This week we bring you Chapter 20 of HIGH Confessions of a Cannabis Addict By Leonard Lee Buschel. Leonard Lee Buschel is an American publisher, substance abuse counsellor and co-founder of Writers in Treatment, which supports recovery and the arts, and executive director of REEL Recovery Film Festival, focusing on stories of addiction and recovery. This week, we bring you the Preface to whet your appetite. Follow us weekly for more delicious chapters of this incredible story.
Keeping it Reel, Ready for My Close-up
America is one of the few so-called rich countries without universal health care. That means poor people, more than most, suffer and die before their time. They cannot afford treatment for life-threatening illnesses. Many writers’ lives are threatened by the inability to quit alcoholic drinking, substance abuse, and other life-endangering addictions.
I noticed that there were local and national nonprofit organizations to help musicians who needed support for alcohol or drug-related problems, but there wasn’t one for those in the worlds of writing and publishing. One trait of successful entrepreneurs is that when they see a vacuum, they strive to fill it. I, on the other hand, see an opportunity to start a nonprofit with absolutely no funding and do it anyway.
I created a mock-up brochure that outlined the mission and vision for Writers In Treatment as if we were already in operation and took it to my dear friend Robert Downey Sr. in New York.
I said, “This is my idea for a new nonprofit. What do you think?”
Bob said, “Leonard, everything you do is nonprofit!” Haha. He thought the idea was sound and agreed to be on the board of directors and be listed as the VP.
Our Advisory Board consisted of the famed criminal attorney and television journalist Darren Kavinoky, Golden Globe Award–winning actress Joanna Cassidy, Edgar Award–winning true crime writer Burl Barer. Additional members included my brother Bruce Buschel, acclaimed sportswriter, producer, restaurateur and author; Christian Meoli, famed character actor, film producer and theater owner; and Travis Koplow, PhD, international director of communications for an anonymous organization that helps people stay off narcotics. Finally, writer and professional film buff Vernon Scott Jr. was also on the Board.
Writers In Treatment began as a sincere effort to help people in the writing and publishing industries who are experiencing problems due to alcohol and/or drugs. Our goal was also to produce free educational and cultural events that celebrate recovery while reducing the stigma associated with addiction and provide the support individuals need to take their first steps toward health and wholeness. In other words, if someone asked for help, we sent them to rehab. I believe the most and least you can do for someone who wants help is to get them into a 30-day residential program where they can decide if they want to save their lives or not.
The Experience, Strength and Hope Awards show is a part of Writers In Treatment. Every year we present this award to a high-profile individual who has penned a riveting memoir about their addiction and recovery. Celebrities like Oscar-winner Louis Gossett Jr.; John Taylor, cofounder of Duran Duran; Emmy Award–winner Joe Pantoliano; and the second man to walk on the moon, Buzz Aldrin. Also acknowledged: actress and recovery advocate Mackenzie Phillips, television news legend Pat O’Brien, CNN commentator Jane Velez-Mitchell, and hairdresser to the stars and author of Upper Cut, Carrie White. Also, TV star Jodie Sweetin and dearly departed Christopher Kennedy Lawford. These individuals have written very honest memoirs about their careers, their lives, their problems, their addictions, and their recoveries. It is widely acknowledged to be the “sobriety event of the year” in Los Angeles. It starts with a 90-minute buffet and schmooz-athon and ends with everyone in a theater for the awards show. No eating or clinking of tableware as we entertain and honor our honoree. The event is held at the world-renowned Skirball Cultural Center, and clean and sober hipsters look forward to dressing up and having a good time . . . without drinking.
Joanna Cassidy, aka Zhora, always participates doing the thankless job of thanking all our sponsors from the stage and asking these wise men and women to take a bow.
When John Taylor wrote his book, he wanted to include his stay in rehab and his years in AA, because that time was one of the most important in his life. Interesting—sobriety was most important, more than the Grammys and the groupies. Joe Pantoliano, who won an Emmy for The Sopranos, wrote a compelling book about mental illness and recovery.
