Dayna Sharp, LCSW
HBO's series Euphoria is one of this season's most watched tv shows. It's intense, terrifying, traumatic and beautiful. It left me thinking...and wanting to share.
1. "Euphoria"...What kind of title is this???
I struggled each and every episode with this. There seemed to be an almost consistent, maybe intentional of some horrific event happening at the same time as the show's title would come across the screen. "Why is the show called Euphoria?", I'd want to yell at the screen. "Why are you doing that to us?!?". It felt like a slap in the face...aggressive somehow. Everything's fucked up and we're calling it "Euphoria". The contradiction, the discrepancy, the mislabeling of our experience as viewers felt maddening.
But also, and of course, isn't that the point? In the darkness of abusive relationships, this is exactly what happens. Ignoring. Dismissing. Re-storying/revising. Denying. Projecting. Gaslighting. The show, in moving ways, pushes us to think about the darkness of our larger society. (Isn't it already dark enough? Do we have to revisit it again?!?). Our healthcare system denies and ignores the needs of the medically fragile and can leave vulnerable families and children to do the painful caretaking work of a sick loved one. Kids are given psychiatric diagnoses and either sent on their way or tricked into inpatient psychiatric care rather than offering some understanding of their experience and attending to their grief. When pain is denied by our important others, we are left alone with it. And it then grows exponentially. Each and every character in the show, carries profound pain. And no human wants to feel pain--it's a natural, animalistic, survival strategy to avoid it. Some people seek a sense of false "Euphoria" instead, usually in the form of alcohol, drugs and/or sex. Maybe even through tv. And maybe that's why their refusal to give us the Euphoria we're looking for feels like such a slap in the face. In that way, maybe we're feeling right along with the characters.
2. Mental Healthcare (I can't help it, I'm a therapist!)
I've covered this briefly in the paragraph above, but this is important. Does it bother you that in the context of 9/11 (the opening scene covering Rue's entrance into the world as a person of color), a world full of racism and sexism, hate and discrimination against gender "non-conformity", open access to technology of all kinds for all ages, easy and rampant prescription of and accessibility to narcotics, a society lacking in social supports including healthcare, caregiving, living wages, etc. that the characters themselves--both Rue and Jules--are individually slapped with diagnoses, which supposedly explain "what's wrong"? "Oh, she has anxiety and OCD and Bipolar Disorder and THAT'S what's wrong! The problem is in Rue's brain. THAT makes sense". (Um, I don't know about you, but for me, that's a BIG no). Is it not horrific that Jules, a child struggling with their mother's own mental health problems and eventual abandonment as well as their emerging sense of gender and identity, is hospitalized, as if their mental health was the "problem"? Does Rue not deserve a mental health experience in which the experience of the family, and her own individual experience is understood, attended to, in an individualized, responsive way? Can we not see and give her space to GRIEVE? From my perspective, both Rue and Jules--and Nate--have a great deal to be pissed off about--their rage makes perfect sense in a social context that has gone horribly wrong. Why would we focus on diagnosing kids, hospitalizing kids, or medicating kids when we're not taking into consideration the child's context, the family, the society--the child's experience and feelings, in this case, about being profoundly disappointed, betrayed and abandoned by the adults in whom they depend upon? Is this not in itself, a form of terrible betrayal and gaslighting of the worst kind?
3. Characters as Complex Human Beings
One of the things I love about the show is that the characters are dimensional, complex people. They are more than just a stereotype, more than just one thing--Rue isn't bipolar or a drug addict, Jules isn't "just" a trans girl (although this is an important part of her identity), Nate isn't only a perpetrator. Rue is a girl who loved and loves her father, who loves Jules, who treats Lexi with kind and care, who snuggles with her sister. Jules is deeply authentic, and in her playful adolescence, navigates friendship and love in a profoundly vulnerable and relatable way. Nate is a deeply wounded little boy who loved his father, and did everything a little boy could to protect his father, only to feel hated and aggressed upon by him. Despite their behaviors, and I'm mostly looking at you, Nate and Cal, I found each and every character to feel lovable in some way, in some moments of the show. This, by the way, is how people feel a sense of dignity. By being seen and recognized as whole, complex people, deserving of some kind of love and care, however that can be found.
4. The Play, Creativity and Hope
Last but not least, and this is a spoiler alert, Lexis' play in the second season adds a creative, hopeful and reparative dimension to the show, which I just can't say enough about. What do we do to transcend trauma? We step out of destruction and we begin to create. We put actions and feelings and thoughts into words. We play with them until they hurt less, or at least so that we can bare the hurt. We find space for love and relationships. This is healing. In the beginning of the show, I felt so fearful and sad for our teens, for our youngest generations. In many ways, we, the adults, have created a truly disillusioning world. There' can be so much to feel scared about. And that's real. But the most important message of the show, at least for me, was that we're all joined in working through the losses, the betrayals, the trauma, in our own ways, and the power lies within each and every one of us to turn it all into something beautiful. Being human is messy. It's not euphoric at all. But it's real. And for me, that's even better.