Recovering Hope

Fighting heroin was the battle of Drew Callner’s life. His next act was to document it.

Written by Rosalind Fournier

With a passion for videography from an early age, Drew Callner was excited at the age of 18 for the chance to go and study at the Art Institute of Seattle. Within a year, though, he had developed another passion that crowded out all others—for opioids, first in pill form before he graduated to heroin. Before long, addiction to the drug had shredded Callner’s ambitions, nearly torn apart his most important relationships, and threatened to take his life, too, as it has since taken the lives of so many of his friends.

But chances are, you’ve heard stories like that before, from news reports or maybe even someone you know. Overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50, most of it tied to heroin or prescription painkillers, making heroin abuse a full-blown epidemic. But after fighting tooth and nail to finally regain sobriety, Callner realized there was a different story that had not been told. A story not just about the carnage that heroin addiction leaves behind—the betrayals and arrests; the multiple stints in rehabs; the lost days, weeks and better part of years—but a story of hope and coming out the other side. Not cured, but sober.

Callner wanted to return to filmmaking and use that medium to show, through the narratives of fellow recovering addicts and members of their families, that addiction can be the battle of a lifetime, but the battle is worth it.

Callner’s documentary Recovering Hope—which has been making the rounds on the film festival circuit, is now available on Amazon Instant Video and will be soon on iTunes as well—began with simply sitting down with recovering addicts and turning on the camera. “I realized, ‘I’m around all these amazing people who are sharing the most gut-level stuff with me…there’s nothing like that on TV. What if I could get some of these people to speak about their experiences to me as a fellow addict and friend, do it tastefully, and put it in a documentary?’”

He had no professional equipment to speak of, but the material was better than anything he could have scripted. “I started to see once people got comfortable with the cameras around, they would open up,” Callner says. “And what they were sharing was just worlds beyond what you see on a typical heroin special. It was really, really special.

“And that’s when the light kind of came on like, ‘We’ve got something here.’”

It’s hard to pinpoint where Callner’s personal battle with heroin addiction—which he shares in Recovering Hope along with three other recovering addicts—began. Originally from Seattle, he describes himself as a heavy pot smoker during his teenage years, but what stands out in his memory was the first time he tried opioids. “My first year out of college, one of my friends had gotten his hands on Oxycontin, and we all tried it recreationally,” Callner remembers. “It’s funny, because it was obvious who it affected differently. Two of those five friends who were taking it, it wasn’t really their cup of tea, and they were able to put it down. Whereas the other three of us just took it and ran with it. It was everything to us.” When Callner moved to Birmingham in 2008, “I went to get Oxycontin, but by then heroin was readily available.”

His long love/hate affair with the drug followed a trajectory that is both shocking and typical. While he has shared the stories that make up his long, living nightmare many times and readily owns up to the damage he caused to himself and those around him, that is not the focus of Recovering Hope. In fact, avoiding making that the focus was one of his greatest priorities—which is a challenge, because people’s attention tends to gravitate toward the train wreck that addiction represents. Approached for this story, Callner says he was initially reluctant to be interviewed for that very reason. “I’m always apprehensive about talking to the media,” he says. “Sometimes the reporters just want to know, ‘How many rehabs did you go through? Did you ever rob and steal?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, but that just comes with the word heroin.’” (A few stories of drug-fueled disasters, including a late-night trip to the drive-thru at Krystal gone terribly wrong, do slip through—bones thrown to the audience, maybe, but also illustrations of the chaos inherent in the life of an addict.)

“My biggest fear was for the film to become one long war story,” Callner says. “That’s catchy, and the media loves it. But at the same time there’s a solution. I was seeing people recover, and it was powerful.”

Still, after three long years of working on the documentary, Callner realized he had hours and hours of great footage but wasn’t sure how to wrap up the project.  With urging from a friend, he put an ad online for a professional editor to help finish it.

That’s when he met David Koonce, who was about to get the education of a lifetime in heroin addiction and recovery.

