By Jeremy Royce
12 years ago today I stopped being a methamphetamine addict. I didn’t look like a character from Breaking Bad. Only two years prior I was a straight-A student, on track to graduate from high school at the top of my class. I was the awkward looking kid with glasses who sat in the back of the room, turned in his homework early and tried to stay out of the spotlight. I was a quiet, introverted teenager. My mother taught me to distinguish between right and wrong. I knew that drug addicts lived in gutters, crazy and deranged. They sapped society and most importantly, they were dangerous. I wasn’t any of those things. I didn’t have anger-management problems, and I didn’t grow up on the wrong side of the tracks, but in my sophomore year of high school my life changed.
At sixteen I left home to escape a difficult family environment (for reason which I won’t go into here out of respect to the people involved). I enrolled in a new school, got a job, and within a year I was living in my own apartment. I would go to class in the morning, manage a retail store in the afternoon, and work as a projectionist at the local movie theater at night. I couldn’t relate to the people I went to school with. I was an outsider and my only friends were outsiders too. They taught me that a gram of crystal meth allowed me to work sixteen hours at two jobs and still have the energy for a social life. The little time I did go to school was spent in the video production class. My first short film played at a local festival and when I sat in that darkened room, filled with strangers, and saw my work on the screen, it felt like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It was validation. I had always loved movies, but It wasn’t until then that I realized cinema offered something more than entertainment. It could be a reflection of me. Even though I was a runaway, drug dealer, barely surviving, seeing my work on the big screen gave me a sense of purpose. I was hooked on something other than speed, but quitting nearly killed me.
Twelve years ago today I was admitted to a hospital. My throat was so swollen I could barely breath. I hadn’t had anything to eat in three days and I was severely dehydrated. This was the fifth time I had been sick in four months. All those nights without sleep had finally caught up to me. By the time I was out of the hospital and back on my feet, I had missed so much work that I couldn’t pay rent and my lease was up. I was $18,000 in debt from the hospital bills and all of my friends were drug addicts. In that moment my life could have gone in many directions. Thankfully I’d seen a glimmer of hope, reflecting back in a darkened room. I had always loved movies, but in the face of death, I realized storytelling could help other people find their reflection too. In the subsequent years, I got clean, and appealed for independent status with the state. I qualified for financial aid, and got my BA in film production. I went on to get my MFA from USC in 2012. While there, I discovered a group of filmmakers that reminded me of myself and my friends when I was a teenager. 20 Years of Madness emerged from the same desire I felt all those years ago, to tell the stories of outsiders trying to overcome the limitations they’ve been faced with by a life out of their control.
The lives of most people suffering from drug addiction, mental illness, homelessness are much more nuanced than we have time to consider. Cinema gives us a chance to explore those nuances. It’s my goal to fight against stigma, because one small moment could turn an overachieving teenager into a drug dealer and it’s our job to make sure they don’t get lost if that happens.