The Fix Q&A with Chris Bell, Director of Prescription Thugs
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Chris Bell is from upstate New York, one of three athletic brothers. He made his way to USC Film School and created the critically acclaimed documentary Bigger Stronger Faster, about steroid use among bodybuilders and wrestlers. His new film Prescription Thugs is a searing indictment of Big Pharma, and the cycle of addiction that prescription drugs can set into motion.
When you do the right thing, the right things fall in your lap, the right things happen for you.
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The film premieres on April 18 at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. Chris took time out of his busy film festival schedule to speak with The Fix about Prescription Thugs, addiction, recovery and redemption.
First, my deepest condolences on the loss of your brother. I know that was part of your motivation for making Prescription Thugs. What else was driving you?
I had just gotten over a serious addiction to painkillers. It was crazy. I was taking Percocet. My doctor prescribed them for me following double hip replacement surgery, but after seeing my doctor, I would run out. I always needed more. I was getting them from friends and other people, things like that. My first surgery was botched, and it left me in terrible pain. After a while my doctor just said, “Take a Tylenol, get yourself moving on the bike and you’ll be fine.” That experience drove me further into addiction, because I really wasn’t fine. Eventually, they had to redo one of my hips because it hadn’t been installed correctly. A lot of doctors have a God complex, they think they are omnipotent.
I grew up in Poughkeepsie New York. My brothers and I were into sports and wrestling. I was totally against drugs. I came from a Christian family, and the last thing I ever thought I would be is a drug addict. My parents are amazing, they love us and they did whatever it took to help us be successful. To go down that path was so embarrassing for me. I used to have my nose in the air about people who couldn’t handle their drugs or alcohol. Until you get involved in it, until it grabs a hold of you, I mean then you’re just one of those people, that’s what you are.
Ultimately, I became addicted to drugs that doctors prescribed for me. I am friends with a lot of athletes who have similar stories. My first film, Bigger Stronger Faster, was about steroid use. The stories that I became aware of around pain and painkiller abuse were the nucleus of this film.
Continuing to use in the face of the ultimate consequence, what does that mean to you personally?
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Horseshoe (from the film) summed it up perfectly. He said, “None of us think we’re going to die while we’re using, we think we’re bulletproof.”
What happened to me with addiction is that I was sort of caught in the middle, I’d told everybody that I was totally against something but I was doing it. When I started making the movie I didn’t realize I had a real problem until halfway through it. I thought I was over all those pills. I thought I didn’t need the pills anymore but I started drinking heavily because of the pain I was in. I thought it was severe pain, but now that I am completely sober, it’s pain, but I can deal with it. The pills and the alcohol actually made me feel worse, they sucked the life out of me.
Former WWE superstar Luther Reigns discusses prescription drug addiction with Chris Bell.
Many of the athletes in your film have been addicted to painkillers. Can you elaborate on that?
When you get addicted to painkillers you need more and more with each day. I was taking like 15 Percocets a day, I had to switch over to OxyContin because I was just taking too many pills! One of my athlete friends was taking so many pills his stomach would actually get full from them! It sounds funny but it's not, he was actually full of pills. What’s crazy is that I was around for so many of the stories in the film, people are like, “Come on, that (story) just isn’t possible!" The abuse, handfuls of pills washed down with alcohol. It’s hard to imagine taking so many pills but it’s all true.
Suboxone is part of your story. What would you like to say about that medication?
I used Suboxone to get off the pills, and then I couldn’t get off the Suboxone. Finally I got off it, after like eight months. This was two years ago. I got off Suboxone, but ended up in the emergency room twice trying to detox from it.
It was worse than trying to quit the drugs cold turkey. I just basically went as long as I could. I was really sick, I thought I was going to die, so I went to the emergency room. I told them I was in withdrawal. I thought all I needed was another Suboxone to make it through the next few days, but they said, “No, you need to get off the Suboxone.” They basically pumped me up with Xanax and an anti-nausea medication and sent me home after a day. Suboxone is a very dangerous drug.
I was told by the first Suboxone doctor I went to not to ever take it for more than two weeks, and then I went to another Suboxone doctor who said I could be on it for the rest of my life. That’s the problem right there.
The drugs and the withdrawals are just brutal to your whole system and your mindset, everything. I really disagree with the long-term Suboxone method. There’s a lot of money in it, the drugs your doctor prescribes are not covered by insurance. Between a couple hundred for the doctor, and a few hundred for the medication, it’s a whole scam. It’s definitely one of the money-making schemes started by the pharmaceutical industry.
