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March 10, 2017





UMM student film eyes opiate addiction
by Lora Whelan


     A YouTube video about opiate addiction in Washington County is getting notice with hardly any publicity other than word‑of‑mouth. Whatever Works: Exploring Opiate Addiction was produced by University of Maine at Machias (UMM) students and was uploaded in late December 2016. Since then it has garnered almost 3,000 views. At a public showing of the film at UMM on the evening of March 2, the students, their UMM teacher and many of the film's subjects gathered to watch and then discuss the making of the film and its goal of reaching middle school students before they reach high school.
     The subject is of increasing concern, with Washington County having the highest per‑capita drug overdose deaths of all the counties in the state, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Statewide, overdose numbers have been climbing steadily, with 208 dying in 2014, 272 in 2015 and 378 in 2016.
      Letting his class of students loose on the subject had powerful results, says Alan Kryszak, an adjunct professor of film, music and other media and production coursework at UMM. He told the gathered audience that when he met with his class last fall, "I told them the subject was opiate addiction, and they then figured out the technique." None of the students had experience in producing a film or, for that matter, interviewing skills. With some help on interviewing techniques from Kryszak's wife Joyce, an award‑winning multi‑media professional, the eight college students began their work.
     "We went out with a blank slate, and it was the people who taught us," says Alan Kryszak. "Everyone you see in the film is in different stages of treatment, survival or has someone in their life affected," he explains. Men and women in recovery, working hard to regain their lives and the trust of loved ones and their communities, faced the camera square‑on, unflinching in their desire to help others stay away from the path they took. "They wanted to talk about it, to help others, particularly when they found that the target audience is middle school children."
      A number of healthcare and addiction recovery providers with different takes on treating addiction also were interviewed, including the founders of the Ellsworth Police Department's walk‑in amnesty and treatment program, Project Hope. A UMM student, while drug‑free himself, was affected profoundly by family addictions. He and his sibling were removed from their home by the Department of Health and Human Services, placed in foster care and later adopted. Another voice was that of a convicted dealer, incarcerated and speaking by phone about the reasons why he became a dealer, his regrets and his thoughts about the "school‑to‑prison" pipeline prevalent in his community.
     The filming, interviewing and editing take first‑person histories and transcend into stories of experience and authority on the trap of addiction, the loss of self‑respect and relationships and the hard path to recovery and a life of sobriety. Max Peeters, one of the UMM film students, said of the finished video, "It has so much motion to it, so many stories. It's more than just facts, and that's so powerful."
Of those in recovery, from the youngest, a man of 20 at ARISE Addiction Recovery in Machias, to the oldest, an older veteran who was convicted of selling a handful of pills to help cover his heating bills, almost all traced their addiction to wanting to "fit in" during the vulnerable high school age range of 14 to 18. "Don't do it," all of those interviewed told the audience of middle school children they were imagining on the other side of the camera. And then, there on the screen were four middle school boys. At turns they were endearingly goofy and then suddenly stilled with a maturity that hinted of their future selves. Asked if they had come into contact with drugs, they answered not yet but fully expected that they would in just a few years. Asked what they might say to themselves at that future juncture, one replied, "Don't," and another said he would give himself a smack if he so much as thought of touching drugs.
      The stories are of trying to fit in, of trying to cover up pain, of spiraling quickly from thinking it might be fun to a world of misery. Many of those interviewed stated that they had three choices: die of addiction, go to jail or recover. There was no happiness and fulfillment in a life ruled by substance abuse. "Addiction closes someone's life down so that it's smaller, smaller, smaller, until it is this big," said Anne Leaver, a licensed clinical professional counselor, holding her hands together in the shape of a small box.
      Fitting in is hard to resist as a teenager, and one woman interviewed, Amanda, brought the concept full circle to the meaning of fitting into her own skin as an adult. She has been sober for many years and has returned to school at UMM. She is now working on her master's degree in social work with the goal of becoming a substance abuse counselor, and she talks about the moment when she met with a counselor to help with her own recovery. This particular counselor had her own story of addiction and recovery. Amanda connected. "She saw something in me, and that was cool because it had been a long time" since Amanda had felt that anyone saw her as having value. To her, working her way through recovery and attaining her educational goals means "purpose, social connection, doing right. And being good at something."
      The UMM student directors are Marc Brine, Natalie Cline, Jose Gurrola, Brennon Chipman, Carolin Moreta, Maximiliaan Peeters, Ciara Schoppee and Lorenzo Segura.
      The film is on YouTube for anyone to watch free of charge, a major goal of the film crew. "We wanted no financial barriers with the distribution model," says Alan Kryszak. He adds that the students' other goals were to voice all perspectives related to addiction and to stop some of the stigma associated with addicts. One audience member asked if they met those goals and if those interviewed felt that they were fairly represented. "Yes," was the resounding answer. Whatever Works: Exploring Opiate Addiction is available for viewing at the YouTube website. Professor Kryszak is working with UMM's psychology department to create a guide to the film that can be used by educators who wish to screen it with students. For more information, contact <alan.kryszak@maine.edu>.




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