Addiction is one of the most difficult diagnoses to overcome. Dependance on drugs and alcohol can destroy a user’s life both medically and socially. The effects of drugs and alcohol can make the user feel anything from invincible to euphoric or simply make them blissfully numb to their problems. This weight off one’s shoulders can feel almost magical at times, making drugs and alcohol very addictive. It’s no wonder, then, that magic has been used so often as a metaphor for addiction in Television and Film.
In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, “Wrecked” (season 6, episode 10), Willow grapples with an intense addiction to magic and puts Buffy’s sister Dawn in danger. She is reckless, irresponsible and unable to control her urges. This destructive addiction has been a long time coming, however. Ever since the sixth episode in the season, Willow’s use of magic has bordered on the unhealthy. When Tara and Willow fight about the redhead’s reliance on magic in “All the Way” (season 6, episode 6,) Willow decides to make her girlfriend forget about the fight rather than deal with it. Similar to how an addict might use a substance to escape their problems, Willow uses magic to dodge the issue completely. When Tara finds out, she is furious and threatens to leave Willow if she can’t go one week without using magic. When Willow inevitably fails this endeavor, Tara packs up her things and leaves.
What a lot of people don’t realize about addiction is that it affects the entire friend and family group of the addict. Addiction is the number one health problem in the US and has affected millions of family members. Addicts drive many of their loved ones away with their actions and those that stick around suffer alongside the addict. The international organization Al-Anon provides support groups for the loved ones of alcoholics. Many drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers have groups or classes for families of the addict in the center’s care such as the Family Program at the Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation (CeDAR) in Colorado. “Family members often blame themselves or try to control an addict’s behavior, but only the addicted individual can stop the destructive cycle,” CeDAR says on their website. Programs like these help attendees cope with their loved one’s addiction and learn what they can do to help as well as how to keep themselves safe and sane during the addicts recovery. They learn to be caretakers without giving up their own mental health in the process.
One thing that is imperative to understanding a loved one’s addiction is that the only person who can save them is the addict themselves. Tara quickly learns that there is little she can do to help Willow if her girlfriend doesn’t want to get better. In the end, she realizes that she can’t sacrifice her own happiness and wellbeing to stay with Willow and makes the right decision in leaving her. Buffy helps Willow the best she can, being supportive and removing all the magical items from the house, but ultimately it’s Willow that keeps herself sober.
Because both Willow and Buffy are out of the house during “Smashed” (season 6, episode 9), Tara has to stay the night with Dawn. While she only plans to stay for a short amount of time until one of the two girls comes back, she ends up staying the whole night. Willow’s magic induced actions keep Tara from going home, taking advantage of her. If Willow had been home at a reasonable time, Tara wouldn’t have had to spend her whole night taking care of Dawn. While Tara is happy to spend time with Buffy’s little sister, she still wakes up worried about the fact that no one came home last night and leaves the house in a huff after she realizes the reason Willow was out all night. Once again, Willow’s addiction to magic comes before her loved ones. This is common in families with addicts. When one spouse is acting irresponsibly and allowing the substance to rule their life, the other has to pick up the slack and often ends up taking on more than they can handle or should have to handle.
In “Smashed” Willow is distraught over Tara leaving but still hasn’t learned her lesson as she tells Amy, still a rat at this point, “We need to get you a nice companion rat that you can love, and play with and grow attached to until one day they leave you for no good reason.” Willow doesn’t think she’s done anything wrong in using her magic to dodge her relationship problems. She’s still in denial that there’s anything wrong with what she’s doing. Most addicts refuse to believe that they are dependent on a substance for a long time before getting help. Some addicts never admit to having a problem.