Koonce, a senior partner in the marketing firm Webber & Koonce, saw the posting and decided to take it on as a side project. “When we first talked, Drew wouldn’t really tell me much about what the film was about,” Koonce remembers. “So we met, and he dropped off the raw footage of what he had shot…which was about 87 hours’ worth. It literally took a couple of weeks to just go through it all.”

Callner says at that point he had estimated the film was at least 80 percent complete. He’d wanted Koonce to edit the footage and polish it up a bit, and then all he really intended to do with the finished product was put it on YouTube. Koonce, however, quickly saw potential for something more. But to take it to the level he envisioned—with greater distribution and a higher level of exposure—he felt it needed another dimension.

“The themes the people in the film were talking about and the stories they were telling…for somebody who’s in that recovery world, it made total sense,” Koonce says. “But for me, there were some things I had questions about—like, ‘I don’t understand why you would go steal from your family to buy a $20 bag of dope.’ So I told Drew, ‘We’re going to have to find somebody who’s an addiction specialist to explain why addicts do what they do, the scientific background of it.’” They asked Tom McClure, a counselor whose specialties include addiction, to appear in the documentary and share his expertise. “Tom does a really good job of explaining the basics of why people who are on a drug or addicted do what they do.”

At that point, Koonce—who by now was shooting additional footage and offering more direction—took on the role of co-producer. Along the way he began gaining the trust of the people who appear in the film, who also include two mothers—one, Susan Brawley, who lost her son to heroin overdose; the other, Callner’s own mother, Barbara Brewster, who describes the torment of seeing her son in the throes of addiction as well as the ways their relationship has grown now that Callner is sober.

Koonce says the more he worked alongside Callner on the film, the more personally invested he became. “I started learning some things about addicts and heroin abuse that I thought I knew but really didn’t,” he says. “Ten years ago, if I would have thought about somebody who’s on heroin, I would have thought about somebody living on the street, digging through dumpsters and doing whatever they can to shoot up their dope and go sleep in the park. But today the reality is that there are people who are lawyers, who are doctors, who have great jobs.

“A lot of people in the film are over the mountain,” he continues. “It’s kids in the suburbs who are using this stuff. Zack, one of the guys in the film, said he was living a double life. He would go shoot dope with these junkies downtown and then come back and hang out with his friends at Bluff Park. And that’s part of the importance of the story we’re telling—it’s not a stereotypical addict thing. There are people you probably know who are on heroin, and you have no idea.”

For Callner, the personal nature of the film—most of the people who appear are his friends, not to mention that he was putting his own story out for the world to see—was often a double-edged sword. He cared deeply about sharing a message of hope, but it also took an emotional toll.

Callner says deciding to include his mother might have given him the most trepidation. Initially, he even tried to cast her as just the anonymous mother of an addict. “But during filmmaking, I got behind the camera and started interviewing her and realized, ‘Oh my God, I’m interviewing my mom,’” he remembers. “Things got real. She dives into some extremely painful stories. I was sitting right there and would have an almost out-of-body experience…like, ‘Who is this horrible person she is talking about?’ And then I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, it’s me.’ So it was this weird experience which really came out beautifully.” He credits Koonce with helping him make that leap.

“He came in and changed a lot of ideas about what I knew about documentary filmmaking,” Callner says. “Basically what he said was, ‘Whatever happens during filmmaking, you put in. That’s a documentary.’”

Recovering Hope is still gaining momentum. They first unveiled it at a private screening at Red Mountain Theatre Company for people Callner knew from recovery as well as others who work with addicts. A second screening followed for the general public at the Alys Stephens Center. Now it can be seen by anyone through Amazon and soon iTunes, and Netflix is reviewing it for possible inclusion in its line-up as well.

