LIVE Podcast Episode
Featured Guest: Elaine McMillion Sheldon
In the depths of America’s drug overdose crisis, can a film help change the narrative by showing the complex realities of addiction and the authentic hope of recovery?
We’ll discuss this with the Oscar-nominated director of Netflix original documentaries Heroin(e) and Recovery Boys, Elaine McMillion Sheldon, on this live episode of Recovery Unscripted.
Interviewer: Elaine McMillion Sheldon is the director of two Netflix Original documentaries that explore America’s opioid crisis; Heroin(e), which Matt referenced, we saw here last night in a screening, and then also, Recovery Boys.
Heroin(e) was nominated for a 2018 Academy Award, and won the 2018 Emmy Award for outstanding short documentary. Previous to that, in 2013, Elaine also released a film called Hollow, an interactive documentary examining the future of rural America that received a Peabody Award and an Emmy nomination as well.
Elaine has appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, on Anthony Bourdain’s CNN show Parts Unknown, and on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd. She’s also been commissioned by Netflix, FRONTLINE PBS, the Marshall Project, Center for Investigative Reporting, and the New York Times among others. Join me in welcoming Elaine McMillion Sheldon.
Interviewer: All right. Good morning.
Elaine McMillion Sheldon: Good morning. Thank you guys for getting up early for this.
Interviewer: Yes. Like we mentioned, we’ll get into some of the films, but I thought we’d start talking about you and your background. I know you grew up in West Virginia where the films are set. Could you introduce us to that and how you got introduced to addiction in the opioid crisis?
Elaine: Yes. I grew up in Logan, West Virginia, which is right near on the Kentucky border. I live in Charleston, West Virginia, still. Addiction is, in many ways, a part of my life because of my surroundings. I’ve lost a lot of classmates from middle school and high school due to drug overdoses, and had been moving in and out of the state since I graduated from West Virginia University in 2009 and was actually, I was aware of all these things that were happening.
My mom does this thing at her church called the Comfort Committee, where they bring food to people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. It was weekly it felt like, she was texting me that she was taking food to someone that, a family, that had lost someone my age, or my classmates.
My husband and I were watching the Super Bowl in Chattanooga, and this was 2016, and I saw an ad for drug that was made to help with constipation due to opioid use. I was just blown away, because at that point, I hadn’t thought that opioid use and the economy around opioid use exists in Appalachia was just our problem, West Virginia’s problem. It really opened my eyes that this is a nationwide sport on the Super Bowl, there’s a lot of people that are potentially addicted to this substance.
At that point, I started looking at what was going on in the media. I found myself, really, almost unable to watch a lot of the coverage of the opioid crisis. It was a lot of needles, and spoons, and sensational desperation, and then on the other side, it was a lot of experts. I wanted to know what the normal life looked like. I wanted to go back to my home state and find those people that are quietly fighting this, whether they’re in recovery or helping others get in recovery.
Interviewer: Yes. Talk us through some of those first steps, maybe practical steps, going from having this idea of the opioid crisis is a big thing, and then you were already kind of a filmmaker at that time, I assume?
Interviewer: Talk us through those steps of going from having that idea to eventually actually making these films for Netflix.
Elaine: Yes. The process is a long one that starts with wanting to be a storyteller since a kid. I really have my community of West Virginia to thank for fostering me as a storyteller. One of those early mentors was a professor at journalism school, whose name is John Temple. He wrote a book called American Pain, which some of you guys may have read. He met Dr. Kevin Blankenship, who ended up starting the rehab that we follow in Recovery Boys.
John knew that I was interested in covering the topic and knew that I was looking for something I could really dig my teeth and spend some time with. We followed the guys in Recovery Boys for two years, so we really wanted to see a longitudinal look at what people were going through. He introduced me to Kevin. The journey really started with showing up at Kevin’s house and getting to know him, and meeting his son who has struggled with substance use, and just trying to get a handle on what the story would look like.
Then Heroin(e) was just sort of this little thing that we were doing on the side that had — neither of them had money. By the way, we worked on them for a year before anybody came on. We started making heroin because Huntington, West Virginia, had been getting this bad rap, really bad rap, all like international news, this is like the epicenter, this place is the worst of the worst, blah, blah.
I grew up near Huntington. I know Huntington’s had problems with drugs for a long time, it’s at the intersection of a tristate region of Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, so it’s a lot of drug trade there, but I also know there’s a lot of really good people in Huntington.
We went there looking for the active people, and we met Jan Rader who’s the first responder and featured in the film. After she rolled up in her fire truck and took us around town for the next three days, we basically could have called that film “Jan and her friends”, because everybody that is involved in Huntington is involved in a really deep way and put their egos aside. She was one of those. She was the one who introduced us to the other people in the film. Very practically, just getting on the ground and getting to know people is how we started.
