BARS at the Movies: ‘Heroin(e)’

Photo courtesy of Bluefield Daily Telegraph

Psychologists, doctors and more have spent years and years studying addiction: the condition where someone can’t live without something so much that it drives them over the edge sometimes.

Of course, that’s a rough, brief, basic definition of addiction. It’s much more complex, and takes different forms. But one of the most common in America right now is addiction to opioids.

I just watched the Netflix documentary “Heroin(e),” which follows three people regularly doing life-saving work in the small town of Huntington, West Virginia.

In Huntington, the drug overdose rate is 10 times the national average and at least five people every day overdose and are treated by first responders. The film, which runs around 40 minutes, follows Fire Chief Jan Rader, county judge Patricia Keller, who runs the drug court, and Necia Freeman of Brown Bag Ministry, which delivers food to women who turn to prostitution to support their addictions. They are the title “heroines.”

I won’t do a deep dive into the documentary and the filmmaking itself, but want to cover a couple takeaways I had and what it means for Christians.

People Who Save

There are a lot of people at a lot of nonprofits and organizations and churches across the country that help others, selflessly and sacrificially. And all of them deserve recognition for their work. But “Heroin(e)” stands out because of its heroes.

Rader, who in the course of the film becomes Huntington’s first female fire chief, is not a desk jockey chief. She routinely goes out on overdose calls, even once interrupting a television interview because, as becomes routine, there’s an overdose to go to. She helps apply naloxone, a drug designed to help people recover quickly from overdoses, and develops close relationships with addicts who are progressing and growing in sobriety.

Keller’s drug court is an opportunity for addicts who are caught with illegal substances to have a different interaction with the judicial system. One former addict who graduates from the program says Keller is the first “public official” he’s ever befriended, something he never expected. She’s tough, not taking crap from anyone and even sending people to jail for short times if the situation calls for it. But she displays a compassion for those she’s overseeing that’s refreshing and Christ-like.

Freeman is a Christian whose ministry includes handing out gospel tracts to prostitutes. She does the work that Jesus did. The film shows Freeman interacting with the lowest in society and offering more than just spiritual things: food, hygiene products, assistance in finding recovery options for these women. She’s not judgmental or over-spiritual: she’s a helping hand who loves people enough to go to the shady parts of Huntington and be a friend.

They’re people who save lives. It’s in different ways, but they’re people who have seen a problem and are doing something about it. Them being the focus of the documentary was a crucial part of its development, according to director Elaine McMillion Sheldon.

“Heroin(e) examines an epidemic that many communities are struggling with, so for this topic to have captured the attention of the Academy means so much to us, as filmmakers, and to those on the front lines,” Sheldon told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph after the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short. As native West Virginians living in the midst of this public health crisis, we believe the stories of these three tenacious and resilient women are what this country needs — a message of hope and survival to show us a way forward.”

The Addictiveness of Addiction

About midway through the film, Freeman is speaking about one of the people she helped, a girl named Hope. Freeman said she asked Hope why people get hooked on heroin.

“She said, ‘The only way I know to explain it to you is that getting high on heroin is what it would be like for you to kiss Jesus.’ She said, ‘That’s how powerful it is.’ And I was like, ‘Well, that’s probably pretty daggone powerful.'”

It was a powerful analogy. For a Christian, that could ring strong.

I’ve been working on a series for the newspaper where I work about opioids and opioid addiction, so this topic is fresh on my mind.

Opioid addiction starts when someone begins taking opioids, usually prescription pain killers, to deal with pain from surgery or an injury or even cancer. When the pills are taken, the brain begins creating receptors, which take in the opioids. It creates pain relief, which is what they’re supposed to be doing, and sometimes a sense of euphoria.

However, the receptors created are like hungry dogs. One treat isn’t enough. So even when the pain is healed, the opioids have created an addiction inside the brain that needs to be filled, and the withdrawal is horrendous. So people will do whatever it takes to find something to fill that gap. If they can’t get prescription pills, they just might turn to heroin, which is stronger (three times stronger than morphine) and more deadly.

It becomes a neurological change that needs treatment and sobriety to fix. And “Heroin(e)” captures that well: showing interviews with some recovering addicts who speak about how bad their situation was, that they would overdose or turn to prostitution to feed their addiction.

We Need These Films

One thing we can learn about the life of Jesus is that He was not ignorant of people’s issues. Whether it was poverty, sickness, adultery, premarital cohabitation, theology, government policy, church giving, He knew what was happening and offered a lending hand.

Christians watching “Heroin(e)” may or may not resonate with Freeman. Her faith being a central part of her ministry is admirable and it’s what we as Christians should aspire to. But she doesn’t go around sharing the gospel with everybody the first time, or trying to convince them to leave prostitution. It’s about handing out food and hygiene supplies, asking how people are doing, helping them to recovery clinics and homeless shelters. She’s an embodiment of what Jesus was.

I strongly recommend this documentary for a couple reasons: 1) to learn more about how the opioid epidemic can affect one town and 2) to see what real heroism, real Christ-driven heroism, looks like.

Judge Keller and Fire Chief Rader are admirable people as well. They may not profess Christ in their work — they may be Christians, I don’t know — but their attitudes and actions should be appreciated and reflected as well.

We the church need to be aware of this addiction, this issue, so we can be a place for help and aid. And I think “Heroin(e)” is a good place to start.

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