Review: Documentary film takes EMTs, paramedics inside the pain of opioid addiction
"… not my addiction" humanizes opioid addiction and affirms the paramedic reviewer's belief in the importance of compassionate treatment
By Bradley Dean, MA, NRP
"… not my addiction," a new documentary film about the opioid crisis, challenges the stigma of addiction and affirms my belief about the importance of compassion for addicts. The 36-minute film produced by Ray Kemp is a personal view through the eyes of the addicted.
The subjects of the film teach emergency services personnel that they are human. They are real people, with real lives, who helped remind me that we often focus on the stigma of addiction and forget our human compassion. Kemp, a former public information officer and the producer of the Remember 2 Things EMS1 video training series, uses his skills as a filmmaker to help healthcare providers to truly understand addiction through the eyes and life of the addicted individual.
As a healthcare provider, I found myself taking care of overdose patients with a jaded view and calloused approach. My views on addiction changed a few years ago as a result of the death of a young EMT who overdosed on heroin-laced fentanyl. Adam Kraus aspired to be a paramedic and help others. Unfortunately, his addiction and inability to shake the disease and depression associated with the withdrawal sickness kept him wrapped up in the horrible grasp of the opiate. Adam's death brought me back to reality and the human impact of the raging epidemic in our communities.
Compassion for the opioid addicted
The "… not my addiction" documentary, which premiered at the Emergency Medicine Today Conference in Greensboro, N.C. in early October, reaffirmed my view on the importance of compassion and connection that we need to make when we encounter the addicted person to encourage them to change. As caregivers, we have a few moments to establish a relationship with the patient and discuss options while encouraging them. The alternative is we can simply drive them deeper into isolation and addiction with condescending words and actions.
Those who overdose do not need to know what we think of them, but rather they need us to understand what they think of themselves. In order to establish a connection and relationship, encouraging change, we need to understand how the addicted individual views themselves. With this understanding we can find a commonality to discuss their relationship with others, and why they need to break the cycle of addiction.
Kemp allows the interviewees to describe when they first tried heroin and how they became addicted. The discussions allow the viewer to see the psychosocial and physical illnesses associated with heroin use that keeps the person in the tight grips of the addiction. Viewers can see the pain and emotion as each person describes their past, how they were treated, how they overcame the addiction and are now moving toward recovery and rebuilding their lives.
The recovering addicts describe how the use of the opiate became their new normal, how their bodies had to have it just to function and how they became physically sick without it. Opiates bind to receptor sites in the brain, blocking nerve impulse transmissions, if those nerves are blocked long enough; any feeling in the skin without the opioid is painful. Once hooked, addicts can’t stop and if they try they have chills, skin crawling sensations and diarrhea. Addicts will do anything to stop the pain of withdrawal symptoms.
The individuals in the film did not set out to become heroin addicts. Once addicted, it takes more than just a decision to stop. They used opiates without necessarily understanding the consequences. They have a disease, like someone who smokes cigarettes and develops COPD or the overweight person who has a myocardial infarction.
We are all human, and we all desire human interaction and compassion. This is the essence of who we are as healthcare providers. Each of us needs to answer these questions:
- How do you interact with addicts?
- What is your approach to assess and treat opioid addicts?
- What kind of impact are you making on their life and the lives of their family?
- Will you encourage them to change to get treatment for their disease or will you drive them further into their addiction?
The cycle of addiction can be broken with your interaction with these individuals, but the approach is up to you.
Organizations interested in sharing the film with their personnel, members or students can contact Kemp at firstname.lastname@example.org.