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Making Sunlight in the Dark


Elaine McMillion portrait

Written by Diana Mazzella
Photographed by Raymond Thompson Jr.

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On the day the fire chief was named to the TIME 100 list of presidents and princes, tennis stars and comic book heroes, she had her cell phone’s ringer turned off. But Jan Rader called right back. “You want to talk about Elaine, right?” she said. “Well guess what? I’m sitting in the office of Judge Patricia Keller. Today is your two-for-one.” Rader laughs as she says this. Her voice is sunny, she is kind, and you can imagine her in a white fire chief uniform shirt with her best friend, Judge Keller, who is about to enter a courtroom.

Jan Rader
Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader says in “Heroin(e)” that every time her team revives someone from an overdose, that's a chance at recovery." (REBECCA KIGER PHOTO)

Before Sept. 3, 2017, this is not how we pictured Huntington, W.Va. If we’re honest with ourselves, we didn’t picture laughter, we didn’t picture women in charge and we didn’t picture progress against the thing that is ailing America but has moved the fastest in Huntington.

National media go to Huntington for one reason. It has led the nation in opioid overdoses. When that is what the average American sees, it’s hard to think of Huntington as a place where people live, where the dogwoods bloom and where it’s ever anything but pitch dark. 

That was before Elaine McMillion Sheldon directed the Netflix documentary “Heroin(e),” which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary this year, and showed people across the world how Rader, Keller and missionary Necia Freeman are holding the epidemic at bay.

The Fighting Women

In November, McMillion Sheldon, BSJ ’09, was on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” to promote her documentary. They talked about the facts: that drug overdose is the leading cause of death for Americans under 50. And then the conversation turned to why she was telling this story in West Virginia.

“I’m from West Virginia, I’m proud of my state, and we struggle a lot,” she told Noah.

“And unfortunately we’re a drop-in place for a lot of media to come in and sort of tell America about all of our problems, but we have a lot of people that are also working to change those problems. ... We need stories of hope, we need stories of people fighting for change and these three women represent that.”

McMillion Sheldon had already done this with “Hollow,” her interactive documentary about the parents, workers, students and retirees who were fighting for McDowell County where outcomes are often the poorest in the state. The piece, which she started while she was in graduate school, earned a Peabody and an Emmy nomination.

“Heroin(e)” and her upcoming full-length film, also for Netflix, “Recovery Boys” – about four men in recovery in West Virginia – grew from what she didn’t know about opioid addiction as she saw former classmates get pulled into addiction.

“I think I was like a lot of people: uneducated, didn’t quite understand what was going on behind the scenes. I understand people are addicted. ... And I think I was just trying to better understand what’s it going to take to get us out of this.”

What it’s going to take, her films show, are regular people in regular towns who take action.

There’s a scene in the film that is hard to watch, and was hard to film. A woman is overdosing in the line at a convenience store. Firefighters and EMS workers revive her. You hear the electronic voice of the auto-injector counting down until the dose is complete.

“It doesn’t shock me anymore,” someone says.

“Yeah, not anymore,” another answers.

What you don’t see is McMillion Sheldon talking to the woman afterward and explaining what she’s filming and asking for permission to include her in the film. It’s something McMillion Sheldon felt she had to show and something she never wants to film again.

Overdoses are still happening across the country but as of April 2018, there had been seven months in which the overdose rate continued to decline in Huntington. Rader says a quick response team that meets with patients in the days after their overdose has led to 35 percent of people they visit seeking recovery. The city has received a Bloomberg challenge grant to create a program to combat compassion fatigue in first responders that is intended someday for use across the country.

Every recovery Rader sees makes her hopeful. She mentions Mickey, a man who appeared in the film and who had been high from age 10 to 34.

“I mean he was introduced to drugs by his mother, and he didn’t know anything else,” Rader said. “He was absent in his children’s lives. Now he’s been clean over two years. He’s in his children’s lives. He’s a healthy, happy individual and that’s not how I met him.”

