Collapse. The film opens on scenes of devastation, as a collection of footage taken on shaky cell phones shows people from all walks of life falling in public, unconscious. The filmmakers chose to open the film with its ending, revealing to viewers a disturbing depiction of an opioid overdose.
HBO’s newest documentary, Warning: This Drug May Kill You, is brutally honest about the opioid epidemic in America, making it incredibly difficult to watch. The premise isn’t new, as the film jumps from family to family, each affected by opioid addiction, offering viewers the chance to observe the many ways it can destroy a home. But the film views the issue through a distinct lens, postulating that the prominence of opioid addiction in America stems from misinformation doled out by Purdue Pharma in the ’90s. Its false promises, the filmmakers argue, have led doctors to overprescribe addictive painkillers like OxyContin and Percocet to patients, who quickly become addicted.
After offering up what essentially becomes the thesis, the film then begins hopping from family to family, showing the events surrounding a family member’s addiction. We are first introduced to Stephany Gay, a mom and wife in Illinois who, after harboring an addiction to painkillers, soon moved on to heroin. Gay’s account of her addiction explores the slippery slope of addiction, recalling that doctors first prescribed her OxyContin at 16 after being hospitalized with kidney stones. She became addicted during this time, enjoying the feeling that comes from taking the pills. She recalled that after a while, she remembers taking up to 20 tablets of Norco every day, until, unsurprisingly, she moved onto heroin—not only is it more cost-effective, but it also happens to be more potent.
The film then introduces viewers to the Doyle family in California, as the three teenagers all recount their mother’s addiction and how it tore the family apart. The mother’s addiction began after giving birth with a C-section procedure and being prescribed, unsurprisingly, OxyContin. After attending rehab for the eleventh time, her husband eventually divorced her and the three children only visited her on occasion. She soon overdosed and died, a day after checking into a hospital for a kidney stone. The children recall seeing at least eight orange pill-bottles of opioids at her bedside when she died—serving to remind them that the hospital and doctors initiated her addiction and were also instrumental in her death as a result. The children’s father remarked that the hospital should have known better.
The film then centers in on a support group for those who knew someone who died from an opioid overdose. The group’s founder, Mrs. Cole, decided to start the group after the sudden death of her son, Brendan. One of the most searing parts of her account of her son’s addiction was the difficulty he had during withdrawals. Mrs. Cole remembered that after Brendan returned from rehab, initially, she didn’t understand him, demanding he shower and clean himself up. It wasn’t until after his death that she learned that many withdrawing opioid addicts cannot shower or brush their teeth because it’s often too painful. Soon enough, other members of the support group begin to share their stories about loved ones. The filmmakers’ use of home footage is particularly difficult to watch, with the knowledge that a child once so innocent could grow to harbor such a painful addiction.
The film, by its end, fails to provide any concrete answer for how to solve this pressing issue. Purdue Pharma, which advocated for long term opioid use in the 1990s, plead guilty to a case years ago against them, yet the prominence of opioids persists. The film even explores the shortcomings of rehab, showing that opioid addicts often fall back into addiction upon returning home. The film, therefore, serves more as a warning, demonstrating how any person, rich or poor, young or old, can easily fall down the slippery slope of addiction. The tragedy of these vignettes is that the addiction experienced feels inevitable, and our human will is often powerless when staring down a little white pill.
Featured Image By HBO