Willow Rosenberg, addiction and the illusion of control

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Oct 10, 2018, 8:02 PM EDT (Updated)

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer's hotly contested Season 6, our blessed witch Willow Rosenberg develops a problem with abusing magic. At first, she uses her powers to do seemingly inconsequential things but later uses them to erase her girlfriend Tara's memory of a fight they had, robbing Tara of her autonomy and ultimately ending their relationship for a time. By the end of the season, of course, she is fully overtaken by a dark kind of grief and rage that seeks grisly ends. 

This seasonal arc is often referred to as Willow's magic addiction. As a cut-and-dry addiction story, it fails. But as a depiction of just one aspect of what it's attempting to portray, of the bursts of behavior often elemental of pain, trauma, mental illness, and, yes, addiction, it is deeply relatable.

While the show clearly saw the storyline as a metaphor for drug addiction, down to Rack's den and Willow's withdrawal symptoms, it fell victim to the same tropes often seen in portraying mental health issues and addiction in a television show as a temporary arc rather than a fully fleshed-out aspect of the character. At its core, mental illness cannot be a narrative arc because it has no obvious beginning or end and the idea that it does in film and television has serious implications for how mental illness is viewed within society. It's why people think these are things a person can simply overcome or "get over," rather than a chronic illness that requires constant work. The concept is damned further in Season 7 when Willow and Giles work toward Willow's development of a healthy relationship with magic, which is not something most addicts are able to form with their drug of choice and the notion that such moderate use is possible is one that can be lethal.

But while it was a perhaps imperfect addiction metaphor, when you examine Willow's magic abuse as just one depiction of loss of control, of unbearable pain and the efforts a person will go to not to feel that pain anymore — things that are elements of mental illness and addiction — it rings true. What Willow went through wasn't the whole story; it's a realistic piece of a larger, often lifelong tale.


"It took me away from myself. I was free." 

I was diagnosed with major depression and generalized anxiety disorder with panic attacks in my late 20s, but I've felt these things in me as long as I can remember — this sense of dread, worthlessness, terror about the world around me, and a quiet anger at all of it and toward everything I can't but desperately want to fix and control. And while I've not personally struggled with addiction, I spent 15 years as a passenger in the addiction of another person and I've seen moments of abuse in myself, be it food, alcohol or whatever minor things can grant me some momentary semblance of control over the world around me, or at the very least a brief respite from the very real pain I feel. And I've watched as the person I loved most in the world did the same with drugs and alcohol to far more destructive ends. While our stories, however inter-woven, were different, there were pieces that were the same. We did the things we did — acted out, screamed, used, lost ourselves in the swirling vortex of emotion to the detriment of work and relationships — because we didn't know how else to navigate an existence that felt out of control. And that is where Willow's storyline succeeds. There is an urgency in the character, a need to make things better, to repair what is broken in ways that will only damage them further. There is no logic in being lost — a healthy conversation about what's going on feels impossible. So you grasp and grope for something to fix it, either not understanding or outright ignoring the fact that your hands, your brain, your entire self are not at this moment capable of putting it all back together.

And when Willow finally finds a sense of peace and she and Tara are reunited, Tara dies at the hands of Warren Mears, launching Willow into impossible grief and rage. When those feelings take over, there is no longer Willow as we know her — the pain is too prominent. And for those of us who've experienced that kind of anger, that kind of loss, we get it. When the feelings are so big, they take over. You become that anger, that loss. And it takes a long time to get it back.

The issue with this narrative is that when it does come back, it's not permanent. To deal with chronic mental illness and addiction is to relapse and revert, and to struggle often every day. Our recovery is not relegated to minor mentions in episodic B-plots as needed, but very real parts of our lives and personalities that shape the entire way we navigate our existence. Sometimes, it doesn't go away. There is no cure. But there is learning to live with what we have. And that takes more than a few episodes in England with Giles. 

In a bottle, Buffy's depiction of Willow's finite addiction to magic is a failure. But when the bottle breaks, when you look at Season 6 as just one mile marker of a long, unyielding journey, it feels real and relatable. That's something we all deserve to see onscreen. And we deserve a show that does it correctly. 

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