One of the major conflicts in the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is Willow Rosenberg’s abuse of magic. She’s irresponsible, manipulative and her use of magic often puts the people she loves in danger. On the surface, it may seem like Willow is simply struggling to contain her magical abilities, but as the season progresses, it becomes obvious that the witch has become dependent on them. This metaphor for addiction is a clever way at opening up a dialogue about one of the biggest health problems in America.
In episode six of season six, Tara and Willow are searching for Dawn in the crowded Bronze club. Unable to find her, Willow suggests using a spell that would transport everyone under the age of 15 to an alternate dimension. When Tara objects, the two get into an argument. “Willow, you are using too much magic. What do you want me to do? Just sit back and keep my mouth shut?” Tara says. “Well, that would be a good start,” Willow snaps back. Later on, the argument continues and Willow decides that instead of dealing with their issues, she’ll just cast a spell to make Tara forget about their fight all together. When Tara finds out in “Once More With Feeling” (episode seven, season six), she feels betrayed and confused. Later, in “Tabula Rasa” (episode eight, season six), Tara confronts her girlfriend and threatens to leave Willow if she can’t go one week without using magic. When Willow inevitably fails, Tara packs up her things and says goodbye. Tara quickly learns that there is little she can do to help her girlfriend if Willow 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. She makes the right decision in leaving her.
The international organization, Al-Anon provides support groups for the loved ones of addicts. Many substance rehabilitation centers also have family groups or classes 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. 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 during the addict’s recovery. I attended CeDAR’s program myself when it became clear my father was an alcoholic and opiate addict. While he never admitted to having a problem, the program helped me put the necessary distance between myself and his behavior. Not only was my father’s addiction not my fault, it wasn’t my responsibility.
In “Smashed” (episode nine, season six), Amy and Willow go out for a night on the town. “It’s nice,” Willow tells Buffy, “having another magically inclined friend around.” As the night unfolds, the two witches misuse their magic by turning The Bronze into a chaotic mess. By the time they arrive back at home at the beginning of “Wrecked” (season six, episode 10), it’s well into the morning and Willow is so tapped out she can’t even close the curtains.
Later, Amy takes Willow to see Rack, an evil warlock who deals in powerful dark magic. He operates out of an invisible and constantly moving, crack-house-like dwelling. Inside are a few of Rack’s clients, slumped over in their seats. When Rack comes out of 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 look gaunt, sweaty and are shaking similarly to a heroin addict in withdrawal. Rack himself looks like he’s been strung out for decades. His skin is warped. His eye is messed up. He fits the bill for stereotypical, creepy drug dealer. “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 his dark magic; Amy spins in a blur while Willow rolls around on the ceiling in ecstasy.
Addicts almost always have someone in their life that enables their dependancy. This person— often an addict themselves— makes it easier to keep using. The enabler encourages the addict to do whatever it takes to get more of the substance he or she is addicted to. When an addict decides to go into recovery, it’s important that he or she cuts the enabler out of his or her life. Both Amy and Rack are Willow’s enablers. It isn’t until Willow cuts herself off from them completely that she’s able to recover. More on that later.
Willow’s addiction hits it peak in “Wrecked” (season six, episode 10) when she takes Dawn on her way to see Rack. The two of them are supposed to be seeing a movie together, but Willow can’t put off getting another hit and ends up leaving Dawn in Rack’s waiting room for hours while Willow gets high. When Willow finally comes back, it is too late to see a movie and Dawn is furious with Willow’s behavior. Dawn wants to go home but Willow, still high, insists on staying out and patronizes her for being afraid. As the two young women walk down the street, a demon suddenly jumps in front of them. Willow thinks it’s a hallucination at first until it lashes out at Dawn and badly scratches her cheek. The demon tells Willow that she summoned him and “raised hell with [her] magics.” 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. 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, the demon Willow summons is also a symbol of her addiction.
Willow and Dawn run away and jump into the nearest car, which Willow magically hot wires. Willow drives away, but isn’t paying attention while she swerves back and forth and laughs as Dawn screams in fear. She wrecks the car, breaking Dawn’s arm. This scene is a clear metaphor for drunk driving, something many alcoholics have done. When I was 15, my father tried to pick me up from school while under the influence. I refused to get into his car and ran to the principle for help. After my father was arrested for driving under the influence, I began taking three busses home every day for the rest of high school. I was luckier than most people who encounter drunk driving. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, someone is injured in a drunk driving accident every two minutes. 28 people die every day from DUI related injuries.
By the end of “Wrecked,” Willow finally understands what her addiction has cost her. Tara has left, she put Dawn in danger and Buffy is beyond pissed. Everything she cares about it falling apart. She falls to her knees at Buffy’s feet and begs. “I can’t stop, Buffy! I’ve tried and I can’t… God, I need help!” Buffy reluctantly helps Willow by removing all the magical items from the house. Willow decides to go cold turkey, completely cutting herself off from magic use. That night, she lies in bed hyperventilating, covered in sweat and shaking as she works through the withdrawal. She cuts Amy out of her life and when Anya later tries to force Willow to use her magic against a big bad, Willow refuses. Tara backs her up and slowly their relationship begins to repair itself. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last.
After Tara dies from a stray gun shot in “Seeing Red” (episode 19, season six), Willow goes on a rampage. She becomes Dark Willow and after killing Warren out of revenge, becomes hell bent on destroying the world. It isn’t until Xander shows her love and compassion that she’s able to stop. She leaves Sunnydale with Giles (episode one, season six) in order to recover. Willow is able to learn to control her magic at a coven in England. She surrounds herself with people who can help her get better.
While Willow is eventually able to use her magic responsibly again, most addicts are never able to interact this way with their substance. Using again is almost always considered a relapse which is unfortunately part of almost every addict’s recovery. Treatment centers like CeDAR and support from loved ones can help a lot, but it’s unrealistic to expect an addict to absolutely never use again, especially at the beginning of recovery. It takes a lot of work to stay sober, which is why many treatment centers give out milestone markers such as gold coins for every month, six months and year an addict goes without relapsing. Relapses are inevitable but they aren’t the end of the world when it comes to recovery. Eventually, an addict may get to a point in his or her recovery where a relapse is unlikely.
Willow’s struggle with addiction touched me after my father died of his addiction in 2012. It was helpful for me to see a character I loved so much overcome something I watched my father go through. I was able to cope by seeing Willow’s recovery, even though my father was never able to get help; it made me feel less alone. Pointing out mental health parallels in popular culture is important because not only does it help break down stigmas, it can also inspire fans who are going through similar situations to keep fighting.
Photo credit to Warner Bros.
Video credit to Warner Bros. and Al-Anon.