One thing that many addicts go through is disinterest in the activities that used to bring them joy. All they care about is the substance to which they’ve become addicted, when they’re going to take it again, how they’re going to get it, and where it’s going to come from. In the Magic Shop, Willow takes her laptop out to help with the investigation on what happened at the museum. For a brief moment, Buffy and Xander believe that she’s going back to the basics of being a Scooby; using her hacker skills rather than magic. Quickly though, we see that Willow is using her magic with the computer. She’s lost interest in her computer skills and is using magic instead. It’s obvious that Xander and Buffy are uncomfortable with what Willow is doing, but the witch hardly pays them any mind. “Guys. I’m fine,” she insists. Again, she refuses to see her problem.
When Amy is finally turned back into a human, she and Willow take to the streets. “It’s nice,” she tells Buffy, “having another magically inclined friend around.” Amy manipulates Willow into taking her out, suggesting that if she doesn’t she’ll be lame for sitting around in the house all night like she did in high school. Determined to prove Amy wrong, the two hit the town. As the night unfolds, the two witches misuse their magic and turn The Bronze into a chaotic mess. By the time they arrive back at home at the beginning of “Wrecked,” it’s well into the morning and Willow is so tapped out she can’t even close the curtains.
In “Wrecked,” Amy takes Willow to see the evil warlock Rack who operates out of an invisible and constantly moving crack-house-like dwelling. Though Willow is made aware of the fact that visiting him could be dangerous, she follows Amy there nonetheless. Inside, are a few of Rack’s clients slumped in their seats. When Rack emerges from his office, two clients get antsy. “Rack! Rack, it’s my turn,” says one desperately. “No man, you said I was up,” says another. “Bull! I’ve been here for hours!” says the first. Both of them look gaunt, sweaty and are shaking, much akin to a heroin addict in withdrawal.
Rack himself looks like he’s been strung out on something for decades as well. His skin is warped. His eye is messed up. He fits the bill for stereotypical, creepy drug dealer. The way he operates is very much like a drug dealer as well. “You have to give a little to get a little, right?” he tells Willow before taking some of her magic for his own. Afterward, Willow and Amy are shown high on the dark magic he supplies. Amy spins around in a blur while Willow rolls around on the ceiling in ecstasy, hallucinating as if she were on a psychedelic drug.
Addicts frequently have someone who is either doing the substance with them or allowing them to do it regardless of the harm it might pose. More often than not, they are addicted to the substance as well. These people are called enablers and they do exactly what it sounds like; they enable the addict to keep interacting with the substance. Sometimes these people are friends, other times they’re dealers, but regardless of their relationship with the addict, they’re toxic when it comes to recovery. Frequently, addicts in recovery will move away from the place where their enablers live. It’s very hard to keep away from a substance when you have someone reiterating what the addiction is already telling you do to: “Just one more time.” That’s why when people go to residence rehabilitation centers, they often aren’t allowed to see their friends. Only family members are allowed to visit unless they’re proven to be enabler’s as well. People are put into residence rehabilitation centers because part of recovering is cutting yourself off from those who got you into the substance in the first place, and it’s easier to do that if you’re living in a controlled setting until you’re strong enough to live on your own again.
Both Amy and Rack are Willow’s enablers, and it isn’t until Willow cuts herself off from them completely that she’s able to recover. In the end, Amy doesn’t really care about Willow as shown when Buffy catches her stealing herbs from the witch’s room. This is common in heavily dependent addicts. They’ll steal from people to get the money they need for the substance their addicted to. In this case, Amy is stealing herbs to exchange for magic from Rack. All she cares about is getting her next fix from Rack and all Rack is concerned with is getting some of Willow’s magic for himself. Enabler’s don’t actually care about the people their enabling. If they did, they’d recognize that the addict has a problem and would try to keep their friend away from the substance, rather than helping or allowing them to interact with it.
