Panelists discuss drug abuse and how to cope after a screening of "The Hungry Heart," Bess O'Brien's film about opiate abuse in Vermont, at Georgia Elementary and Middle School on Monday, March 31. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Panelists discuss drug abuse and how to cope after a screening of “The Hungry Heart,” Bess O’Brien’s film about opiate abuse in Vermont, at Georgia Elementary and Middle School on Monday, March 31. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Each time Dr. Fred Holmes shows the tear-jerking “Hungry Heart” documentary about opiate abuse in Vermont, the film is met with stone-faced applause.

Except in Franklin County. Here, there is no clapping. That’s because locals know the cast of characters. They’re former classmates, neighbors, friends of friends.

“You folks identified the real purpose of the movie – it’s not addiction: It’s young people who are struggling,” Holmes told a small crowd at Georgia Elementary and Middle School last Monday night.

“These are kids, and you should listen to them and watch. It’s for real,” he said.

Holmes said the film, directed by Bess O’Brien of Kingdom County Productions, has been shown in 40 communities to nearly 30,000 people. It centers on his former medical practice, Mousetrap Pediatrics in St. Albans, and his efforts to help young adults overcome their vices and the factors that feed the addiction cycle, like homelessness and unemployment.

The GEMS crowd watched, rapt, as patient after patient described how they got hooked to OxyContin, Percocet or other drugs, leading to a $4,000 per week habit in one case. Subjects said substances erased emotions; another, Katie Tanner, described addiction as a dragon.

Tanner joined Holmes at the film’s end for a 45-minute panel discussion that ranged from controversy over addiction treatment to what parents can do to support struggling youth.

Mousetrap pediatrician Chip Chiappinelli asked where marijuana fits into the picture.

Tanner said as a former addict, she’s happy the legalization topic has come up for debate.

“If we’re supposed to teach children the proper way to get through life, what message are we sending to these kids that you can have a bad day, go home and smoke pot and feel better?” she asked. “There are too many mixed messages; it’s too messy.”

Tanner further reflected on her own recovery. She still has triggers, like listening to certain bands, particularly Iron Maiden and Elton John. In the film, Tanner explains she overdosed and now has permanent brain damage, something she never knew could happen from using.

Attendees at the screening listened intently as panelists spoke after the film. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Attendees at the screening listened intently as panelists spoke after the film. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Audience members also asked about Suboxone, a narcotic that Holmes and others prescribe for addiction, a practice that’s gained its critics. One attendee asked if addicts in recovery have to take Suboxone forever.

Holmes said medication-assisted therapy is effective, but it’s not for everyone.

“Yes, it’s a great help, it’s a valuable tool,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be the easy way out.”

Craig Volatile-Wood of Georgia, a mental health and substance abuse clinician at Howard Center in St. Albans, agreed with one of the film’s subjects: that Suboxone is a crutch, but patients eventually graduate from the assistance. Most don’t want to take it but are afraid not to, he said.

Panelist Mary Pickener, a substance abuse counselor at the Vermont Department of Health, said it takes time and dedication to wean off Suboxone; getting to the last milligram is “like taking off dark sunglasses and staring into the sun,” she said.

Another attendee asked what parents can do to help.

Pickener said to keep talking to your kids, even if it’s uncomfortable: “Why quit because things are getting tough?” she challenged.

GEMS teacher MJ Mitiguy knows first-hand how tough. She attended the film screening with her 25-year-old son, Patrick, who just returned home from a three-year stint in a Connecticut prison resulting from abusing OxyContin.

“I was a parent who thought they were listening and doing the right things – everything that was talked about here tonight – but it still can happen to your child,” Mitiguy said. This was her fourth time seeing the film.

“As parents we can listen and guide … but we also have to be realists,” she said. “It’s very dangerous out there for kids. And experimentation is real.”

Patrick Mitiguy, a GEMS and Bellows Free Academy – St. Albans graduate, said it was normal for him and his friends, many since kindergarten, to pop pills, smoke pot and drink on the weekends.

“When we got older, it kind of just exploded,” he said. “We all got jobs, we all got money, and there was just no end to it.”

Now back home, Patrick sees his friends, some of whom are still using. He says he’s doing well.

“I’m not going to say it was easy,” he said. “It’s real rough, but it’s not wanting to go back to that place that keeps me level headed.”

His message to parents, children and “Hungry Heart” viewers is as much as you care, you can’t force someone to change their destructive habits.

“It has to be their choice,” he said.

Other parents were charged to take action; one man said he planned to get rid of any unwanted medications as soon as he got home. Police departments take discarded pills, no questions asked, Pickener said.

For more information, visit www.thehungryheartmovie.org.