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What HBO’s 'Euphoria' Got Right About Addiction

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This piece contains spoilers for HBO’s “Euphoria.”

There’s a lot to unpack in the first four episodes of HBO’s “Euphoria,” so I’m going to stick to the key points.

Rue’s character, a teenager just out of rehab post-drug overdose, is played skillfully by Zendaya. As someone who struggles with addiction, mental health and has a history of overdosing, I wasn’t sure I would connect with her teenage character, but that changed as the series moved forward. Rue’s story revolves around her attempts to mask panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety. She briefly tells us how she has no apparent reason to be struggling with these things, which is the case for a lot of us as well. It’s a common misconception that you have to be a “victim” of something to struggle with mental health.

At a young age, she experiences this feeling like the world is stopping and like air is leaving her lungs for a brief period of time. She is admitted to the hospital during one of her attacks. At the hospital she’s given Valium to calm her down, and at 12 years old, so begins her journey with addiction. We are now shown the “romantic” side of taking drugs; the parties, the world slowing down, the control you think you have, but really it’s just a trick. She’s chasing the “two seconds of nothingness.” We take a pill, snort a line, drink too much, all in an effort to find that place for a brief moment in time where it feels like we’re in control. It’s a place that makes everything feel right, removes our problems and worries, and convinces us we need to stay there.

Immediately out of rehab, Rue starts doing drugs again. Her dealer, Fez, expresses concern for her, which will be an important part of this story moving forward.

I want to move forward a bit and talk about the anxiety she experiences about assimilating back to high school. As a society, we need to do a better job teaching kids about mental health and addiction. The kids in her high school are more interested in the gossip surrounding the fact that she’s still alive than her actual well-being post rehab. When you’re a teenager, ongoing stares and whispers from your peers can be tough to handle without the added stress of mental health disorders.

As Rue’s story continues, we see a relatable journey for those who’ve struggled with addiction. Post-rehab or during a relapse, we can go to extreme measures to cover up using again. Rue goes to the extreme measure of asking her friends to help her pass her drug test by using their urine. Along with drug tests, she’s required to go to Narcotics Anonymous (NA), where she shares her story of being sober even though she isn’t.

As someone who’s struggled with addiction and has been to NA/AA, I know members of this group can have a keen eye for drug use. Rue is confronted by a member outside of the meeting who goes on to uncover he knows she’s lying. This part of the story resonated with me because he talks about the effect drugs/addiction can have on our family and friends. Too often we are so far lost in our addiction, we dismiss that the ones closest to us are also affected. The tricky thing about coming to this realization or forcing someone to come to it is that the person needs to be in a place where it matters. If my wife or a family member/friend came to me when my addiction was full blown, I wouldn’t have cared about anyone. Instead I cared about getting to that place of euphoria, where nothing else mattered but the way I felt at that moment.

I felt compelled to write about this series based on a very particular moment. When dealing with addiction and/or mental health issues, the smallest trigger can make it feel like the world is ending. When you fight with a friend, do poorly on a test or receive constructive feedback, it feels like the sky is falling and the walls are closing in. In addition to this, when someone tells you, “It’s not that bad,” it pushes you further down that black hole and the walls close faster. Who do you run to when you feel like the world doesn’t understand or your friends are mad at you? Drugs.

Back to Rue’s story, we see her in this situation. It’s pouring rain, she’s just had a fight with her best friend and she heads to her dealer’s house who refuses to sell her drugs. My stomach dropped when I saw this scene. I’ve been there. I’ve begged my dealers to sell me more drugs to take away the pain. I’ve blamed others for my addiction because they introduced me to drugs or caused me the pain I’m trying to cover. We see Rue outside banging on Fez’s door and she yells at him that it’s his fault she’s addicted because he sold them to her even though she’s just a teen. She calls him a hypocrite for making money by selling drugs but caring about her drug use. For a brief moment in time you’re taken to a place that if you haven’t been there, you’ll never get to see. The moment that everything comes to a stop, including your supply of drugs. It’s this moment that we, those who struggle with addiction, are at our most vulnerable. It feels like our world is over and our heart is giving way. We have no options.

It’s here that the story continues, and Rue calls the man who confronted her outside of NA. He goes on to share his insight including the point that, “No one really calls unless they no other options,” alluding to her not having the option to do drugs. People with addiction have struggled down the same path. We’ve been in the same dark basement where the walls close and most importantly we can read one another through our actions and words.

So far, I’m pleased with the way “Euphoria” has portrayed drug addiction. At first I was worried they were only going to show the romantic side of drugs: parties in high school, sex, fitting in, etc. — but they showed the ugly side, too. They showed the possibility of overdose and being found by a loved one. They showed Rue in her most vulnerable state with literally no options and they’ve begun to show the impact we can have on one another through our addiction.

If you know someone struggling, don’t try to fix them. Instead, try to just be with them and understand them. Try to understand what it means to find that place where nothing else matters. Hear us out when we talk about dark things you may find disturbing. Most importantly, please don’t ever tell us, “It’s not that bad,” because while it may seem small to you, it’s Mount Everest to us.

Lead image via Euphoria’s Facebook page

Originally published: July 16, 2019
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