Released in 2019, Euphoria immediately began to garner attention from young adults as a coming-of-age show that explores many themes like addictions, sexuality, insecurities, intimate partner violence, and mental health, to name a few. 

The show is narrated by the protagonist Rue, played by Zendaya, after just getting out of rehab—prior to which she overdosed from an ongoing drug addiction after the death of her father. 

I only recently heard about the show —all thanks to my Twitter timeline being filled with tweets about Maddy, Cassie and Nate, and Rue and Jules. 

It only took me three days to catch up on the first season, and here I am anxiously waiting each Sunday for the newest episode from season two to drop because of the  reality and personal experiences the show centers on.

While the show has been met with criticism because of the use of drugs, alcohol, and gratuitous sex-scenes, illustrating the realities of addiction, unhealthy relationships, and even sexuality is a much needed storyline to combat the stigma and shame that many young teenagers and adults continue to be conflicted with. 

Rue’s character and her journey in exploring grief, healing, and suicidal ideations spotlights a realistic persona of the experiences of people who struggle, or continue to struggle, with substance misuse. 

The devastating outcomes of being addicted to drugs, alcohol or even bodily disorders is a challenging arc that continues to be portrayed with stereotypes from T.V. shows and movies, as seen in This is Us, Shameless, and even A Star Is Born

Recovery and relapses are totally normal. Unfortunately, the portrayal of both Rue and addictions in the show has often been met with negative responses and harmful reactions. 

There’s been lots of back-and-forth debate on Twitter about whether Rue is a good person or not. In fact, in season two, episode five, the first 10 minutes of the show began with Rue becoming frantic because her mom and her ex-partner, Jules, flushed her suitcase of drugs down the toilet. 

Rue’s mother even went as far to say that she isn’t a good person, after having a breakdown from not finding her drugs after she tore her mom’s bedroom apart and broke her sister’s bedroom door trying to search for the drugs. 

People struggling with drug addiction are often perceived as people who are selfish and only care about themselves —which is an extremely harmful characterization. 

Zendaya has even mentioned in an interview with Esquire to “still see Rue as a person worthy of love…even if she can’t see it in herself,” and to remain hopeful for her, as many of us lose faith in our loved ones, crumbling their support systems. 

With each frantic and anxious episode and the ensuing social media conversations, I’ve come to realize that many of us don’t really know how to show compassion for people struggling with substance misuse in real life, nor do we know how to use healthy and proper language to speak about addictions and mental health. 

I spoke to Gurroop Sahota, a registered clinical counsellor and psycho-therapist in the Lower Mainland, who is also a family preservation counsellor who works with Indigenous communities who are statistically higher victims of addiction or substance use. 

Sahota described some of the negative responses to those struggling with addiction and some ways we could be better-equipped.

“For starters, the language we use is harmful. Using language such as ‘junkie’ or ‘addict’ or even ‘user’ can be harmful,” she said in an interview with 5XPress. 

Sahota explained how addicts experience discrimination for struggling with substance misuse, and their addiction can often be seen "as a weakness or character flaw."

In Euphoria, Rue first started to experiment with drugs when her father became sick and began to take medication he was prescribed, later developing a stronger need for other drugs when he passed away—needing an escape from her emotions and thoughts. 

This sketch drives away from the narrative that those living with addictions are inherently dangerous or toxic people, which is a dehumanizing stereotype. 

“It starts with realizing they are people, and that addiction isn’t a choice because they are literally struggling with a mental health disorder. We need to be more informed and understanding as a society,” said Sahota.

Sahota mentions that turning to drugs or alcohol as a “healthy coping mechanism” may even start from the environment we grew up in, the people we were surrounded by, and not being able to differentiate the difference between what is healthy and what isn’t. 

“Family context, environmental and social environments, ease of access, availability, stress inducement [which is seen as a healthy coping mechanism] are some of the factors that lead to drug addiction,” Sahota explained.

“Stigma is going to impact people’s access to help, and there is shame in self-disclosure. Individuals are treated differently from their family and friends, and it is a scary thing to admit we need help because we don’t know how others are going to react. Long term solution requires therapy or a whole lifestyle change.”

Sahota added that people’s opinions or views on drug use or addiction are heavily influenced by upbringing or home life. 

“I do think availability and normalization starts at home. Our home is our base and that’s where it starts. Naturally, we wouldn’t go for drugs as a relief, but the motivation to feel good, feel better and perform better is present. Instant gratification and clear brain changes happen and the feeling of pleasure, calmness, relief, escape, and heightened senses can be a little bit of a thrill. ” 

Addiction can be very complex in ways that can be difficult and troubling to identify if someone in our life is struggling. They could be making false statements and promises to reassure us there’s nothing wrong so we don’t have to worry. 

There is guilt and remorse behind not wanting to be honest about the struggles with addictions because of shame. 

According to Sahota, paying attention to people’s compulsiveness, personality changes, decision makings, and financial choices is a whole combination of factors for identifying if they are hiding an addiction problem. Even the physical changes, such as their body movements, slurred speech and other rapid changes is an indicator. 

“In order to support them, we have to come from a place of compassion and care versus shame and blame. The last thing we want to do is shame someone for what we think is addictive behaviour. We can start off by saying ‘I care about you and your safety,”she said.

“Treat people with dignity and kindness. Be supportive and understanding. This is a scary reality for some people...remind them you love them and show them what resources exist out there,” Sahota continues. 

People living with addictions, who may need support from us, can take our responses as a safety signal – or lack thereof – altering their struggles one way or another. 

With shows like Euphoria highlighting real-life struggles through fictional characters, but relate all too much with real life people, will the show finally illustrate that stigmatizing words can act as a barrier to recovery from substance misuse? 

Will they finally showcase how we can continuously learn about supportive language and create conversations around  harm reduction, such as naloxone to save someone’s life? 

Nobody should be defined by their worst mistakes or poor choices. If we can show Rue the same compassion, empathy, love and root for her character to become sober, then we can collectively do the same for those struggling in the real world. 

About the author

Shivani Devika

Shivani often likes to believe she is the queen of sarcasm, even though her jokes makes no one laugh except herself.

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