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Understanding Addiction: An American Cable Network’s Short Documentaries

Film plays a significant role in public engagement; take Michael Moore’s 2002 Bowling for Columbine which examined gun violence in America, or Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s 2004 Born into Brothels which brought to light child prostitution in India’s cities. Viewing real people – and real sufferers – is a power unlike any other.

In researching alcohol and drug abuse, it is easy to get stuck in the loop of news article after news article, and study after study. I sought something more visual.

In 2006 Home Box Office (HBO), an American cable network, produced a multi-media campaign aimed at helping viewers understand addiction and learn more about contemporary scientific and behavioral research on the subject. In conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, HBO – under the guidance of leading addiction experts – compiled a collection of media resources: articles, images, films. HBO: Addiction offers information under several headings, including “Understanding Addiction,” “Adolescent Addiction,” “Treatment,” “Aftercare,” and “Films.”

I chose to explore the final section: films. There are nine short documentary segments, each no longer than ten minutes. Having just finished a memoir about a writer’s struggle with alcoholism, and her numerous relapses, I was drawn to the clip entitled “The Science of Relapse.”

Intermixed with commentary from doctors at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, U.S.A., the film loosely focuses on William, an alcoholic participating in a study at the university. Researchers examined the potency of certain visual cues to trigger an addict’s relapse. Remarkably, they found that images – namely, of the user’s drug of choice – could remain on the screen for as little as 33 milliseconds and still had the power to elicit a ‘craving’ reaction from the brain.

Although the study’s aim was curative – researchers were testing to see if an antispasmodic medication could quiet the brain’s reaction to certain images – scientists stressed the combination of scientific and behavioral approaches to treatment. William, the short film’s protagonist, reinforced this idea. In discussions with one of the study’s researchers he commented on his own addiction, saying, “I will be an addict all my life. But I want to not be an addict using.”

William’s words stuck with me, even as I watched through the other clips. Though not entirely undermining the study’s curative hopes, he acknowledged something integral in understanding addiction: addiction is a chronic disease. It is a lifetime of learning how to remain sober. The producers seemed to understand this. “Where Are They Now?” is a section that details the post-production lives of the featured addicts. The majority of them have remained sober; William’s notes describe 5 months of sobriety, but a day-to-day struggle to remain so.

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