HBO’s “Euphoria” Explores Addiction, Trauma, and High School

By Susan Hornik 07/17/19

Teens today have access to the world in a way many of us never experienced in our formative years. The drugs, sex, relationships portrayed in the show are absolutely something we see on the regular.

Zendaya and Hunter Schafer as teens dealing with sex, drugs, and gender in HBO's Euphoria
This is not a series that glamorizes drug abuse in any way, shape, or form.

It’s no wonder why HBO’s new drama Euphoria has already been renewed for a second season—the riveting series is a no-holds-barred look at overstimulated teens who use drugs, deal with childhood trauma, and have sex; it’s a perfect recipe for “must-see TV.”

As gut-wrenching as it can be—scenes and images are raw and uncensored, eliciting visceral reactions—the vibrant ensemble cast led by Disney Channel star Zendaya and transgender model-turned-actress Hunter Schafer lights up the screen, making for electrifying viewing. 

Creator Sam Levinson Struggled with Addiction as a Teen

Executive produced by rapper Drake and based on an Israeli teen series, much of what is seen onscreen was inspired by creator Sam Levinson's personal experiences struggling with addiction.

"I spent the majority of my teenage years in hospitals, rehabs, and halfway houses," Levinson told the audience at the premiere screening in Hollywood. "Some time around the age of 16, I resigned myself to the idea that eventually drugs would kill me, and there was no reason to fight it. I would let it take me over, and I had made peace with that."

But then Levinson discovered a quote in a book that would change his life: "’In the end, we are nothing more than an amalgamation of our actions, and that's ultimately what defines us.' ...that really spooked me in a sense that, if I were to die today, who would I be? I'm a thief. I'm an addict. I've been shitty to almost every person in my life that I love," Levinson acknowledged.

“There was this voice that was clear as day that said, 'stop fucking doing drugs.' I've been clean for 14 years."

While there are numerous irate people on social media accusing HBO of being too extreme, what the show describes is not all hyperbole: Teens who are using drugs are often self-medicating stress or trauma with untested high-potency chemicals. It’s an environment ripe for addiction or overdose.

“What we are witnessing with the availability of drugs and the viciousness of marketing aiming at normalizing use in younger and younger populations is a tragedy of immeasurable proportions,” said Daniel Ahearn, a certified addiction specialist and meditation counselor, who has worked with adults and teens in trauma clinics and rehabs for the past 16 years and also runs PTHWRK, a Buddhist-based meditation program.

Teens Use Drugs to Deal with Stress and Trauma

“Children are dealing with enormous stress in environment and influence on a daily basis. They are suffering and the drugs are becoming their outlet," Ahearn told The Fix. "The real problem is the drugs work. They work for a while. Then things tend to get bad. Real bad. We are seeing record numbers of overdoses in younger and younger people.”

Ahearn is happy to see that at the end of each episode, HBO provides information on where to get help. “It’s important that Euphoria is offering an outlet of health and wellness resources. It’s hopeful that people are having this discussion and the series is contributing to this in a real way.”

Beck Gee-Cohen, director of LGBTQI+ Programming at Visions Adolescent Treatment Center, believes what is being portrayed is a “mirror” to the real world.

“Many parents/adults do not want to believe this is actually happening in the life of teens. However, those of us who work in the field of addiction/mental health see it regularly, and many times it’s worse. A show cannot capture all the pain/trauma that a person goes through; when we watch it from a 2D standpoint we can separate ourselves from it, because it doesn’t feel real,” he said.

“The trans character in the show has given an amazing narrative to what life can be like for a trans teenager today. Her being trans is not the main conversation. We are actually just starting to hear the word trans in the third episode and how it is relevant to her navigating a possible sexual relationship. In the past, a TV shows’ main focus would be about her being trans. Instead, we get to see her character’s depth, strength, and struggles, just like any of her cisgender peers.”

Transgender Youth Have to Deal with an Added Layer of Oppression

In working with trans youth, Gee-Cohen noted that gender is only one piece of the puzzle. “These teens are navigating a world that is coming at them at light speed. They have access to the world in a way many of us never experienced in our formative years. The drugs, sex, relationships that are being addressed in the show are absolutely something we see on the regular in teens today, despite gender. When it comes to trans young people, there is an added layer of oppression and struggle that needs to be addressed in order to help them find their way. As professionals, it is our responsibility to get educated in best practices and creating affirming environments for these young trans people to thrive.”

In the series, Algee Smith (The Hate U Give), plays a football star adjusting to college life: “Euphoria is a must-watch because it's truth and reality that we live in today. It's important for us to know the state of many people dealing with these same issues. If we don't talk about it, we can't help fix it."

He continued: “We have so many different characters from different walks of life that a lot of people will relate to. From the life of teenage Rue (Zendaya) to the very adult life of Cal, every character has their own secrets that they live with."

Eric Dane (Grey’s Anatomy, The Last Ship), who has had his own struggles with addiction in the past, plays Cal Jacobs, a married man with a secret: "I don't think anyone will look at this and think drugs are cool. This is not a series that glamorizes drug abuse in any way, shape, or form. It's done so truthfully that it shows a lot of this stuff for what it really is. There is an honesty and beauty to the eventual redemption."

One of the standout performances in Euphoria is Barbie Ferreira, who plays Kat, a high school student dealing with body image issues and sexuality. 

“Playing Kat really allowed me to [understand] how the exploration of sexuality can come in any and all forms. The role brought me back to how I navigated the world as a curious teenager, with internet access and a chaotic amount of free time to spend diving into the niche worlds of the web. I wasn’t really into many hobbies outside of the internet, as a true Gen Z baby.”

Sex, Drugs, and Social Media

In an early episode, Kat has an unimaginable breach of privacy that left the character feeling vulnerable and exposed. 

“She immediately reacts by making extreme decisions that make her feel the power she had lost,” said Ferreira. 

“The fact that one person with an iPhone can take away Kat’s precious and strongly guarded anonymity that so many of us cling to is a frighteningly real fear and anxiety that is growing in modern society and continues to be brushed under the rug with little conversation about it. I love Kat because although her decision to be a cam girl is far from healthy, it’s a step into owning her power and feeling her worth.”

Kat’s relief and excitement at finding something outside of her real life rings true for everyone who uses the internet as an escape or sanctuary, to feel a sense of importance and understanding, noted Ferreira.

“Her need for escapism in fics and fan culture hits home for me and millions of other self-professed outsiders, who felt community with strangers via text posts and gushing over people we will never meet.”

Watch Euphoria on HBO.

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