Because I believe it’s important for people in recovery, and for those on the cusp, to have entertaining and culturally stimulating events that inspire enthusiasm for living clean and sober, we started the REEL Recovery Film Festival & Symposium to showcase honest, entertaining and genuine portrayals of addiction and recovery to meet that need.
Originally, the film festival served to accomplish two things: create an event we felt was useful and engaging and stimulate funding for Writers In Treatment. Now the primary aims of the film festival are to mitigate the stigma surrounding addiction and mental illness, celebrate recovery through the unique impact of film and expand the dialogue among artists, treatment-industry professionals and the public. After every film we screen, we either have the filmmaker or a clinician engage the audience in conversation or we have an extemporaneous process group.
Our first film festival was for a rapt audience in Los Angeles at the Silent Movie Theater, opened originally in 1942, well after silent films became loud. Opening night was very special and encouraging. We had programmed Permanent Midnight based on the true-life saga of TV writer Jerry Stahl, starring Ben Stiller and Maria Bello. After the film, Ben and Jerry sat onstage and interviewed each other for 30 minutes (No ice cream was served). The audience really appreciated the frank conversation and courage of the “behind the scenes” stories. It’s a very special experience when the star who portrays the author appears with the author in perfect candor.
We showed Barfly, the gem of a film directed by wild man Barbet Schroeder, starring Mickey Rourke (in his prime) and Faye Dunaway (in her element) about writer Charles Bukowski, every perverted/creative alcoholic’s hero. After the screening, actress Roberta Bassin talked about making the film and her job of looking after Bukowski when he visited the set, which she said was quite often. I forget the details of what she said about her time with Charles, but I am sure it would not be repeatable here. Having one of the actual barflies addressing the audience after watching Barfly was a lovely treat for us fans of Bukowski’s poetry and prose.
On the last night we showed a little-known cult favorite, ivans xtc. by the director of Immortal Beloved about the deaf composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Director Bernard Rose, Mr. haughty Englishman, had made a film about a Hollywood agent (played by Danny Huston) with a drug and personality problem. (Though how could Danny Huston ever have a personality problem?) Danny and director Rose appeared after the film and regaled the lucky audience members with stories of making an independent film about dependency on drugs, alcohol and power. Rose said the film was an update on Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The entire audience, especially clients “druggy buggied” in from various end-of-the-road rehabs, could relate to the film but not necessarily to the Leo Tolstoy reference.
Opening the festival with Ben Stiller and closing with Danny Huston made me realize how powerful and interesting films about substance abuse really are. We were on to something. We had done more than hit a vein. We had the nerve to show honest movies that were interesting, entertaining and perhaps most importantly not bullshit. We know that alcoholics have a very discerning bullshit meter, so all our films are honest depictions of life. Our films don’t sugarcoat or exaggerate addiction. They don’t judge or justify. They tell it like it is. For many of the films we show, the portrayal of recovery may be about what it was like or what it’s like now. Honest and compelling films can powerfully affect us. This is one reason why I have seen many audience members so inspired as to leap passionately and gratefully deeper into their recovery.
I have seen light bulbs go on over people’s heads in the audience. I believe some people were rededicating themselves to staying sober either because they saw a person hit rock bottom on the screen or they saw a message of hope. I often see people in the audience become fascinated with filmmakers who share how and why they made the films they did.
We don’t try to brainwash anybody. We don’t do spontaneous interventions on the audience. We show films that teach, not preach. Films that neither condone nor condescend. The films selected are honest depictions of addiction, recovery and sobriety. Anyone who knows me knows that anything I present isn’t going to be some heavy-handed, preachy, “beware of demon rum” event. The film festival is not about converting people from one lifestyle to another, nor is it propaganda or a sales pitch for anything. It is exactly what it says it is. An appreciation of film and recovery.
The REEL Recovery Film Festival aspires to meet people exactly where they are—whether that be in recovery or living in the throes of addiction. There’s no pressure and there’s no agenda. It is not like one of those recovery rallies where people get together and run around in circles for recovery. I don’t think someone who gets clean and sober necessarily needs to join the crusade to change the way America thinks about addiction and recovery. They have changed themselves and isn’t that the most difficult and rewarding thing you can do?
