The idea to produce a documentary about addiction as a spiritual disease came from a chance meeting with Sheila Raye Charles, the daughter of the music legend. After sharing her personal story of addiction and trauma she sang her heart out, and I felt how committed she was to helping others break through the loneliness of early recovery. Her soul purpose seems to be bringing hope to the hopeless. I could see the joy she received from sharing and that was my aha moment. Addiction is a condition that festers in isolation and detachment.
How Sheila Raye was called from darkness became an invitation to expand my mission to include the unmet needs of thousands of people through a different type of film. Forty years of making films on the neuropharmacological and physical impact of psychoactive drugs has prepared me to explore the psycho-spiritual component of recovery and how this impacts individuals, families and communities. I wanted to start filming right away but the worst weather in 100 years kept me off the road. Fortunately, I invested my frustration in additional research which lead me to the works of Richard Rohr, the renowned author and theologian who had worked in jails and prisons for years. It seemed to me as I examined the potential scope of this documentary film that the opposite of addiction was community. I set up a meeting with Killian Noe the founder of the Recovery Cafe in Seattle and she gave me a copy of her book, Descent into Love. In it there was a quote from St. Theresa of Calcutta which are words to live by, “if we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
Passion for a topic is a starting place but enthusiasm only takes you so far. Right away I had to look at the obstacles to the success of this project. I knew this wasn't going to be something I could do easily or on my own so I contacted my close friend David Okimoto to see if he would be the cinematographer, co-producer, and co-pilot. We had worked on many projects together including other documentaries and stints as editors at TV new stations. It takes a lot of courage and trust to ask someone to leave home for weeks at a time for a passion project. None of this could have happened without his help. We have a micro budget, all the camera gear- sound equipment and lights and a 11 year old Jeep with 220,00 miles on it which will be essential to getting us to the locations where these miracle stories of post addiction joy and meaningful community efforts were occurring.
Once my request to interview Richard Rohr was granted, I needed to put a series of other interviews together. I wanted to go to Home Boy Industry in east Los Angeles, to see the Inside Out Program in the Imperial County jail but schedules were working so I scrambled to find other subjects to cover in New Mexico and Colorado. I was a 1,000 mile drive from Oki’s house to Albuquerque NM the headquarters of the Center for Action and Contemplation which was our first stop. Fr. Rohr greeted us as cinematic sojourners on a pilgrimage to find the joy at the margins of society. I think that must have been the idea behind this, why else would two retirement aged guys wander off into the desert? We tweaked the lights, we tested the sound, the camera rolled then I asked Fr. Rohr if he thought that people who had to face addiction had a head start on the rest of us in terms of spiritual growth and here is what he answered.
“Let's think of all suffering, failure, and self hatred as negative energy inside of us. It has to have some place to go. Now I think that healthy religion is about taking that as raw material and taking those failures and transforming them into light. That is why I say, if you do not transform your suffering with 100% certainty you will transmit it to others. That is as certain as the dawn. You will take it out on your wife, your children, your neighbors because that negative energy has to go somewhere. So, if your religion is not helping you to take your situation and turn it into compassion, first of all for yourself because most of us don't know how to be self compassionate, but if you can't transform it you will transmit it. This is the source of all suffering on earth.”
In the daze of production ahead we meet so many people that had been swept up in the crisis of overdose deaths, addiction, and incarceration. What is the spiritual response to these forms of suffering and how does one thrive and grow spiritually with this level of duress? The TV series Breaking Bad was located in Northern New Mexico but the choice was not a random one.. The problem with meth and heroin are widespread and the treatment resources are sparse.
Near old town Albuquerque we met Louella Duran at Serenity Mesa which has an unobstructed view of the Sangre de Christo mountains. This treatment facility is a collection of buildings with the single purpose of helping young people overcome addiction. Each building is named after a person who has succumbed to this disease.. Lou proudly showed us Michael’s House a one story pueblo style building named after her son. He was a church-going student-athlete, from an intact family yet he developed a taste for opiates and he overdosed and died when he was 19. After that loss Lou had the courage to tell the story of Michael’s struggles with heroin at the funeral with those in attendance at her Catholic parish. Sharing this grief liberated her and since then many people have sought out her wisdom. Her dedication led her to join a non profit (Healing Addiction in our Community.) Instead of isolating herself, Louella’s mission expanded and she was able to raise money for a sober house with a group of other families who invested their tragic loss into something bigger than themselves. During the filming she told me that she thought that the opposite of addiction was community which is a thought that I have been sharing with all the other people we have filmed. There is no question that this mother loved her son dearly and that love has not ended with his passing. She told us she would invest a life time of Michael's energy and joy into healing her community. She thinks about her son every day and it was “his heart and her hands” that allows her to stay close to his spirit and find joy through connection.
On Sunday we went to the Holy Family Church where Fr. Rohr says mass and gives his amazing homilies. He spoke about mirroring that God is LOVE and we find that spiritual resource in connection with each other and mirroring it to others. Afterwards we headed for the door but he recognized us and sent us off with a blessing and a tip on where to get a good meal. Church Street Café.
The next location put us on Hwy 25 - the main north south route. We were off to Espinola and Chimayo where we were going to meet Pedro Hernandez, a military veteran and community organizer with a deep sense of community and spirituality. The drug epidemic has hit this community hard and once again there aren't enough resources to help the people. Every day Pedro gets phone calls to pray for community members that are leaving this world. He gets in his car and drives to hold someone's hand as they die or to be a witness at a funeral where he prays and chants for the eternal rest for their spirit. But his actions are all about reclaiming the authentic community that allowed his ancestors to survive on this high desert plain. The number of overdose deaths have continued to increase and so as a response members of the community come together to process up a steep hill where they have been placing crosses in memory of the fallen. The day we were there we interviewed a Pueblo Indian woman whose son had passed the previous year. This mother had suffered a lot from not being able to share the depth of her loss and she was nearly emotionally destroyed until she started connecting with like minded people. How shocking it was to Mary Rose that turning to her own family may yield no empathy but instead, a sense of shame making the loss all the more isolating. When Pedro and his wife Ramona reached out to her it was a life line. Mary Rose is overcoming the trauma gradually and this informal group of supporters to pay homage to her son is all part of the healing process.
In the nearby community of Chimayo Lupe Salazar invested her personal grief and loss and transformed it into something much bigger than herself. She founded Barrios Unidos as a healing center for her community. Her journey began when her son was arrested for a DUI and went to jail for a month. When he came out of jail he was a heroin addict. He has spent years in and out of jail and now Lupe has custody of his kids. Who better than a mother to show compassion for others who suffer from this disease. Lupe told us that after she was able to get the building which was a former mission school she wanted to build a labyrinth with a heart shaped stone in the center, every stone was placed with love and intention The day we arrived Lupe and others processed around the labyrinth singing and praying as a group meditation. Afterwards a local Native American Holy man blessed each window and doorway with smoke of white mountain sage to invite the forces of healing and love to enter this sacred space. Many members of the community are now coming to Barrios Unidos to give and get the love and support as a way to counteract the devastation that’s been eroding the lifeblood of communities by replacing it with trust.
Please follow us as we continue our trek through Colorado then back to the west Coast where we did interviews from Calexico, California to Seattle, Washington.
About Paul Steinbroner:
Paul Steinbroner is President of CNS Productions, publisher of the text Uppers, Downers, All Arounders, and is a documentary film maker.