In early May I bookmarked a new HBO documentary that was coming out. I set the recording on my DVR and couldn’t wait to watch. It was called Warning: This Drug May Kill You. Great title, right? I knew from the title I would probably be disappointed in the content of the documentary, but I chose to watch it anyway. It’s not often addiction and recovery are documentary topics so I try to watch every one that comes out.
The opening montage of the documentary is pieces of new videos, photos, and other footage of drug users nodding off, collapsing, passing out, overdosing, being revived by the drug Narcan, and in one scene a woman lies motionless on the floor of a store while a toddler (presumably her child) tries to wake her and sobs when she can’t. It was just as horrific as you’re currently imagining it to be. ‘Triggering’ doesn’t even begin to describe what I saw. Thirty seconds into the film and yes, you already get that this drug kills because they show it to us. They showed us the horrors of drug use, the explicit, sickening, and extreme consequences of drug use.
So right off the bat, I had a bad taste in my mouth. Not only was the footage hard to watch, this technique is stale. I’m sick and tired of addiction scare tactics and fear mongering. To me, all this footage does is invoke fear, humiliate the people and families in the photos and videos, and further demonize the disease of addiction and the millions of people who suffer from it. This I can guarantee you: a person who does not understand addiction will definitely not understand it after watching this documentary. What the opening montage also shows besides the deadliness of opioids and the depths of addiction is the stereotypes that are hammered into our brains every day in this country; Addiction is a bad choice. Addiction is disgusting. Addiction is ugly. Addiction kills. How could they stick a needle in their arm? How could they get that bad? How could they turn into such horrible people? How could addicts do this to their children? Aren’t they embarrassed that they’re dying in the streets? Aren’t they ashamed that they leave their children unattended in a car? How could they? How? Shame. Shame. Shame.
If you can get past the blistering and raw shame, blame and triggering videos of the first minute, you’ll go on to see Warning: This Drug May Kill You talks about the manufacturing of OxyContin, the current over prescription of opioids and the role pharmaceutical companies play in the epidemic. The documentary also follows 4 families, all white, who have been impacted by the opioid epidemic. What do they all have in common? Death. Every family interviewed has lost a loved one to an opioid overdose. Again, doom and gloom and fear and final: death.
The mom of one family named Kathy Kelly and her two daughters Stephany and Ashley seem like a glimmer of hope at the beginning because Stephany is talking to the cameras about being in recovery. Her sister Ashley died of an opioid overdose years ago. But then later in the film, you learn Stephany has relapsed and gone back to using. Another family with 3 grown children and a dad talk about losing their mother to opioid addiction. The Cole family talks about losing their son Brendan to a heroin overdose, who was prescribed opioids to treat a cyst.
The documentary ends following the only living person they speak with who is still struggling with drug addiction, Stephany. She enters a state-sponsored 30-day treatment program and the text on the screen following the last scene tells us she left treatment after 6 days and returned to using and later, she joined a medication-assisted treatment program. As viewers, we’ll never know if she finds and sustains recovery. We’ll never know if she dies like her sister. It’s a haunting and gloomy ending to an already shameful and depressing documentary.
You’ve heard me say this before about HBO’s last documentary, Heroin: Cape Cod, USA. These documentaries about addiction including the current one, Warning: This Drug May Kill You, lack hope for recovery. In fact, they show no sustained recovery whatsoever and provide no hope to anyone who might be out there still using. They reinforce stereotypes, they perpetuate stigma, and they dehumanize addiction. They show addiction as final, as death.
Do I sound angry? I am. Where are the documentaries showing people in recovery from opioid addiction? Where are the films following people who used to shoot heroin, went to treatment and saved their own lives and are now living a life beyond their wildest dreams? Why aren’t their stories amplified? Why aren’t we showing footage of their new lives in recovery? There are 23 million of us who got their lives back because of recovery, restored our relationships, advanced our careers. Did you know these people exist!? I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t because the media and society tell us otherwise.
I think filmmakers should stop using drama, death, and fear to sell their documentaries and think about the impact this is having on our society. Instead, they should start telling the truth. Yes, there is an opioid epidemic in this country, but millions of people find recovery every day. Start showing recovery. Show the light returning to people’s eyes. Show human beings reuniting with their children. Show someone celebrating their one year of sobriety. Show people celebrating 20 years. Show how treatment changes people from sick to well. Show people sharing their stories and changing lives. Show us the hope that this epidemic so desperately needs.
The death, destruction, and public shaming of people with substance use disorders is played out. We’ve seen it all before. We’ve read the horrendous and unspeakable comments people leave on the photos and videos of people overdosing that are rampant online. We’ve seen police chiefs try to use these horrifying photos and videos to force people to stop using drugs. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work.
If filmmakers won’t speak out about recovery we will. For those of you who watched Warning: This Drug Might Kill You and are disgusted, hopeless, and helpless, hear me – we can and do recover, even from opioids, heroin, prescription pills and needles.
You may suffer through some dark days, but you can also live a long beautiful life in recovery, this is the humanization of addiction and recovery.