The film festival has great appeal to many, in particular to people in recovery who read books and love films, attend live theater or go to museums when there’s a good exhibition. Our intelligence and cultural interests help us to take what we learn in the world into the rooms of AA, and even more importantly, what we learn in the Rooms into the world.
We have a lot of clinicians in our audience who treat addicts but have never really witnessed what the day-to-day lifestyle of a heroin or cocaine dependent person looks like from the inside. Films that do not exaggerate can effectively teach and inspire by their realistic portrayals, as long as those movies do not contain far-fetched and maudlin embellishments.
We strongly embrace filmmakers who shine a light into the shadows of alcoholism and addiction. We show numerous films that celebrate freedom from life-threatening behaviors and document healthier alternatives for the body, mind and soul.
The excitement and feelings I had about the expansion and acceptance of the REEL Recovery Film Festival were far better than a line of coke and certainly more sustainable.
As the event garnered more attention, I got a call from a treatment center on the coast of British Columbia. They were interested in bringing the REEL Recovery Film Festival & Symposium to Vancouver, Canada. Wonderful!
After a couple of phone calls, conversations and discussions, we decided on a date and a venue. Four months later, we launched the Canadian premier of the REEL Recovery Film Festival. The mayor of Vancouver was there to cut the ribbon and spoke for about 15 minutes. I was internally overcome with emotions, wishing my mother was still alive to see me sharing the stage with a metropolitan mayor who had not signed an arrest warrant for her son.
This was a snazzy event, attended by people from all over Vancouver who came down to the distinctive venue—an art gallery theater on the infamous Eastside of Vancouver. The diversity of attendees was wonderful—we had people from the suburbs, treatment professionals and people in recovery watching interesting films and participating in the Q&A’s afterward. All and all, it was an absolute joy and a terrific weekend. And best of all, I got to visit my local friend Dr. Gabor Maté. He took me to his favorite Afghani restaurant where we sat on Oriental rugs, dined on spicy food and solved all the world’s ills.
Bringing the film festival to New York, however, contained all the elements of an attempted drug scam but ended like the joyous climax of a Bollywood musical—which is often more enjoyable than what follows a Bollywood meal.
The intrigue began after a business conversation with an ex-wine broker in New Hampshire. He was also part owner of a recovery newspaper in New York City. We started discussions on bringing the REEL Recovery Film Festival to the Big Apple in 2010. Methods and intellectual properties were sent to my new would-be partner. The agreement went back and forth. After amendments were made, my office manager and I were waiting for their deposit check . . . and waiting . . . and waiting.
Seemingly everything was moving forward and we had no apprehension about continuing to share our information, our documents, our contacts and our entire film library, not to mention the expertise we had developed over the years. After a month and a half went by, I’m telling the fellow, “We still have not received that deposit check.” His response was unexpected.
“I’m not sending you anything. It was nice knowing you.”
The next day, I get a call from a friend at Hazelden, a treatment center in Minnesota, telling me that someone just called him from New York saying that they were putting on a recovery film festival and asked Hazelden to be a sponsor. Hazelden said, “yes.” Why? Because they thought it was my film festival. When I told them it wasn’t, they wanted to know who’s scamming who?
I’d hardly set down the phone, when I get another call from New York saying there was a back-page ad in a newspaper called Together New York for a recovery film festival on four dates near the end of September—the dates I anticipated for our New York event.
Dismayed and distressed, I mentioned all this to my brother, who by this point was a real New Yorker.
“You’re just going to sit back,” asks Brother Bruce, “and do nothing about this?”
“Hell no. I’m going to rent the Quad cinema in Greenwich Village for a whole week and put on the best Recovery Film Festival ever.”
Why a whole week? Because the owner of the theater told me that the fee for renting the theater for a weekend was the same as renting for a week. I decided to go for it, as we had a sufficient number of submissions to screen films for seven days. We also designated Wednesday night “Pat Dixon’s Comedy Intervention” and hired six local sober comics to perform.
