“I came home one day and my wife was using heroin. I fell in love with it pretty quick.”
For non-addicts, love often evokes a significant other, friends and family, a support system. People we trust and feel intimate with. The opening line of Recovery Boys, a new Netflix documentary taking on the opioid crisis, drives home a tragic reality: in the lives of drug abusers, these people tend to disappear. Getting high is the only love they have left.
You won’t find any charts or figures in Recovery Boys, directed by Emmy-nominated documentarian Elaine McMillion Sheldon. Instead, the film illustrates the harrowing burden of drug addiction by closely recording the lives of four young men as they undergo a laborious 18-month recovery process. There’s Jeff, a shy 25-year-old whose anxious thoughts center around the wellbeing of his two young daughters. Rush, 26, is a jokester contending with depression who only cuts his scraggly hair to appease his mother. Ryan, 35, is an articulate orator and can sing and play guitar. And Adam, who’s been homeless and prone to relapse, is the youngest at 23.
Much of the men’s rehabilitation occurs at a nontraditional clinic called Jacob’s Ladder, based on a farm in rural West Virginia. In addition to group therapy sessions and ranch work, the center offers holistic treatment activities like yoga, meditation, and art projects. Its mission, as the film reveals, is to reverse the isolation and despair induced by drug-addicted living. Jacob’s Ladder isn’t just helping addicts get sober; it’s establishing a brotherhood, built upon the kind of solace and affection that drains from men’s lives once they start using.
After cycling through the program, the men are encouraged to move into sober living houses and engage in supportive communities. But the film reveals how this stage often proves even more demanding than the rehab itself. As one of the organization facilitators explains, living and working at Jacob’s Ladder is almost like a vacation for the men, a regimented respite from the tumult of their lives. Enduring withdrawal may take time, but at least there’s a roadmap for how to handle it. For all of the four men, building a healthy new life afterward—while surrounded by bad influences and bad memories—feels much less feasible.
It’s a common ploy for social issue documentaries to pull easy emotional punches, which can often come off as cheap and imprecise. But Sheldon shoots with patience and an eye for subtlety, and the film is at its best when it reveals how well Sheldon really knows her subjects. These are real, multidimensional men—not just some hillbilly or macho stereotype. The trick to fleshing them out lies in Sheldon’s astute attention to detail, like Jeff’s bashful reluctance to join in during a community square dance, or the deceptively silly folk tune Ryan sings with the central refrain, “sick boys die alone.”
That’s not to say that the story doesn’t have its fair share of sentimental moments, too. We’re reminded of the tragic fate that befell many of the men’s peers when they attend an Overdose Awareness Day tribute on a crowded lawn in Charleston, West Virginia. The camera pans around the scene: exterior steps leading up to a courthouse are lain with dozens of pairs of empty shoes alongside photographs of young people, now deceased. “I hate heroin,” one woman’s shirt reads.
The stigma of drugs is something that the film addresses gracefully. The men are well aware of public ill will toward users, and they often admit to feeling guilty about being a burden on loved ones and society. “Drugs and alcohol to me are the opposite of fun,” Ryan reflects at one point. “It was a fucking chore.” But others have a harder time giving it up, and the film doesn’t skim over complex moments of self-doubt, craving, and regression. “I’m not ever condoning somebody trying it,” Adam says, fighting tears, after suffering a relapse. “But if you try it, you’re gonna like it. It’s heroin. It’s the worst drug on the planet because it’s so good.”
There’s an abundance of crying in Recovery Boys—from mothers and friends, but most often from the men themselves. “I just love everyone that has anything to do with helping people that everybody else in society looks down on,” Ryan says to a room of Jacob’s Ladder affiliates in between sobs. “There are not a lot of places like this on the planet.”
It’s a powerful indictment: not only of hostility toward drug users, but also of toxic masculine molds that command men against seeking help, relief, and love. Like the others, Ryan is grateful to receive treatment, a privilege to which 90 percent of addicts don’t have access. He’s grateful to be sober, to no longer be “a part of the problem.” But mostly he’s grateful for his new support system. “I love you, man,” he says to Jeff. “I love you, brother.”
Recovery Boys is in theaters and streaming on Netflix now.