In effort to destigmatize addiction, Summit County will host a screening of a filmmaker’s intimate documentary on the opioid crisis
Aug. 31 event will also feature a panel with the director and health professionals as well as offer free doses of naloxone, which can reduce the effects of narcotic overdoses
It began with a low-dose, 30-day prescription of Vicodin for both her mother and sister. But within weeks, Jaime Boyle said her family was turning to other opioids for pain relief: Percocet, Oxycodone and, eventually, 100-milligram fentanyl pain patches for her mother.
“At one point, they were on such a cocktail that they needed something to go to sleep at night, something to wake up in the morning,” Boyle said. “It becomes impossible, at that point, to untangle everything unless you’re able to get off everything, which is still exceptionally hard.”
It was 2009 and Boyle, then a film student at the University of Colorado, turned to one of the few outlets she had to make sense of reality: her film camera.
“It felt like a way to interrogate what I was seeing and start to try to unravel it,” Boyle said. “I was really at a loss and had no other tools at my disposal. I had tried to talk to their doctors. I had tried to talk to various health professionals and to no end.”
What began as a student film eventually morphed into an intimate documentary of a family gripped by addiction. “Anonymous Sister,” which debuted in theaters this summer, chronicles the personal journey of Boyle’s mother and sister amid the opioid epidemic and their eventual path to sobriety.
Summit County health experts will host Boyle for a screening of the film and subsequent panel discussion in acknowledgment of International Overdose Awareness Day on Thursday, Aug. 31, at Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge, located at 107 Denison Placer Road.
The free event, which will run from 5-8 p.m., will also feature a training course for naloxone, which can reduce the effects of narcotic overdoses, as well as free doses.
Public Health Director Amy Wineland said she hopes it will bring more awareness and resources amid an ongoing opioid overdose crisis that has enveloped communities across the country.
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Of the 10 recorded overdose deaths in Summit County last year, state health department data shows eight were from an opioid overdose, Wineland said. A July 2023 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that three in 10 adults in the United States say they or someone in their family has been addicted to opioids, including prescription painkillers and illegal opioids like heroin.
“The data is alarming and is certainly a call to action in and of itself,” Wineland said. “But it’s important to understand that behind every data point, there’s a loss of a friend, a family member, a loved one, a neighbor.”
Wineland added that sharing personal stories, like those captured in Boyle’s film, is what will help “decrease the stigma” around addiction.
“There’s so much stigma around who is affected by this epidemic,” she said. “It’s just so important that we talk about it and break down that stigma.”
For Boyle, her family’s battle with addiction began the same way it does for tens of thousands in the United States: with a prescription from a doctor.
Her mother, a gymnast, was experiencing symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis while her sister suffered from nerve damage in both feet due to a figure skating career. While Boyle documented their initial descent into opioid dependency in 2009, she wouldn’t resume the project until 2016, when her family faced new struggles with their sobriety.
For the next four years, she filmed her family in an attempt to humanize the opioid epidemic’s profound impact on hundreds of thousands across the country. As momentum grew for accountability from drug manufacturers, Boyle said more and more communities realized how the crisis transcended socio-economic demographics.
It impacts poor, middle-class and affluent families, Boyle said, adding, “It seemed like everyone I talked to had experienced some form of what I experienced.”
And the proliferation of illicitly manufactured opioids, in particular fentanyl, is only exacerbating the public health crisis.
“Fentanyl overdose is now the No. 1 killer for 18- to 45-year-olds in this nation, which is just unheard of,” Wineland said. “So we’re still continuing to battle the overprescribing that continues to happen, but also let people know, ‘you shouldn’t be taking anything that isn’t prescribed to you.'”
Mental health issues can be a major driver of addiction and overdose, and the High Country particularly sees the fallout of what Wineland called the “paradise paradox.” According to state data, Summit County’s suicide rate was 17.4 deaths per 100,000 people from 2004-2020, higher than the national rate of 14.5 deaths per 100,000.
“We absolutely know that people do choose to self-medicate and, especially coming out of COVID, substance use did increase,” Wineland said.
Boyle said both her mother and sister endured “emotionally traumatic events” before receiving their first opioid prescriptions, which she called “absolutely and inextricably linked.”
But amid these challenges, Boyle said she believes her film ultimately provides hope for those who know someone struggling with addiction or struggling themselves.
“Definitely, there is a lot to be learned in terms of potential ways out and comfort to be found in different paths,” Boyle said. “I do think that the takeaway between the film and the panel is that it is treatable and there’s absolutely a path through it. And we’re more equipped now than ever before to offer that to folks.”
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