Space constraints of the printed version of Seven Days often require that some interesting or funny material gathered in the reporting process ends up on the cutting-room floor. This week's cover story, "Bitter Pills: A St. Albans pediatrician helps young addicts do the 'hard homework' of getting clean," was no exception. Thankfully, space isn't a concern on the web.
Documentary filmmaker Bess O'Brien and I spent a lot of time last week before the St. Albans premiere of her new film, Ask Us Who We Are, talking about how her community projects affect the people who are profiled in her films. O'Brien is launching a new film project that will focus on teens and opiate addiction in St. Albans.
Most of O'Brien's movies — including Here Today (2002), about heroin addiction in the Northeast Kingdom; Shout It Out (2008), about the lives of Vermont teenagers; and Ask Us Who We Are (2011) about foster kids and their families — are part filmmaking, part community activism, and part traveling road show/religious tent revival.
O'Brien's first film of this kind, Journey Into Courage (1992), was a play-turned-film that documented the lives of women who have survived sexual abuse and domestic violence. The film and its subjects toured the state extensively, helped galvanize domestic-violence prevention in Vermont and put a human face on the problem. This film, and the half-dozen or so she's done since, exemplify why O'Brien is arguably the most important filmmaker working in Vermont today.
Illustration by Stefan Bumbeck
"It was extremely empowering to the women who told their stories," she says. "I got totally fascinated with this process of people telling their stories through theater and film, and then seeing how they grow and find a voice through touring it and connecting with audiences."
O'Brien's process, which she's dubbed AVA for "Arts, Voice, Action!", was especially meaningful to the subjects of Here Today. As O'Brien recalls, the project didn't exactly marshal the full enthusiasm or financial support of the St. Johnsbury community. Many individuals and organizations, such as the St. Johnsbury Academy, a private boarding school which draws students from all over the world, feared that their town would be perceived as a place overrun with needle-happy smack junkies. But O'Brien was undeterred.
"Essentially, we ignored them and made the movie anyway," she says. "And now, ironically, [St. Johnsbury Academy] is using our film in its curriculum. The town now has a methadone clinic in it, which it didn't have before, and they've also opened up a center for [treating] addiction, which didn't exist, either."
Equally compelling was the effect the film project had on heroin addicts who were featured in it. O'Brien recalls the day Here Today first screened in St. Johnsbury. She recalls expecting no more than 50 people to show up to the premiere. Instead,more than 300 local residents attended. Then, when the discussion session after the film was over, the audience gave its subjects a standing ovation.
"A standing ovation! For heroin addicts in their own community," O'Brien recalls. Halfway through the film tour, one addict featured in the film turned to her and said, "You know, Bess, I never knew I was an expert on anything. But I'm an expert in knowing what it's like to be a heroin addict. And people want to hear about that."
O'Brien also notes that all the recovering addicts featured in O'Brien's film have stayed clean ever since, and some have gone on to radically improve their lives. For example, O'Brien reports that one 22-year-old man, who had spent years as a drug addict and dealer, toured the film with his family. After the film tour was over, he got married, had two kids and later bought the house owned by his former parole officer.
"For me, these things work, man!" O'Brien adds. "It's such a simple concept: Tell your story and get it out in front of people."
Mary Pickener works as the Vermont Department of Health's substance abuse prevention consultant for Franklin and Grand Isle counties. Although Pickener wasn't quoted extensively in the "Bitter Pills" story, she provided much useful and informative background info on opiate use and addiction in the St. Albans community.
Notably, she points out that for people who don't have private health insurance, there are only three drug-rehab facilities in Vermont, and for teens under the age 18, just one: Valley Vista in Bradford.
Pickener also notes that when teens go into rehab, they not only lose whatever support network they once had in their community, but often lose their job, school and/or housing. "If you're on Section 8 [low-income] housing and you go away for 28 days, there's no housing for you when you come back," she adds.
Pickener knows a thing or two about addiction firsthand. She started drinking at the age of 12, an experience she likens to "putting on glasses" to give her life clarity. "When I started drinking," she say, "it seemed like the answer."
By 24, Pickener was "a mess," and it took her 12 years before she began her recovery. Now sober for more than 22 years, Pickener tells a humorous story about how some older folks in her Brooklyn neighborhood conspired to get her to attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings.
Each morning, she recalls, a different neighbor would knock on her apartment door and ask Pickener if she would walk their dog. Often hung over and still in bed, Pickener begrudgingly agreed. Invariably, her walks took her past a nearby brownstone apartment building where daily AA meetings were held in the basement. And each morning, someone from the AA group would stand outside and invite Pickener inside.
Pickener can't say for sure how long her neighbors conspired to get her clean and sober, though she's sure it took at least three seasons. However, she vividly recalls that moment of clarity months later when she suddenly saw through the subterfuge.
"I remember thinking: Hey! It's the same dog every morning!" Pickener says. "It was a defining moment, like my brain cells were suddenly working again."