If you’ve grown increasingly numb to seemingly-endless reports of the ongoing opioid epidemic, then “Heroin(e)”, the haunting—and hopeful—new documentary just released on Netflix, will serve as a sobering reminder that every effort matters.
Heroin(e) Was a Personal Passion Project for the Director
“I’ve lost friends. I have friends and classmates that are in prison, in recovery, in rehab, still addicted. It’s just an issue I couldn’t ignore any longer.” ~ Director and West Virginia native Elaine McMillon Sheldon Even though it’s a Netflix documentary film that starkly depicts the real-word consequences of drug abuse, Heroin(e) never veers into voyeurism, exploitation, or sensationalism. For example, during the scenes showing a real heroin overdose as it was happening, there were no gimmicks or editing tricks designed to artificially increase the dramatic tension. Instead, everything is presented matter-of-factly, letting the individual stories unfold. Showing real scenes of real life actually increases the impact. And make no mistake—for a short, 39-minute film, Heroin(e) packs a LOT of punch.
Real People Making a Difference in Their Community
“But taking the angle of these three women gives people something to grasp onto. We made the film to be more experiential than informational…so you can be emotionally invested in the experience…” ~ EMS This isn’t a by-the-numbers documentary that beats you over the head with the same statistics you see in the news. Instead, the goal of Heroin(e) was to let you know about the efforts of three extraordinary women in Huntington—each making a difference in her own way, and each one a…heroine.
The Career Firefighter
Jan Rader is Huntington’s Fire Chief – the first female in West Virginia to hold that position. She spends much of her day responding to numerous opioid-related calls and reviving overdose victims. This is such a regular occurrence in Huntington that she worries about how constant exposure might affect the mental health of younger first responders who are still early in their careers. But, rather than being jaded or burnt out, Chief Rader staunchly believes in what she is doing. “The only qualification for getting into long-term recovery is you have to be alive. And I don’t care if I save somebody 50 times—that’s 50 chances to get into long-term recovery.”
The Drug Court Judge
The Honorable Patricia Keller is a rarity—she is a no-nonsense Huntington Drug Court judge who also shows empathy for the struggling addicts who appear before her. And when they succeed and “graduate” from the drug court program, she is just as proud as a parent—a special ceremony is held with family and friends in attendance, graduates are recognized and give speeches, and hugs are freely given out all around—even from (and for) the judge herself. About the individuals who appear before her, Judge Keller says, “Sometimes, unfortunately, relapses happen, particularly early in the program. But if you’re honest about it, I can work with you.”
The Ministry Volunteer
Necia Freeman spreads the Word through the Brown Bags and Backpacks Ministry. Among other things, she spends hours driving around and distributing meals and hygiene supplies to Huntington’s prostitutes, most of whom are drug-addicted. And, when they are ready, the Ministry will help them get off the streets and into a recovery program. Freeman says, “I ask them why they are doing drugs and they say, ‘Well, it’s to forget.’ Then I ask them if they’ve ever forgotten while doing drugs and they say no. So, let’s get you off drugs. And it’s awesome when it works.”
Promoting Hope by Showcasing Successes
Heroin addiction isn’t a “story” with a clean-cut beginning, middle, and end. Instead, it offers a “slice of life” experience, depicting the challenges and triumphs of the subjects. That’s one of the most positive attributes of this film—we get to see how these three women succeed.
- Chief Rader is shown saving the life of an overdose victim.
- Judge Keller is present at the graduation ceremony of several addicts.
- Ms. Freeman is shown getting a relapsing prostitute into a shelter and in touch with people who could help her.
The juxtaposition of their work is highlighted by Najah Menapace, one of the addicts appearing in Heroin(e). Where she was once an actively-addicted prostitute, the film shows her progressing in her recovery, staying clean longer than she has in years. She’s known to all three women—she’s in Judge Keller’s Drug Court, and when she graduates, Chief Rader attends. Now, she helps Ms. Freeman deliver Brown Bag deals. Najah says, “…I’ve seen girls out here that I have used with and been out here with and they see me clean now and see that I’s possible. So it helps me and it hopefully can help someone else.”
Heroin(e) Tells Human Stories in the Overdose Capital of America
“I’m absolutely convinced this is the largest existential health threat facing our nation — we’re losing one and at risk of losing two generations. Every day our emergency services and police are out on multiple calls dealing with addicts or overdoses.” ~ Huntington Mayor Stephen Williams Part of the reason the Netflix Documentary Heroin(e) resonates with the viewer is because of its setting—Huntington, West Virginia, described in the film as the “overdose capital of America”. In 2015, Huntington’s opioid overdose death rate was 10 times the national average. In this city of just 96,000, around 10,00 people are addicted to opioids. In a single summer evening in 2016, the city’s first responders had to deal with 28 opioid overdoses in a six-hour period. Fortunately, 26 of those victims survived, thanks to the life-saving administration of Narcan, an emergency drug that can reverse an opioid overdose.
West Virginia’s Opioid Crisis Mirrors the Rest of the USA
“There’s no way we can fight this problem with the current resources we have, and we’re in a massive budget deficit in the state of West Virginia. Two people die every single day in this one tiny state, and the surrounding states are just as bad, if not worse.” ~ EMS What really hits home are the scenes showing the homes and streets of Huntington – they are virtually indistinguishable from any other US city. This subtly illustrates the unspoken point that opioid addiction isn’t a regional problem—it’s an American problem. Drug overdose deaths in the US likely exceeded 59,000 in 2016, an astonishing 19% increase over 2015. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for people under 50.
Heroin(e) Reminds Us to Continue the Fight Against Addiction
“You have to resist that temptation to become numb, and really have a conversation that not only talks about this problem but includes the people that are trapped in addiction in the conversation. I think that’s essential.” ~ EMS The opioid epidemic is all around us – on the television news, in speeches from our elected leaders, and even on our social media feeds. Sometimes, it may feel like the opioid crisis is like the weather – everyone’s talking about it, but there’s not much that anyone can do. The ongoing work of these three women definitively proves how much one person…or three…or a DOZEN…can accomplish. Even work done on a small scale can have a BIG impact on a community level. The best news? When efforts succeed, the positive impact grows exponentially, as former addicts like Najah go on to give back, by helping others who are still where they once were. This isn’t just faith in their altruism—it is the 12th Step of Recovery. As Chief Rader says, “People do go into long-term recovery, and they do become productive citizens, tax-paying citizens, and they are going to, in turn, help more and more people suffering from addiction.