Following the screening of the Netflix documentary “The Recovery Boys” in June at an AMC theater in Washington, D.C., Laury, a 61-year-old Rockville mother and grandmother, said she was encouraged to learn about a program that is approaching the opioid crisis in a different way.
“My son has been on heroin for several years and has been in and out of Maryland treatment centers for years,” said the personal life coach. “Seeing this documentary about four men who reinvented their lives and re-entered society after abusing drugs for years was really inspiring. In the past, addicts have been put behind bars and secluded. This documentary shows how the connection to caring facilitators, family members and nature can make a difference. It also shows how connecting to one’s self and a higher power can build one’s confidence and be life changing.”
Recovery Boys’ is Netflix’s newest social-issue documentary and follows Jeff, Ryan, Adam and Rush during their six-month stay at Jacob’s Ladder, a farm-based rehab in Aurora, West Virginia, founded by Dr. Kevin Blankenship. On screening night, Blankenship told those attending that he started the program because his own son had become addicted to drugs.
“He started off using alcohol and marijuana in high school, and by the time he got to college, he was using heroin,” he said. “We struggled to find a program for him, but there were no programs that seemed to help.”
Blankenship started his own program, and the film is a searing and intimate look at the men as they undergo a traumatic recovery process.
Directed and produced by Academy Award-nominated director Elaine McMillion Sheldon, who also directed “Heroin(e)”, the documentary dives deep into the men’s background before becoming addicted and, while uplifting, is almost painful to watch. In therapy and counseling sessions, we hear how at least two were neglected or shown little love by their parents. One, Jeff, discloses that he was 2 years old when his father was killed in a logging accident and that he was age 3 when his mother left to go to a bar one night, only to come back 12 years later. We hear Adam talk about a father who has always been critical and who he argues with each time they talk.
We hear the stories of how drugs impacted their lives and how at least one was resuscitated at least a dozen times by emergency personnel after overdosing on drugs. We learn of the acts that they committed after becoming addicted. These include breaking into homes, robbing neighbors and taking advantage of family members. “I conned my grandmother out of money when she was 84 and working at Goodwill so that she would not be homeless,” said Adam. “I took so much from her, but she forgave me.”
The heart of the documentary is the struggles that the men endure while trying to transform their lives. Their interaction with farm animals and the satisfaction they get while planting and harvesting crops shows how a connection to animals and nature can change the most hardened addicts. Through meditation and yoga, they learn to connect with their feelings and build trust with others and learn to respect themselves.
Sheldon’s husband, Kerrin, is the director of photography of both documentaries and his up-close look at the men humanizes their struggles so intently that the audience resonates deeply with the ordeal that the men undergo. Our hearts melt when they attend a country western dance and are accepted by the local townspeople, and we agonize when they slip back into old habits, and their stay in the program is put at risk.
We want to shout “Yes!” when Ryan successfully completes the program and becomes a counselor to incoming men. Getting addicting to opioids will keep happening, “but we don’t have to be a part of the problem,” he noted.
According to Blankenship, the release of the documentary has had a phenomenal impact on the program, with phones ringing off the hook with calls from people who are struggling with addiction, as well as family members impacted by their loved ones opioid use. The calls include people who are not connected to addiction in any way, but who just want to congratulate Blankenship for starting the program.
For Ellen Harris, a Maryland resident who attended the screening, “Hopefully, the $485 million in funding being awarded by the Department of Health and Human Services to all 50 states and four U.S. territories for the opioid crisis will make a positive impact.” In 2016, Maryland alone saw 2,089 overdose deaths, a six percent increase from 1,259 a year before.