Rue stumbles through an evening painted in oils. Lavender sky, open like a toothless mouth. A knot of garages and lampposts, shadow puppets mocking figures of reality: suburbia, twined together with telephone wires, feigned connectivity when every house is an island. Different ecosystems. She moves with the River Styx of back alleys that snakes between each house, each morsel of normalcy. She belongs to none of them, not even the home where she’ll dock that night, and sleep off the mania that stains her vision like flecks of mascara in the eye. Rocks in lava. Staggering the flow.
She is rudderless. Unknowable.
[She is anchored. She is known.]
Each day is a new genre. Horror, comedy, tragedy. She wakes with despair, afraid of today’s pick; unpredictable and foreign. But she is an adapter. A chameleon. Accustomed to morphing her scales to the desirable shade. Her clothes—giant t-shirts, glittery party dresses, suspenders, tuxedos—mimic different people. Costumes. Pantomiming the who she might be had life not stained her composition and imbalanced her brain and landed her squarely in the kaleidoscope realm of bipolar.
“I sure as shit prefer mania over depression,” she says in voiceover, intoxicated by the slick way the brain’s hyperactivity mirrors a high. She walks in disoriented zig-zag through the alley, avoiding recycling bins. She’s a shadow, like the other objects in the firmament. Mashing through the dizzying purple in her Chucks, kicking up dust to slip into, the way magicians leave a stage. Because, as swiftly as she blends in, she can also disappear.
HBO’s Euphoria tells Rue’s story. A high school teenager—played by the transcendent Zendaya—who attempts to navigate the wicked wisp of time post-drug overdose. Her life, cruelly divided in half: pre-almost-death, post-almost-death. But it’s as jagged a line as the one she traced through the alley. Not, as one might predict, a clean fold between bad and good. Wrinkles wiggle and vein through her new life, puncturing holes that let drugs and ego percolate. She is not cured because a big bad thing happened. Big bad things require big bold changes; effort and energy she’d rather devote to what numbs it.
The experience comes with a bouquet of bruises. The darkest cloud over her family: the little sister who found her, mouth foaming, in her bedroom; the mother, a new widow, who endured the screams; the rising tides of her daughter’s effervescent moods.
Rue is tethered by nothing. She is cut open by the loss of her father, her bipolar diagnosis, and the addiction borne of both traumas. She is a storm, a war, a stampede. Artemis, with her bow and quiver; strength personified, let loose and wild. The sun and moon, or maybe the constellations trickled like crumbs in between.
She goes to the meetings. She lies about her sober date, using her friend’s urine as cover up. Her debilitations are also her toolkit. Disorder is a perfect mask. She acts her way out of the murky moments. Those costumes again. Camouflage. So as not to reckon with the overdose; that gaping, factual wound she can’t erase. That festers in the rotation of days spilling out of it, stacking up on the calendar. Days that should be crisp linen and sober check marks, but are sticky with the lies she tells others, and herself.
My own near-death experience evoked Euphoria’s cinema. The show is glimpsed through Rue’s wide eyes and is precise in how it captures a mind discombobulated by loss—and the exhausting self-flagellation that follows. Creator Sam Levinson based Rue’s predicament on his own experience with mental illness and addiction. He weaves in movie references that translate his pain—and Rue’s—in a language the non-afflicted might recognize: an episode set at a carnival that mimics the style of Paul Thomas Anderson; bombastic music punctuating long shots of dazzling color. Nods to David Lynch, particularly Fire Walk With Me; young girls splashed in blood-red fluorescent light, torn apart by a world that feeds on adolescent beauty and malaise.
The bipolar mind fixates on such things: nuance, like screencapped scraps of daily activity. Color, both piercing and vile. The way light catches on strands of hair, or the tips of eyelashes. Levinson knows. And I know. I see myself in every frame—not physically, but in the mind’s eye. Rue’s perspective colors the world around her in extravagance. Teens at Halloween in costumes that reference films they’ve likely never seen: Taxi Driver, Morocco, Ms .45. It’s a fairy tale, elegant and erudite. And of a darker strain. The kind where mermaids turn to foam.
Rue pops her father’s painkillers, knowing the inevitability of his death, as if enhanced by dramatic persuasion. My own poison came decades after my mother’s death, when I discovered how thoroughly a bottle of wine works like sanitizer, washing out gravelly despair with a fountain of nectar and blood. I felt like a woman in a John Cassavetes movie when I drank like that, glass tipped into a soft pour. Fearing what might come out of me in a drunken state, and romanticizing the beautiful chaos.
Like Rue, bipolar disorder came for me in my dead parent’s absence. It seeped in, filled me with air, sent me to the surface; a buoy in the ozone, looking down on Earth with pleasure and disdain. To be so high is to taste the stars. It is also to see past them and into the cold black forever. You are gripped by a cosmic awareness that life is uproariously beautiful and heinously vile, and you can’t settle in the in-between, so deep are the polar valleys.
[They are not so deep. You walk between them on a bridge.]
I flew so far up that I let go of all foundation. Of the friends who sought to know me; even the curtained parts, hiding bones. Of the family who never quite got me, or whose ropes I threw to sea before they could. Of the body that held me protectively, flesh on muscle. It inflated too, into popped vessels and stained cheeks that aged me like a book left in sunlight. Pages curdling and gone yellow. Depressive states are vampiric.
And then the mania creeps in. That chaotic beast that won’t be tempered. It tells you in whispers to take that drink. To sing at the top of your lungs at night, a wolf howling at the moon. To walk in furious circles around your apartment complex, dialing numbers you shouldn’t. It rips through depression with an erratic flourish, making you utterly unpredictable. A slip of film strip caught in a projector. Ticking, shaking; splashing the screen with disarray.