You went into treatment halfway through the completion of the film. What would you like to share about that?
I have a healthy fear of drugs and alcohol now, I know what they’ve done to me. I just don’t want to be around certain kinds of people anymore. I'm not talking about people who drink socially, I’m talking about people who try and shove drinks down your throat!
When I went to rehab, I learned something important from Richard Taite (CEO of Cliffside Malibu). He grabbed me the first day I was there and he said, “You’re not a bad person, you’re just sick, remember that. You may have done some bad things, but you are not a bad person.” All of the sudden you’re free of all this guilt. I wish my brother had someone like Richard. I know his problems were complex and I don’t know if it would have saved him, but I feel like all this stuff is treatable and preventable after going through what I did.
It was crazy, I got to be friends with Richard and learned so much about addiction through this movie. Then Richard really helped me out getting into Cliffside Malibu—he changed my life. He basically does it the old school, old-fashioned way, he kicks your ass a little bit. He says this is a behavioral problem. You’re going to hear from everyone that this is a disease, but that’s a clinical thing, that’s what they have to say. You don’t have an airborne disease that you can’t get over. This is a treatable condition.
In the film you address problems with alcohol, what should people understand about alcoholism that they may not know?
Alcohol is a depressant, and when you drink you get more depressed. You fall into a blackhole and you go down it. Just like with pills, you start to need more and more and more. I would drink myself into oblivion and the next day I could barely function. I would be all hungover, I’d just be trying to make it to the next drink. You know that “hair of the dog” thing, what it leads to is alcoholism. You need to get all of that alcohol out of your system, but an alcoholic doesn’t ever let it get out of his system. It’s like the more you’re drunk, the better you feel all around the clock, and you have less time hungover.
What happened to me is I started drinking and I would drink on the weekends. Then I started drinking every other day, then every day. Not with friends anymore, just at my house. I wanted to get drunk as fast as I could. I had shakes and all these symptoms of withdrawal from alcohol. I wanted to get rid of them as fast as I could. I’d chug some vodka just to feel better, and then proceed to work on my real buzz. That’s the thing my brother was doing, he was a huge strong guy, like 275 pounds. Before he passed away he was drinking a gallon-sized bottle of vodka every day. He told me he would take these big glasses and just chug it straight. The thing that was so sad for me was when I got to the same point. I couldn’t drink as much as he did, but I was at that same point, I had to get it into my system.
You interview a wide range of people in the film, from politicians to an MMA fighter and a housewife. Did one of their stories influence your film more than the others?
I think addiction in sports is very common now and we’re seeing more of it. So many of the guys in the film are athletes, and friends of mine. Chris Leben is a good example, he’s this MMA fighter, I knew his career and what happened to him. Watching these people go downhill, and watching a housewife steal Adderall from her child were powerful stories. But the former pharmaceutical representative Gwen Olsen probably had the most real information for me. A lot of other people were sharing their experiences, and that was great, but to actually hear that there are people in the pharmaceutical companies who are excited they have a new drug coming out that masks the effects of another one of their drugs—that really made me think this is a full on system at work. The doctors are making money prescribing drugs, the pharmaceutical companies are making tons of money and people are feeling happy. Everybody’s happy right? But then the aftermath kicks in, the addiction and all the side effects that these prescriptions bring. Gwen was really influential for me.
Your work to get legislation passed banning prescription medications from Craigslist seems like a legacy you’d be proud of. How did that feel?
I think it’s good but it’s just one step. I know Heath Ledger’s dad is pushing this prescription drug monitoring system. In the movie, we talked to a pharmacist in Minnesota, and he told us he’s got people who are going to so many different doctors. They drive in bigger and bigger circles to get their scripts filled, and then they sell them. I am glad to know that Craigslist has cut down illicit prescription drug sales as a result of this work though.
It was very brave and honest for you to tell the story within the story about your own addiction and treatment. At what point did you realize it had to be part of the film?
Well, the best way to get rid of a hangover instantly is Xanax. I started doing Xanax to get rid of all the anxiety and shakes. I’m in the middle of this movie and I interviewed a senator from California. I told him about buying Xanax from Craigslist. He asked me how long it had been since I did that, and I said, “Oh about three years ago.” The fact is I was doing it that very week. I think that by telling him about it, I just wanted to stop. I was thinking, “I’ll just keep calling these people on Craigslist, let me shut this down.” I really needed help.
