Addiction As A Family Disease in “Stay Awake”

“Stay Awake” is a 2022 American drama film, written and directed by Jamie Sisley, that illustrates the impact of addiction on a family. In the movie, brothers Ethan (17) and Derek (19) try their best to navigate the pressures of teenage life while tending to their mother’s debilitating prescription drug addiction. Based on the filmmaker’s adolescence in small-town America, “Stay Awake” is a personal exploration of the roller coaster ride that families go on while trying to help their loved ones battle a disease that affects millions every day.

The film had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2022 and was featured at the Deauville American Film Festival in September. Variety called it “especially resonant given the recent representation of America’s drug crisis.”

“The themes and characters in ‘Stay Awake’ mean the world to me since they’re based on my childhood. My mom has fought an addiction to prescription drugs and opioids for most of her life,” director Sisley said. “As teens, my brother and I tried our best to aid her through relapses, cycle her through treatment centers, and encourage her to seek out a sober lifestyle”.

“When I first started watching films about addiction, I realized that most were from the point of view of the addict,” Sisley added. “One of the biggest reasons I wanted to make ‘Stay Awake’ was to offer an alternative POV to addiction—the roller coaster ride that caretakers go on while helping someone they love through their disease. In many ways, this film is a love letter to the caretaker.”

Sisley thinks there’s an “addict trope” in film and television, and that trope doesn’t fit his own experience. “Most people I know who struggle with addiction are smart, highly functioning middle-class people—they go to PTA meetings and drive their kids to soccer practice. That’s an authentic representation of this epidemic that I feel has been lacking.”

While families with addiction desperately try to maintain a facade of normality, everyone involved is traumatized. Individual and family system trauma emerges at the core. “If we look at all the symptoms of addiction, the conflicts, and the negativity, we begin to see how that is going to impact every aspect of how this family is going to adjust to deal with the chronic illness,” explained Michael Barnes, the chief clinical officer at the Foundry Treatment Center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in a recent webinar for Harmony Foundation. “The way a family is organized will either promote change, growth, and openness or keep it stuck in the same place.”

“Families should not be shamed or blamed,” Barnes quoted from one of his publications. “They should be provided an opportunity to learn about addiction, trauma, mental health issues, and transgenerational issues. They should be helped to identify system patterns that serve to maintain the problem that they’re desperately trying to change.”

Harmony Foundation is one of the world’s longest-running and most successful addiction treatment centers. All staff at Harmony have been trained in trauma-informed care. We offer a family engagement workshop to all families of current and former clients. It educates family members about the disease model of addiction and gives them a place to express themselves and begin the healing process.
Harmony will host a special screening of “Stay Awake” with a panel group afterward on June 22 at FREE Spiritual Community in Denver. Register your spot today, as seating is limited.