HBO Documentary: Heroin Cape Cod (2015)

When America’s opioid addiction (white America in particular) spiralled out of control, alarm bells are finally raised about the drug epidemic. Especially when opioid addiction usually leads to heroin addiction which is also a particularly deadly form of addiction.When drug addiction spread from the inner cities to the white suburbs, and when opioid addiction spreading to the New England suburbs, the beautiful picturesque towns dotted on the New England coastline is now the site of a national emergency, a generational crisis.

On top of this, a new study which just came out on November 2, 2015 by Angus Deaton and Anne Case of Princeton University, Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century, which details the slow death of middle-aged white Americans with a high school education or less by drugs, alcohol or suicide. The erosion of the middle class, the decline of median income starting in the 1970s have plunged white working class Americans into economic and emotional despair and they are slowly killing themselves with drink, drugs and suicide. As the researchers of this study suggests, they’ve “lost the narrative of their lives”. When hard work is no longer rewarded with decent standard of living, and they have no way of correcting this due to the lack of higher education or viable economic opportunities, it gives way to despair. This phenomenon is uniquely American. When you compare the same demographic amongst other developed and wealthy nations, middle aged white people are living longer and better.

You juxtapose this with the opioid epidemic that are plaguing the young in small towns and suburbs of America today, it makes for a depressing landscape. Chronic and excessive consumption of drugs and alcohol are a symptom of a bigger social problem. Something is very very wrong in America if large swathes of people (from different generations and social backgrounds) are drugging themselves to death. Excessive drinking and drug experimentation may be a rite of passage for many Americans, a thing one does when one is coming of age, when one is transitioning from young adulthood to mature adulthood, but when that experimentation phase turns into full blown addiction, where one’s life is totally consumed by addiction, it is no longer just a rite of passage. There is something far more serious, at the psychological level, that is going on.

People have lost the narrative of their lives. They’ve lost their life’s purpose. After all, New England is not one of the most economically depressed parts of the country and the opioid addiction is affecting children from middle and upper income families. Many children complained that their little Cape Cod community is boring with nothing to do, but this not new, kids are always bored witless. It’s part of growing up to feel nauseatingly bored with our mom and dad and what they want us to do, but never have so many turned to heroin to alleviate that boredom at so young. Heroin in the 1990s was the drug of last stop, after an addict has exhausted all the other drugs. Heroin is seen as highly addictive and very dangerous, a lot can go wrong in a very short amount of time and the window to reverse the effects of heroin overdose is very small, as the overdose deaths of Marissa and Arianna prove in this film. Even most addicts pray they don’t end up at the front doorstep of heroin. The kids of New England are using opioids and heroin before they reach 18.

The subjects of this documentary are all from the Cape Cod region of Massachusetts, the city of Falmouth to be exact. It’s also the same Cape Cod where President John F. Kennedy is from. Cape Cod today still looks like a picturesque postcard town of the Kennedy era. It’s a popular vacation spot for those with some means. The beaches are pristine, there are sailboats in the bay and it’s dotted by rows and rows of pretty Cape Cod and colonial style homes. The residents there are largely white, middle class and upper middle class. But behind that facade, there is a heroin addiction that is out of control, at epidemic levels, over 1000 deaths were attributed to heroin overdose in year 2013. Almost all of the subjects featured in this film are white, Marissa may be of Hispanic heritage as she looks ethnically ambiguous.

There are eight subjects in this film, they agreed to be interviewed on camera: Marissa, Arianna, Ryan, Daniel, Cassie, Jessica, Colie and Benjamin. Some of them even allowed themselves to be filmed shooting up, it is painful to watch, it’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. Of the eight subjects, Marissa and Daniel are the most open about their addictions. By the time the film aired, Marissa and Arianna had overdosed and died, Benjamin and Jessica “disappeared” and resumed their addiction, Daniel went to detox and got clean but relapsed three weeks later, Cassie is still struggling with detox and staying clean, Ryan is trying to stay off of heroin by doing other drugs or as he calls it “his way of staying clean” and only Colie was able to stay clean one year later. But as the story of Arianna will show, staying clean for years at a time does not prevent you from quickly relapsing and dying.

All of these people are only in their early twenties but they’ve already struggled with one form of addiction or another since they were 13 or 14 years old. Each of their stories are different and similar in their own ways. Almost all of the subjects begun experimenting with drugs and alcohol in their early teens, some as young as 12. They all started with drinking their parent’s beer or wines at house parties and smoking pot after school. From there each graduated into prescription opioids and then heroin. Ryan, Jessica, Cassie and Arianna were prescribed opioids for pain after a sport injury and from there their addictions took hold. Jessica was hit by a drunk driver when she was 17 and there was severe injuries to her face and she had to be prescribed heavy pain medication after her many surgeries. She still has big scars on her face as a result of that injury. Her addiction went from a physical dependency after so many surgeries but also because her face was permanently disfigured and she was only 18, she could not and did not want to be sober.