After years of wobbling between bouts of perfect sanity and absolute disorder, I was tired. I wanted that ruckus to stop. Or, maybe I wanted the good part of me—the little garden inside that yearns for tender care, loving adoration—to be heard over the motor squeals I emitted instead. And so, in a dramatic and dastardly fashion, I sounded the alarm. A suicide attempt, or clumsy ideation. A great big storm that—as storms are wont to do—behaved unpredictably.
I was sent to a hospital. I hurt the people around me. I sat in paper clothes the doctors gave me, thinking of all the stupid things I’ve ever done and said. Humiliation blossomed and raged in ways I’m still trying to decode and suppress.
And all I could think, as I sat caught in that mesh net, was: I just want to be loved like the people in movies.
[You are loved.]
There is a sequence in Euphoria that stands out in my head. Rue’s mother drives her home from the hospital after her drug overdose. Before rehab. She is still in her own paper clothes. She sings Bobby Womack’s cover of “Fly Me To the Moon.” It’s cheery, sweet. Her mother smiles from the driver seat. Her sister smiles in the back. They are happy.
But the scene is intercut with the moments before this temporary let. Rue, high and enraged, screaming and threatening her mother. Her sister’s tears. Womack swoons “let me play among the stars” as planets collide, Melancholia style. The juxtaposition is familiar. Beauty and tension. Happiness and violence.
Rue’s life is populated with other characters, other stories that float through her own, stars crossing on a mobile. Her classmates, like the popular and abusive Nate, the sexually triumphant Kat, and the new object of her fixation: Jules.
Oh, Jules. The answer.
[Not the answer.]
She who clears the air with her pastel-punk style. The jewels on her sleeves that evoke her name, her colors. A trans girl who tries to prove her femininity by fucking older, colder men; wringing meaning from their tepid grunts of arousal and approval.
Jules arrives at the beginning of the school year. Rue is only weeks out from her overdose. She is looking for anything to latch onto. Anything to love the way she wants to be loved: with intensity and understanding. Cinematically. So she hitches herself to Jules. Two comets—fiery, explosive—in a head-on collision.
Predictably, Rue replaces one drug with another. She stops using after a dangerous brush with fentanyl, but finds herself under Jules’ spell. Or rather, the spell of Jules’ ephemera; Rue does not know the person so much as the aura. She is not so interested in the language of Jules’ pain—not so different from her own—but in how the presence of Jules might realign her own.
When they kiss, fireworks erupt in the sky, like they do in the movies. But fireworks are a mirage. Loud bursts that fizzle and dissipate and leave nothing behind but sore ears, smoke, and a lust for more.
I write this from a perch, looking out at a bay of grey water. I am months out of the hospital. I remember coming home, standing in my doorway, and thinking, “Now what?” How do you slip back into a life you tried to leave behind? How do you mingle with the ordinary when you now regard the simplest object—a desk, a chair, a pen—with fear and suspicion? What do you do when medicine dulls your days from technicolor to a lonely sepia?
So I left and moved to a lake. Switching out locations as if physical distance might stitch the wound. It does not. It leaves a brand new scar. Cherry red, traceable by miles on a map.
I step into the water and I think, “When I come out I will be clean and new.” But I never am. The lies we tell ourselves about rebirth. That it is as simple as waves washed over flesh, a removal of skin. It is, in fact, only accomplished with practice and mindfulness; the same work you pour into staying aloof you must double back on, retracing the steps to forge a bold new direction.
Stepping into cold water does not rearrange my atoms or blanch the disorder from my bones. Nor does it bring back the color. But stepping into a home, warm with smiles and laughter, and picking up a phone where, through the cosmos of cellular magic, on the other line are family and friends and love—delicious love I am learning to accept in the forms it is offered and not the forms I demand—that is healing. That is what we should, all of us, chase; not the phony highs that mimic what we see on screen, but the long and imperfect bonds between humans that knot together and catch us when we fall.
[You are tying. You have learned knew ways to weave.]
The first season of Euphoria closes with what is essentially a music video. Rue, stumbling home after separating from Jules, who is on her own runaway odyssey. It’s the right decision to separate, but it’s a decision that cuts. Rue feels a familiar dejection. The depressive lull after the manic mirage. When the scene fades to black and there you sit, in the dark.
Rue walks home, bathed in navy, her underworld descent guided by a balmy spotlight. When she gets there, she falls into her bed and she snorts a line of crushed pills. Snow falls from the sky and into her hair. One foot on Earth, one rooted in Hell.
The drugs recall memories. Elation. They coarse through her bloodstream and dredge up remnants of anything to grasp at. It is boring being well. At least danger has a buzz. She steps into a flashback in her living room, where her father is still alive. As she wrestles through thorns and vine—banging against the walls—she sings a song called “All For Us.”
The lyrics are haunting. I know them too well.
Just for your love, I’ll give you the world Mona Lisa’s smile Hell, I’ll do 25 to life If it makes me your king A star in your eyes
Music video. Cinema. All fantasy, still. That is where she’s trapped once again. The Möbius strip of moving picture. She is looking for love in every frame. She has not yet wrestled with what it means to be loved, does not understand that the world she keeps conjuring through her mind’s eye is not real. Not the answer.
She is on the other side of a fold; it is not one great fold, but many. Origami. Snarls of life that crease and haw and hurt, but together create something beautiful. Life. It is always this raw. It is pain, the desperate search for approval, the glory and the gore, wading through muck and coming up for sweet, seductive breath. Stark reality, even sepia toned, is better. Slowly, the colors will reappear. It takes time. It takes love.