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Still a Long Road Ahead in the Prescription Drug Abuse Fight – Part 1

-By Kendal PattersonIt has been four years since a personal tragedy inspired Natalie Costa to produce the film “Behind the Orange Curtain,” a heart-wrenching look at the toll prescription drug abuse is taking on youth in Orange County, Calif.Since then, much has happened –legislative victories, increased dialogue about the issue, and, for the film, awards and praise.

In short, Natalie sees things to be encouraged by. But when asked if she feels prescription drug abuse is any closer to being quelled, the businesswoman and mother pauses and acknowledges: “I honestly can’t say I see that there’s a light at the end of this tunnel.”

Her pessimism highlights the multilayered nature of the problem, now recognized as a national epidemic. On one hand, it’s hard to control access to prescription drugs in a country that uses so many. Prescription painkiller sales have quadrupled in the last decade. In 2010 alone, Natalie notes, more than 200 million prescriptions were written for painkillers. “It’s enough to medicate every man and woman in the country around the clock for 30 days. So how much pain are we in?” For the young, this means doses are often as close as the medicine cabinet of a relative, neighbor or friend.

Another problem, she said, is that “dirty doctors” are willing to write medically unnecessary prescriptions for drugs such as OxyContin, Opana, Xanax, Vicodin and others. And even one doctor can do large-scale damage. Yet clamping down on prescriptions can send users to the streets where a similar but cheaper high awaits – heroin.

natalie-costa-1Drug Problems Start in Middle School

Perhaps most discouragingly, Natalie has found that those who most need to get the message about prescription drug dangers are the least likely to hear and heed it – middle school students and their parents.

“Middle school is where this starts,” she said. “It’s the weed, the alcohol, the cigarettes, and then the progression – somebody amps it up and then, here’s a pill. When I do an event targeted toward middle school kids,” she noted, “there may be 25 to 30 parents who show up versus the thousands [whose kids] are in the school.”

Denial is a huge part of the problem, Natalie said. “I had a dad recently email me that he was reading the text messages off his kid’s phone. His kid was talking about, ‘Let’s all hook up with Molly tonight,’ and I’m telling him it’s Ecstasy.” The emails continued with more veiled drug references that Natalie translated. “Later, he sent me an email back and said, ‘Thank you so much. I confronted him and he confessed to smoking electronic cigarettes.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, he’s lying to you and God bless you because you’re going down a bad road.’”

Looking Behind the Curtain

Natalie knows personally that drug abuse can be difficult to accept, especially when you’re talking about “good kids.” In 2010, a friend of Natalie’s teenage daughter, Mark Melkonian, died suddenly. Natalie remembers her shock. “Mark was so handsome and so cute and so funny and so energetic and not an enemy in the world, and how did this kid die? And then we found out it was an overdose of a drug called Opana.”

Until that moment, Natalie had considered herself relatively savvy about teen drug use, “but I had no idea what Opana was.” She learned it is a prescription opiate sometimes given to end-stage cancer patients or those who need pain managed around the clock. And, disturbingly, “these kids were taking it and crushing it and breaking it in half and snorting it. And a lot of them were dying because once they crushed the pill, they broke the time release and they got the full effects of the drug. Mark went to sleep and never woke up.”

Spreading the Word About Prescription Drug Abuse

As the founder and owner of The Performer’s Academy, a Laguna Woods-based acting school, Natalie knew she had a resource at hand that could help her spread the word about the prescription drug epidemic she was discovering. She turned to Brent Huff, a film director and an employee at the academy. “I said, ‘There’s a story to tell here. You want to help me tell it?’” Huff said yes, and “Behind the Orange Curtain” was born.

A group of grieving parents and young recovering addicts were gathered who would form the backbone of the film’s stories of struggle, loss and advocacy. “We sat in a room and they told their stories to Brent,” Natalie remembered. “It was heartbreaking.” But the crowd represented only the tip of the iceberg. “We could still be interviewing people today; that’s how bad the problem is.”

The film was released in 2012, and Natalie began screening it to any group that expressed an interest – schools, churches, synagogues, business and community organizations. The film earned critical praise; it was an official selection at multiple film festivals and named Best Documentary Feature at the 2012 Metropolitan Film Festival of NYC.

“Behind the Orange Curtain” now has a distributor and a global reach. It is available on iTunes and Amazon and can be watched free on Hulu.

Bringing the Message Home

[caption id="attachment_4244" align="alignright" width="200"]natalie-costa-2 Natalie Costa, producer of “Behind the Orange Curtain,” takes part in a rally protesting FDA approval of Zohydro, which she fears will lead to more overdose deaths.[/caption]

Now, two years after the film’s release, Natalie still shows “Behind the Orange Curtain” to interested groups about 7 to 10 times a month. She has cut a shorter version for these viewings, which allows her to include a post-film presentation with real-time statistics and information.

“If I’m in Orange County, I take someone from the health department and a special agent from the DEA. We give them exactly what’s out there so they walk out of there knowing exactly what to look for in their home, what to look for in their kid, how to prevent it, how to destroy their drugs,” she said. “Hopefully, you can save a life that way. You can’t just say ‘Go to your room’ when they’re 18, or ‘Just say no.’”

Audience reaction to the film can be intense. “For the parents who don’t know, they’re shocked, because the biggest uphill battle we’re dealing with besides addiction is denial,” Natalie said. “That is not going to be their kid … not my Johnny, he’s fine. He plays sports. He’s a good kid. Well, they were all good kids. That’s the problem. So when people walk away, they are blown away by what they see.”

One of the most affecting experiences for Costa came when she showed the film to a group of 500 addicts in recovery. “I was thinking, ‘Why do they want to see this? I mean, they lived this.’” After the film, “they started lining up to come and see me, and these young boys were falling in my arms, hugging me, sobbing.” One said, “That was my life. I did that to my father.” Natalie chokes up, remembering. “I came home and told my daughter, ‘I just can’t talk,’ and I couldn’t talk for two days. I didn’t even have words.”


[To be continued in Part 2]

Posted on April 18th, 2014

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