In 2016, the National Institute of Health reported that five percent of high school seniors misuse prescription drugs. In 2016 alone, 827 people in Wisconsin died from prescription opioid overdoses – and another 371 died from heroin overdoses, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
Last October, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, but the drug abuse and stigma surrounding those battling addiction continue. A Wisconsin-based documentary film, titled Written Off, challenges the stigma of addiction through one man's personal journals.
Molly Hermann is the director, writer, and co-producer of the film. While her primary work is in making historical documentaries for cable networks, she and her business partner had long wanted to do something that "came from their hearts."
"I had a cousin named Emily who died of a heroin overdose when she was 20," Hermann recalls. "It wasn't even called the opioid crisis then, but when I started reading about so many people dying like she did and it was years afterwards, it kind of rang familiar to me."
She continues, "How do you go from being the star basketball player like my cousin to dying with a needle in your arm? Just how does that actually function? It seems incredible...I was interested in trying to figure that out and ultimately to de-stigmatize addiction."
The film she made is about the life of Matthew Edwards, who grew up in a small Northwoods Wisconsin town.
Hermann describes Edwards as a smart student, loving son and big brother who had a thirst to do more than what his town could offer. However, his struggle with addiction begin after he was prescribed opioids for an ingrown toenail.
Edward's story is unique, Hermann says, because of the perspective he offered through his journals. He documented his daily life, thoughts, fears, even exact drug dosages he took, and how much money it cost him.
"I had never read or heard a story that was first person like Matt's story. He really was so honest with himself in his journals. They were the place where he could tell the truth in a life where he couldn't do much of that," Hermann says.
It was his eloquent writing, she says, that helped her feel connected to him. "I related to him and I felt like he was just sort of this 'every man.'"
Written Off follows Edwards' addiction over the course of ten years, ending with his death. "We kind of made the rule that no one was gonna be in the film who didn't know Matt," Hermann says.
When Edwards was struggling with addiction, she says, not much was known or shared with the general public about the dangers of prescription drugs or available treatments. Treatment for addiction was viewed as a short term process, not a life long struggle. And the stigma, she says, people associated with "junkies" was as being weak or morally corrupt.
"People dealing with serious addictions end up breaking a lot of social contracts and they give us the right to just sort of write them off...The only way that he could've survived that long with all of this going on was that he was determined," she says. "(Matt) had such hope and he was trying so hard to fix his life himself really not realizing that it wasn't possible, it's not something that people fix themselves at his stage of addiction."
Hermann wants Edwards' story to help change that stigma. "The shame of an addiction and the way you're devalued in society, at least for Matt, was every bit as hard as the physical side of it."
And, she adds, "The thing that sets this apart for me, from any other drug crisis, is that the source of the drugs is generally your doctor."
There will be a screening of Written Off followed by a panel discussion at the Landmark Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee on January 25th presented by the Light and Unite Red Committee led by the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division. The event is free, but requires a reservation.