By C.S. Bridger
Tucked in the Appalachian mountains of Southern West Virginia, Oceana, is a small, once thriving coal-mining town that has fallen victim to the fast spreading scourge of prescription painkiller Oxycontin. As the coal industry slowly declined and times got tough, a black market for the drug sprung up and along with it a rash of prostitution, theft and murder. Soon its own residents had nicknamed the town Oxyana and it began to live up to its reputation as abuse, addiction and overdoses became commonplace. Oxyana is a harrowing frontline account of a community in the grips of an epidemic, told through the voices of the addicts, the dealers and all those affected. It is a haunting glimpse into an American nightmare unfolding before our eyes, a cautionary tale told with raw and unflinching honesty.
Oxyana is a new documentary about the small West Virginian town of Oceana. Oxyana’s director, Sean Dunne, won ‘Best New Documentary Director’ at Tribeca Film Festival this past April. I heard Sean talk about his film on the radio the other day and I decided I had to see it. Sean took his idea to Kickstarter for funding and then to filming within 3 months, a great accomplishment for an indie filmmaker. The film is available to watch online at Oxyana.com, through Vimeo On Demand, 3.99$ to rent or own for 7.99$ and can be watched on computer, Apple TV, Xbox and PS3 with the Vimeo app. Alternatively you can get a dvd or blu-ray copy sent to you.
Click the link below for the trailer and read the full review below.
“Oceana used to be such a wonderful little town, but now people are ashamed to say you’re from Oceana since people say Oxyana, and thats what it’s become.” Oceana is a quaint little coal mining town in West Virginia, Wyoming county’s oldest city. Oceana is beautiful and the opening shots show it’s flowing rivers and green forests. The people that live there are hard working blue collar with big loving hearts. Despite it’s beauty and small town charm Oceana has a darkness surrounding it. This little town is riddled with opiate addiction, specifically oxycontin and it has turned the residents for the worse. In the opening interviews many early 20 to middle aged residents describe what oxycontin addiction has done to their town. People who were once friends now distrust each other, to feed their habits people break into houses to steal pills from one another. 2 girls say they do it because they are bored, the closest movie theater is 45 mins away. They are surrounded by mountains with nothing to do but get high. Oxy is common in the local high school, one guy said friends handing him pills in the hallway was a regular occurrence.
Oxyana looks at how the dwindling coal mining industry has affected the local economy and how that paved the way for prescription drug abuse. Coal mining used to be very profitable and how many of the residents earned a living 20 or so years ago. In many ways it was the american dream. The men would work hard at an honest job earning a very good salary while women would stay at home and take care of the kids. A coal miner would be able to comfortably take care of his family and have anything he wanted. As we started to move towards cleaner fuel sources mines became abandoned as jobs were cut. With the mining industry hamstrung there was nothing to replace it and it left residents unemployed. Many residents started to turn to selling prescription drugs, it was the only thing that could make comparable money. One woman says “You’re on drugs, severely hard, You work in the mines all day, Or you have a pot to piss in and thats all you’ve got in this area. Thats it. Sometimes all three.” An ex-coal miner describes how the drugs brought him from being able to have anything he wanted to living under the town’s bridge sleeping in the sand, losing everything to his addiction. A man that sells pills states that he goes to see a doctor in Washington D.C., pays 1000$ cash and gets prescribed 450 Oxycodone 30mg pills, and to take 15 per day. He adds that isn’t the only thing he gets either. He has prescriptions for 200 Methadone 10mgs and 120 Adderalls. He quickly does the math in his head and says that selling just 100 of the Oxycodone pills nets him about 4,000$.
The girl who said she gets high out of boredom says she uses regularly with her dad. One time they had won a lottery for 12,000$, it was gone in a week doing 10 80mg Oxy per day. She goes on to describe that after the 80 mg oxycontin was taken off the market, a move by Purdue Pharma to reformulate the pill to a non abusive form, the pills would go for 200$ easily. It would take 600-800$ just to get high. The women that don’t sell drugs turn to other means to feed their habit, like prostitution. The man with the 450 pill prescription describes how he gets high. “I got a whole pocket full of em right now, the oxys and the xanax. They say not to mix em, it’s a deadly combination but I do it anyhow ‘cause that’s how I like ‘em.” Taking a handful of mixed pills into his hands he picks out a couple from the bunch. “This blue one here is a roxy, thats a 30mg roxycontin pill since they don’t make the oxys anymore. That goes for around 40-50$ around here. This right here is a oxy 10, thats 15$ and right there is a pink xanax about 2-3$. I take em and mix em and snort em.” Sean, off camera asks how that makes him feel. “Good…” the man rolls his eyes a bit then his face turns into a bit of shame, the expression betrays him and shows that he really doesn’t feel good emotionally about what he does on the inside.
