FIRST PERSON | Losing my sister to opioids made me connect with HBO’s Euphoria on a profound, personal level | CBC News

This First Person piece is by Taylor Balfour, a writer, poet and journalist based in Regina. Taylor’s sister Rachel died of an opioid overdose.

For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Euphoria was too real for me to watch upon its initial release, coming at a time of grief in my life after I lost a loved one. 

The show’s accurate depiction of drug addiction hit home when lead actor Zendaya said, “If you can love [this character with an intense addiction], then you can love someone that is struggling with the same thing.”

Zendaya may be well-known from her Disney days or Spider-man fame, but here she is speaking about one of her newest (and most popular) roles, Rue Bennett,  a struggling, queer, teenage drug addict from HBO’s Euphoria.

This show was released a month before we received my little sister’s official autopsy. She was found dead in her university door room after taking drugs laced with fentanyl.

The emotional turmoil that comes with sibling grief and addiction is unbelievable. Knowing the show’s intense nature, I couldn’t touch it at all when it first came out. However, when I caved and engaged with the show in recent months, I realized it depicts this turmoil perfectly.

Taylor, left, and Rachel Balfour pose at Rachel’s high school graduation. (Submitted by Taylor Balfour)

The series follows a slew of high-school characters, Rue being one, as they navigate school, lies, relationships, and most importantly drug addiction. Its boundary-pushing depiction of addiction is devastatingly real, painful and all-too-common. It demonstrates the struggle to stay sober, the severing of social ties to continue an addiction, the searing anger during an intervention, and how tragedy and trauma can ignite a habit that takes a lifetime to overcome.

The show has scenes with Rue leaping out of a vehicle on her way to rehab, or screaming and tearing her home apart upon learning her mother “took her drugs.” 

It showcases her intervention, where she throws her friends in the room under the high school drama-bus to escape, momentarily freeing herself from sobriety.

It’s in these scenes, I see Rue for who she is: a struggling, teenage addict, desperate to find a substance to make her internal pain go away after the death of her father. I understand Rue on a profound, personal level. That makes the reaction toward Rue as a character on social media particularly devastating.

“Rue is so f—ing selfish dawg,” one Twitter user wrote. Another described Rue as the “most ignorant and selfish character” in the series. One of the most painful comments to read asked, “how is Rue not dead yet?” which included the hashtag, “that b—h pops pills like breath mints.”

For me, the show became a massively effective way to judge friends’, coworkers’ and family members’ views on addiction. 

Maybe it’s due to my personal experience. Possibly it’s the overly-emotional, sympathetic older-sister in me, but I have never seen Rue as anything other than a grieving teen without proper support systems, who turns to drugs to relieve internal pain. I see her selfish, often outlandish and cruel behaviour as a manifestation of her addiction. She pushes her loved ones away so she can continue to feel numb, as it’s easier than accessing professional help.

Rachel Balfour, left, died from an opioid overdose at 18 years old. Her sister Taylor, right, wonders how many more people have to die this way before action is taken. (Submitted by Taylor Balfour)

None of my family knew my sister was an addict. But now, I can look at Rue’s character and see someone struggling with the same battles and feel more understanding.

When Rue claims, “I can’t get clean. I can’t do that s–t forever,” her character is expressing how painful life is while sober. It feels impossible to wander through life without something to numb the grief and pain she’s experienced since the loss of her father.

Does that excuse her typically selfish, cruel behaviour? No. It merely explains it. As John Harrigan, an author of novels including Belly and Guts and The Patron Saint of Desperate Situations, once said, “people need loving the most when they deserve it the least.” Love and compassion are the only true “cure” to addiction.

A lot of viewers believe the show glorifies teenage drug use. All I see is a raw and unflinching portrayal of teen addiction that might reflect what you encounter in your real life. I see Rue as a representative of why harm reduction is a necessity in the current world for those who have no other resources for healing. It’s a means of helping those who are struggling get clean, in whatever way is safe for them.

The language social media users casually toss out to shun these fictional characters will only do more harm than good. We can’t shun our drug users. We can only try to aid them.

While the fictional characters in Euphoria won’t see how hurtful judgments made on social media are, those in your life who struggle with addiction will. They will view you as one less person rooting for their safety.

This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.

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