To me, the threat of competition was very invigorating. It really made me promise to produce the best REEL Recovery Film Festival & Symposium ever.
A couple days later, I spoke to one of my Board members who said, “Maybe you have some grounds for an injunction to stop these people.”
Long story short, even though it could take up to a year to pursue this through the courts, and would be a real pain, I was not about to let this severe lapse of ethics on the part of someone else impact the reputation and future of the REEL Recovery Film Festival. I flew to New York with plans to file legal action against these people, and when I arrived, I met with my friend Dr. Tian Dayton.
“Leonard, I don’t think you have to go to court. I got a phone call earlier today saying that there wasn’t going to be any other recovery film festival in New York.”
“Is that a guarantee?”
“Yes. They folded.”
When the treatment industry community found out some New Yorkers were ripping off my idea, the pirates had second thoughts. I was so relieved that I didn’t come to New York to have it end up a mudslinging match, and I’m delighted to tell you that our film festival in New York was a wonderful success. Robert Downey Sr. took great joy in introducing his friend Lionel Rogosin’s B&W classic docufiction film, On the Bowery from 1956. The festival has continued to grow in prestige and participation and remains a weeklong celebration of films that shed light on themes of addiction, alcoholism, behavioral disorders, treatment and recovery.
Years go by quickly, and by the time I write this paragraph, the REEL Recovery Film Festival & Symposium has become an international success, featuring filmmakers from around the world. In any given year, we receive 100–200 submissions and pick the best 70–80 to exhibit. With several New York premieres, debuts and films by industry veterans, the film festival represents an eclectic lineup of contemporary films and classic features, documentaries and shorts from the U.S., Canada, Iran, Great Britain, Norway, Ireland and Hong Kong, among others.
The festival is the single longest recovery event of its kind in America: seven days of films, panels, comedy and fellowship. Admission is affordable and no one is ever turned away for lack of funds. That’s only possible because of our generous sponsors, whom I love dearly.
A cursory glance at the event program will give you a glimpse into the vast diversity of topics addressed in film and conversation, such as our signature live event, “Chasing the Muse . . . Stone Cold Sober.” This is a panel featuring some of New York’s most creative and successful professional writers and filmmakers addressing the issue articulated in this question: “How do I create now that I’m not getting high, stoned or drunk?”
This question was inspired by the legend that Eric Clapton couldn’t pick up a guitar in his first year of sobriety because the guitar itself was a trigger. How does one get back into the creative flow completely “on the natch”? So we had famed sober writers and performers address that conundrum.
Through my experience as a counselor and graduate of Betty Ford I’ve become aware that many treatment centers, sober living houses and clinics make recovery-related films available to their patients and their families.
When I was in treatment at Betty Ford, on the weekends, we were given access to only six VHS tapes. I pulled one out by John Bradshaw on the topic of shame. I sat there and I watched it and wept. I realized I had been walking around with shame my whole life, but I never identified it with a word. Now I had a name for it. That experience facilitated and accelerated my recovery and my healing process. I knew I was in the right place: a safe place to feel feelings for the first time.
Later, when I was a substance abuse counselor in Los Angeles at Beit T’Shuvah, I worked a Saturday night shift and while some of the clients were out at AA meetings and others were out with family members, a lot of clients got left behind. There were often a dozen or two people who were stuck with nothing to do on a Saturday night. I brought in a VHS comedy tape every Saturday night. After 90 minutes of a funny movie that had everyone laughing, it seemed like nobody felt lonely. The levels of despair and stress in everyone diminished. No one seemed to feel like they missed out on something by being stuck inside on a Saturday night. We laughed, had snacks, and it felt like a special evening when most clients thought it would be dull and depressing.
A good movie can create a wide-awake, dream-like experience that can tap into the subconscious mind with truths, insights, and inspirations that might be blocked by denial and fear during normal waking hours—even in the therapist’s office.