Interviewer: And seeing where the stories are and who are the people. Yes. That’s getting into Heroin(e) a little bit. That came out in 2017. It follows three women specifically. You mentioned Jan Rader who is the fire department fire chief there, and also drug-court judge Patricia Keller, and street missionary Nisha Freeman. To get to give us some context for that, let’s go ahead and play the trailer for the film, Heroin(e).
Interviewer: Yes, powerful. Cool. The film starts, and you saw a little bit of it in the trailer, it starts with the first responders, kind of a montage of all these calls that they’re hearing for overdoses. Then fire chief Jan Rader is driving around town pointing out, “Somebody died there in that house, somebody died in that house.” It really sets the scene for the rest of the film. To just give us a little bit more of the landscape, why did a place like Huntington, West Virginia, end up becoming this opioid-overdose capital?
Elaine: I think it’s too much, too many drugs and not enough help, the wrong the wrong type of resources in that situation. There’s a pretty direct line of drug trade in that area from Detroit down to reaching Ohio, Kentucky and elsewhere. That’s changed a lot. Since this film came out, they’ve reduced overdoses by 40%.
Elaine: I actually hadn’t seen that trailer since they came out. It’s intense. They’ve turned around a lot. They’ve started this quick response team, which goes out after 48 hours after an overdose with someone in recovery, someone from the medical community. They go out and they tell people their options, “Here’s your options for recovery.” They have options now.
I think the lack of options for getting care, over-prescribing. Huntington in the coalfields is a place where a lot of the work is manual labor, there’s a lot of injuries, there’s a lack of access to good healthcare in these small communities that surround Huntington themselves, and so pain pills became healthcare in some ways. It’s a number, sort of a perfect storm of a place.
I think it’s also important to note that Huntington does get a lot of attention, but they’re honest about their problem. I think because they’re so honest about their problem is why they get so much attention. We were trying to be fair to them and saying, “This may not be the worst place in America.” The stats look bad but that’s because they track their stats, that’s because they’re honest about their statistics.
There’s a lot of communities in America that are still in denial about their problem and aren’t tracking their statistics that could be worse than this. I think it’s an important note to admire Huntington for embracing that. It led to a lot of negative attention, but ultimately, it led to reducing overdoses about 40% because they could get the help they needed to turn things around.
Interviewer: Yes, yes. That’s an important distinction is that that maybe they’re just tracking it more than some other places as well.
Elaine: Absolutely. They have real-time tracking. They’ve built all kinds of little systems, and apps, and things to track these calls. They felt it was important to actually understand the gravity of the situation, so they could properly respond.
Interviewer: Yes. You touched on a little bit there, but places like Huntington that have been so affected by this crisis often get that bad rap; they show up in headlines for the wrong reasons. It’s easy for it to seem like those places are all doom and gloom. I like in this film you’re very intentional about showing the positive side, the hopeful side. Was that a big part of your mission in the film to show that reality, like, “It is really bad. It is really hard,” but also to rewrite some of those negative connotations about rural Appalachia?
Elaine: Yes, I think that’s just my life mission. [laughs] When I was growing up in the coal fields, the only images that represented the life that I was from were black and white images of kids with dirty faces and no shoes in front of porches. I certainly have been a kid with a dirty face with no shoes in front of my porch, and my life was happy and fine. The power of the image to oversimplify a very complicated life is something that I grew up in the shadows of, growing up in Appalachia. I try to go through life with a healthy balance between what’s real and what keeps people going day-to-day.
If all was bad in Huntington, no one would live there, they’d leave and they’d give up. There’s something that keeps people motivated to keep trying. Even in the city I live in, Charleston, which is just 45 minutes away from Huntington, there’s something that keeps me there.
People think, sometimes, hope is this flimsy thing that you have to put a gloss on something to make it have hope, but really, if you look at the reality of any situation, it’s only the labels we make it. Things are only positive and negative when we label them that way. Hope is one of those things that’s just like the thing that keeps people fighting, and it exists if you’re willing to find it.
Interviewer: Yes. It really does take people who want to be invested in their community and stick it out, like the women in the film.
Elaine: Yes. These women represent women and men all across this country that get up day in, day out and try to make their communities better, and get zero attention for it; they don’t have a Netflix film about them. I hope that, in that way, this film can celebrate those people.
Interviewer: Yes. As you and your crew got into Huntington, you started–
Elaine: It was just my husband and I.
Interviewer: Your husband and I? Tight crew. Got into Huntington, what was the response? As you were walking around with cameras, did the people in Huntington, were they excited about you telling the story, were they a little afraid of the rest of the world seeing what it was like there?
Elaine: People in Huntington are used to cameras dropping in for a day or two. Everybody from Vice, to CNN, to BBC, had dropped in for a day or two. They go straight to the fire department, they want to see the overdose, and they want to leave. At first, we just looked like those people.