And it’s clear that no matter what happens with the film itself, Recovering Hope has been a life-changing experience for Callner and Koonce, in different ways. For Koonce, he has a new, deeper understanding of addiction and recovery that he hopes to share with others whenever possible. “I’ll tell you what’s interesting about myself that I discovered making this film,” he says. “If I’m working on any kind of project and it starts to get overwhelming, I can shut it down for a moment, go focus on something else and then come back to it. But then it hit me one day, while editing this film…the people I was watching on the screen every day, they don’t get to turn that off. Every single day is a fight for them. So for the people in the film to come out and tell these stories about the horrible things they did, and how they rebuilt their lives and their relationships, to me that is the bravest things I’ve ever seen. They just laid it on the table and said, ‘Here’s who I was, and here’s who I am. Hopefully you can take a piece of this and make yourself a little better from learning from my mistakes.’ And I think that’s pretty powerful.”

For Callner, the film’s completion represents a catharsis and new confidence in his future in filmmaking. He’s currently planning to work with Koonce again on another documentary, this time about a local boxer and what drives him to keep getting in the ring while also holding down two jobs, with a newborn at home and a body that’s not getting any younger.

And though Callner is reluctant to pigeonhole himself as a “recovery filmmaker,” he does see potential in eventually making another film related to the heroin epidemic and has explored different avenues of doing that.

Meanwhile, Callner describes his life today as “a beautiful place.”

“We’re all in this together,” he continues. “I’m in a community of not just addicts, I’m in a community of everyone struggling. We’re all reaching out for help. So it’s brought a new awareness to me, because at different points in my recovery and my life, I thought I was all alone, I thought I was the crazy one, and these thoughts would never get out of my head. And it’s not like that. There was a time I didn’t know people actually care about other people, because I was so absorbed with my problems and myself that I didn’t realize that we can get out of our problems by helping one other.” 

5 Responses to “Recovering Hope”

  1. Maureen Steinman Miller says:

    I was your dads cousin. My dad and your grandmother Ruth were brother and sister. This piece you produced is so important. My son is in recovery also. My brother,Don, his son Michael died of an overdose 8 years ago. It seems that there is a family history. Good luck to you. You must be so proud of yourself. Just to let you know your dad was my favorite cousin. I always looked forward to our families getting together. Take care. Maureen.

    • Drew Callner says:

      Thank you so much Maureen. Im just now seeing this and this means so much to me. Hearing anything about my dad or his side of the family is very special to me. Thank you for your comment and thank you for your support!

    • Charlene Ockrim says:

      Hello, Maureen,

      I am Charlene Steinman Ockrim. Your dad, Harold, was my first cousin. His dad, your grandpa Morris, was my dad, Bernie’s, brother. Somehow lost contact with your parents and have wondered about you and your brother Don. Saddened to learn of your struggles. I am now 90 years young with 3 sons, 7 grandsons, 1 granddaughter, 4 great-grandsons and 2 great-granddaughters (so far). Still have fond memories of happy times with Uncle Morris, Aunt Bertha, Harold and Ruthie. Glad to know you are somewhere out there. Charlene

  2. John says:

    I have a long term chronic heroin addict my oldest son living on the streets of Portland Oregon penniless jobless and in the throes of a long term heroin addition many lives been torn apart due to this especially family and relatives all relation ships failed and ripped to shreds irreversible raw damage is the bottom line . I still love him but that don’t change anything about his existence out there probably looking for his next fix . I really liked the documentary it hit home and my heart thanks for filming it it made a difference to friends and family of addicts . Thank you for reading

    • Drew Callner says:

      Thank you for commenting John. I will keep your son in my prayers and pray that he can find a solution to this destruction like myself and the cast members of Recovering Hope. This is actually the exact reason I made the film. I never actually intended anyone other then my small circle of friends to see it, until it was later in the process and I could see it needed to be shared to a larger audience. I made it for hope. I made it to start conversation. I made it so we could all come out of the shadow of hiding our secret, either personally or knowing a family member or friend. Please continue to talk about it, you never know who needs to hear.

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