in defense

Euphoria Doesn’t Have a Drug Problem

Photo: HBO

Of all the words used to describe HBO’s Euphoria — “edgy,” “sexed up,” ”gritty,” “so many dicks” — a phrase that’s appeared most often across the spectrum of tsk-tsks is “boundary-pushing” as critics have wagged their fingers. But when it comes to mental health and drug use, America’s ossified boundaries are begging for a good push.

The cultural perception of addiction in America remains primarily one in which users are criminalized and accused of moral turpitude. This at the same time as addiction is known to be a medical condition that requires treatment, medication, compassion, and support. We can’t have it both ways. Efforts to destigmatize and humanize addiction run up against the entrenched view that only the weak-willed and reckless lose control of their drug use. Euphoria is caught in between.

“I found those criticisms frustrating and kind of lazy because they’re essentially about the subjective experience of watching a television show, and not the individual experience of being caught in the painful cycle of addiction,” Sam Levinson, Euphoria’s creator, wrote in an email.

At the show’s premiere in June, Levinson told an audience that, like the show’s omniscient narrator and protagonist, Rue (played by Zendaya), as a teenager he would “take anything and everything until I couldn’t hear or breathe or feel,” which resulted in years spent in and out of hospitals and treatment. He made it out alive because people didn’t give up on him. “At the end of the day, that’s what this show is about,” he said, fighting back tears. “It’s about how, if you keep your heart open, there are people who can change your life. It’s about love, about being seen and heard and known. It doesn’t cure everything, but it sure as fuck helps.”

If only for that reason, Euphoria’s boundary-pushing should be welcomed. Woven into the show’s depiction of tormented teenagers are vital public-health messages grounded in compassion and harm reduction. Euphoria is also a refreshing departure from Hollywood’s homogenous addiction narratives — like Ben Is Back, Beautiful Boy, and 6 Balloons — that received acclaim in the era of rampant opioid overdoses.

Take, for instance, a critical bit of harm reduction in episode two, “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy,” that aligns with the policy pushed by the surgeon general and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rue is close friends with a local drug dealer named Fezco, a.k.a. Fez (played by Angus Cloud), and she stops by his house at the wrong time, right as he’s about to re-up his supply from a meaner, more aggressively tattooed drug dealer named Mouse.

Mouse is trying to pass off a bunch of fentanyl patches, but Fez declines the offer, saying fentanyl — an opioid many times more potent than heroin and one typically reserved for severe cancer or end-of-life pain — causes too many overdoses and thus brings about unnecessary heat. Why would a dealer want to kill off his customers? That’s bad business. Fez wants nothing to do with fentanyl.

The scene grows tense when Mouse offers Rue a gooey glob of fentanyl served up on a blade. Fez once again rebukes the dealer for pushing the dangerous product; he has genuine affection for Rue and doesn’t want her to die of an overdose — an invigorating portrayal of a (white) dealer as a human who feels something other than sociopathic greed. Rue looks nervous and tries to dodge Mouse’s offer, along with his creepy sexual advances, but ultimately gives in and licks the blade. After all, that’s what she’s there to do: not exactly get high, but rather to unfeel — a subtle, important distinction. Euphoria thereby takes drug use out of the lazy frame of the unthinking partygoer. Yes, Rue goes to parties, but she’s not exactly making memories with her friends while she walks on the walls and ceiling in a K-hole. Rue’s chaotic drug use is not driven by unbridled hedonism; she’s desperate to turn down the volume of anxiety that’s been screaming inside her ever since she was a toddler.

Before Rue ate the fentanyl, as she prayed to not overdose and die, I felt my stomach churn. My 20-year-old self did the same thing back when I was a habitual opioid user trying to maintain my own state of unfeeling. I knew it was strong and that I had to be careful. Only I went a step further than Rue, spreading fentanyl goop onto tinfoil and smoking it.

The tension in the scene finally releases with Rue fading into oblivion, drooling and murmuring how happy she is, while Fez tells his 11-year-old brother, “Go grab the Narcan, just in case.” Narcan is the brand name for naloxone, a drug that prevents opioid overdoses from turning fatal. It’s hard to fully capture the miraculous nature of naloxone, especially when it’s in the hands of people who use and sell drugs — the very people most likely to witness an overdose. Last April, the surgeon general advised that not just ambulances and police officers but everyone stock up on naloxone, including dealers like Fez and users like Rue.

Despite the surgeon general’s message, there are those who argue that putting naloxone in the hands of laypeople enables more risky drug use, suggesting that people lose the fear of dying and thus use more recklessly because they think they’ll be revived. Doctors and experts tend to respond that all naloxone does is enable the body to breathe again. Plus, having an overdose reversed can be a painfully excruciating experience, one that any user would prefer to avoid. Euphoria captures the bind that people using opioids are often caught in: It’s not that we have a death wish, but the only thing that makes us feel better might kill us. We pray to not die. With naloxone around, our prayer can be answered.

Similar to how abstinence-only sex education is a resounding failure, so is the abstinence-only “this is your brain on drugs” propaganda at which Euphoria chips away. Teenagers are not too young to learn about harm reduction. Much like Levinson, I went on to have some rocky teenage years and early 20s. I put my parents through hell. I often scared myself. A lot of my friends died. But to suggest that up-close portrayals of heroin use, like the ones I watched growing up in The Basketball Diaries and Kids, are the reason why is as simplistically flattening as saying video games cause violence.

The media we consume indeed shapes our identity, informing our beliefs, politics, and preferences. But the media isn’t produced, nor consumed, in a vacuum. Far more dangerous than watching Euphoria is a world where possessing and using drugs lands you in social isolation or a jail cell. Today, we know that treating addiction with medicine and compassion, not tough love, is what works best. We know that stigma, alienation, and incarceration make things worse. People chaotically using drugs need help and support to survive the hard times so they can live to enjoy the good times.

For all the hubbub, every teenager watching Euphoria at least knows that having naloxone around can save a life. I had no idea what naloxone even was for during the majority of my time using. That’s because I had grown up on DARE officers and media depictions like the outlandish heroin-overdose scene in Pulp Fiction. (Where the hell would I get a gigantic needle filled with adrenaline, and who would stab me in the heart with it while I’m unconscious?) In contrast, Euphoria seizes the opportunity to educate audiences about the realities of overdose prevention.

“I think it’s crucial that film and television portray addiction in an honest way,” Levinson wrote. “That we allow for its complexities to play out. That we show the allure of drugs, the relief they can bring, because that’s ultimately what makes them so destructive.”

On full display in Euphoria is the uncomfortable fact that drugs make us feel, well, euphoric. Drug use can be a self-medicating solution for paralyzing anxiety, a reprieve from depression, a warm hug in a garish world of alienation. But Euphoria also shows how the knife cuts both ways, that opioids and K-holes can only keep the volume down for so long until it comes roaring back.

The season finale begins with Rue after three months off drugs. A hospitalization and ongoing medication have stabilized her bipolar disorder. Characters we’ve followed throughout the season meditate on the horizon of adulthood at a school dance; a world of opportunity seems ahead of them. But the episode ends with Rue bailing on a plan to run away with Jules, even though they just professed their love for each other. Sobbing on the walk home, Rue agonizes over the pain she’s caused her mom and sister, the screaming matches, the near-fatal overdose. When Rue gets home, she snorts powder off a book that launches her into a trippy musical number where dancers toss her body in the air like a dead cheerleader. Anyone with addiction will tell you that the volume is never fully turned off, and for Rue, it came roaring back. Let’s hope she’s still alive to hear it.

Euphoria Doesn’t Have a Drug Problem