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Hulu's ‘Dopesick' Is a Triggering Exposé on the Opioid Crisis

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Quality television isn’t hard to come by nowadays, especially with the burgeoning of streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple TV+ , Disney+, HBO Max et al thriving in the media landscape. My picks of late are “The Morning Show,” “Ted Lasso” — I’m late to the party — and Peter Jackson’s Beatles docu-series “Get Back.” I would vouch for “Dopesick,” but I couldn’t get past the first episode. Here’s why.

Based on the true story of OxyContin, “Dopesick” is bleak, solemn and funereal. I’m a recovering alcoholic and a person living with bipolar disorder. I am not in a depressive or manic phase at the moment, but this miniseries could trigger my depression if I continued to watch it. Why? Because it is as sad and sordid as it gets, and I’ve come very close to these realities.

I have spent time past midnight in the dark alleys of downtown Chicago doing hardcore drugs — drugs stronger than weed — in below freezing temps with people who are extreme addicts.

I’ve seen lives wrecked by crack cocaine, and desperation unfolding before my very eyes. I have witnessed the vicious cycle of addiction in others and myself. These were my lowest moments and they led to my stint in rehab.

The depressive nature of “Dopesick” is not unlike the feeling I get watching “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian series starring Elizabeth Moss (“Mad Men”) about the takeover of American government and the oppression of women. It’s great television, but my psychiatrist actually told me not to watch it because of its depressive particularities. “Doctor’s orders,” he said, LOL.

The same could be true for “Dopesick.” The series showcases how the opioid crisis has destroyed communities. It highlights the evolution of OxyContin, the dark side of Big Pharma, its criminal negligence, and the outbreak of addiction that has dominoed and still reverberates to this day. It feels like a dark filter has been placed on the camera lens, giving the series a particularly ominous look.

“Dopesick” stars Michael Keaton (“Beetlejuice,” “Birdman”) and Peter Sarsgaard (“Kinsey,” “The Batman”) and the show centers around a small-town doctor in West Virginia (Keaton) and his Appalachian community’s descent into opioid addiction. Sarsgaard plays a lawyer trying to make Purdue Pharma pay for their role in sparking the addiction crisis.

The evil empire behind OxyContin is Purdue Pharma. In the first episode of “Dopesick” we see the Sackler brothers, founders of the corporation, discussing how their new “miracle drug” painkiller OxyContin is not habit-forming and completely safe to treat pain.

That in fact is a lie; OxyContin is highly addictive and a member of the opioid class of drugs that includes heroin. In the episode, we also see drug reps hawking the pills to doctors. Purdue targets rural areas for the launch of the drug, places like the coal country of West Virginia and its many blue-collar workers who tend to have accidents on the job and end up needing pain meds. They knew what they were doing.

While I am happy that the opioid crisis continues to garner more attention, I just couldn’t handle watching this because it triggers bad memories of my days hanging out with homeless people and doing drugs.

In the first episode of “Dopesick,” there is a desperate teenager turning to prostitution to get more money to buy drugs. I never reached that point of desperation, but I could’ve. One freezing evening, a man exposed himself to me, offering to give me drugs if I performed oral sex on him. This is an anecdote that is not in my memoir “The Bipolar Addict.” I’ve never told anyone that story and I would never do something like that.

I have lost two people to suicide because of their addictions — a former boyfriend in Chicago and another friend in New York, both of who just couldn’t kick alcohol and drugs.

I have said that I don’t mind “sad art” as long as it is truly great. My list of 11 Classic Films to Watch About Addiction is testament to that.  I’ve also written about “Melancholia,” The Most Depressing Movie You’ve Never Seen, But Should. Seeing it several times, I regard it as an absolutely grand piece of cinema if not completely depressing. But for some reason I just couldn’t stomach “Dopesick.” It rubbed me the wrong way.

As a journalist, I watched the first episode thinking it was my duty to pay attention to any pop culture related to addiction or mental illness. This is my beat! But it conjured up uncomfortable memories.

The Sacklers have just settled a major lawsuit, paying out $4.5 billion just a few months ago because of the havoc the company wreaked.

This comes after the company filed for bankruptcy in 2019 after more than 3,000 lawsuits from states, local governments, hospitals, unions and others.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 70,000 Americans died of overdoses in the period of 2009-2019, including prescription opioids and illicit drugs.

And just this December, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City dropped the Sackler name from its galleries. No more corporate sponsorship for the Sackler family. The saga of OxyContin and the Sacklers continues.

The saga of the Sacklers and OxyContin continues.

While I’ve never done Oxy — alcohol was my principal drug of choice — I will celebrate 10 years sober in February.

If you’re feeling up for it, check out the trailer for “Dopesick.” And if you do end up watching the miniseries, tell us what you think in the comments. All eight episodes are available to watch now, the last one released on Nov. 17.

Header image via Hulu’s ‘Dopesick’ Facebook

Originally published: January 3, 2022
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