April 24th, 2014
By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
Vermont filmmaker Bess O’Brien tackles difficult topics. She focuses her lens on issues some people would rather not discuss: domestic violence; teenage angst; challenges faced by youth in foster care; and drug addiction. Vermont’s idyllic scenery may lead some to believe that “those sorts of problems” don’t happen here, that they’re somehow relegated to more populous areas.
O’Brien, a gifted filmmaker, shines a light on the individuals and families impacted by difficult social conditions. She brings them out of the shadows, assigning a human face to a real problem, providing a platform for them to tell their story.
“The Hungry Heart” is a documentary about prescription drug addiction and recovery in St. Albans, Vermont. Dr. Fred Holmes, now retired from Mousetrap Pediatrics, contacted O’Brien in 2010 and invited her to meet with him and some of his patients, young adults who fell into addiction. Filming commenced in 201l, culminating with a statewide film tour launched in fall 2013.
OxyContin, Vicodin and Dilaudid are commonly abused prescription drugs, but the list grows. The medicine cabinet or nightstand becomes the sought after source for satisfying addictive cravings. Pain medications are pilfered, purchased and traded for prized possessions or stolen property. Dipping into a parent’s wallet is not beyond the realm of possibility for an addict seeking that next high. Withdrawal unleashes a host of maladies including agitation, anxiety, muscle aches, nausea and flu-like symptoms.
Dr. Holmes, sporting a Boston Red Sox cap, appears the kindly, fatherly pediatrician engaging his young adult patients in conversations about their addiction.
“Where do you find the strength to do as good as you’re doing now?” he asks one young mother whose urine test is clean.
Conversations with Fred, as his patients call him, offer a curative effect, bolstering the Suboxone he prescribes to alleviate cravings for opiates. He is careful to point out that some people experience a predilection for addiction. Some addicts start out as curious thrill seekers. Others were prescribed opiates post-surgery or post-injury, not realizing the death-grip they’d impose on their unsuspecting body chemistries. Addiction does not discriminate—age, race, gender, socioeconomics don’t matter. Dr. Holmes describes addiction as a chronic illness, an illness requiring compassionate treatment.
Interviews with Dr. Holmes’ patients are dotted with the following comments: “(Opiates) made me feel like I was somebody…made me hide all the pain I went through in foster care.”
“I was waiting for something to make me feel whole.”
“I didn’t need food and water. I needed my OxyContin.”
“I got paid on a Friday. I’d be broke on Monday.”
“I started to steal stuff.”
“I stole from my mother.”
“I went to jail.”
“You ruin so many relationships.”
“I couldn’t hold a job. I couldn’t do normal things people get up and do every day.”
“I always thought needles were the worst thing in the world.”
“You poke that first time and you’re done.”
“It can happen to anyone.”
“Hungry Heart” taught me how easy it is to fall into addiction. I learned that a predisposition for addiction is often intergenerational in nature. I understand the very real danger arising from leaving medications in easily accessible areas and not disposing of them properly.
Prescription addiction is here, too. St. Albans is not an island. It is a mirror.
For more information on “Hungry Heart,” visit www.KingdomCounty.org.
The DVD is also available at the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library.
Katherine Bielawa Stamper, a Williston resident, was a 2013 finalist for the Coolidge Prize for Journalism. Reader comments are welcome at Editor@willistonobserver.com or LittleDetailsCol@yahoo.com