Documenting the opioid crisis in numbers and film

Working the farm as part of recovery from opioid addiction in “Recovery Boys.” | Photo courtesy Netflix

Originally published in the Sept. 5, 2018 “One Hundred Days in Appalachia”

By Douglas Imbrogno

find myself having to drag my fingers over to click a Twitter link to read Caity Coyne’s Aug. 30, 2018, Charleston Gazette-Mail story headlined “Number of fatal drug overdoses in 2017 surpasses 1,000 mark in WV.”

The story is a grim check-up on how much worse the opioid overdose epidemic was in 2017 in West Virginia, in a state that is America’s opioid overdose epicenter. One can get dizzy easily from the numbers as the Mountain State passed the 1,000 mark in overdose deaths for the first time last year:

“Of the 1,011 overdose deaths recorded for 2017 so far, 870 — about 86 percent — involved an opioid. This is about a 15 percent increase from 2016, when 759 people — out of a total 890 — suffered fatal overdoses related to opioid use.”

Deeper in Coyne’s story is an illustrative paragraph about just how bad this crisis has gotten in a few short years:

Since 2012, the total number of fatal drug overdoses in the state has increased by 81 percent. West Virginia has consistently led the country in the rate of overdose deaths, a statistic that is unlikely to change given the most recent numbers.

If you’re wondering what the epicenter of the epicenter is, Coyne’s article lists Cabell, Wayne, Logan, Kanawha and Berkeley counties leading the state in fatal overdoses per 100,000 residents. This is revealing as it underscores, if it wasn’t already clear, that this crisis is not just a rural phenomenon, but is hitting hardest in the state’s two most urban counties, too.

So, this is hardly an epidemic of backwood towns, but of suburbs and downtowns, also. You’d be hard-pressed to find a family member or friend in West Virginia who — putting the Six Degrees of Separation principle into play — doesn’t know someone or know someone related to someone who has died in a recent year by opioid overdose.

Coyne’s article also notes a leap in overdose deaths from the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Fentanyl, for anyone into Russian Roulette with a needle, is approximately 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

My six degrees of separation: hugs to the family and good friends of my pal Jesse, who overdosed via fentanyl earlier this year. Too soon, my friend. Way, way too soon.

Which brings me to “Recovery Boys,”the recently released documentary by Elaine McMillion Sheldon, a West Virginia native, now available for viewing on Netflix.

I didn’t quite know what to expect from this follow-up to McMillion Sheldon’s revelatory and Oscar-nominated documentary short “Heroin(e).” That documentary, for those who have not seen it (and, really, you must must see it), follows three women — Huntington’s fire chief; a Cabell County family court judge; and a street missionary making outreach to prostitutes.

We see the three women, each in their own fashion, working the front lines of the city’s devastating opioid epidemic– Huntington is the epicenter of the epicenter of the epicenter.

The 40-minute documentary is revelatory in that it manages to look head-on at an overwhelming, spirit-crushing, soul-draining crisis and finds some inspiring tough love in the front-line trenches. Somehow, their spirits — and a viewer’s spirit — comes out the other side, dinged and bruised, but with one’s hope, if not unscathed, not mortally wounded.

“Heroin(e)” also manages the hard documentary trick of telling a dire tale and leaving a viewer wanting more. I was surprised looking up a link to its Netflix page and being reminded how short the documentary is, a mere 39 minutes.

In “Recovery Boys,” McMillion Sheldon and her crew go longer, at one hour and 29 minutes. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to finally pull up all the film they’d shot onto a screen and start editing. But it must have been a daunting task. Her crew spent months and months and months,  day and night, following the ins and outs of the lives of four young West Virginians plagued with substance abuse disorder.

We’re introduced to them as they enter Jacob’s Ladder, a rehab clinicfounded by Dr. Kevin Blankenship, a big-spirited specialist in critical care, whose program pulls the young addicts out of the streets and onto a working farm.

There are ups. One of the men comes to life interacting with the farm’s animals, bringing to life a dormant family farm upbringing. You glimpse the boy again in the adult addict. There’s also a delightful visit to a barn dance set to the uncredited old-time music of my friend Paul Gartner’s group “Born Old.”

And there are many downs. The young men try and put their best face on things, as they struggle to keep parental rights to children who hardly know them; to hold onto jobs as convicted felons peeing into cups; to manage the transition from drugged-out sofa dweller to get-to-work-before-dawn employee.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world for McMillion Sheldon to have ended her tale about an hour in, at a semi-triumphant moment as some of the young men graduate out of the farm work program into supervised apartments. That’s where many a newspaper feature story about recovering addicts ends, with uplift and hope for the future.

But she is too honest a documentarian to leave it at that, even though it might have seemed a nice bookend to her previous documentary. Yet in fact, “Recovery Boys” is indeed a powerful bookend to “Heroin(e),” as it concludes with some of the young men seemingly on the path to recovery — shakily, but with at least one foot planted on the ground — while others have heartbreakingly gone missing in action.

The point being, we are all in this for the long haul. There are no simple solutions to what amounts to a crisis of societal dimensions and not one that is easy to file and forget under “Stupid, Weak Rural Folks Who Are Safe to Ignore.”

“Recovery Boys,”  “Heroin(e)” and coverage by dogged media outlets like the Charleston Gazette-Mail are bugle calls for all hands on deck. Sobriety isn’t easy, recovery won’t come cheap and turning away is not an option. How could it be when the results of the crisis are in our faces every day?

I showed a draft of this article to a friend who works with rural school systems. He responded with a text noting that he had just checked in with two West Virginia principals, each of whom had two students whose parents had overdosed since school began.

“That is,” texted my friend, “one death per week since school has started.”

“Recovery Boys” is a reminder of what lies on the other side of the grim newspaper statistics — parentless children, neighbors’ sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, grandmas and grandpas, overloaded court systems, front-line warriors and stressed out recovery grunts, all struggling to get us to a Malcolm Gladwell tipping point.

The subtitle to Gladwell’s iconic treatise on how things never seem to change until they finally do is instructive when it comes to how to address the opioid crisis in print, film, 12-step groups and in communities far and wide, tiny and large: “How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.”

If she has it in her, I look forward to a third part to McMillion Sheldon’s opioid epidemic work. That would be documenting the aftermath of when we finally — please, oh, please — cross a tipping point, when overdose numbers begin to plummet instead of rising like a fever.

Douglas Imbrogno is a freelance writer, social media video producer and trainer. Contact him through his website http://thewebtheater.com

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