Another thing was interviewing Richard. He told me later that he knew I had a problem the first time I interviewed him. I asked him how he knew, and he said, “I just knew, this is what I do for a living, but you lost your brother, I had to have compassion for that, and you were trying to do a good thing. I wasn’t going to stop you from doing a good thing.” My mom called him at one point and said I needed help, and Richard said, “Of course he does.” He could see it in my eyes and in my demeanor.
The final straw may have been an incident with my father. My dad is like the nicest guy in the world. He hadn’t yelled at me since I was a kid. So there I am and I needed money for something, because I was spending all my money on drugs and alcohol. I asked him to help me out, and he said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you. You’re a drug addict or an alcoholic or something and you need to fix that,” he said, “You’re 40-years-old, you shouldn’t need money from me.” I got off the phone and cried for like half an hour. My dad cried for about three days. I couldn’t talk to him for a week. When the people around you start turning up the heat on you, you feel badly. You’re not the person you should or could be, or the person they agreed to be friends with, do business with or anything.
What should America be doing about prescription drug abuse?
At your local CVS you’ll see the line for the pharmacy is way longer than the line for general merchandise. The reason for that is people want their drugs, they are convinced they need them. My father is convinced he needs his blood pressure and cholesterol medication or he’s going to die. It may not even be true, but his doctors have him convinced of that.
There’s a confusing mixed message out there right now. We’ve all heard “Just Say No To Drugs,” but then we’re being advertised drugs on our TV screens every night. Our country is so entrenched in media messages that fuel an obsession with quick fixes. We’re obsessed with doing things quicker and faster. Great achievements are made by people who work their asses off over a period of time. There’s a misperception that everything happens with the flip of a switch, I suppose we’re all guilty of falling into that thinking sometimes.
The way I look at it, we need education, people need to know a lot more about prescription drugs. Kids need to know lots more about it, they are so influenced by everything, if they can be taught to stay away from prescription drugs it would be great. Every kid is told to stay away from cocaine or heroin but nobody is telling kids not to take the stuff from their parents’ medicine cabinets. Kids are really having parties where they all bring drugs right from their homes and put ‘em in a bowl...like candy. Sporting injuries are another route to addiction. You know a kid is involved in sports, he has an injury, gets prescribed painkillers and starts sharing it with his friends, and the whole cycle begins.
You know there’s supposedly a war on drugs in this country, but the pharmaceutical companies are making so much money from legal drugs nobody is looking out for the long-term or side effects of those drugs. I think the pharmaceutical companies need to be held accountable for what they’re doing. We brought so many baseball players in front of Congress to talk about steroid use, but why is nobody asking pharmaceutical companies why they’re making 10 times the amount of OxyContin than the world needs? The DEA is the one who allows them to make that amount! This is a whole system at work, the system isn’t broken...it’s fixed!
Bigger Stronger Faster is about the American obsession with winning at all costs. I saw Prescription Thugs to be about America’s obsession with avoiding discomfort at all costs, what do you think about that?
Avoiding discomfort at all costs, yes! That and quick fixes. The real fix for most health problems includes diet, nutrition and exercise. A plethora of diseases and problems people have can be cured this way. But people don’t like that, because it’s hard, or they perceive it as hard. People say they don’t have time and then you see how much time they waste on the Internet. They have time, but people want an easy fix that doesn’t interrupt their leisure schedule.
Any final thoughts?
Well, halfway through the making of Prescription Thugs I spent three months in treatment. With the help of God and my producer Greg Young I was able to complete the film. It’s a miracle to have all of this happen. To be able to rise like a phoenix out of the ashes. You know, there are always second chances, there’s always a way to right the wrong. When you think you’re at the bottom, you can just flip it right around. I have a lot of friends who have done just that. When you do the right thing, the right things fall in your lap, the right things happen for you.
An important take away I want people to get from Prescription Thugs is about how to get help if you need it. I had to hit rock bottom because I didn’t know how to get help. I had done some Internet searches, but it wasn’t enough. Someone might need to see a movie like this to put it together. After I made Bigger Stronger Faster people came up to me all the time and thanked me for showing the full story about steroids. I want Prescription Thugs to help alcoholics and drug addicts to get help. I want to turn this into something positive.
Something positive, indeed. Prescription Thugs will have its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival April 18, in New York City. Follow Chris on Twitter @BigStrongFast. The Facebook page for the film is Facebook.com/PrescriptionThugs
Dawn Roberts is a writer and media consultant in New York. She last wrote about peace, love and heroin in upstate New York. Follow her on Twitter @SilverHolloMuzo