Last week HBO showed a new documentary entitled Heroin: Cape Cod, USA. With much anticipation I viewed this documentary with expectations of a win for the recovery community. In my eyes, HBO generally does a great job with documentaries and I was excited to see that addiction was in the limelight. Social media was abound with people talking about the doc before it aired. Unfortunately, I came away from it with a bad taste in my mouth and according to others, I wasn’t the only one.
The documentary was made by filmmaker Steven Okazaki who also made a documentary in 1999 about the heroin epidemic entitled Black Tar. He admittedly randomly stumbled upon heroin as a subject for films and has no emotional ties to addiction or heroin that he speaks of. In an interview with HBO about Heroin Cape Cod, he mentions that people don’t understand addiction, that addicts are treated as lower life forms, and that when you see stories about heroin in the news it seems distant and abstract. It seemed his goal was to make this epidemic appear as real as it is.
The doc follows 8 heroin addicts in small town Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In 2014, Massachusetts had more than 1,250 deaths from heroin overdose, and today 85 percent of the crimes on Cape Cod are opiate related. Known for its pristine beaches and historic lighthouses, the vacation destination of Cape Cod is shown as just one example of small town, USA that has been struck by the devastating heroin epidemic. The people featured in the film are in their 20’s, live in the area, and talk candidly about their drug addictions and their stages of treatment, recovery, and relapse.
A depressing peak into addiction
It didn’t take long into the 1.5-hour long documentary to realize that the addicts who were involved were in a bad way. They drop like flies, meaning they begin to die off soon into the doc. In the opening scene a girl named Marissa talks about how heroin addiction takes over your life and how you’ll stop at nothing to get one high once you start and are hooked. The next scene shows a person lying lifeless on the side of the road being shaken by a bystander and the police rushing to their side. It’s clear to the viewer that an overdose has just taken place. This sets the tone for the entire documentary.
One girl is a stripper, one was sober for three years then relapsed and died, another young man is a dealer and on his own cocktail of drugs to attempt to “detox” his own way off of heroin, and so on. The documentary is intense, depressing, scary, and extremely triggering. It shows up close addictive rituals like cooking heroin and shooting up.
As the documentary goes on, you hope that each one of these suffering souls will find recovery and get the help they need, but that’s not the case. The majority detox and land in rehab for a short time only, then end up back in their normal routine of doing whatever it takes to get their drug. It’s hard to watch as the noticeably high addicts continue to make bad choices and not get the help they so desperately need and deserve.
The only glimpse of recovery in the doc is a parents’ support group in Cape Cod that agreed to allow the cameras in to film one of its weekly meetings. The parents in the meeting sympathized with each other about not wanting to stay silent about their children’s addiction, talked about feeling lonely, and the need to get their stories out into the world so others like them would know they aren’t alone. These parents also mentioned the lack of control they have over their addicted children and some spoke of enabling their kids. The mood was dim and the theme of hopelessness clearly stood out.
Heroin: Cape Cod Lacks a Solution and Hope
While the documentary clearly points out the fault of the pharmaceutical and medical industries for over-prescription of opiates, there are many times throughout the film that the viewer is left believing the kids being filmed are choosing this way of life. The majority of the people featured in the film started taking prescription painkillers because of an accident or legitimate pain of some sort, then eventually graduate to heroin. Ryan, one of the addicted persons in the film, says it best, “Opiates don’t stop the pain. They make you feel good so that the pain doesn’t hurt. It still hurts, but you’re happy that it hurts.” This is the case with many addiction stories. The documentary only shows the extreme dark side of addiction. It shows the side of addiction that the world already knows about. It shows the desperate, embarrassing, and shameful actions addicted people must engage in to keep up their habit and keep from getting sick. It reaffirms the reputation the disease of addiction already has across the United States.
The most notable theme of this addiction documentary was the dim future of recovery. Thousands will watch or have watched this documentary and still remain in the dark about the 23 million Americans living successful lives in recovery. A solution was never talked about throughout the entire film and that is a sad fact. Heroin Cape Cod sorely misses the strength and hope that recovery provides for thousands of people who suffer from addiction and then get well. The addicts in the documentary talk briefly about their own views of detox, rehab, and sobriety and describe it as an almost impossible feat, one without rewards or benefits. They mention the requirement of having to get clean requires changing everything in your life – people, places, and things. They portray it as lonely, unobtainable, and a lost cause.
Personally for me, watching this documentary was heartbreaking and infuriating. I felt the pain each of these young people were feeling. You root for them the whole way, only to find out they die or continue their cycle of pain and suffering in the end. Marissa, the woman who was stripping to support her habit, and who so accurately described the emotional pain and shame women addicts feel, died from a heroin overdose at the age of 23. These deaths sting. They made me cry out. The one crumb of hope this documentary tosses you, is at the end when you see Colie, a woman who went to detox and just celebrated her 90 days clean. She looks fresh, excited, happy, but this scene is an afterthought. As a viewer I was still angry and mourning the loss of the others. You don’t hear about the success of her life, or her healing, or the solution she’s found in recovery to help her stay sober.
Sadly, this documentary contributes to the stigma that already plagues the disease of addiction. A filmmaker who had the power to truthfully show the rawness of the disease could have equally have shown the hope and possibility of recovery.
If you’ve seen the documentary and you’re feeling hopeless, know this: we can and do recover. I am one of 23 million who have. It’s not a dream world, or a task you can never achieve. It’s possible and it can save your life. It saved mine.