Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Michael Brownrigg. Michael recently received his PhD in US history from Northwestern University, where he studied the relationship between emotion, white masculinity, and capitalism to explain the emergence of an antinarcotic consensus in America at the turn of the twentieth century.
In the opening scene of the first episode of HBO’s controversial series Euphoria (2019), Rue (Zendaya), the show’s omniscient, unreliable narrator, recalls the last time she felt safe. “I was once happy, content, sloshing around in my own primordial pool,” she laconically claims. “Then one day, for reasons beyond my control, I was repeatedly crushed over and over by the cruel cervix of my mother . . . I put up a good fight, but I lost for the first time—but not the last.” Reluctantly thrust into an anxious post-9/11 world, Rue laments being crushed yet again by more circumstances even further beyond her control, coming of age in the shadow of a financial recession and the omnipresent threat of school shootings. As a toddler she was diagnosed with numerous mental disorders, her inner turmoil seemingly reflecting the instability of the era: ADHD, OCD, social anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder. A cornucopia of drugs was prescribed to address a problem that baffled experts, priming her for drug abuse well before she clandestinely discovered the tranquility provided by her dying father’s pain medications. Due to this bewildering amount of pharmaceuticals, Rue mournfully confesses to not remembering much of anything about her early adolescence other than “that the world moved fast and my brain moved slow.”
The only way to deal with the unwanted burden of navigating her tumultuous world, she informs viewers in a monotone voiceover, is to numb oneself to its reality, to render oneself incapable of caring so as not to hurt by creating a state of unfeeling. And opiates provided just the kind of emotional refuge she needed to escape from what she considered a broken society for which no one had prepared her. “I just showed up one day without a map or a compass, or to be honest, anyone capable of giving one iota of good fucking advice. And I know it all may seem sad, but guess what? I didn’t build this system. Nor did I fuck it up.” In Rue’s mind, recreational drug use was a perfectly acceptable response to having to cope with the sick reality imposed upon her, Oxycodone offering a means to, at the very least, get by, to survive another day, to “outrun,” as she put it, “your anxiety.” It is a kind of agency, albeit a sad and ultimately destructive kind, for reclaiming control in a social order that afforded her none. “I found a way to live,” she asserts. “Will it kill me? I dunno.”