The Queens Gambit: Addiction and Attachment
I recently watched The Queens Gambit. If you haven’t watched it there are spoilers ahead so you may not want to read this blog.
The story is about a fictional orphaned chess prodigy Beth and her rise through the grandmaster ranks during the 1950’s and 1960’s. She is noted for complex chess moves, but also has a problem with an addiction to these little green pills. The way I see it, the real competition is not between her and her chess opponents, rather between her and her addiction.
She is introduced to those little green pills referred to as Xanzolam when she enters the orphanage. Since there is no such thing in real life, I assume that there are in a class of drugs known as benzodiazepines or tranquilizers. Think Valium, Ativan and Librium which were popular during the1950’s and 1960’s.
The viewer learns later that Beth had only just had witnessed her mother’s suicide immediately before her arrival. Her first of many attachment traumas. An attachment trauma is a disruption in the important process of bonding between a child and the primary caregiver, as John Bowlby, the father of attachment science teaches us. In this case, her mother’s suicide is a serious break in the attachment bond. Growing up with a parent that is dysregulated and/or neglectful shapes a child’s vulnerable nervous system. This can lead to long-lasting patterns of emotional and physiological distress that get carried into adulthood. We see this happen with Beth. Given that her mother was suicidal we can assume that her mother was dysregulated emotionally, for at least a while.
A marker of trauma is anxiety and sleeplessness. It is no wonder that the orphanage was giving tranquilizers to children to keep them calm, no doubt many children there were dealing with traumatic loss. Beth is advised by one of the girls Jolene, who later becomes her best friend, to take the pills at night so that their effects don’t wear off “just when you need them.” As a therapist, I often see this with people that are deprived of gratifying attachment relationships. They can become overwhelmed and vulnerable to addiction as a way to regulate these difficult emotions.
Later the main character befriends the janitor who teaches her chess. Her addiction takes hold when she realizes that she can hallucinate chess moves on the ceiling after she has taken the little green pills. The orphanage eventually learns it isn’t ok to medicate children and hides the pills, but Beth sneaks in and steals them.
As we follow Beth into adulthood, she experiences more losses. Her adoptive mother Alma eventually dies and that throws her into more addictive behavior, this time with alcohol. A reminder of a previous loss can trigger addictive behavior as a way to cope with difficult feelings of grief. Substance abuse as a compensatory behavior.
Beth says something that many folks facing addiction say, “I need my mind cloudy to win.” Of course, this isn’t the truth, just what she tells herself. We see this as she eventually recovers from her addiction and faces a grand master chess player completely sober and wins.
The essence of being human is that we are bonding mammals. We are driven innately from birth for close human attachment and comfort. Healthy relationships provide a sense of comfort, safety, and security. And the quality of people’s close relationships in early childhood can serve as sources of resilience and we see this when Jolene comes back into Beth’s life. Beth recovers. Establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships plays a vital role in her overall well-being.
Beth teaches us having trusted loved ones nearby does a better job of regulating emotions than substances when wins her biggest match of all, against her addiction.