Watching a film in a darkened room allows one to have very personal reactions to what’s on the screen. No one is telling the person what to think. Feelings and thoughts can come and go without constantly being judged and challenged by an all-knowing family member. This was after all, a Jewish facility.
When I started the REEL Recovery Film Festival, I realized that to stay sober, you don’t have to check your intellect at the door or leave your love of art and culture behind. I also realized after a few years of sobriety, that films had become my new drug of choice.
Our Addiction/Recovery eBulletin, an electronic news source distributed weekly on Tuesdays, reaches over 23,000 recipients in the US and the UK. The eBulletin newsletter features news and articles from the previous week related to the world of addiction and recovery.
I am both editor and publisher of the newsletter. The publisher may be sober, but the eBulletin is never dry. The diversity of content and sources is wonderful. Every week, it features breaking news, scientific studies, celebrity sobriety, pharmaceutical information, Alcoholics Anonymous, book and film reviews, editorials, medical research, law enforcement stories, obituaries, eating disorder stories, treatment advice, recovery stories, group therapy topics, advocacy initiatives and recovery technology. The articles are relevant, compelling and inspiring. The eBulletin definitely provides “news you can use.” Reader response and feedback have been encouraging, which tells me that people like being kept informed while being entertained.
Celebrity gossip isn’t gossip in the eBulletin. We do feature public celebrities’ personal experiences. Some are dealing with the adverse effects of using, and others are celebrating another day of victory in recovery.
A great thing about the eBulletin is that we are embedding, or linking, to spectacular videos by stellar individuals, such as Dr. Gabor Maté, physician and best-selling author. We also have linked to content by Dr. Carl Hart, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at Columbia University and recreational heroin smoker. We adore actor/recovery advocate, comedian, actor, author and radio host Russell Brand. Until the start of the eBulletin, there wasn’t any convenient way for the average or even above average person to keep up with all the addiction and sobriety news.
Since 2017, I have been blessed with a fantastic associate editor named Ahbra Kaye. A childhood spelling bee whiz and now a purveyor of all the news that’s sometimes unfit to publish, but we publish it anyway, about addiction, recovery and the decline of American’s mental health stability. In 2020, 90,000 Americans died from taking too many harmful drugs at one time. That’s crazy to me. Or maybe people find copping a buzz worth dying for. I thought life itself was a gift from God, and your two parents. I know I did an awful lot of cocaine in my life, but I never thought one line or even ten lines might kill me. Maybe death is more seductive that I realized.
I knew there was a market for a weekly digest of addiction news, breakthroughs and more, but the immediate positive response after launch exceeded my expectations. In the first six months, the Addiction/Recovery eBulletin attracted 11,000 individual email subscribers, and became the most referred to, linked to, and talked about information and entertainment source within the recovery industry.
The eBulletin has a diverse audience: industry professionals, health and wellness clinicians, treatment centers, doctors, corporate CEO’s, MFT’s, admission coordinators, members of the press and members of the recovery community. Editions of the eBulletin can be found on http://addictionrecoveryebulletin.org. Each edition is archived, so folks don’t have to search back through their email every week to review the stories. Each week, the eBulletin is posted and shared thousands of times on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram. The eBulletin also draws loyal and supportive advertisers, who help to make the endeavor possible and help to sustain and grow the newsletter.
Once in a while, there is even a crisis with the eBulletin. In October 2015, Sovereign Health, a litigious and corrupt rehab empire, took legal action against me for simply providing a link to a story about them published in the Orange County Register. My error was not checking the publication date of the story. It was from three years earlier. They alleged all sorts of nasty motives on my part and even stated in court documents that I was besmirching their reputation so referrers would send patients to my rehab, which of course was ridiculous because I don’t have one. I didn’t write or publish the original story. The OC Register still has the story available on their website.
It was in court for two years and their plan to sue me for three million dollars for lost referrals barely made it past the initial jurisprudence stage. It cost them a fortune and eventually the CEO Tonmoy Sharma shuttered Sovereign Health and resurrected it under a new name after a wrongful death suit was filed against them.
You can buy a copy of Leonards book HERE