As the accounts of the opioid epidemic, as it has become known, became a regular news story and part of our daily conversation, and yet, truly not part of my life experience, I decided to explore it, to understand it or at least to be less ignorant about it.  The statistics and then-and-now comparisons are readily available and usually lead or close most news stories.  There's always pictures or video of needles piercing veins, a lot of finger pointing and headlines about the most recent big bust and how it's going to “make a difference”, but despite all of these news stories people keep dying in the towns I grew up in, families continue to mourn and neighbors continue to whisper.

I sought out someone who is a fellow explorer, who's been on the path longer than me, someone who connects to the issue because they've been affected by it, and looks long-and-hard at it because of a deep need to know...not for work, not for a news story, but because it's under their skin.  Those are the best people for connecting the dots.  Alicia Cook is an authority, a reluctant one, because she lost her cousin, Jessica, to an overdose.   And she is haunted.  Indeed, she welcomes spirits who have past, as if she is their spokesperson, as if she can’t shake it, as if it is her purpose, and so it is.

“I have someone else for us to talk to,” she told me often as we collected interviews with fellow travelers on this road.  And she’d go deeply into their story, fulfilling the arch with a sense of drama and heart-break in her voice, as if she was living it or re-living it herself.  The process took longer than I imagined, six months of filming.  It could have taken six years…and we still wouldn’t have had all the answers we sought from the start.  She mined and explored people like herself, the loved ones in the ripple of abuse and loss, those confused in the wake, but with an urgent need to tell their story, both for therapeutic reasons and also as a wake-up call. 

We did not interview any active users.  There were no shots of needles and veins.  We spoke to some who were in recovery.  “But I want this to be a film about those affected by the family member who uses,” she told me, “because this is a family disease, because that side of the story is rarely ever told in a comprehensive way, and they need to heal and they do so best when they can share and help others.  They also happen to have first hand knowledge of what their lost loved one was like before and after.”  Before and after.  Before and after.

At our last shoot, at an opening along the Navesink River at sunset, a tremendous flock of birds flew in a crazy, excited wave above us.  Hundreds of little black angels dotted the sky.  The sound they made, which can only be compared to the sound of children laughing as they run, made us laugh along with them.  It was one of the few, truly bright moments of our entire six month journey together.  “Did you plan this,” Alicia asked with a smile.  It was well deserved, proof maybe that she was going in the right direction, with the right people, for the right reasons. 

We were there to do a final interview, a wrap-up of all we had learned, what she had illuminated for the audience.  It was really the only question I had left for her, although, truth-be-told, despite our long production schedule and the many interviews we did together, I was still left with many whys and what-fors.  I asked her for her conclusions.  She took some time to consider.

"I've come to term with the fact,” she said, “that I'll never come to term with the facts.”  Instead, she suggested that what she did find along the way and continues to, is hopefulness, because ultimately, like life, it’s about confusion and hope.  We never completely understand it, but we have no choice but to expect that there is always tomorrow and we take comfort and inspiration from others who share the same mixed emotions.  We can learn.  We can influence others, especially our own family members, with an unguarded display of love and tears. Watching and listening to Alicia share tales of this journey with all of the people she met and introduced us to, I realized that the best any of these folks can do for each other, and others equally affected, is talk about it and map the terrain.  Maybe we learn a little bit more, and we help someone else who's on the road just behind us.

  1. -Steve Rogers