Just how addictive are opiates such as prescription painkillers and heroin? Consider Melissa’s story. After regaining consciousness in the hospital after a heroin overdose, the young mother unhooked her IV from its pole, walked out and went straight to her dealer, still in her hospital gown. “And he sold me heroin, the same heroin that just killed me.” The still-attached IV was a “freebie,” she added, providing an easy way to shoot up for the next few days. It is disturbing first-person accounts such as these that the FBI and the DEA have brought together in “Chasing the Dragon: The Life of An Opiate Addict,” a documentary designed to encourage conversations about drugs in the hope of helping end a national addiction epidemic that kills more than 47,000 annually. “We thought the best approach would be to let you hear the truth. No filter. No censors,” explained FBI Director James Comey in the documentary’s introduction. Instead, the film offers up unscripted interviews with opiate users and their families, who still seem shell-shocked by how quickly a substance can cause life to spin out of control. Melissa, for example, became addicted after being prescribed OxyContin when her daughter was born. From there, she progressed to the cheaper and easier-to-acquire heroin and eventually “ran away from home” to live downtown near the dealers. “It became my full-time job. The needle was my boss — a very demanding boss.”
‘I Lost Everything’
The documentary’s title references not only a technique of inhaling heated opiates but a drug user’s attempt to recreate their first euphoric high. And that’s the problem. With each opiate use, the brain changes, and more and more of the drug is needed to even come close to capturing that initial feeling. Eventually, as the addiction intensifies, the best that can be hoped for is to take the edge off painful withdrawal symptoms. Katrina, another of the film’s subjects, was a corporate account executive who was making six figures a year when she hurt her back and tried opiates given to her by a friend in pharmaceutical sales. Soon, she said, “my addiction level was so bad that I couldn’t even function without 40 pills a day. I was ill — like literally every four hours the chills started setting in. And I woke up sick. And that’s the way it went all day long.” In the end, she says in the film, “I lost everything,” including her teenage daughter, who overdosed on prescription painkillers while she was in jail. “I think I’m still in shock. … I don’t even know how to put it into words. Maybe that’s why I am able to deal with it, because it is so mind numbing. … That someone you love that much, you can lose like that. And you can’t go back and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ or set a better example, or talk them out of it.” A young man named Cory also shares a story of loss in the film — his girlfriend, Cierra, died of an opiate overdose — and opens up about a recent relapse of his own. “For me to lose somebody a year ago, not even a year gone by, and I’m already using again — that’s how powerful this stuff is.” He added, “If I could go back, if I knew what I know now about this, I would do it all different. Starting with that first pill — I wouldn’t touch it.” Cierra’s mother, Trish, appears in the film as well, speaking of seeing her once happy child turn into someone she could not understand and of the day she opened the door to her daughter’s bedroom to find her dead on the floor. For the documentary’s viewers, she has this warning: “It is much stronger than you. And it will win. It will win.” She urges those who are struggling with opiates to seek help immediately, before the addiction can become even more entrenched, “because this doesn’t just affect you. It affects everybody in your family for the rest of their lives. We’re the ones stuck here missing you. And there’s help out there; you gotta take it. Don’t think you can do it alone because you can’t.” “Chasing the Dragon” can be viewed on the FBI website.