“When I met him, he was a very angry, belligerent user. And just to watch him enjoy life is just amazing, so that’s what makes it all worthwhile. To see people recover and do well.”

But recovery is a long story of its own.

A Recovery Boy

Ryan was at a stress-reduction workshop in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia when the health department director approached him.

“Well I was high as a kite going in,” Ryan said, “and the doctor, he’s like, ‘You know you might be a lot less stressed out if you stopped using drugs like you do.’”

Ryan laughs recounting the memory. The doctor told him that he was dehydrated and malnourished. And there was this new treatment center in Aurora, W.Va., called Jacob’s Ladder that might work for him. Ryan hadn’t tried long-term recovery. He’d tried drug-replacement therapy – in his case methadone – and he'd seen friends and relatives go away for treatment and then start using again. He wasn’t sure if it would work for him. But he was 33 and he’d seen friends and family members overdose and die. He was afraid of the withdrawal pain and that it wouldn’t work, but he was also afraid of dying. He was ready for a change.

Ryan has now been clean for a year. And that whole process from detoxing to being released from treatment to getting dishwashing jobs in Morgantown is documented in “Recovery Boys.”

Elaine McMillions rides with her camera on a tractor.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon followed the lives of four men through their year-and-a-half recovery journey for the Netflix film "Recovery Boys." (Photo by Joey Ferguson) 

McMillion Sheldon and her husband and filming partner, Kerrin Sheldon, followed Ryan and three other men through six months of treatment and through the next year of hope and struggle. The film, which became available on Netflix June 29, depicts the internal path of recovery on the farm where the men were encouraged to live in the moment.

The treatment center where all the characters converge was founded by Kevin Blankenship, BS ’89, Pharmacy, MD ’96, who was looking for something more long-lasting than the common 28-day recovery program for his son who struggled with drug addiction. What he found was a six-month program in Arizona. That sort of distance is not possible or affordable for most West Virginians, so he created Jacob’s Ladder.

Blankenship was there when “Recovery Boys” was screened for the participants.

“I was overwhelmed,” Blankenship said. “I never really worried that they wouldn’t put something awesome together. But I walked away with this feeling of hopefulness.

“It shows the ups and downs, shows the negative end of things but it also has this running theme of hopefulness and goodness and it shows these guys as they are, as human beings. You know, flawed human beings who are trying to do good things, not always successful but none of us are.”

His son, who recovered after his time in Arizona and has been clean for three years, is now a psychology major at WVU who wants to become an addictions counselor.

Since opening in April 2016, more than 75 percent of the 20-plus people who have undergone treatment in the six-month program at Jacob’s Ladder have stayed sober. A few who have relapsed have rejoined the program.

“Recovery Boys” premiered in May at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. There, audience members gave a standing ovation and hugged the men featured in the film who attended.

Ryan said the film was an altruistic project for Elaine and Kerrin, who spent hours and days at a time filming the men long before they knew it would be picked up by Netflix.

“It was just because they thought it would be good for West Virginia,” Ryan said. “It would be good to maybe help change and destigmatize what we’re looking at, what the issue really is. Who these people are. Who I am. Who Doctor B is. What it looks like when you’re a person that cares enough to give back.”

At the heart of both films is a thread of hope among the hardships that come with drug addiction. This hope comes when communities support their friends, family members and neighbors who are addicted. McMillion Sheldon said that when finding an ending for “Heroin(e),” they wanted it to be hopeful even though the conflict isn’t solved.

“We didn’t want it to seem like everything’s great and everything’s changed because these women are awesome and everyone’s graduated from drug court and everybody’s happy, because the fact is to this day these women are still fighting the same battle,” she said.

“We want people to see something in these women that reminds them of people within their own community. I think that these women represent all the unsung volunteers and heroes and people in the front lines all across the country.

“... And hope to them doesn’t mean like everything’s going to work out. Everything’s going to be great. It means that we’re going to work until we can see a light at the end of the tunnel.”