Tyler Bryant was nervous when Conrad Weaver came calling. The 25-year-old had known Weaver, a regional Emmy award winner, since he was just a kid — the filmmaker went to the same church as Bryant’s parents, he said. But a lot had happened between then and the day, nearly two years ago, when Weaver reached out for the first time in years.
At 15, Bryant had become addicted to prescription pain pills, and then to heroin, bouncing in and out of treatment centers for nearly three years before he got clean — the first time — in 2011. But in 2015, he relapsed when his fiancée was prescribed opioid painkillers after the birth of their first daughter. Bryant started abusing the pills, he said, then eventually turned to heroin again. He was still in active addiction when Weaver contacted him.
Weaver wanted Bryant to talk about all of it — the pills, the heroin, the struggle to recover for good — for his newest project, a documentary he planned to call “Heroin’s Grip.” The Emmitsburg-based filmmaker had landed distribution deals for two previous films, “Thirsty Land” and “The Great American Wheat Harvest,” which both focused on agriculture. But in 2016, he read a Facebook post by his good friend Caressa Flannery, detailing her son’s history with heroin addiction.
Weaver had seen news reports about the growing epidemic of heroin abuse across the country, but for the first time, the problem seemed tangible. And he wanted to showcase its reach across Frederick County using voices like Bryant’s — people who had witnessed opioid addiction firsthand.
“At first I wasn’t sure, though, because I knew eventually people were going to see it in my county,” Bryant said. “And if they saw it, they might recognize me. Plus, when he started filming me, I was still using. So, I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to stop and get it together for him before the film ended.”
Roughly two years later, Bryant did find sobriety again, in February this year. He said it was similar to the first time he got clean in 2011 — a sudden realization that he couldn’t keep living the way he was.
“I would get clean for around 30 days and then I’d have the crazy thought, ‘Just one more time. I’ll do it again one more time and then I can stop,’” he said. “But, again, I had another moment of clarity when I realized, ‘No, I can’t do it at all.’”
His revelation came just in time for the completion of “Heroin’s Grip,” which is set to premiere at Frederick Community College on Sept. 26. But seven months into his recovery, Bryant isn’t the only one who’s nervous. Weaver followed a total of four families for the film, with two — including the Bryants — whose children were still grappling with addiction. Two other families lost their children to fatal overdoses, including Shannon Stanley — a Frederick mother who lost her daughter, Alyssa, to a heroin overdose when she was only 17 years old.
Since Alyssa died in 2016, Stanley has shared her story at schools and community meetings on opioid addiction. But Weaver didn’t just interview her — he also includes a re-enactment of the night before Alyssa died, when Stanley and her daughter watched an episode of ‘Wayward Pines’ and celebrated the fact that Alyssa had been sober for more than 90 days. Later that night, Stanley said, her daughter’s drug dealer texted her and offered to bring heroin over to the house. The next day, she found Alyssa dead in her bedroom.
Though Stanley gave permission for the re-enactment, she didn’t participate in it (“I couldn’t bring myself to do that,” she said). And she still hasn’t watched the scene, even though she’s replayed that night in her mind more times than she can count.
“It’s hard,” Stanley said. “So hard that when Conrad first approached me about it, I asked him to give me some time to think about it. Because that’s the real deal. But I realized it needed to be done. You can’t sugarcoat it, you can’t hide it. People need to see.”
Weaver can admit there’s some irony in his decision to tackle the film. Before he started the project, he himself had a limited view of addiction, even though it was all around his community.
“I think I kind of thought, ‘Well, just stop,’” he said. “It’s an easy choice — just stop taking the drugs.”
The two years he spent working on the project helped change his perspective, Weaver said. One of the most impactful scenes of the film, in his mind, is an interview with Dr. Marc Fishman, an addiction psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University who explains exactly how opioids affect the brain. “Because it’s not really a decision,” Weaver said. “Maybe the first time you try them, it is, but then they just totally change the way your brain works.
He’s also been introduced to a dizzying range of families affected by the opioid epidemic. Some just wanted to offer their stories for the film. Others took behind-the-scenes roles, but are equally eager for the film’s release.
One major player is Carin Miller, the president and co-founder of Maryland Heroin Awareness Advocates — a nonprofit that aims to educate the community about substance abuse. Most of the $60,000 raised for the film went through her organization, and she personally invested some of her own money in the project.
Miller’s family isn’t featured in the documentary, but both her son and husband were addicted to opioids for more than half a decade. At a certain point, “I decided I can’t fight with them anymore, I have to fight for them,” she said. Miller founded her advocacy agency in 2016 and organized two support groups in Frederick and Boonsboro for families affected by addiction. Now 58 years old, she never imagined that the later part of her career would focus on drug abuse.
“I absolutely never thought I would be in this position,” Miller said. “I thought I’d be looking at retirement with my husband and watching all my children grow into productive members of society. But my family is lucky. We’re lucky we never lost someone, like so many other families here have.”
Even if a family member doesn’t die from an overdose, watching them deal with addiction for years can feel just like losing them. A good portion of Weaver’s footage comes from hours of ride-alongs with Desiree Palmer, an officer with the Frederick Police Department who reached out to him when she learned about the documentary.
Obviously, Palmer has handled plenty of overdose scenes as an officer. But she’s also watched her own sister evolve from drinking to cocaine to heroin addiction after a paralyzing car crash — a process that’s unfolded over the past 28 years. Before the film, she never spoke about her family’s problems. Even close friends don’t know the extent of it, Palmer said. But there was something that compelled her to go on camera when the opportunity came. Maybe it was realizing that even her colleagues on the police force didn’t always know where to refer people for help. Or knowing, as she has for almost 30 years, that arrests don’t solve the problem. Or maybe it was that she wanted people to know that their stories, their stumbles, are okay.
“There’s no shame in loving an addict,” she said. “No one is alone in this. But at some point, we need to stand on two feet and ask, ‘What are we going to do about it?’ Because it does hurt. And there are some of us who will do whatever it takes to get people help.”