My Son and I Are Both Addicts in Recovery—Here Is Our Perspective After Watching 'Euphoria'

A parent and son in recovery share how to start a dialogue with your teen about the dangers so graphically and realistically depicted on the HBO TV show Euphoria.

Mother embracing son while standing in living room at home

The HBO television show, Euphoria, is a disturbing look at today's young people born into the digital age. The Emmy Award-winning, gritty drama is rife with the stuff of parents' worst nightmares. It depicts addiction, violence, abuse, sex, pornography, and mental illness, enhanced with an edgy soundtrack and artful cinematography.

"This show is probably very realistic for many teens around the country," says my son Chris Olsen, 24, who grew up in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, went to school in Boston, and now lives in Los Angeles. On his TikTok account, he sometimes talks about his own addiction struggle, recovery, and mental health in ways that resonate with his more than six million followers.

Sometimes, as parents, it's easier to pretend that our children or their friends are not trying drugs. But insulation from exposure to drugs is an illusion. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, at least 1 in 8 teenagers in the U.S. has abused an illicit substance in the last year. Sixty-two percent of twelfth-grade teens have abused alcohol. And it only takes one tainted drug or bad decision to ruin or end a person's life. Overdose deaths due to opioid use have increased 500 percent among 15 to 24-year-olds since 1999.

Even the "good girls" on the show and in real life have ready access to drugs. While the character Kat does not have an addict's desire for illegal substances, she craves the attention of men. She gets high fives from her girlfriends when she has sex for the first time, with a boy she does not know, as if virginity is a burden she must rid herself of as soon as possible. After a sex video of her emerges online, she discovers that she enjoys being looked at sexually and starts a business entertaining men online. There are more than addictions to drugs depicted in Euphoria. Indeed, there are many more addictions in life.

I started drinking at age 13, taking liquor from my parents' alcohol cabinet, which mushroomed into full-blown alcoholism. Drinking was a rite of passage in high school and drinking games in college were ubiquitous. I now have ten years of hard-fought sobriety. But not drinking goes against our society's dominant culture. Happy hours abound. Few people attend professional sports events without imbibing. "Let's get together for a drink" is a common invitation. It's hard to go anywhere today without seeing alcohol ads or hearing references to drinking culture.

My son became an alcoholic and drug addict before he hit the legal drinking age. "Euphoria does a really good job showing how addiction can tear a family system apart and can leave an addict alone and doing crazy things for their addiction," he says. It took two rehab stints for my son's recovery to take, the second one consuming almost an entire year. Chris now has three years of sobriety, and we are continuing to repair our relationship.

The mother of Euphoria's main character, Rue, puts Rue in rehab after a drug overdose. When Rue gets out, she says she has no intention of staying clean. As Rue's mom tries to keep Rue safe, Rue finds more ways to manipulate her mom. Rue fakes giving clean urine for home drug tests by getting friends to give her their own to use as a substitute. She claims to regularly attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings and convinces someone at the meeting to sign her attendance sheet. Her mother becomes more desperate, as did I, as her child falls further into the vortex of addiction.

We, as parents, did not cause the addiction that may take hold of our children. We cannot control it, but we can decide not to play a part in it. Sometimes that means not giving them any money. Sometimes that means allowing them to hit a bottom that leads them to want to change.

I'm a believer in 12-step programs of recovery. One saved my life. Another, Al-Anon, saved my relationship with my son. I had to internalize the lesson that my son has a Higher Power, and it is not me. There is no way that a parent can accompany a teen throughout the teen's days, even though sometimes we might want to do so. It seemed counterintuitive, but I had to let go. I prayed he would not die. We equipped our son with tools to get and stay sober, but the decision to remain sober is uniquely his.

In Euphoria, Rue's mother, Leslie, is asked to speak about how Rue's addiction affected their family. Most rehab professionals will tell you that addiction and alcoholism are family diseases. We all can contribute to them, consciously or subconsciously.

I can relate to Leslie's remarks. She speaks to the helplessness, frustration, and despair Rue's addiction inflicted on their family. She is worried that Rue will kill herself with drugs, but hopes that Rue will give herself the chance to live the life that she deserves. I'm filled with gratitude for every clean and sober day my son and I have.

While we cannot protect our children from all of the world's dangers, we can model the behavior we hope they will adopt. One mother in Euphoria is rarely shown without clutching a glass of wine and often slurs her lines. The kids in the show eye her warily; our children are watching us. If we reach for the bottle when we are stressed, we are reinforcing a message about substances as coping mechanisms.

We want to believe and trust our children. When alcohol and drugs consume a person's mind, however, they lose the ability to be trustworthy and honest. Addicts no longer think clearly because substance abuse addles their brains and addiction tricks them into thinking they must sustain the high. But one still can appeal to their hearts.

Rue's love for her younger sister has more effect on her desire to stay clean than almost anything else. When we did the intervention with my son, it appeared that the love for his sister and the pain he was causing her also was the most impactful on his decision to accept help. The pain addicts cause their closest friends also can move them toward wanting to change, as Rue demonstrates in her dialogue with her girlfriend, Jules. Until it doesn't. Back in the grip of addiction, Rue turns on Jules during an attempted intervention in the second season, spewing hateful things at her. Afterward, Rue enters a frenzied search for drugs, putting herself in increasingly dangerous situations. As narrator, Rue laments, "Even if I got clean today, no one will forget the trauma of me not being clean."

Euphoria is not easy to watch, but it is illuminating. School-aged children, who are only in our homes for a finite period of time, face unparalleled risks and challenges today. Euphoria may provide a touchstone for discussing hard real-life issues with the young people in our lives.

Substance abuse is lonely and scary for everyone involved, but there is help. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse or mental health, please reach out to SAMHSA's National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357). You can also visit their online treatment locator.

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