We Are The Only People We Know by Ella Rowe
I want to change the way the world sees addiction; it has turned away for too long. Why do people whisper about addiction and rehab? Why don’t people talk about their friends and family who are fighting addiction? Why would shame or personal embarrassment ever be a factor if just listening could save someone’s life? – Ella Rowe
I was sitting in my car in a grocery store parking lot when I found out.
The world felt suddenly small. I was confined to my own personal maelstrom of pain, rage and sadness, inside the fishbowl of my car. I remember the looks on peoples’ faces as they walked by . . . the busy mothers buried under children and grocery bags; the clean-cut professionals leaving with six-packs of beer; the elderly lady trailed by a shopping attendant, carrying all of her bags. They were complete strangers, momentarily overcome by concern for me. I saw each of them shake off a desire to do something, and I was glad.
My head was spinning through a conversation with someone I used to know well. We exchanged “whys,” “buts” and “I don’t knows” for what felt like hours. Distant memories began to creep up from the dusty corners of my mind, returning in vibrant color with a vengeance. When I hung up, the world slowed down. I rested my forehead on the steering wheel as a tear fell from the tip of my nose into my lap. The storm had passed, and he was gone.
A documentary that will provide intimate and visceral portraits of artists and musicians battling addiction, along with the ongoing struggle they face as they seek recovery in a society where addiction is heavily stigmatized.
A good friend once told me that people who are addicted to heroin don’t keep doing it to get high; they do it to feel normal. I kept this in mind as I tried to understand him, his life and his death. I knew I would never truly understand. He told me this himself years ago: “You don’t get it, you won’t. I don’t want you to.”
I traveled over 1,300 miles to attend his memorial service. In the end, the distance was a relief. The flight was quick; the drive was long. Blue skies and golden grass painted the flat canvas of an early Midwestern spring. I wasn’t sure what sort of peace any of this would bring me. I knew I was there because of a need, not a want.
He was a pianist, a brilliant pianist, a prodigy even. He often spoke of how his music and his demons were strangely intertwined, in a constant battle for his focus and his heart. There was standing room only at his funeral. His mentor played the last piano piece my friend had ever learned. It played through all of us, moving, touching and cleansing.
The sadness I felt was the kind that started in an unfamiliar place in my heart and slowly seeped into my brain, inciting ideas and action. I was struck with an unquenchable thirst for change and burdened by a desire to reveal the truth with a dream of greater understanding. I knew I wanted to tell stories like his.
We Are the Only People We Know is my documentary project that was born from this dream for change. The film will provide intimate and visceral portraits of artists and musicians battling addiction, and the ongoing struggle they face as they seek recovery within a society where addiction is heavily stigmatized.
It is my goal to represent each individual story with the multifaceted complexity of that person’s intimate struggle with addiction, whether a hardworking student, a pizza delivery person, an accomplished professional or a high school dropout.
Each person’s portrait will include everything about them, from their artistic practice to their favorite pair of shoes. The visuals will create an intricate mosaic of their memories and thoughts, illuminating the depth and sincerity of their sense of belonging to, or displacement from, the world around them. I want to travel with them, hold their hand through painful recollections, cry with them over time lost, and smile with them in hope for the future.
With each interview, I will encourage people to speak out about addiction and to promote a community of support for anyone seeking help. I will attempt to reveal the intensely human and nondiscriminatory nature of addiction by replacing superficial interviews with intimate conversations.
My film is not an attempt at complete understanding of addiction, which will always be just out of reach. It is a brief and powerful vision for those who have never felt the grip of addiction, an opportunity for people to see past the stigma and feel an artist’s obsessions and passions, with the agitation and relentlessness of a festering addiction.
Goosebumps ripple up her arm as she speaks of her darkest times; he struggles under the weight of his heavy world, unable to pull himself from the lingering malaise.
The well-worn spot on the couch, the nest of blankets on their bed, a chair in the corner of the back deck, each frame will be a moment that feels like a memory, as we are drawn into the intoxicating beauty and desolation of their art, their music and their salvation.
Each story will end with hope. There is no need for a fabricated ending or a neat little bow. We will sit in with each artist as they spend quiet time alone with their method, playing piano, painting, dancing, or staring out over sprawling landscapes, wind tangling their hair. They will share their philosophies on life, love and the pursuit of happiness and speak of how they are happy despite sadness, how they still feel joy despite moments of utter emptiness, how they feel more alive than ever before, and why they endure.
Every day, I wake up with a fire inside. I have a project with a purpose: my labor of love. Despite great sadness, I’ve found that this loss has ignited determination for a larger cause. I hope that We Are the Only People We Know will not only be a documentary, but will also be a movement for improved education, and a higher level of understanding of addiction in communities across the United States, and perhaps even the world.
Removing the stigma of addiction is the first step in ending the isolation that has kept so many of those suffering from addiction from seeking out or receiving effective and lifesaving treatment. Every time we speak out against the “junkie” stigma, we educate our friends, family and communities and we encourage a society that promotes acceptance, not judgment.
I am still accepting story submissions on both our Facebook page and our website. If you want to be interviewed for We Are the Only People We Know or if you are interested in contributing in other ways, please contact me.
Ella Rowe has directed several films, including When We with Daisies Lie and Moving in Absentia. A 2015 graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design with a degree in filmmaking, she now works at an interactive media and film company the Washington, DC, metro area. firstname.lastname@example.org, http://wearetheonlypeopleweknow.com