fiend means that I recognize addiction on TV. Sometimes it’s part of a fictional storyline and I judge how realistic it is—on a scale of chilling to ridiculous. Other times, it’s “reality” TV and the people are somewhere on the spectrum of complete denial to actively working on recovery. Those are the stories I like the most.

There aren’t any new episodes of Intervention on right now, so lately, I’ve been captivated by Bravo’s Southern Charm. Now in its fourth season, the show follows a group of mostly young, rich, good-looking people as they drink martinis and go to theme parties and polo matches in the picturesque city of Charleston, South Carolina. Some of the characters have reality TV resumes, some are local celebs and all are pretty entertaining. But something is different this season. There’s a subplot about one of the primary character’s recovery.

Kathryn Calhoun Dennis is smart, young, beautiful and neck-deep in her battle with drug addiction. She comes from a prominent old Southern family. Most notably, she is a direct descendant of seventh Vice President of the US, John C. Calhoun. She’s also the granddaughter of long-time SC State Senator, the late Rembert C. Dennis. She’s proof that addiction doesn’t discriminate. Addicts can be hot, privileged and intelligent and still end up fighting for their lives.

Dennis started in season one as a part time cast member: a party girl who slept her way through every guy on the show before settling into a tumultuous relationship with cast-mate Thomas Ravenel. He comes with his own pedigree (son of a former Congressman) and a pile of baggage a mile high. The operative word here is high. In 2007, Ravenel served six months as the SC State Treasurer before being forced to resign because he was arrested for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. He was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison and three years probation.  To this day, he claims the charges were bunk because he was planning to give the coke away, not sell it. Eye roll.

Despite an eyebrow-raising age difference (30 years) Dennis and Ravenel were the toast of the town. Then Dennis found out she was pregnant and while her baby mama status secured her a full-time spot on the show for the next three seasons, it also completely derailed her life. While Dennis and Ravenel’s daughter, Kensington Calhoun Ravenel (Kensie), was born happy and healthy March 23, 2014, her parents’ relationship was by then totally nuts. They broke up for good shortly after her birth, with Dennis moving home to her parents’ plantation. Yes, plantations still exist.

Dennis and Ravenel continued their on-again/off-again (read: addict-style) relationship and conceived a second child—a boy, born in late 2015. Dennis seemed to hold it together during both her pregnancies and appeared glowing and happy while Kensie was a baby. Then, shortly after her son’s birth, she completely broke down. After she denied Ravenel any contact with the kids for 12 weeks, he took her to court. She tested positive for marijuana and cocaine in the court-ordered drug test and was ordered to split custody. Shortly after this, she tested positive for drugs again and completely lost custody and visitation.

Viewers were outraged by her behavior, trashing her online and wondering how she could do that to her kids. Those of us who are in recovery, or have ever loved somebody who is in active addiction, understand perfectly. Addicts reach a point where they are no longer in control. The best intentions don’t matter and plans to beat the system fail. Addicts just get high. Sometimes there aren’t any consequences; sometimes you lose your kids, or your life. Luckily, Dennis had a wake up call and checked into rehab in California.

To his credit, Ravenel did his best to raise the kids by himself (in a guest house next-door to his mansion with a live-in nanny). It’s hard to believe that he’s really the doting father he portrays on TV, as he drinks bourbon in every scene. But his own high-functioning addiction aside, he’s navigating a minefield of hurt feelings and murky boundaries. He struggles with wanting to protect his kids, but also understands that having their mom in their lives is ultimately best for them. This scenario is more than good TV drama. It’s all too familiar for anybody whose family has been shattered by addiction.

After returning from rehab, Dennis struggled to stay clean and regain visitation rights. She’s an ordinary addict. Her struggle just happens to be playing out on camera. She goes to yoga, meditates on the beach and tries hard to avoid alcohol and old friends. She’s bashed by all her cast-mates, who then smile to her face when she makes awkward amends. After months, she recently regained visitation rights with the kids.

Kathryn C. Dennis surely faces a rocky road to rebuild her life.  It’s hard to get clean even without cameras in your face and the speculation of all your fans (and detractors) following you like a ghost of your old life. This situation is sad on so many levels. On the other hand, these sorts of struggles happen in families all the time and it’s refreshing (and juicy) to watch it on TV. 

Do you clap or cringe when you see reality TV shows address addiction? Share your thoughts with me in the comments below.

Photos courtesy of KathrynDennis on Instagram

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