by Matt Delaney
Matt Edwards had a pretty ordinary life. He had a collection of friends and loved ones in his small, northern Wisconsin hometown who supported his dreams of being whatever he wanted in the world.
Then, a fluky surgery led to a Oxycontin prescription that began a decade-long downward spiral of dependence, deceit and addiction. Over the years, Edwards separated himself from everyone else, becoming another person who was given life but never committed to living it. He became easy for people to forget. He died at just 25.
Edwards’ life is the focus of the new documentary “Written Off,” from writer/producer/director Molly Herman, co-founder of the Falls Church production company, The Biscuit Factory.
Hermann, an experienced documentarian with a passion for churning out insightful work, has produced films for the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and PBS. With “Written Off,” she wanted to pursue a project about the stigma of addiction.
Hermann witnessed the effects of opioid addiction first-hand. She lost a cousin 16 years ago to heroin addiction, and knows of other friends who’ve lost family to the same vices. These people weren’t monster, but addiction still coerced its way into their lives.
An online search uncovered a blog by Edwards’ mother, Jane, and through her, Hermann learned of two journals Edwards kept during his final two years of life. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign including 430 backers and $56,585 in donations, Hermann set out to upend the parabolic story pattern most addiction re-tellings fall in line with.
“Every time I opened up my computer, I felt like I was seeing the same story [about addiction] – ‘good life, down the toilet,’” Hermann says. “I always thought there must be more to the story than that – [than] somebody born to die.”
Edwards’ was addicted in the truest sense of the word, acquiring Oxycontin purely to maintain the new normal it created for him. His journals detailed his dark descent by cataloging what drug he used, when and how much they cost. It also included personal notes of resistance, with messages like “I need to cut this out!” or circling a day’s intake and declaring “No more.”
But he was shoulder-deep in his addiction and began to manipulate those closest to him in order to sustain it. Edwards even cut corners by skipping prescriptions and went for cheaper, more accessible heroin, catalyzing his decline.
Edwards’ changing physical shape didn’t go unnoticed. His slender appearance became exacerbated by addiction and left him looking gaunt and fragile. To cover his tracks he crafted believable, yet equally tragic, lies such as being diagnosed with cancer. He received warmth for his bravery fighting the disease, but the cold truth would have done the contrary.
“The lack of sympathy and empathy people struggling with addiction encounter is a whole extra level of difficulty for them,” Hermann says.
“In reality, he had a fatal disease, but it wasn’t cancer. He never got any sympathy for it, he only had to be ashamed about it.”
That split reaction was why humanizing addiction became the focal point for Hermann and her staff. It’s an odd intent to say out loud because humans are primarily who suffer from addiction.
However, those on the outside looking in scoff at Edwards and the millions of other Americans who fight their urges on a daily basis, labeling them as gluttons for punishment.
Those attitudes ignore who Edwards was as a person. Once a bright mind fascinated with storytelling and theatre arts, and enamoured with writing – from poems to lists to vignettes – Edwards had interests just like anyone else. He wasn’t the stereotypical “junkie” lurking in alleyways that we’re oftentimes led to believe.
“A lot of people put addicts in a box and have a pre-judgment of what an addict is supposed to be,” says Kerry Sullivan, a freelance editor who helped produce the film.
“It’s actually not true. We all have the potential for being [an addict]. It just depends on the path our lives have taken.”
So far, the film has been well received by audiences. This included the Wisconsin delegation on Capitol Hill and an addiction treatment group from the inner city of Baltimore, who found the documentary was reflective of their own experiences.
“Written Off” continues to gain steam as a powerful and innovative take on the complications involved with addiction. But Hermann cares most about paying homage to the man who helped make it all happen.
“Matt’s own words were what made this possible,” Hermann says. “That’s what I feel this film does for Matt – it extends his footprint on Earth, and hopefully shifts the way people think about addiction.”