Produced by W.Va. filmmakers, Netflix documentary “Recovery Boys” follows four recovering drug addicts

By Shauna Johnson, WV Metronews

CHARLESTON — “I was 33 years old and about to die, you know?”

Ryan, a West Virginian, said that was when he decided to give a different kind of substance use disorder treatment program, located on a farm in Preston County, a chance.

He’s one of the four men followed for 18 months in “Recovery Boys,” the new Netflix documentary from Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon, the West Virginia filmmakers nominated for an Academy Award for their first Netflix documentary, “Heroin(e).”

“Recovery Boys” was released worldwide Friday June 29 on the streaming service.

“It’s a hard film. It’s an honest film. It’s a film that America needs to see,” said McMillion Sheldon, the documentary’s director and one of its three producers.

In February 2016, she and her husband, Kerrin Sheldon, temporarily relocated from Charleston to near Grafton to begin filming at Jacob’s Ladder Rehabilitation Center in Aurora.

Dr. Kevin Blankenship, a retired emergency physician, founded Jacob’s Ladder to “remap pathways in the brain” after multiple failed attempts to find a long-term recovery center for his son anywhere in Appalachia, the heart of the opioid crisis.

“We started it pretty blind,” McMillion Sheldon said of the project.

“We had no clue who would show up to the rehab. We had no clue if they would agree to be part of a film. We had no clue how things would turn out for them in the 18 months.”

The film documents the journey of the four men — Ryan, Jeff, Adam and Rush (only first names are used) — through six months of rehab and the following 12 months in an attempt to offer a glimpse into what individual change can look like in the midst of an epidemic.

“These men were just really generous with letting us see the ups and downs of their lives,” said McMillion Sheldon. “It turned out to be something that I think will be very useful for people.”

Ryan arrived at Jacob’s Ladder as a referral from Jefferson County after years of drug abuse and multiple failed attempts at recovery, including methadone medication-assisted treatment.

At the site, “It just seemed like less of a treatment center and more like a place I could go to heal and, maybe, learn,” he said.

As of the end of June, Ryan had not used drugs in just over two years and was employed as a recovery coach with Milan Puskar Health Right in Morgantown.

“The seed was planted there at the treatment center,” he said of finding his job.

Initially, he did not sign the waiver to be part of “Recovery Boys,” but later changed his mind.

“It’s not glorifying our drug use. It’s not talking about our pasts too much. It’s just they show what recovery looks like. They put a face to it,” he said of the film.

Ryan’s story, McMillion Sheldon said, is proof recovery is not an absolute destination.

“It’s a day-to-day thing — the choices they make, the people they surround themselves with, the resources that are available to them — all sort of impact if they’re able to live a happy, healthy life,” she said.

“Recovery Boys” had its world premiere earlier this year at the Hot Docs Film Festival prior to the  Netflix release.

McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon are scheduled to host a free screening of “Recovery Boys” at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the  Metropolitan Theatre in Morgantown. Several of the people featured in the film are also expected to be there.

“There’s an overwhelming sense of hope by seeing the recovery process on screen,” said McMillion Sheldon.

“It’s certainly a very honest and raw film, but it’s honest in a way that allows us to have a little bit more hope about the situation. Recovery is possible.”