Arianna’s story is particularly tragic because she was a mother to two young children. At the beginning of the film she had been sober for three years and is living in a sober house with her children. She was doing so well. She had the brightest smile and blue eyes. She became sober when she found out she was pregnant with her first child and she stayed clean for over three years. Her children were her motivation and at the beginning of the film she was seen as a devoted parent who loved being a mother. However, one month after she gave her interview on film, she relapsed, disappeared, left her children with her mother and was found dead at the age of 23 from heroin overdose. Paramedics tried to revive her and they couldn’t. Her children are now motherless and in the care of her mother. Her family is devastated.

The director of the film Steven Okazaki focused on the here and now of his subjects’ addictions, he didn’t really delve into what drove them to be addicts. Some participants talked about what kept them addicted, Cassie said there are some “emotional shit” she never dealt with and ended it there. Others say it was a sports injury and it was a pain pill addiction that led to here. Daniel said he was a born addict, he was snorting pixie sticks on the school bus when he was in grade school, he’d drink a huge pot of coffee to get a caffeine high, so graduating to heroin is almost natural. Arianna said when she became unwittingly addicted she did not feel the desire to want to stay clean. Though her parents sent her to detox and rehab and sober living housing, she did not want to stay clean. When asked why she bothered with treatment if she didn’t want to stay clean, she said “she wanted to want to stay clean”, she was hoping treatment could make her want to stay clean.

The addicts featured in this documentary are not unaware oblivious junkies with no regard to the feelings of their parents and others. Many of them openly wept with despair at their addicted state but they just cannot stay clean. If they could just put it down and never touch heroin again and never want to crave heroin again, they’d do it in a heartbeat. Daniel wakes up every morning and prays that this is the day he will want to stop, he knows what a bitter disappointment he is to his parents. Ryan, in a particularly touching segment, while talking about his addiction to heroin and what he has done to his parents, a tear slid down his face, he is in total and utter despondency at his sad state but a short while later he was seen demanding sexual favors from a girl who wanted to score drugs from him but could not pay with cash. Marissa openly weeps and despairs at what she has done to herself to feed her addiction. She lies to her dad and tells him she’s fine. She says with some pride, unlike many addicts who rob and steal from others to feed their addiction, she didn’t go down that route. Marissa chose to work as a stripper and turn tricks to feed her addiction. She said doing so has destroyed her soul and impeded her recovery but that she was “a good girl” and did not know where it had all gone wrong. But no matter what she would not stoop so low to steal from others to buy drugs so she sells her body, her soul instead. She overdosed and died at age 23.

The family background of all the participants featured were of middle to upper income. Except Marissa, none of them have been to jail as result of their addictions. Their parents admitted that they were enablers. Because they have more resources than inner city families, heroin is so cheap to buy, and they realize the seriousness of having a drug charge on their children’s records, many of their parents just support their children’s habit and hope they go to detox and get clean at some point. They don’t want to see their children turn to large scale dealing to support their habit and risk arrest and prison. Perhaps it’s their way of holding on the last vestiges of respectability and pride in a very WASPy part of the country.

The parents of Cape Cod hold weekly meetings to discuss the addiction that is ruining their children’s lives and many of them despair at the lack of help available. Clearly the detox centers and sober house living arrangement isn’t working. They also get together in solidarity to break the silence and stigma of drug addiction. One mother said, if her son had any other chronic illness besides drug addiction, she’d have scores of concerned family and friends visiting with a casserole in hand. But because her son is a heroin addict, she is shunned and given the silent treatment. No one is bringing them any casseroles,  no one even asks after her son. They don’t know what to do about their children’s addiction, they can only speak to each other to hopefully bring solace and solidarity to each other.

The film is an unflinching look at the seriousness of drug addiction today. It shows how drug addiction slowly robs the person of their true self. Only a drug addict would sell her body to feed her addiction. Only a drug addict would leave her children and go get high. Only a drug addict would throw away all of their self respect to chase a high. But behind each of these subjects, you see a glimpse of a person there, the person they once were before they were addicts. This 77 minute documentary is like watching a trainwreck happen, you want to stop it but you can’t, you want to look away but you can’t. You want to shake these kids and say STOP, you are ruining your lives, but they already know that. Perhaps this is what society needs to see to understand how ruthless drug addiction is.

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