Matti Baldassari, MA, LMFT
The Opiate Generation Speaks:
The Documentary, Dying in Vein
by Matti Baldassari, MA, LMFT
“Heroin makes life easy when you have it. Life isn’t supposed to be easy, and who doesn’t want to live an easy life?” — Chase Alexander Saxton
Dying from an opioid overdose, Chase Alexander Saxton was a young heroin addict who became one more statistic. Indeed, the national statistics are shockingly grim. As the credits roll of the documentary, Dying in Vein: The Opiate Generation, we are told that every day in the United States, 44 people die as a result of a prescription opioid overdose. Given this information, there couldn’t be a more important time for this documentary by Jenny Mackenzie, a filmmaker and former Ph.D. level social worker.
In an interview for this article, Jenny Mackenzie described the challenges she faced while shooting the documentary:
“It is a slow process to really understand the depth of the suffering being caused by the opioid epidemic. Making this film meant watching human suffering to an extent that I had never experienced it before. These young people caught in the repetitive cycle of addiction feel like horrible human beings because that’s how we see them in our society. That’s how we see the problem. However, I believe we are at the very beginning juncture of this paradigm shift beyond the stigma. Still, it’s moving slower than is needed. Indeed, we must try to move it faster if we are going to help save so many lives caught right now in the grip of this deadly epidemic.”
In her attempt to make this happen, Jenny Mackenzie has provided us with a disturbingly intimate look at the epidemic. This compelling account shows a number of perspectives on drug use, revealing a diverse range of comparisons between the different experiences and knowledge of each person touched by this 21st century plague. The documentary provides valuable insight through interviews and clips from family and friends, professionals, and the addicts themselves.
Dying in Vein provides a sense of orientation to the opioid crisis today by exposing the viewer to full-fledged addicts in their disease. The main storyline follows a dysfunctional relationship in which both of the women, Maddy and Page, are addicts. The question for the professionals is how to manage the complications that come from such a relationship in which the active addicts are influencing each other to make dangerous decisions.
During the documentary, we become privy to a consultation group of professionals as they make decisions about the course of treatment for their clients. At one point, Sarah Finney, a private consultant and therapist, tells Maddy that the problem with both her and Page being admitted to the same treatment center is that if one leaves, there is a good chance that the other “will walk out.” This challenge is just one of the dilemmas a treatment professional on the front lines tends to encounter on a daily basis.
For therapists who do not work primarily with addicts, the narrative content of the documentary provides a solid introduction to the world of opiate addiction. Amongst the other perspectives represented, the viewer is introduced through journal entries to Chase Alexander Saxton as the above statistic becomes a sad reality.
Although not an addict herself, Chase’s sister opens up to tell us why the opioid crisis has such a stronghold on her generation. She says, “The only way I can make sense of it is that it’s just a totally different world that we’re growing up in that nobody was prepared for, nobody anticipated, and nobody was able to prepare us for.”
The damage done to the families is severe. Even in recovery, addicts struggle to find their bearings and a place in the world. Matt, a recovered addict and Chase’s friend, states that addiction is, “like this primal distress of the soul. You use the drugs to cover up what’s going on. Whether you’re feeling bad or good, it’s all focused on getting the drug.” From a therapeutic standpoint, this “primal distress” could be viewed as the deeply rooted need to escape pain or repressed trauma.
Chase’s mother experienced first-hand the effects of her son’s downward spiral. She is interviewed in the documentary and states while crying that she told her husband before her son’s death, “Chase is probably going to die, and I am not going to feel guilty about it because we did the best that we knew how to do . . . I look back and think, oh, I should have done this, and I should have done that. I also think I don’t know if it would have mattered.”
The distress and the stark powerlessness of not only the addict but also of the family is clear. For Chase, the results of being unwilling to find, or simply not finding, the treatment he needed were deadly. Chase’s mother goes on to express her sadness because she did not know the magnitude of her son’s struggle, “They [addicts] feel so bad and shameful of being an addict . . . they’re sad, but again, I wouldn’t have known any of that if he hadn’t written it down.”
Chase’s journals chronicled his struggle that he kept mostly secret when he was alive. Sadly, the family barely knew the truth of what was happening. Such a gap may provide an opportunity for treatment professionals to act if the addict feels safe to reach out. When appropriate, the therapist or other treatment professional can provide a protected space where the addict’s struggle can be witnessed by another safe “other.”
However, the role of the addiction therapist remains fluid. Sometimes, the addict needs to be firmly confronted, but at other times, he or she may need a different approach. Many clients in and out of treatment seek therapy to be able to speak with a non-judgmental individual who can empathize and unpack with them the shame. A therapist may effectively assume this role.
Asked how such treatment questions should be addressed, Jenny Mackenzie expressed what she learned while making the film, saying, “I don’t think there is one recipe, one treatment plan protocol that works for everybody. I really saw different experiences being successful.”
Perhaps, one of the documentary’s most powerful messages to treatment professionals is to learn all that we can about each client in particular, and in general, gain knowledge in the area of addiction. Given the dismal recovery statistics, this is an ongoing process as we work diligently to find what might potentially heal the suffering client. That little bit of change could be enough to save a life. In such a manner, we can begin to chip away at the tragic course of this widespread and deadly opioid epidemic.
Citation: Mackenzie, J. (Producer), & Mackenzie, J. (Director). (2016). Dying in vein: the opiate generation [Motion Picture]. United States: Jenny Mackenzie Films.
Matianna Baldassari, MA LMFT, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, certified Kundalini yoga teacher, and certified SMART Recovery meeting facilitator at Pacific MFT Network in Santa Monica. Matti specializes in private practice at helping clients struggling with addiction, managing emotions, anxiety, mindful living, and stress relief. She can be reached at email@example.com or 424.254.9611.