Then when we kept sticking around and asked if we could sleep at the fire department, and asked if we could– after 35 days of shooting, they realized, “Okay, this is probably going to be something a bit different than what CNN, and BBC, and Vice put out.” It’s really we have the luxury, which I think is a choice, but we have the luxury of spending more time because we live in West Virginia, so our expenses to make these films are quite low. Whereas if we were to live in New York or LA, to drop in for a couple of days is quite a big chunk of money to spend. We have that luxury of staying longer.
I think it’s when you stay longer that you actually get beneath the surface. You actually get to see like that decompression mode after an emergency. You don’t just get to see the emergency in a day. There’s a conversation that happens after an emergency where first responders feel really hopeless about the situation. They, themselves, might be struggling with substance use to numb the pain that they’re feeling of not being able to help.
It’s way more complicated than just one overdose scene and it ends, there’s the court system, there are children involved. Staying longer, you get to see those layers. I think that the response was, “Oh, these people aren’t going away. Let’s get used to them being around. How can we help show them what Huntington is doing?”
Interviewer: It seems like they understood what you were trying to do?
Elaine: Yes. We live in West Virginia, so we had a lot in common with these people. It wasn’t hard for us to understand, it’s at our front step as well. I think we approached it in a way that just felt less transactional and more community-driven in the sense of like, “We do care about what happens here,” because what happens there impacts where I live as well.
Interviewer: Let’s dive a little bit deeper into the film now. As we saw in the trailer, it follows around these three women. As you got into Huntington and were meeting people, starting to see what it was like there, why did you end up choosing to focus in on these three women in particular?
Elaine: I don’t remember why. We didn’t intentionally set out to make a film about women. I just felt that these three women were touching people at interesting levels of our government and society. You have Jan. She’s the person who is like starfish, like on the beach, throwing one starfish out back at a time. She’s just trying to keep people alive. Then you have Judge Keller, who is trying to give them a second chance once Jan has saved them. Then you have Nisha Freeman, who specifically is trying to get those people into Judge Keller’s courtroom. They all make this interesting, this show, how we all can have impact, I think.
We filmed with these women from like February to October off and on in 2016. Then the Center for Investigative Reporting put this call out for short films about women making change. My husband had jokingly already named the film Heroin(e) and we had this footage, and so it immediately became about women making change because now, there was an opportunity to release it for the Center for Investigative Reporting. That’s when they came on and they helped fund the edit. We hired an editor and we were able to actually make this film a reality. Then Netflix came on when we were in post-production in the edit.
Netflix had already acquired Recovery Boys. We had been shooting Recovery Boys for a year and had been pitching it. We were just living 20 minutes away from the rehab, so we’re just showing up two to three days a week. We didn’t have any money to make the film. When they came on on that, they found out we have this short too, and they thought it would be an interesting opportunity to have a short and feature-length documentary on the platform together, addressing this issue that’s so important. It was a lucky thing.
Interviewer: Yes, yes. Yes, and that’s interesting. I guess I didn’t realize that, watching the films, that Recovery Boys, you were shooting before and after Heroin(e), so Heroin(e) dropped in the middle there somewhere.
Elaine: Yes. We just thought it would be something that maybe will go on the Center for Investigative Reporting’s website, never imagined it would be able to be seen all across the world like it has been.
Interviewer: Yes. That’s cool. Something you touched on is that it really does take all of those layers. It’s not just the emergency response, it’s not just the justice system, the volunteers; they all work together symbiotically.
Interviewer: As you saw on the trailer, one of the focuses is the fire department, and that shows a lot of overdose, it shows a lot of people being brought back with naloxone, the overdose antidote. There’s a scene — this is still a divisive issue in some areas, and there’s a scene where the fire chief generator is at a community meeting and she has to defend the use of naloxone. That’s where she says, “If I have to save someone 50 times, that gives them 50 chances of long-term recovery.” How would you describe what you saw in both sides of that argument there in Huntington?
Elaine: West Virginia, we’re bankrupt. We don’t have any money. One of the arguments against supplying naloxone to communities is, “Who is going to pay for this?” The naloxone that you see being distributed through the EVZIO, that was called — I can’t remember the auto-injector — that was a donation. A lot of the naloxone that’s available in Huntington either comes from grant money that they have to apply for, or now pharmaceutical companies after lawsuits.
That’s one of the big things is like, “Who’s going to pay for this?” I think people feel you can’t live– maybe, in America now, but in West Virginia, you can’t live anywhere and not know someone impacted by this. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about addiction still being this moral weakness or something that you just need to stop. You just quit, right?
For someone that does really believe that and doesn’t understand the brain and all the different things that are at play, it’s easy for them to just say, “Three Strikes, You’re Out,” which was proposed in Ohio when we were filming. This town in Ohio said, “We’ll respond three times to an overdose. If we show up the fourth, we’re not using naloxone. We’ll use other forms of life-saving techniques, but we’re not using naloxone.”
