Posted Tuesday, January 30, 2018 by RODNEY HOfirstname.lastname@example.org on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog
Atlanta is now involved in not just one – but two – shows focused on the opioid epidemic.
Earlier this month, A&E debuted a special season of “Intervention” with a focus on addicts mostly around Marietta. Now Showtime has set its lens partially on Atlanta as part of a more wide-ranging docu-series called “The Trade” which debuts Friday.
Over five episodes, the series focuses on three arenas: the people who supply the heroin in Mexico, cops in Columbus, Ohio trying to stem the flood and users and their families in Atlanta struggling to deal with the carnage heroin causes to individual lives. Drug deaths – many opioid related – have skyrocketed in recent years, exceeding suicides, gun violence and car accidents.
Pagan Harleman, executive producer, said they spent 18 months compiling footage. “I hope that on an individual level, people will see addicts as people and be more compassionate. I also hope people understand the complexities of why Mexicans grow poppy. This is often the only means they feel they can support their families.”
Jennifer Walton, an Atlanta mom of two sons Skyler and Avery, was willing to be filmed for the show as she tried to help them escape the rabbit hole that is heroin addiction. Her 25-year-old son and Kell High School graduate Skyler is having an especially tough time during filming.
“My husband and I have spent years trying to understand the hold this drug has on my child,” she said during the first episode. “I know that Skyler would walk over my dead body to get his drug.”
Walton said heroin “has ripped my family apart. Both my kids use and have quit school. We’ve gone through every bit of money we have to get them help.”
She said she only hears from Skyler when he needs money and “he’ll try to connive me that he’s done.” While she hates to be enabling her child, “I will never give up on him as long as there’s breath in his body, there’s hope… He’s either going to leave this earth, which is very possible, or he’s going to find his way out.”
In an interview, Jennifer said her family was normal until Skyler had one too many skateboard injuries and got hooked on opioid painkillers.
“He quickly learned [as a teen] each time we went to the ER and they’d show him the happy-face pain chart, he’d touch the frowny face and he’d get pain medication,” Jennifer recalled. “That’s how it started. One thing led to another Pain pills got expensive and hard to find. So he resorted to heroin.”
Since then, she and her family have been in what she calls this “hamster wheel.” Things would start disappearing from the house. Both sons would get in trouble in school.
She said they tried cold turkey with home detox. They sent Skyler to several rehab centers all over the country. “We have no more savings,” she said. “In fact, I have quite a few judgments on my credit.”
Jennifer now works for a sober center focused on helping drug addicts recover. She said it takes commitment, time, effort, resources and a community to help someone with heroin addiction. “Their brains have been hijacked,” she said. “Their body might heal in 28 days of rehab. But they can’t recover until their brain heals and the smoke and fog clears.”
She is willing to lay her life out in public because she believes anonymity doesn’t help addiction.
“I am a loudmouth,” Jennifer said. “I won’t shut up. I will shout from the rooftops. I know recovery can happen. I see it every day.”
“The Trade” shot her life over several months. She said both sons are in a sober environment and doing better. “They’re happy it’s coming out,” she said. “They’re nervous. But they want to help people.”
Harleman was thrilled to find someone like Jennifer so willing to be vulnerable about something so painful. “There’s so much shame around addiction,” she said. “She really believes in order to get help, you need to let go of that shame.”
The series received access to the suppliers in Mexico, who are incentivized by demand to grow the poppy that can be turned into heroin. They show how dangerous it is for suppliers in Guerrero and at the border in Juarez.
“The heroin we send to the United States is the best there is,” one man brags during the third episode, like a “Breaking Bad” character. “It makes you feel like Superman. It gives you happiness your family can’t.”
Then he intones: “This will never be stopped. Never.”
Executive producer Harleman said “the Mexican cartel has flooded the states with heroin that is more pure than it’s ever been. This makes the addiction that much stronger.”
Episode three also features an Atlanta man named John panhandling and begging for money, any money, to get a hit of heroin. The desperation is palpable. “Every second of the day is spent maintaining a high and preventing myself from getting sick,” he said.
Harleman, now that “The Trade” is finished, feels like the crisis will get worse before it gets better. “This addiction is so hard to break,” she said. “I don’t know if we’ll see an end any time soon. It’s like Vietnam every year in terms of deaths.”