William Howsare preferred heroin, but he’d take anything he could get his hands on, anything that made him feel different. But his drug dependence became unbearably oppressive.
“If you could imagine your worst day of being alive, and multiply that times a million, (that’s) what it was like,” he said of his addiction. “Every night you pray to die and you’re angry to wake up.”
Now, he works as a certified peer support specialist in Myrtle Beach.
Bobby Brazell got hooked on booze and drugs. It was a way to avoid dealing with a terrible trauma.
“It was drinking, then pot, then pain medication,” he recalled. “I developed a physical dependence (and) turned quickly to using heroin. In less than two months, I was an IV drug abuser.”
Now Brazell is founder and executive director of Midlands Recovery Center in Lexington.
These two men, along with Jonathan Myers, each with their stories of drug abuse, worked closely with 20-year-old Columbia-based filmmaker Zoe Miller on her short film “Ocean Boulevard.” It's set in Myrtle Beach and stars actor David Flannery.
This is Miller’s first time directing, and her first time working with a crew, she said. In recent years, she’s served as a production assistant, an intern on some commercial projects and a creator of numerous small-scale ventures.
“Ocean Boulevard,” instead, is her effort at telling an important story about the opioid epidemic and heroin addiction, and how it impacts one South Carolina city: Myrtle Beach. It’s informed not only by her interactions with recovered drug users, but also by exposure to the problem through her mother, Michelle Miller, a social worker who works closely with addicts.
She strove to tell a realistic story.
“There are not a lot of films with a true portrayal what heroin addiction really looks like,” Zoe Miller said.
She found her way to the subject after learning about certified peer support specialists — people who rely on their own experiences to council others — and made a short film about them.
One day in 2016 she found herself at the detention center in Conway, where she met Howsare and Myers, who were by then cleaned up and each a CPSS.
She finished editing "Ocean Boulevard" earlier this year and premiered it in Myrtle Beach in September. A Charleston screening is set for 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 1, at the American Theater, 446 King St. Tickets are $20 each and available online via https://www.oceanboulevardfilm.com/.
'My brain will lie'
Howsare said consulting on the project was a rewarding experience.
“It was very exciting to watch, mainly because so much awareness needs to be put out in the media and everywhere,” he said.
Most people assume drug addiction is the result of a bad childhood or sustained exposure to drug use by others, Howsare noted. Sometimes it’s the consequence of prescription drug use that spirals out of control.
But that’s not always the case.
“My father was in law enforcement, mom worked for the school district,” he said. “I was brought up with love and care and compassion in a good neighborhood. None of those things contributed to addiction.”
For Howsare, it probably had something to do with brain chemistry.
“My brain will lie to me: ‘It’s OK, you can have a beer, you can take one puff of weed, it’s OK, it’s social.’ Then I can’t stop.”
And sometimes addiction is the result of an emotional trauma, a terrible feeling one wants to obliterate.
In July 2009, Howsare was sentenced as a youth offender to six years in jail for a fatal DUI auto accident. He made parole after about a year, but couldn’t shake his drug dependency, he said.
He tried heroin the first time in 2012 and got clean in 2014, after trying all sorts of treatment programs — faith-based, abstinence-focused, free, government-funded, private. He added tools to his growing tool kit until, finally, he was in control.
The first thing he did was dedicate himself to helping others.
“I love to teach,” he said. “I’ve been to so many places that I had a headful of information, and a lot of the information was good.”
So he asked the people who helped him kick his habit if there was something he could do. There was. He became director of curriculum, scheduling classes, assigning teachers and more.
Then Howsare volunteered at the J. Reuben Long Detention Center in Horry County, where he had been imprisoned.
“They ended up hiring me,” he said. He ran the Life Recovery Solutions program.
A year ago, the city of Myrtle Beach was looking for a CPSS, and Howsare jumped at the opportunity to intervene on the front lines of the crisis. He’s been busy. The opioid epidemic is raging.
“Since Oct. 2017, I’ve come in contact with 345 (drug addicts); 76 percent have been able to get some form of help,” Howsare said.
Most addicts don’t have the private insurance coverage or the funds required to secure treatment, so Howsare refers them to nonprofit providers.
Since 2013, the number of overdose deaths in South Carolina that result from synthetic opioid use has spiked from about 50 annually to over 400 in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heroin-related deaths also are on the rise in South Carolina, climbing from around 40 in 2013 to 153 in 2017, according to the CDC.
Overdose deaths from prescription opioids remained very high in 2017 at seven for every 100,000 people in South Carolina, even as prescription rates have fallen somewhat, to 79 for every 100 patients (the average U.S. opioid prescription rate is 59 for every 100 persons).
The total number of opioid-related overdose deaths rose to 816 in 2018 — a 9 percent increase since 2017, when 749 overdose deaths were recorded, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Brazell said his drug addiction problem persisted for more than 20 years. Sober since Oct. 19, 2014, he considered himself a person in “long-term recovery.”
“It was a long road,” he said. “The downward spiral into addiction started in 1994. I was 24. I bought alcohol for a party. After I passed out, two friends left the house and were killed in a motor vehicle accident. I was in a lot of trouble.”
Brazell, a guitar play in the hard rock band Isabelle’s Gift, was charged with two counts of manslaughter.
“I freaked out, so I ran,” he said.
Soon, though, he turned himself in and received a sentence of 10 years, suspended to three years’ probation.
He joined the Scared Straight program for at-risk youth, speaking at high schools across South Carolina with a huge image of his mangled car projected behind him. It was not exactly therapeutic.
He was in and out of treatment. Once he attempted to hurl himself from a second-story window at a treatment facility and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. During this period, Isabelle’s Gift was playing lots of live shows. Signed for a while to Universal, the band opened for Kiss, Marilyn Manson, Kidd Rock, Hootie and the Blowfish, and the Bloodhound Gang.
“It wasn’t really the environment to get sober in,” he said.
Finally, a social worker helped Brazell cope with the underlying causes of his drug problem. When he was encouraged to get certified as a peer support specialist, a light bulb went on, he said.
“It gave me the purpose I longed for," Brazell said. "Everything came full circle for me.”
He would work with others, help them navigate the debris of addiction.
In 2016, he founded the Midlands Recovery Center.
He said the South Carolina is lacking adequate treatment infrastructure. It’s difficult for addicts to find space in detox centers, and difficult for them to pay for services. Wait periods are too long. Meanwhile, people are overdosing and dying, Brazell said.
He was working with Michelle Miller, Zoe’s mother, when he learned about the young filmmaker’s new project. He volunteered as a consultant. The film was shot in the summer of 2018.
“She wanted to get it right,” he said of Zoe Miller’s efforts. “She made sure the film was filled with people who are in recovery.”
Miller said the movie walks a line between narrative and documentary genres. The main character is played by an actor, but the character is based on real people, and everyone else in “Ocean Boulevard” is intimately familiar with drug addiction.
The movie is more show than tell, eschewing a didactic approach for something more expressionistic and emotional.
“I didn’t want to impose any solutions,” Miller said.
A portion of box office receipts for each screening goes to fund scholarships for people seeking treatment, she said. And the Q&A that follows the movie is meant to shed light on a major problem that is not always well understood.
“Starting the conversation is the most important thing you can do,” Miller said.
As a kid, she vacationed in Myrtle Beach, so the film includes lots of personal touches and a hint of nostalgia, she said. The success of the September screening there inspired her to schedule events elsewhere, and to submit the film to festivals, Miller said.
“We held a magnifying glass over Myrtle Beach, but this issue is happening all over the United States,” she said.