News of Glee star Cory Monteith’s death over the weekend sent fans reeling. As Finn, the high school football star-turned-musical theater heartthrob, the 31-year-old actor had been a favorite, embodying the teenager who transforms from a kneejerk bully to someone who thinks for himself, making friends with those he once belittled.

When the show debuted in 2009, Finn was the stereotypical homophobic jock, throwing slushies into the faces of unsuspecting kids walking through the halls of McKinley High. So it was wonderful to watch him evolve into someone who cared and stood up for members of his diverse new glee club gang, including the wheelchair-bound Artie and the gay Kurt, who would eventually become his half brother. And when he fell for geeky girl Rachel (played by real-life-girlfriend-to-be Lea Michele), we fell in love with the star-crossed pair, too.

But the successful high schooler Finn couldn’t have been more different from Monteith. The Canadian actor, who was found Saturday in his Vancouver hotel room, was a high school dropout who had been battling drug addiction since he was 13. Monteith had announced in March he was entering rehab. An autopsy was to be performed today; the authorities have ruled out foul play.

According to reports, Monteith dropped out at 16 after attending 16 schools, then worked as a Wal-Mart greeter and a school bus driver before checking into rehab at 19. As he told a Canadian talk show host in a 2011 interview, doing drugs “wasn’t so much about the substances per se, it was more about not fitting in…. I hadn’t found myself at all.”

The actor was careful not to send the wrong message to his fans. He said he hoped his struggles with addiction would serve as an example: “I don’t want kids to think it’s O.K. to drop out of school and get high, and they’ll be famous actors, too. But for those people who might give up: Get real about what you want and go after it.”

Monteith got real thanks to his involvement in the arts, something he credited for turning his life around, much as it did Finn’s. “I think kids really need a place to go and feel like they belong,” he said in a video posted on the site for Project Limelight, a Vancouver charity offering theater and arts programs to at-risk youth. “When I was a kid, I struggled a lot with who I was and where my life was going and what I was interested in. And I was fortunate to have the arts inspire me.”

Finn floundered post-graduation, leaving the Army soon after he signed up, but he found his way again when he returned to McKinley to direct the next generation of glee club members. Sadly, Monteith did not share his character’s happy fate. But we like to think his example might inspire other struggling kids to find themselves through the arts, and those battling addiction or some other mental health problem to get help.