I think it’s just a misunderstanding, it’s also an economic factor. There’s a lot of things going on there, but for Jan, it’s no question. This is a human life, and as a firefighter, she took the oath to save lives and property, and that includes all forms of emergency. She always used to say, “We don’t roll up to someone is
a diabetic and hasn’t been properly taking their insulin or eating right,” and refused to offer them treatment, “So, why would we do the same with a person suffering from substance use disorder?”
I think the tides are changing. One really cool thing that has been happening with Heroin(e) is a network of churches and other community networks have been using the film to get people trained on naloxone. They actually will get some naloxone over the counter and actually train the people that watch the film, afterwards, after they watch the film, on how to use it, and people go home with it. That’s good to see.
Interviewer: Yes, yes. Did you say that the pharmaceutical companies are having to provide some because of lawsuits?
Elaine: Yes, Cardinal Health. Cardinal Health, as part of the settlement had to provide the nasal. They’ve so many doses of the nasal spray.
Interviewer: Wow. That was interesting that that’s one of the ways that it’s getting out there.
Elaine: Gosh, that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what we need to see. It’s such a major problem. I had heard some dealers– I think Jan told me that some drug dealers in Huntington and Charleston were now selling naloxone as part of what they’re selling heroin because they realize like there’s not a lot of places for people to get it and they want it. That just blew my mind.
Interviewer: Yes. Chief Rader in another one of the scenes describes — she’s worked with the fire department there for a long time, and describes when earlier in her career, she would go a long; days, weeks, whatever it was, without seeing an overdose, and now it seems like that’s a major part of the job description. That’s something they see just about every day.
How would you describe the emotional toll, the mental toll on those first responders, who are not only seeing some people die, but also are seeing people who are overdose and then seeing them revived with naloxone?
Elaine: I think the reason they’ve seen more overdoses is because people aren’t aware of what they’re getting, or sometimes that they’ll think they’re buying heroin, and it is fentanyl or carfentanyl, and it’s dropping people. You can actually see, the firefighters will tell you, you can see where you see a dealer moving across from like north to south from the city, the overdose calls will come in succession across the town.
They’d know once they start seeing that move, they know to be ready. When it was it was oxycodone or a pill, they knew the dose. It’s hard to say. Overdosing was a very specific thing. The compassion fatigue?
Interviewer: Yes, the emotional toll of seeing and being in those situations every day?
Elaine: I do think first responders are a different breed of people that I could respect more than I could imagine. The thought that they put themselves in the way of danger to help people all the time, they have to be a different type of person. At the same time, they’re human beings too, that in the quiet moments when they get back or replaying those scenes and are seeing the children that were standing over their father while they were reviving, they talk about that being one of the biggest things that haunts them is the fact when there’s children in the home.
There was this one situation this first responder told us, where the daughter was standing there in her backpack. Her dad was supposed to take her out to get the bus and decided, I guess, to shoot up right before they went out. He just collapsed right there, and she was standing there waiting for the school bus. I think those are the things that really bother them.
One firefighter told us that he just refuses to look at people’s faces because he’s been haunted by too many. This doesn’t just have to do with overdoses, it’s just the traumatic things they see; car accidents, gunshot. They see crazy stuff. This is just another level when it has a child involved, I think, for them. Huntington, since this films came out, there are many cool things that have happened. They’ve started offering mindfulness training, meditation workshops, yoga, they have stress relief massage therapy.
Interviewer: For the first responders?
Elaine: For the first responders. They have counseling available. There is a stigma, everyone in this room knows with mental health, and getting a bunch of burly men first responders, who think they’re there to save everybody all the time, to admit that they need to talk to someone and they need help is one of Jan’s biggest challenges. She’s the only woman in the fire department.
Oftentimes, when she’s proposing something, it can be met with resistance because she is a woman and she’s coming up with these ideas that are seen as less traditional within the first-responder community. It’s changing. I don’t want to make blanket statements about first-responder community, but in Huntington it’s changing, and they need just as much recovery time as someone that’s suffering from substance use disorder, I think, because it has to wear you down.
Interviewer: Yes. You got to take care of yourself, just like you work in addiction treatment, doing anything else. Yes. Judge Keller, who’s another one of the figures, I think she’s a really likable figure because she has a little bit of humor, a lot of compassion, but also firm boundaries, and follow-up, and all that.
One of the things that I picked up from her parts in the film is that she seems to really understand addiction, and recovery, and relapse and wants to get people the help that they need individually, as opposed to just having a blanket criminal justice view. Is that something that you think is more of an anomaly within the justice system, or how common is someone Judge Keller?
