NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- The HBO documentary "Warning: This Drug May Kill You" takes an unflinching look at an epidemic that claims 91 lives a day in America.
Longtime New York newscaster Perri Peltz spent a year and a half following four families whose lives have been devastated by pain pills and heroin.
"I think what we tried to do, as best as we could as filmmakers, is to show the humanity of people who are suffering and show that this really can happen to anyone," Peltz tells WCBS 880's Marla Diamond. "I think for so long we've tried to separate this out and say, 'Well this is an epidemic of abuse. It's bad people doing good drugs.' It's not. This is good people who, for the vast majority of times, were prescribed prescriptions."
A mother who had a painful caesarean section. A son who had back surgery.
"People always ask, 'Were there signs?' And you know, there were instances, and when you look back at them now, it makes perfect sense," says Gail Cole, who lost her oldest son, Brendan.
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Brendan started experimenting with heroin at the University of Richmond, but Gail says the family didn't know he was addicted until his senior year. He went through detox and graduated to a safe house in Colorado, but was sent home to Bergen County after he refused to take a drug test.
"He asked to borrow the car to go to the mall, and we had a tracking device on his car so that he couldn't really to drive to Paterson and do anything that would jeopardize how he was doing. He came home about 45 minutes later, and I remember we were watching TV and he poked his head in, and I said, 'You know B, it's so nice to have you back.' He goes, 'Thanks mom, I love you. Thanks for giving me another chance,'" she says. "And I look in his eyes and I'm like oh my god, he's high. How did that happen?"
Watch: Mother Gail Cole talks about losing her 22-year-old son, Brendan, to addiction
Her husband found Brendan later that night in his room, barely breathing.
"He was revived with Narcan and walked out the front door. And we were in the emergency room until about -- 1:30 that afternoon was when we got back. And I remember being so incredibly angry with him," she says. "And I said, 'Go take a shower!' And he said, 'I can't.' And I, after the fact, learned that it hurts to shower, it hurts to shave, it hurts to brush your teeth."
"And we talked to him, and when we explained what happened, I still don't think he really thought he overdosed. And my husband said, 'You got a second chance,'" she continues. "That was probably about 2:30, and a little before 3:30 his brother came home and said, 'Where's B?' And I said, 'He's upstairs, kneeling next to his bed.' And he went upstairs and screamed, and that's when we found him."
Brendan was 22 years old.
"This is playing out every single day in communities across this country, and we have got to do better," Peltz says.
The filmmaker says prescribing laws are helping.
"And we have to make sure that the millions of people who have become addicted to these drugs can access the treatment they need," she says. "And so we've got to make sure that the Affordable Care Act, if it's re-written, that there are provisions for treatment, because that's critical."
Overwhelming grief kept Gail from going into her son's room for over a year.
"Yeah, I couldn't go in it for a long time. I just couldn't. It was – I couldn't even walk up the stairs. And you know, I finally did go in it. We just cleaned it out. It took three years," she says. "And it's tough, you think well there's his life in boxes and all you have left is his stuff."
To keep Brendan's spirit alive, Gail co-founded the Hope and Healing After an Addiction Death bereavement group in Bergen County, and she speaks to teens at local high schools. She also shared her grief with Peltz in hopes the documentary will open more eyes and hearts.
"One of the biggest things is to raise awareness. I mean it is incredible the people that still have no idea. In this area, like I said, the kids are getting educated about the pathway from opiate-based prescription pain medication to heroin, but the parents don't want to listen. They say, 'not my kid, not my town.' Yeah, but it's going to happen to someone else," she says. "I remember at his funeral someone said to my husband, 'Out of all the families that I know, yours is the last place for this to happen,' and it happened so easily."
"To raise awareness, to really end the stigma and shame that's associated with it. Addiction is a disease, and that's what people have to understand," she continues. "Where you may make the choice to use or try, you lose that choice, because it changes your brain chemistry."
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