Watching ‘Euphoria,’ Two Young Recovering Addicts Saw Themselves

The two young women see themselves in Rue, the stumbling, manipulative teenage drug addict that Zendaya plays in “Euphoria,” the new HBO show.

They see themselves in Rue when she coughs and flushes the toilet so her mom won’t hear her rummaging through the medicine cabinet for Xanax. They see themselves when Rue cops clean urine from a high school friend to pass a drug test. They see themselves when Rue convinces a new friend that getting high first thing in the morning is a good idea; when she threatens her mother with a piece of broken glass; when she aspirates her own vomit after overdosing. They see themselves in Rue’s pain, her messiness, her unslakable need to obliterate all the bad feelings, no matter the cost.

And the women, who agreed to be identified by their first initials, N. and M., to protect their anonymity, also see themselves in Rue’s blissed out, druggy glory.

If there is one thing that makes M. nervous about “Euphoria,” it is this: That it might entice kids to be like she was not so long ago, looking for reflective surfaces that mirrored everything her addiction needed back to her.

Shot in luscious saturated colors, the young characters in HBO’s “Euphoria” sext, copulate, record themselves copulating, endlessly shame each other and ingest loads of pornography, alcohol and drugs. Sam Levinson, the creator of “Euphoria,” based the show on an Israeli mini-series set in the 1990s and on his own battles with addiction as a teen.

[The Upshot: Unlike in ‘Euphoria,’ most real teenagers are tame]

Research suggests that in contrast to the vice-a-minute portrayal on “Euphoria,” today’s real-life teenagers are having sex and using drugs less often than teenagers of the past did. But if teens, on the whole, are far less wild, N. and M., who were both addicted to drugs and alcohol throughout their teen years, said that they still saw a representation of their lives in the show.

In fact, they said, their experiences were worse than what Rue goes through.

“When I was using,” said N., “literally every move I made was to get high.”

N., who is 23, and M., 24, have been clean about two years after using every drug they could buy, swindle, steal and sell sex for. They are both residents at Dynamic Youth Community, a half-century-old rehabilitation center for young people deep in Brooklyn. Dynamic also has an upstate center where they each spent around a year and a half learning how to live clean before moving down to Brooklyn. M. is an inpatient resident at the Brooklyn site now, and N. is an outpatient and lives nearby in Sheepshead Bay with her sister and her mother.

They had not seen “Euphoria” but were amped to learn that Drake was one of its producers, and agreed to watch a few episodes and share their thoughts after the Dynamic’s executive director, William Fusco, watched the pilot and surmised their sobriety was strong enough for them not to get triggered. Drugs and alcohol are promoted in ads, on television, in movies, in music, on Instagram. For N. and M., living clean and sober meant learning to not get tripped up by all of that.

The two women first met at Dynamic, their lives having followed parallel trajectories.

N. and her parents are from Turkey, and M.’s parents are from the former Soviet Union. M. grew up in suburban New Jersey, where she never felt like she fit in. N.’s family lived in Connecticut and was undocumented; her father was deported when she was in the fifth grade. Both girls started smoking and drinking when they were 13, and fell in love with the escape. “I was unstoppable,” N. said.

For both, alcohol and marijuana gave way to benzodiazepines, prescription opiates and heroin. Then came the consequences. N. got kicked out of her home and two schools for using and fighting, and ended up in the hospital a few times to get her stomach pumped. By the time M. turned 17, she was shooting heroin in her high school bathroom and selling drugs. Both went to rehab and relapsed; both suffered drug-induced psychosis — N. from crystal methamphetamine, M. from meth and crack cocaine. Both traded sex for drugs, or for money to buy more drugs. “It destroyed my life slowly and casually,” M. said.

M. kept moving around and disappearing as her frantic parents scoured the state and posted missing ads. They brought her to Dynamic in Brooklyn after she showed up at their doorstep barefoot, skeletal and disoriented. N.’s mother brought her to Dynamic under the guise of a doctor’s visit. Neither young woman has left since (Karen Carlini, the associate director of Dynamic, said the staff felt that both young women’s accounts of their drug use were accurate).

We watched the first two episodes of the show in Dynamic’s fourth-floor residence.

The young women’s first reaction was that the show felt real in its depiction of how Rue felt so amazing on drugs but looked like a wreck. We watched as her character kept slipping into the bathroom to steal pills as her sister and mother hovered outside, and then assured them she was clean afterward. “She doesn’t want to stop for herself,” N. said.

We watched as Rue hit up her drug dealer straight after she got out of rehab, and as she had flashbacks to the hell she had put her mother and sister through, a montage M. found so intense that goose bumps appeared on her arm.

“Usually people that care about you the most become your worst enemies, because they stand in the way of you destroying yourself,” she said.

And we watched a menacing drug dealer with a tattooed face force Rue to lick liquid fentanyl off a knife. As Rue slipped into the drug’s coma-like high, it looked liked the dealer was going to demand repayment with sex, until a good-guy drug dealer offered up the cash.

N. and M. exchanged a look.

“This is the part that shows it’s a TV show,” N. said. “That’s what people think: ‘They will look after me.’ I’ve been sold out for drugs and money so many times” — sometimes, she said, after she had passed out.

“Realistically,” added M., “that would’ve ended so badly.”

Set against the national opiate epidemic, the amount of drugs used by the show’s youngsters is eye-popping.

M. felt that even though “Euphoria” showed addiction’s consequences, it still fed the idea that heavy drug use was normal and exposed it to people who otherwise might not have been exposed. She hated the idea of, say, her younger sister watching it. On the other hand, it was accurately displaying something that, for her at least, rang true. “Maybe having just gone through a lot of that stuff, I don’t want other people to,” she said. “It’s a delicate balance.”

Levinson, the show’s creator, said in an email that the show was “not a cure or solution,” and that if someone struggling with addiction might find it triggering, they should not watch. “My ultimate hope is to inspire compassion and empathy for those battling addiction,” Levinson wrote.

N. said that not everyone would see the show they way she did: as an addict. Growing up, she took drug cues from every show that depicted drug use, be it “Skins” or “Nurse Jackie” or “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” Even when the characters lost everything, N. said, the shows still made her want to get high, because she felt invincible, and like there was no tomorrow.

And though she sees a drug culture “everywhere” these days, she believes that not everyone who uses drugs is susceptible to getting hooked. She pointed to one of her cousins — a 16-year-old who worships trap music and all its drug references — who smokes marijuana and thinks that Lean, the high-inducing cough-medicine concoction, is the best thing ever. But, unlike the teenage N., her cousin does not do drugs all the time. Unlike N., N. said, her cousin does not seem to be an addict.

“If you’re going to get influenced, you’re going to get influenced,” N. said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a show or an ad for beer. It’s all about the kind of person you are.”

Cara Buckley is a culture reporter who covers bias and equity in Hollywood, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment. @caraNYT Facebook

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