Elaine: I hate to say this if it’s not totally accurate, but I’m almost positive the concept of drug court started in Florida in the ‘90s. It’s not just something that’s existing there, and it’s actually completely underfunded. The drug court positions in West Virginia are volunteer positions. Judges do it on top of their other roles as circuit court judges or family court judges. She was a family court judge.
She felt it was important to start an adult drug court, because basically every issue she was dealing with in family court led back to someone needing help with their addiction. There’s juvenile drug court. There’s adult drug court. You’re seeing it in communities where people are turning the tide on being more empathetic. I don’t think it’s spread evenly throughout all races and class.
I think that for our history, we have treated particularly the African-American community as straight criminals for their substance use disorder, and they have not been offered the same amount of help as we’re seeing offered to whites today. I think there’s a lot of correcting to do there. I do think it’s becoming– I hope it’s becoming a thing that’s happening all across the US. I just think it’s underfunded in a lot of places. You have to have people like, if you don’t have someone Judge Keller who just finds it important within her to volunteer to do this, I don’t know how it’s sustainable.
It costs a lot less for the economy to locking someone up than to put them in a two-year supervised treatment within drug court treatment. They can reconnect with their children. They can get jobs. There’s a lot that happens outside the courtroom that helps them. They raise money. If you need no-skid shoes to start your job in a restaurant, they’ll get you some no-skid shoes. They go above and beyond just the actual court proceedings to help people reintegrate, which is what it’s all about.
Interviewer: Yes. That’s crazy she’s a volunteer. I didn’t realize that in the film.
Elaine: She lost that drug court about four days after the film came out. The West Virginia Supreme Court decided that family court judges could no longer run drug court, which is a director action against her and a couple other successful drug courts.
Washington Supreme Court has been notoriously against the idea of drug courts. Now, it’s ran by the circuit court judge. I don’t know how it’s going. I hope it’s going well. He’s a good guy but he’s a circuit court judge; he’s busy, and it’s a hard thing to do. Yes, it’s an uphill battle with the court system and with the jail system.
Interviewer: Yes, it’s a one step forward, two steps back thing. Yes. Being a West Virginia native yourself, living there, I’m sure you knew a lot about this. You said you had classmates who had gone through opioid overdose. Was there anything you learned in making this film that surprised you?
Elaine: Yes, I learned so much. I guess I just found a lot in common with people that are in recovery. I think that people think of recovery as a thing that you do if you have a problem, but we’re all in recovery. When I watched these men in Recovery Boys into rehab and follow them for two years, I just realized how core human they had to become to build themselves back up into this new person that had different behaviors, and responded differently to the world, and all these different things. I just found that so admirable.
There are so many parts of recovery that I just feel like anybody should practice. I think that that was one of the things that really impacted me is, when the guys would meditate in Recovery Boys that I started to learn to meditate, and just trying to practice compassion and all these different things that come with rebuilding yourself.
It’s work that most people just don’t do because they don’t have to, because the court system is not making them, or CPS isn’t threatening to take their kids, but if we all did the work that’s done in recovery, the self-discovery and the sort of dealing with your demons because we all have them, then would be such a better society. That just really blew my mind and helped me as a person, helped me grow as a person.
Interviewer: Yes. Those same practices will help everyone. It’s not just one group of people needs them and we can watch.
Elaine: No, we all need them; more so, really.
Interviewer: All right. That’s a good segue into Recovery Boys. This film came out in 2018. Like you said, it’s a longer form documentary, and it also takes place over two years, so a pretty long span of time. It’s there in West Virginia at a treatment center. It follows four main characters, I would say, Jeff, Ryan, Rush, and Adam, through their journey in treatment and into recovery. To set that up, we’ll go ahead and play the trailer for Recovery Boys.
Interviewer: Yes. Again, powerful film. Watching this one, you really feel connected with these guys, or at least I did.
Elaine: Ryan is doing really, really, really well, and Rush is doing well. Adam is still hanging in there, Jeff too. It’s so crazy, like that was Ryan. That last shot was Ryan’s graduation, and now he is a huge part of the recovery community’s help start Harm Reduction Programs at the county where the rehab is. It’s amazing that we were able to document that part of their life, because that was such a critical turning point for them.
Interviewer: Yes, yes. That’s what I wanted to get into is that, it follows these guys. They start off at pretty much the same place, in addiction, coming into this treatment program, and then they go through the same program. Then over the course of the film, they end up in pretty drastically different places. I wasn’t going to spoil it for people who haven’t seen, but Ryan, the guy with the longer hair and the baseball cap, ends up becoming a recovery coach. That goes down. You have one of the guys is still in recovery, one of the guys is on the fence, or I don’t know where he is now, and then one of the guy’s whereabouts is unknown.
I think that’s really important to show that because there’s still this idea, maybe not in this room, but in the general public, that recovery is this one time, fork in the road, but it’s really not that simple. Was that part of it? You want to look at those misconceptions about recovery?
