Recovery is Attainable — Key Message from Eye-Opening Documentary on Substance Use Disorder
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Award-winning filmmaker Charlotte Wincott, who’s also a neuroscientist, suggests that coming out of the pandemic, society has even more stressors that are causing increased substance use and misuse. In Wincott’s insightful new feature documentary, Fall Fight Shine, she and her coterie of scientists and health experts openly talk about substance use disorder (SUD), about the terrifying facts, and their belief that SUD is a disease of the brain and not a moral failing.
Importantly, Wincott, who uses her actor-husband Jeff’s own struggle with substance use disorder as a prime example of dealing with this disease, gives some of those facts. She cites provisional data from the CDC reporting that there were over 100,000 overdose deaths in 2021, up 15% from 2020. Those were two peak pandemic years, and Wincott says, “The pandemic triggered a perfect storm of sorts as a result of isolation, social unrest, financial instability, and health anxiety among many other societal problems. This collective despair probably didn’t help those potentially vulnerable to the misuse of substances, and the overdose statistics have been an ominous signal to that effect. As a matter of interest, the founder of the Addiction Policy Forum, Jessica Hulsey, is a contributor to our film and her group has published a short blog article summarizing these statistics.”
However, Fall Fight Shine doesn’t offer any easy solutions and very openly discusses the mountainous challenges of finding recovery.
For example, Jeff Wincott was sitting on top of the world in Hollywood, becoming the go-to guy for roles that required someone to carry a film with martial arts abilities but also someone who could act. Even though he had done a dozen movies and his phone kept ringing, he confesses, “Everything took a back seat to my addiction including my personal life and career. I lost everything.” And, when he finally did seek out help, he admits, “It don’t come easy. Recovery has its ups and downs.”
In fact, one of director Charlotte’s addiction experts, Dr. Kelly Conrad, discusses ways to tackle the disease in the movie, offering, “Addiction can make someone feel they’re living this nightmarish Groundhog Day, that repeats itself in this vicious loop that they just can’t seem to escape…So how do you recover and actually thrive? Ultimately, it requires you start doing something different with time and attention and treat it like recovery from any serious illness like cancer.”
Above all, as Jeff Wincott expresses in Fall Fight Shine, about his daily challenge: “I don’t need to be perfect. I just have to keep on trying. That’s all I have to do. Just keep trying, one day at a time.”
We spoke with Charlotte Wincott, who received the Activism Award, from the Hollywood Women’s Film Institute for her work in the addiction space, about substance use disorder, and trying to break that “wash, rinse, repeat” cycle:
— Where does the title, Fall Fight Shine, come from?
— It comes from what I think is the trajectory of the addiction plus recovery experience. FALL is the moment, or collection of moments, when individuals come to realize that using substances is not beneficial to them and that the balance between the enjoyment and consequences that come from drug and alcohol use has decidedly skewed toward consequences. This is a defining moment — the fork in the road. You can either give up, or you can FIGHT. Sometimes you give up and fall again and it may take a number of falls before you put up a fight. Addiction is a disease of the brain and it takes an incredible amount of determination to overcome it. Then the enormous struggle that the journey to recovery entails can feel insurmountable, but if you have this epiphany and take on this fight, there is a light at the end — and, that light SHINES. It is bright and hopeful and it can open up the world for you.
— What impact do mental health disorders play in this equation?
— Current events are certainly involved in the exacerbation of comorbid mental health disorders. In our film, Dr. Luke Sjulson also describes how those who are suffering from depression or other psychiatric illnesses may be more prone to misusing psychostimulants because they can temporarily provide relief. Another big problem is the fact that we do not have enough mental health care professionals to go around. In some areas this is a bigger issue than others, but lack of access to assistance is not helping matters.
— What is the basic key message of Fall Fight Shine?
— As a postdoctoral researcher, I worked in the lab of the late Mary Jeanne Kreek and one of the most poignant statements that she would frequently make is that addiction is a disease of the brain. While I agree with this wholeheartedly, I think that there is also an element of free will that allows some of us to overcome this brain disease more quickly than others but free will isn’t all of it. Some have greater or lesser access to support and treatment, some have unique stressors that serve as barriers, and there are also biological vulnerabilities that scientists are still trying to understand. It’s incredibly complicated and I don’t feel that it is ethical to blame those who have not been able to begin their recovery journeys (yet). Their times may be coming, and we should continue to support them along the way until then. I would say that the basic key message from the film is that recovery is attainable.
— What is the solution, the basic way forward?
— Solutions will be different for everyone, just like definitions of recovery are also varied. There is no magic solution as often individuals will use multiple services and interventions. There are medications that are effective, especially for opioid use disorder, and free programs that can and have put many on the right paths — 12-steps, for instance. Healing begins with a desire to recover, the courage to seek help, and the perseverance to keep trying. As Jeff Wincott says in the movie, “I just have to keep on trying. That’s all I have to do. Just keep trying one day at a time.”
— What about people who don’t see their regular use as misuse, that they seem like functioning addicts?
— I think that addiction has a series of unique issues like this that make it challenging to ameliorate from a public health perspective. There are those who may struggle with substance use disorders (SUD) but don’t recognize it or on the flip side, they may not choose to seek treatment or take action. Because this is a disease of the brain, it is not an easy hurdle to overcome. Intrinsic motivation has a role in the path to recovery but unfortunately, there is no special pill that can give this to people and frequently, those with SUD have many other factors at play like financial instability, relationship or legal problems, past traumas, comorbid conditions, and many other issues. It is important to maintain compassion, not call those struggling with SUD “addicts” (as it is a stigmatizing term), and continue to provide support wherever possible. I’ve seen people undergo major epiphanies, get into recovery, and do incredible things to help others.
— Is there a simple litmus test for recognizing one is someone with SUD?
— I don’t know that there is a litmus test, sadly. The DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) has a number of criteria that help a clinician diagnose and define the severity of a potential SUD, but for the average person, the criteria can be confusing. While I am a filmmaker and scientist by training, not a medical doctor, my perspective from years of learning about addiction in various settings is less complicated. If you are drinking or using more than you want and/or if it is causing you to do things that bother you or interfere with your overall functioning, you may want to address it. Why shouldn’t you be living your best life? There are plenty of programs and treatment options out there that can help, and some of these programs are both effective and free/low-cost. Addiction Policy Forum has a number of resources that can guide and educate those struggling with substance use disorder as well as their families.
Check out Charlotte Wincott’s bio on Hollow Metropolis Films website. Drop in on Jeff Wincott on his website, and on the Fall Fight Shine trailer on YouTube. The documentary feature will be available digitally August 01, on Apple TV, YouTube, iTunes, and Google Play.