When Willow wakes up on her bedroom floor the next day, she is slowly starting to realize the gravity what is happening to her, but doesn’t quite understand how bad her problem is until that night. On her way to a movie night with Dawn, Willow takes a detour to see Rack. She takes Dawn into the dangerous neighborhood and leaves her in Rack’s waiting room for hours while she gets her fix. When she finally emerges, it’s too late to see a movie, and Dawn is furious. At this point all she wants to do is go home, but Willow, still high, convinces her to stay out. As they walk down the street, Dawn gets more and more nervous but Willow only patronizes her. Suddenly, a demon jumps out in front of them. Willow thinks it’s a hallucination at first until it lashes out at Dawn, scratching her cheek and tells the witch that she summoned him.
This demon is a physical manifestation of Willow’s addiction. It hurts the ones she loves, puts both their lives in danger and causes Willow to act recklessly. Adding this demon into the mix was a genius move on Whedon’s part. It gives the audience a clear, definable metaphor for addiction. For many addicts, their addiction feels like an entirely other creature. It’s something inside them that destroys their life. Much like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a metaphor for alcoholism, Willow’s demon is a metaphor for her addiction.
Willow and Dawn flee from the demon and jump into the nearest car. Willow drives away, but isn’t really paying attention to where she’s going. She swerves back and forth and laughs as Dawn screams in fear. Willow acts very much like a drunk driver and in the end, wrecks the car, breaking Dawn’s arm and in the process severely wounds her friendship with the young girl.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, someone is injured in a drunk driving accident every two minutes and 28 people die on a daily basis. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the rate of driving under the influence is highest among ages 21 to 25. Willow falls right into this age bracket. Her magic in “Wrecked” puts Willow under the influence and is a clear metaphor for drunk driving.
By the end of “Wrecked,” Willow finally understands what she is giving up for her dependance of magic. Her girlfriend has left her, a demon has been summoned from her misuse of magic, she nearly kills Dawn, and Buffy is beyond pissed. Everything she cares about is falling apart and she is so desperate for help at that point that she falls to Buffy’s feet and begs. “I can’t stop, Buffy! I’ve tried and I can’t… God, I need help! Please, please help me, please!”
In the months following, Willow goes completely cold turkey from magic. She realizes the power she feels from using magic isn’t worth hurting the people she loves. That night she lies in bed, hyperventilating, covered in sweat and shaking as she works through the withdrawal. She could simply cast a spell and feel better, but she is determined not to let her addiction rule her life and suffers through the night in silence. Later on, Willow cuts herself off from Amy and she and Buffy get rid of everything magical in the house. Episodes later when Anya tries to force Willow to use magic in order to help them defeat the big bad, she refuses. Tara backs her up and slowly their relationship begins to repair itself.
When Willow relapses over Tara’s death, she goes on a rampage and isn’t herself anymore. She does things completely out of character with the lovable and kind Willow we’re used to seeing. Once again, it’s not until she sees someone she loves hurting that she’s able to stop. It’s not until Xander tells Willow that her loves her that she’s able to stop again and goes to live with Giles for a while as she learns to control her magic, similar to an addict leaving their home to a live in rehabilitation center.
Relapses are almost inevitable when it comes to recovering from an addiction. Addicts work extremely hard to keep sober but relapses are common, especially in the first year of recovery. Many rehabilitation centers will award coins for every milestone of being sober. CeDAR gives out a gold coin after one of their patients is sober for a year, signifying the intense effort they went through to keep from using. While Willow is eventually able to control her magic and use it only when she needs to, addicts in our world can’t do that. Once someone is diagnosed as an addict, they can never interact with their substance again or it’s considered a relapse.
Addiction narratives like Willow’s are extremely inspiring to both those going through an addiction and the family members of recovering addicts. When one sees their favorite character survive something that they themselves are going through, it can empower that person. By seeing Willow overcome her addiction, Buffy fans who are also addicts can relate and find the strength within themselves to keep fighting. That’s why it’s important to point out these parallels when we see them. Fiction is incredibly powerful when it comes to coping with adversity. It gives an example of how someone might overcome that adversity and through those narratives we find our own way of conquering adversity. The idea is, if Willow can do it so can addicts all over the world.
Photo credit to Warner Bros.
Video credit to Warner Bros. and Al-Anon.