Elaine: When I think about the early days, I was just really ignorant. I just wanted to see how to show this journey. I didn’t have a clue what would happen. In many ways, I was like the people watching the film, like, “Is this going to work?” When their phones get turned off, and you can’t find them, and all these things, it was a very stressful film to make.
I think what’s interesting about substance use disorder and stigma is that so many people think one of these guys is going to do really, really well. I think it’s because of the way he looks and the way he presents himself. So many people think one of these guys is going to do really bad. I think it’s because of the way he looks, his tattoos, and the way he presents himself. They couldn’t be further from the truth of how the documentary ends.
The documentary ends and it’s not the end of these guys’ lives. These guys’ lives continue to transform. They continue to have the daily triumphs and struggles like all of us. I do think it’s very eye-opening for audiences that come with some pretty strong preconceptions of what recovery looks like and what a worthy person looks like. It really challenges people’s preconceptions. I can’t say that was like– that’s not me, that’s them. That’s all these guys. We just presented the things as we saw them unfold.
The only intention with Recovery Boys, it wasn’t like Huntington where we’re trying to correct an image. We were really just trying to go deep to look at what human transformation looks like with these four men. Their recovery doesn’t represent all forms of recovery; there’s many different ways to recover, but this is their experience.
They were so vulnerable to let us in at that moment, from their first day of walking into rehab. It blows my mind that they agreed and that they wanted to participate. and stayed with us for two years, and they came to the screenings when the film came out, and have continued to stay involved. I just have so much respect for them they were willing to do that, because what they offered to the world is a very raw and real experience, one that’s not through a filter of any false hopes or scare tactics.
Interviewer: Yes. It really does play out as this like suspense film almost, as a viewer, because like you said, when you’re a filmmaker, you’re just capturing what happens, you didn’t know what’s going to happen. That carries over as a viewer, you’re like, “Okay. Well, I don’t know if this guy is going to make this right decision, or this other decision, or what’s going to happen?” It really does, at least for me, it kept me engaged where I didn’t know what was going to happen.
I like how you touched on the preconceived notions. I hadn’t thought about either. Ryan, the guy who ends up being the recovery coach, he shows up, he’s like the rawest, fresh off the street coming into treatment, long hair, tattoos, Grateful Dead t-shirt.
Elaine: People are always like, “He’ll never make it.”
Elaine: They always come up to me at the end of the film, and they’re like, “I never thought he’d make it. He looks so rough.” I’m like, “Humans transform.”
Interviewer: Yes. That’s important, for this crowd, for this industry to be like, “Yes, everyone who shows up has that chance,” and not to have those preconceived notions.
Elaine: I know it complicates the idea of like, even my friends that have gone into rehab, it’s very frustrating to see them go to rehab and relapse, but hopefully complicating the idea that relapse is something we need to not only expect but prepare for. Make sure that we’re not putting people back even further when that does happen, whether that’s shaming them or not getting them the right help. Also, hopefully, understanding that things, such as poverty and the criminal justice system, all the things that, yes, maybe you’re six months sober but when you walk out, if you’ve two felonies, how are you going to get a good job?
There’s a lot of things at play that go beyond just getting a bed at a rehab, which was in my mind when I started the film, “My God, these guys are the lucky ones,” because there’s it’s three, four-month long waiting list in West Virginia to get into rehabs. I was like, “These guys are good to go.” What’s real is that, when they get out, there’s a lot going on in society and a very unforgiving place to reintegrate them.
Interviewer: One of the themes in this film and in the other film too, is this idea of community, especially in this film, taking that longer-term view of it, and be like, “Okay, what’s going to happen? Where’s your community?” like once you leave the treatment center. What did following this group of guys, specifically in Recovery Boys, what did that show you about that element of connection, vulnerability, community, and how important that is to building recovery long-term?
Elaine: It revealed how important belonging is; belonging and purpose. When they were in that rehab, it’s a farming-based rehab. The concept behind it is they get up every day and they have their chores, they work on the farm. They had long-term goals; plant the seed today, see the growth in two months or whatever it may be, and sort of rewiring the brain from that instant gratification of getting high to thinking about planning for the future; living in the present, but also make taking actions that will lead to healthier decisions and things like that.
They had that sense of community in that rehabs because it’s farm. It’s a community, and its farmers. They sell their food. They sell their eggs to the restaurant. They’re very integrated in the farming-based community; it’s not just a rehab that sits on its own. They do a lot of volunteer work.
Volunteering is a huge part of the rehab experience there. I think that what was so sad is once they leave there, if they don’t stay connected to that, they’re isolated again, and they’re alone. If they don’t stay plugged into, whether it’s a 12-step community or a different type of recovery community, the old patterns present themselves again, the shame re-enters, all those things.