We then see the regional hospital, the doctor interviewed says: “The CDC tells us West Virginia has the most prescription per population on an annual basis in the country. Theres only 1.8 million people in the state and everyone of those men women and children get an average of 18 prescriptions a year. Thats 50% higher than the rest of the country. We go through 150 or so people a day, and we’ll have an overdose that leads to death once a day. Upstairs we deliver babies from 5 or 6 counties, and at any given time because of the drug abuse of the mothers, half of the babies are on methadone. Many people call it the generation lost, because of lost work force, lost education, lost lives…”
The local dentist, who proudly fights against over prescribing pain medication says there has been an influx of people who try to get their teeth pulled just to get pills and he has to weed out people daily who are there faking pain to get medication. He describes the psychology of the people of the Appalachian mountains, known as Appalachian Fatalism, which is the mindset that their lives are destined to be hard. “The people of Appalachia have been repeatedly taken advantage of. At one time local people owned all the land around us and all the mineral veins. Which we now know is worth billions of dollars, and once people determined it was worth billions of dollars, they came in and essentially shafted all the locals out of all that. They have been taken advantage of by outsiders over and over again to the point that they, #1 trust almost no one from outside and #2 have a very fatalistic view of their life. Grandfathers and fathers worked in the coal mines and their bodies are broken down. Doctors that were brought in by the mining companies were told, ‘You keep them working no matter what.’ So they were prescribed pain medication and they kept working. So there is this culture of ‘pills are good, pills are a positive thing’ and so it has progressed from minor narcotics, let’s say percocet that were abused recreationally. Then when oxycontin came onto the scene, people thought it was the same kind of drug but they were taking a huge step up addiction wise and they were just addicted like that.”
The town’s prosecuting attorney is interviewed. He says they have had to tell the Drug Task Force to stop making busts on buys because they could not keep up with the paperwork. Even then it didn’t matter because people who they want to help or the drug dealers they are trying to prosecute are dying of overdoses left and right. It truly is an epidemic in Oceana. Funerals are a common occurrence, the cause of death, usually overdoses. “For every 1 that’s busted or dead, 3 more pick it up.” Its just impossible to keep up with the small force they have. The movie then turns back to the dealer from earlier. He heaves out a stack of papers, all obituaries or newspaper clippings about people he has known that have died because of the pills. “When people die around here, they say they’ve been oxy-cuted, he did it to himself, they don’t care.” he says as he starts to crush the pills taken out earlier preparing to snort them. Everyone interviewed then shares a story about how people close to them have died. Its a cold reality. “Half of my graduating class is dead, and I’m 23 years old. 2 years after I left high school 6 of my close friends died because of overdose.”
Overdose isn’t the only cause of death in Oxyana. There have been grisly occurrences of people gone missing, presumably drug related. There was a man who was drowned in a pool, he was tied to cinder blocks and the word snitch was carved into his chest. A teen girl’s remains were found in the woods, her bones were gnawed on by dogs. The drug dealer from before then describes how his family was taken away by a double murder suicide. He heart wrenchingly shares his last moments with his family, telling his brother he loves him as he leaves the house. His father, addicted to oxycontin, became paranoid and arguments about drugs were a regular occurrence. One day it went too far and in anger he shot his son, wife and then himself. The dealer shares this story while wearing an in loving memory shirt he made. He then snorts up the pills that were crushed earlier. He dejectedly says that he knows it will kill him but he doesn’t care, he’s just waiting for his turn.
Oxyana was a tough film to watch. It had pretty graphic scenes of people injecting and snorting oxycontin. Prescription painkillers were my drug of choice, even as a recovering addict it was very triggering for me. Since getting sober I have seen a couple movies with pretty intense drug use scenes, for example Pulp Fiction. Knowing this is a real person is something entirely different. The subtle nuances that cannot be acted are shown. You can feel their pain as they seek the essential numbing escape while hating themselves at the same time.
The movie was also heart wrenchingly sad. There were numerous times I had to stop watching and take a breather. That is testament to the Director’s ability to make you feel for these people and to create such a tragic narrative. The sweeping panoramas of such beautiful scenery contrasted against such sadness and poor conditions needs to be seen to be believed.
I really enjoyed Oxyana but I cannot wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone. It was incredibly insightful and educational, however it may be too triggering for people or too depressing. Theres no real happy ending. A mother tearfully begs her son to go to rehab, while he seems open to it, it’s left ambiguous as to whether he actually gets help. There is overwhelming love in the film however. The love this mother feels for her son, a husband that has brain cancer and the wife that takes care of him, The dealer who tearfully holds a picture of his family that was taken away from him, the dentist who hates what this drug has done but loves his town so much he will do anything he can to fight for it. All these faces flash by as the movie closes leaving you to wonder what will happen in Oceana. This little town is just a microcosm of what prescription drug abuse has done to America and what we can do to change things.
C.S. Bridger is an LA based writer and photographer trying to make sense of recovery