Culture Paper: How ‘Shameless’ Shows That Substance Abuse Can Affect Family

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‘Shameless’ is a series that focuses on the story of a family of six children and their alcoholic father. The show depicts the Gallagher’s, a low-income family with parents that face severe addictions. The six children have to take control of the family to keep it together. The dad battles with substance abuse such as alcoholism and the mom, who left the children’s life battles with the addiction of multiple substances, most commonly, cocaine. The dysfunctional Gallagher family is a good example of what it is like to grow up with parents dealing with addiction and how each child has to face their personal problems and grow up faster, take care of themselves, and deal with trauma. ‘Shameless’ Truly Portrays How Addiction Affects Family – The Cabin. (2018, August 29).

A lot of the series deals with addiction, psychological and neglect abuse, and trauma. The key concept that drives many of the family’s dysfunctionality is the dad, Frank Gallagher, and his alcoholism. Family members have a natural tendency to depend on one another and help each other grow and develop in life. However, a lot of the times when a person, especially a parent, in the family has a severe addiction, the person becomes less of a reliable source for the family and causes chaos in the household.

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The father, Frank, can be usually found at bars drinking and stumbling his way back home. He is unemployed and to fulfill the longing for alcohol he schemes others to make money to which he then spends at the bars. A lot of “his money” is spent on alcohol, but if anyone offered him drugs such as weed or coke, he would still accept the offer. Frank receives a disability check from the government but not because he’s disabled, but because he has hurt himself in work on purpose to receive a disability check for his alcohol. His addiction has led Frank to be selfish and only care about himself. He uses his own family for his benefit without bothering on how they get what he needs, as long as they get their hands on it whether legally or illegally, he is content. Since the mom, Monica Gallagher, suffers from bipolar disorder and addiction, when she still lived with the family, she made the eldest, Fiona, drop out of high school because she was planning on abandoning the family and they were going to need Fiona to start working to provide for the siblings. Monica decided to leave her family because she chose her addiction instead of her family.

According to Jonathan Hinrichs, M.S., Jared DeFife, Ph. D, and Drew Westen, Ph. D (National Institute of Mental Health) there are certain roles children, teens, and adult children play when they are decedents from alcoholics. According to their research, “about 28 million people in the U.S. are children to alcoholic parents.” ‘Shameless’ Accurately Portrays Children of Parents with Mental Illness and Substance Abuse Issues. (2017, September 15).

The roles presented in the study are the

1) The Hero,

2) The Rescuer,

3) The Rebel,

4) The ‘Lost’ Child, and

5) The Mascot.

Fiona Gallagher is considered the “Hero’ in the series because she is put in the position as the “responsible” sibling because she is the oldest. Many times, she states how she had to choose but forced to care for her siblings. Throughout the series, Fiona works hard to provide for her family and care for them like a mother to ensure bills are paid, and all siblings have what they need. Next, there is the “rescuer” which Debbie Gallagher represents. Often, she sided with her dad, Frank, and did whatever he asked her to do even when it is dangerous. Most times, Frank asks her to get him alcohol and money, and even though Debbie is underage, she manages to find ways to help her alcoholic dad. She goes out of her way to fulfill his needs even if it puts her in harm’s way. The third sibling, Carl Gallagher, is titled as the “rebellious” sibling of the family. Carl joined a gang in hopes to help provide for his dysfunctional family. The fourth sibling, Ian Gallagher is considered the “lost” sibling because most of the times he feels out of place in the family and finds himself drifting apart from them occasionally to find his way in society.

The final sibling, Phillip Gallagher is labeled as the “mascot” because he is the ‘funny’ one out of the bunch. He is a smart mouth and uses sarcasm very often in a way to distract others from his bad behavior and causing trouble.

Due to Frank Gallagher’s alcoholism, he has given up important social, occupational, and recreation activities because of his substance abuse. Including his ability to manage to do daily tasks such as having a job, being a father, his work at home and his continuation to use even when he almost died. Frank had to receive a kidney transplant because his kidney had failed and also received a new kidney, he continued to drink more than was allowed. He developed withdrawal symptoms, causing him to grow angry and frustrated when he had no way of receiving the substance to relieve his need for it. At the beginning of the series his children try to get their dad some help and support to help him quit drinking, but to no avail, Frank didn’t allow himself to be improved. His refusal to get any source help to get better and be a better dad resulted in his family to give up on trying to help him and they continued to deal with his substance abuse. Rice, F. P., Stinnett, N., Stinnett, N. M., & DeGenova, M. K. (2017).

Throughout the eight seasons of ‘Shameless’ if Frank was home or not, he wasn’t mentally there because he was drunk 99% of the time. He neglected his five children which caused them to stop trying to get their dad some help; they were now surviving from helping themselves out independently. Fiona mostly took care of the two younger siblings, Debbie and Carl and took a role as the mom for them. Fiona tried to balance keeping a steady job, making sure all bills were paid, and the food was provided for the family, taking care of her younger siblings, and her relationships with others. Many of the relationships Fiona had she self-sabotaged and stopped them from going any further than just a friendly sexual encounter. She turned out to be pregnant after a sexual interaction, but because her mental state was now full of fear and guilt that she would turn out to be like her dad or like her mom, she chose to get an abortion.

As Ian grows older in the series, he realizes he is gay, but it is not acceptable in his family, and Ian frightened of what they would think of him, so he keeps it a secret. He begins to feel out of place at home and leaves for a few months to work, while he was away, he began to develop a craving for drugs. Around season three Ian is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a disorder his mom has. Ian finds himself struggling with handling his disorder and inner turmoil because he is afraid of turning out “just like his mom.” All siblings, especially Ian, do not like their mother because of her addiction and problems with coming in and out of the family picture.

In all, because of the neglect and isolation and mental abuse these members deal with for such a long time, it has caused them to feel lost, and like they only have themselves to make life as ‘normal’ as possible while battling the trauma they don’t realize they are living with.

The whole Gallagher family had come to the conclusion that their dad was going to pass away when his kidney failed, but even though they saw him struggling and accepted his death was to come; the family still held hope that maybe after his near death he would learn and change his behaviors. Even though their trauma caused them a lot of emotional distress, they still believed he’s not lying. His constant lying made them not trust anyone or anything, they are traumatized, and it shows in a lot of their behaviors and attitudes towards others who mean no harm. The mom, Monica, has also had a significant impact on the inner distress and turmoil of the family. Monica left the family for such a long time and began to return unexpectedly, sometimes for short period of times and occasionally long periods of times. Because she battled with bipolar disorder, she found it difficult to make up her mind if she wanted to be with her family or not, she mostly came when it was convenient for her and when she needed money for drugs. The siblings have gone through so much in all of the seasons, and all she brought was pain and reminder that their parents do not love them, they have just been exploited for years. Ahmed, A. (2017, January 29).

‘Shameless’ has brought tears to eyes, pain, heartbreak, but as the characters grew, many viewers began to love and be fond of the family and their ‘crazy.’ Although the show goes to extreme lengths to dramatize certain aspects, a lot of the reality of family affected by addiction shows that not only those the abuser suffers but those around the individual especially family. In many cases such as Franks case, family members try to get him to go to rehab but he had begun drinking in his teen years, and he was too far gone. His body now depended on the chemical. The main idea and awareness spread through the show are that addicts do need help as soon as possible because people who care for the person will end up hurt and with problems of their own as they grow into adolescence and adulthood. The Cabin. (2018, August 29).

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Culture Paper: How ‘Shameless’ Shows That Substance Abuse Can Affect Family. (2022, Mar 17). Retrieved from

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