I feel like that’s true for any of us. The isolation, and belonging, and sense of purpose, I think that’s what concerns me more than anything about recovery, is that feeling of lack of belonging. I think it’s possible for any of us to feel that whether there’s substances involved or not. We all want to feel like we’re contributing to something bigger than ourselves. There is a very poor economy where they’re living. Not being able to support yourself financially feeds that as well. It’s very complicated.
I think that belonging, being embraced back into your community is really important, and that comes with educating the people within your community that you can change, and you can be better, and you can be present. That’s the thing that scares me, because I think like bigger picture, we’ve lost each other in some ways. We’ve gone away from the community-driven life that maybe we once had, or once was more important, to a very individualized environment. We need belonging, and we need purpose, and we need community to heal.
Interviewer: Yes. That’s a bigger cultural shift that we all can be a part of, for sure.
Elaine: Right. It starts with ending the othering this group or problems versus us who’ve got it all right. It doesn’t exist.
Interviewer: Yes. As you guys got a glimpse of in the trailer, if you haven’t seen the film, this film gets pretty raw, pretty emotional. You’re there in the moments that these guys are dealing with this stuff, finding out news, all that kind of thing. As a filmmaker, as a storyteller, when you are going about taking on that role of capturing and sharing these really profoundly personal vulnerable moments, how do you approach taking on that responsibility? Because that’s heavy.
Elaine: It is heavy. I just try to have an open dialogue with whoever it is that is sharing that with me, making sure they’re aware of like, “Okay, we filmed this. Are you comfortable with this being out there?” constantly checking in; not taking it all on me to like fix. I’m not there to fix the problems, I can’t fix the problems, but making sure that I’m clear about what I’m there to do.
We showed the film to the guys before it came out. We got everybody together. It was a hard screening, but at the end of it, they all felt we didn’t pull any punches and we’re honest, and we’re able to give their feedback. Yes, I think that’s the most important thing when I take on a project is to make sure I’m honest.
I’m not there to put a gloss on anything or make things seem better or worse, and when they are, make them seem more dramatic than they are, I’m just there to capture things as they unfold. Somehow, we had tons of footage, it was like over 100 days of shooting compressed into, I think like 87 minutes. There’s a lot of things that are left out that I’m sure they would have liked to have seen in there.
I just try to be as honest as possible throughout all the process. After we film something, the cameras get turned off and we hug one another, like to say, “I’m sorry. I know this sucks. How are you feeling right now?” and just trying to be a human being, because this is their story, and it’s going to be replayed over and over, and that can be traumatic, and like certain parts of it they may not want play over and over. Just trying to stay open dialogue. It’s not my story, but it’s my responsibility to present it in a way that’s not harmful; that’s helpful.
Interviewer: That’s interesting thing about the connection between you and your husband, who made this film, and those guys. I’m thinking of, there’s even one scene with one of the guys where he ends up in the criminal justice toward the end. He walks in for his hearing and he sees you guys, so he looks into the camera and he gets excited and like waves.
Elaine: He was so sad. I was there alone. My husband was out of the country. We couldn’t find him, and his lawyer called me and she says, “He has a hearing tomorrow.” I was like, “Oh, my gosh.” I didn’t have access to shoot, so I just drove up there and started scrambling.
He came in, he was so excited to see me. It broke my heart, because it felt like I was just this person who had been in his life for a year-and-a-half. I was no one compared to everybody else in his life, but I was the person there, and he was waving at me. I was like, “Stop. Stop waving at me,” because I’m holding the camera. I went over and hugged him and I didn’t know it wasn’t allowed and got yelled at. It was awful. You feel a lot of pressure when someone is that excited to see– you feel you have to help, but I can’t. There’s nothing I can do.
My husband was the one that would lighten the mood. He would say something funny or be just a dude with them, and I’d be the one that would ask him the hard questions that would get them to cry. They were able to have these different sides of their personality. They were comfortable with us, because my husband and I are both very different and we have different ways of navigating the world. They were able to relax with him, and then buckle down with me and get real.
We provided some release between the two of us of doing that. It’s an interesting thing to witness with your husband as well, because like I said, we learned a lot from these guys. They taught us more than we ever imagined.
Interviewer: That is crazy though, because you’re not going there to become part of the story, but you get to know these guys, you have these hard conversations and after two years, yes, you are part of their lives.
Elaine: Yes. You just feel totally helpless in the sense of like, “I don’t know how to fix this. All I can do is present it, and make sure you’re good with that presentation.”
Interviewer: These films came out. Did you expect them to get the attention that they had? Did you expect people to be interested in this topic to the extent that they have been?
Elaine: Not really, because we made them on our own for a year before anybody came on. We had applied for funding and no one seemed that interested. That didn’t stop us, because we thought these guys were awesome. Once you start filming something like this and you have the trust of an entire group and a rehab that’s let you have this full access, you’re not going to stop. You’ve got to get it out there. It’s your responsibility at that point. We did not expect them to do as well as they did though. I’m glad that they’ve been useful. I mean, they’ve been put to use.
