Emmy Winning Video Perpetuates Myths About Addiction

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

"Rebekkah's Story" recently won an Emmy for Short Format Daytime Program at the 46th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards. The six-and-a-half minute video was produced by Truth Initiative, a non-profit created to campaign against tobacco use that recently launched an opioid misuse and education campaign called The Truth About Opioids.

Rebekkah is a young woman addicted to opioid medication and heroin who spent five days in a “treatment box” publicly detoxing on a New York City street.  The documentary has also been broadcast on television and can be seen online:  

Though billed as educational, the producers of “Rebekkah’s Story” failed to accurately convey the facts. This is not the first time we've seen movies about drug use and addiction that misinform.  

I wrote a blog not long ago about the problems with two mainstream movies -- "Ben Is Black" and "Beautiful Boy"— both of which reinforced unhelpful narratives about addiction. In both films, good people from good families found themselves caught in the web of addiction, seemingly with no personal responsibility for it. 

"Rebekkah's Story" continues in the same tradition. It exploits Rebekkah and her experience while perpetuating three myths about addiction that do us no favors as our nation struggles with this terrible illness.

At the same time, millions of Americans with chronic pain are being forced off opioid medication — left to suffer in part because of these three myths:

Myth #1: Heroin Use Starts With Prescription Drugs

The movie begins with a misleading statistic: “Eighty percent of heroin users started with a prescription painkiller.” That implies taking painkillers as prescribed for medical use leads to using heroin 80% of the time, and that is not accurate. 

The 80% statistic comes from a 2013 study of heroin users who reported nonmedical use of opioid pain relievers before initiating heroin. Most of them had not been prescribed those opioids for pain; they obtained the drugs from family or friends for nonmedical use.  

In fact, the vast majority of people who use heroin have abused other substances prior to abusing prescription opioids. Usually, their long history of substance abuse begins in adolescence with tobacco, alcohol and other substances besides opioids. Moreover, by 2015, one in three heroin users initiated their opioid use with heroin.

Rebekkah's situation -- progressing from oxycodone to heroin -- was unusual. The video presents her story as a cautionary tale of what can happen if you use prescription opioids, but her story is atypical. Almost always, there are other factors that contribute to the transition from appropriate use to abuse and addiction. This is a truth not addressed in the film. 

The film begs the question: Why did Rebekkah start to use heroin? What did heroin provide that she could not resist? 

Myth #2: Withdrawal Is Synonymous to Addiction

"She had been an accomplished dancer and athlete, and that was lost when her addiction took over her life and self-image," explains the video's website. "Now Rebekkah is regaining control of both — courageously making her detox public in order to help other people while she works towards a new start."

The producers of “Rebekkah’s Story” present a poignant story, but they propose that withdrawal is synonymous with addiction. That is incorrect.

Withdrawal may be associated with addiction, but it does not necessarily follow from addiction. Not everyone who goes through withdrawal has the disease of addiction, and not everyone with addiction must go through the agonizing withdrawal that Rebekkah did.

A major problem that most people with addiction face is the stigma associated with their disease and their inability or unwillingness to obtain help. Fear of facing a legal penalty (such as incarceration) or a social consequence (estrangement from family members, job loss, etc.) often prevent those who use heroin from seeking treatment.  

People experience opioid withdrawal largely because the healthcare and criminal justice systems make access to appropriate and safe treatment illegal, unavailable or unaffordable.  

Myth #3: Detoxification Ends Addiction 

The ending of "Rebekkah's Story" differs from reality, too. Addiction is usually a life-long disease and patients who recover frequently relapse. The video's tidy and triumphant resolution does not accurately reflect what occurs in real life.  

It's troubling how the producers went about creating the video in ways that subtly strengthen and exploit the three myths about addiction.

Their set was a makeshift hospital room projected in a cubicle visible to pedestrians walking near Times Square. The setting was essentially a stage for performance art at Rebekkah's expense.

Rebekkah takes on the role of a gladiator engaging in combat against a metaphorical beast: the agony of opioid addiction.

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She is the heroine with whom we should empathize. We are supposed to share her anger toward the wicked doctors who prescribed her pain medication. 

People watch as Rebekkah suffers from withdrawal without receiving the medical treatment that should be available to anyone in withdrawal. It was surprising that, in the documentary, an addiction physician was complicit in exploiting a person undergoing withdrawal.   

No one should be forced to experience what Rebekkah went through. She should have been given appropriate medical care as she recovered from heroin abuse. 

"Rebekkah's Story" claims to tell the truth about opioids. It does not. All it shows is Rebekkah’s decision to voluntarily and publicly experience a horrible withdrawal that was both unnecessary and avoidable.

Unfortunately, compliant and non-addicted pain patients who are currently being forced off opioid medication don’t have the same stage to tell their stories. Their voices often go unheard, and their agonies are invisible.

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and is author of the award-winning book “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary “It Hurts Until You Die.”

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.