Nearly a year and a half ago, Director Bess O’Brien released The Hungry Heart to a packed auditorium in Saint Albans. Since then, the movie has taken the state by storm. It had such an effect on Governor Shumlin that he devoted nearly his entire State of the State Address this year to the issue of opiate abuse.
The Bridge recently caught up with Bess O’Brien during her busy tour around the state, which has now reached more than 10,000 people. O’Brien was kind enough to give The Bridge some of her time and answer some questions about this daunting problem. Excerpts from the talk are below.
The Bridge: How did you first stumble upon this invisible problem?
Bess O’Brien: I was contacted by pediatrician, Fred Holmes, who stars in my movie. He has been practicing pediatrics up in the Saint Albans area for like 35 years, and then about seven years ago or so, a young man walked into his office, who was 16 years old, and said “Listen, Doc, you gotta help me. I’m addicted to pills and I do not know what to do.” And Fred said, “I don’t know what to do either, but I’m going to find out.” So, he took it upon himself to get a Suboxen license and start working with the Howard Center and started treating kids who were addicted to prescription drugs. Essentially, in a nutshell, he fell in love with this population of people and really committed himself to working with young people around addiction and recovery. He wanted to create a project that would tell their story and that would try and get rid of a lot of the shame and judgment that is around many addicts. So through a friend, he called me up, and I went to Franklin County, and we had a number of community meetings with concerned citizens, folks from his practice and people in recovery, and we decided to make a movie. The rest is history.
The Bridge: Are the issues that lead to opiate abuse and addiction in Saint Albans the same throughout the state?
O’Brien: I think it is everywhere . . . Every single town that we went to, didn’t matter if we were on this side of the track or that side of the track, in a small town or city, it was everywhere. At every single screening, we had parents walking in bleary eyed, dealing with the fact that their kids were struggling with this issue. We had health care workers, doctors and social workers from all over the state showing up at the screening saying that they were overwhelmed and overloaded and had more patients than they could possibly deal with who were dealing with this issue. Franklin County is a representation of any small town, frankly anywhere in the United States. I give them a lot of courage for stepping up to the plate and letting me tell their story. It has been really great for their own community because they have been able to, through their own talking about it and the movie, really put it out front and are dealing with it in many different ways. Yes, it was shot in Franklin County, but it could have shot anywhere in Vermont.
The Bridge: Why are Vermonters turning to opiates in the first place?
O’Brien: Because these prescription drugs make you feel awesome. The high is incredible. There is a whole part of the film where people just talk about, “I took that first Vicodin, and I was in Nirvana.” It is a totally different type of high than alcohol [and other drugs]. It is extremely addictive. Depending on your makeup, your genetic makeup, your personality, who you are and what you are, you can get addicted to these extremely quickly, within a couple of weeks. You need them. Your body needs them. It changes the receptors in your brain. It comes on like fire and burns through you fast.
The Bridge: Does the governor’s speech and your film popularize and lift the gate for drug abuse by talking about it?
O’Brien: I just think that that is nonsense. I am sorry, but I don’t know what and where in life in anything where it is better not to deal with a problem. The idea of pretending that it doesn’t exist or just letting the authorities deal with it is crazy. The point is that people who have addiction problems, any body who has an addiction problem, is your friend; they are your neighbor, your husband, your wife; they are your coworker. These are not aliens from another planet. These are people who are in our own community and are struggling with a major health problem.
It has now been deemed by every medical professional in this country and the world, I believe, that drug addiction is a disease. If you become addicted, your brain changes. You have a disease, and you have to deal with that disease. I think the bigger problem is that people have is people who get addicted do bad things. They steal from you; they break into your cars. All of that is not cool,and we don’t like that. It is not good behavior. I get it, and of course, we need to have police making sure people aren’t breaking into other people’s homes. If you watch my movie, you will see people saying that once you get addicted to this stuff, you must have it. You are not the same person anymore. It is like somebody has taken over your body. You will find the money to pay for these drugs anyway, anyhow. If that means ripping off your parents or breaking into a car, you will do it . . .
We can pretend, let’s not talk about this, this is ridiculous, or whatever, but addiction is huge, and everyone knows somebody who has some form of addiction . . . We have to get it [addiction] out of the shadows and into the light. We have to take the shame away from it. When people are addicted and they are trying to get clean, being told that they are bad people 24 hours a day does not help. That just makes you want to go and get high again.
We need to treat these people, if they truly want to get clean, and they want to get help, we need to have the resources available to them. We need to hang in there with them and get them through it. Is it frustrating? Yes. Are there relapses? Yes. Is it frustrating for parents and heartbreaking for everybody else? Of course. But it has to be acknowledged and it has to be dealt with.