It’s nice to see films be put to use, like for conversations, or for naloxone training, just making a film that people walk away and they think, “That was a nice shot or that music was nice,” that’s not enough. These topics are really serious. These are life or death topics, and so for people to actually put them to use in other things they’re doing, because we’ve been start the conversation, we’re just adding to it. That’s been incredible.
Interviewer: Yes. It’s a good point, because a lot of the screenings have been community events, and so it really is giving people an excuse to start this conversation. It seems like, as we just said, through these types of community events and other forms of education, getting more media that looks at addiction, and the opioid crisis and recovery through this kind of authentic lines, that seems like it would be a really powerful tool toward breaking the stigma, battling misconceptions in the culture. Do you feel that Hollywood it or media, in general, is moving in that direction toward a more accurate description?
Elaine: I don’t know. I don’t live in Hollywood. I don’t do Hollywood. I just assume they’ll always get things wrong, unless they’ve lived then themselves. I think that’s the challenge is I care about my region and my place, therefore, as an extension, I care about this crisis. I think this is what we need. We need more storytellers who have lived it. Where is the director that’s in recovery that’s in Hollywood? I want to see that film.
I want to see the viewpoint of someone who’s lived it. Hopefully, they’ll get it right. One of the things that’s really inspiring is how many people are in recovery, and how many stories there are to tell. They can tell their own story. I would never dare to say this is the recovery film. There’s so many different stories. There are so many different opportunities for people to share their stories. I just would like to see more of that community-driven storytelling.
Interviewer: Based on your experience making these films, what do you think you might want to do next? I know you said you’re working on some stuff right now. What are some other perspectives that you’re in shining a light on?
Elaine: I’m finishing a film right now about women in a women’s prison in Alabama, where the women are primarily there because of their substance use disorder but are having children while incarcerated. The film focuses on a program specifically targeted with helping that 24-hour period. They have 24 hours with their baby before they have to leave. It’s just looking at the–
Interviewer: Before the baby has to leave?
Elaine: Before the woman has to go back to prison, the baby gets picked up, yes, so before the separation. Looking at that generational trauma and looking at the criminal justice system. These women should be in rehabilitation centers, not prison. I’m not allowed to say who it’s for. I am looking, someone in this room might know someone for this documentary. I have a really exciting short documentary I have been asked to make for a national partner that’s for child facing content. I’m very interested in
how we can start these conversations among children.
There’s over 7,000 kids in foster care in West Virginia right now. If I had a lot of money, I would put it all towards helping kids avoid this. That comes with teaching them about trauma and how to deal with things. Anyway, this short documentary I’m looking for features the family and recovery. There needs to be a child in the home that’s around seven or eight, and then a younger child that can talk from their point of view. It’s for really cool partners.
If you guys know of any kids and children in a family that you think would be good, the family needs to be in recovery for at least two years, that will be a really cool project. I really wish I could say who it’s for, but please, if you do know someone, let me know.
Interviewer: Okay. You guys, you know of the deal, you can find her after. Cool. With this crowd, like you said, these are the people who are there on the front lines fighting for the cause of recovery. I guess with all that you’ve learned, all that you’ve seen, what would your message be for this type of audience, the people who are working in addiction treatment?
Elaine: Gosh, you guys are the experts. I’m just a person who sits and watches things and films them, I don’t have any advice for this crowd. You guys are the leaders. I guess what I would like to see more of is like, the stories of recovery being more out there. Even with Recovery Boys, the guys were really concerned about telling their stories, because they were so used to telling it in an anonymous way, which I understand that privacy, understand the need for that.
I also feel those four stories broke down so many barriers, even within my own family, of understanding what someone’s going through. I just want to see more of that. I want to see more stories of recovery, what recovery looks like, and sharing those stories I think is really powerful, and getting them to reach people that aren’t even in this world.
Keep up the good work. I’ve a lot of hope. I feel like the fact that this exists is wonderful. I appreciate you guys watching the films. If you would like to, one thing I would say is you can use either the films in any setting you’d like. There’s no cost to screen them. You can sign into your own Netflix account or sign up for a free 30-day trial and then cancel it.
We made educational field guides on our website, recoveryboys.thefilm.com. We have one for Heroin(e) and Recovery Boys. It goes through discussions that you can have with the community, suggested Q&A, suggested panel, all those types of things. You can host as many screenings of both of these films as you’d like to, as big of audiences as you want. I just hope that they continue to be used in that way.
Interviewer: All right. Well, Elaine, thank you so much for your work with these films.
Elaine: Thank you, guys.
Interviewer: Thank you for sharing with us, today.
Elaine: I appreciate it.
Interviewer: Yes. Elaine Mcmillion Sheldon.
[00:53:14] [END OF AUDIO]