In 2012, documentary filmmaker Jenny Mackenzie’s daughter Anna was a senior at Rowland Hall, a private high school in Salt Lake City. Anna was an honor student and a talented soccer player, but when she tore her meniscus during a game, she had to get surgery — her third knee operation in three years.
The procedure went smoothly, but her recovery was challenging psychologically. For Anna, exercise had always been a natural antidepressant. Now, she missed both the game and her teammates who were her closest friends. She was in constant physical and emotional pain.
When Anna’s painkiller prescription ran out, her friends offered her more. Soon, Anna began misusing prescription opiates.
“It was a very dark time in our family’s life,” Jenny Mackenzie remembers. “But we caught her in the nick of time and got her the help she needed.”
With the help of a therapeutic consultant, Anna enrolled in Pacific Quest, a 10-week private in-patient treatment program in which participants work on an organic farm — planting and eating their own food as a way of re-establishing a healthy connection between the land and their bodies.
Anna successfully emerged from treatment and went on to attend Scripps College in California. But in February 2014, she called her mother from her dorm room, sobbing. She had just heard the news that Chase Saxton, a close friend from high school, had died from a heroin overdose.
She emailed her mom Saxton’s obituary, in which his parents revealed they had lost their son to opioid addiction.
“I was so struck that if we hadn’t gotten Anna the support that she needed, this could have been her death notice,” says Mackenzie.
Mackenzie had always wanted to make a film about the opioid epidemic.
She was inspired by the courage it took for the Saxton family to be open about their son’s struggle with addiction. She took a deep breath and reached out to them. Filming started the next day.
“We had three cameras at the funeral,” she says. “And that was the beginning of Dying in Vein.”Comment on this story
Chase's story is shared through powerful scenes of his family in the throes of grief and voiceovers read from entries in Chase's journals. The film also features Maddy and Paige, a young couple struggling with heroin addiction, and Matt, a 22-year-old recovering addict and one of Chase's closest friends.
Mackenzie believes fate dropped Chase Saxton’s story into her lap to give her a unique opportunity to put a human face on opioid abuse and to increase both awareness of the problem and empathy for addicts and their families.
Read more stories of battling addiction
“There is nothing more powerful than sharing the story of a 21-year-old honor student at the University of Utah who lost his life to addiction,” she says.