Leonard Buschel has been sober for more than 20 years, though he says he’s found a new drug of choice. “If I don’t see a movie in theaters every 10 days, I physically feel the jones,” he says. “Films are the great culmination, I think, of all the art forms. Where else do you get to see architecture, music, costumes, acting, playwriting, camera angles? It’s really transformative for me.”
As it turns out, films can be transformative for a lot of people, which Buschel has proven through his baby, the REEL Recovery Film Festival, now celebrating its seventh year. The festival is hosted in nine major cities and features a curated selection of films about addiction with discussions and Q&A’s afterwards—sometimes with those involved with the films and sometimes with professionals from the treatment industry.
But all of this was made possible through one of Buschel’s earlier recovery-based projects, Writers In Treatment, which he founded after a brief stint as a drug counselor. “What inspired me to start Writers In Treatment was really my friendship with Buddy Arnold, who started the Musician’s Assistance Program,” says Buschel. “The inspiration was not wanting to be a drug counselor anymore, but certainly wanting to stay in the recovery world without doing any hand-to-hand combat.”
Still, Writers in Treatment’s original mission of giving rehab scholarships to struggling writers has mutated over the years. “It started seven years ago with that as the mission,” he says. “It has since changed because we weren’t getting that many calls. We still put a few people a year into rehab, but they don’t have to be writers, so it’s almost a misnomer.”
Ultimately, the organization’s name is more a reflection of Buschel himself. “I’m a writer and I’m in treatment, and I want to help other people,” he says. “It never congealed into this kick-ass organization because the first year, to get some attention, we started the film festival.”
Fortunately, REEL is the ass-kicking recovery movement Buschel had been dreaming of. “That’s all anyone wants to do or talk about,” he says before listing the criteria for the films he shows: that they’re honest, that they neither exaggerate nor diminish the joys and dangers of using and that they’re entertaining and informative. “They need to inform the viewer as to how alcoholics and addicts really live,” Buschel says.
Buschel gives out 2,000 free tickets to the festival in LA and NY every year to bring in those on the outside of recovery for the freewheeling festival. “There’s no agenda,” he says. “The agenda is to keep people busy for a couple hours and involved in recovery without it having to be a dogmatic experience. It’s a topic that’s not going to go away, unfortunately.”
This open-minded approach comes from Buschel’s own road to recovery, and his own nuanced experiences with drugs. “I used drugs for 26 years,” he recalls. “That’s nothing to be proud of, but I think it’s more the norm than not the norm. I’m sure there are people who are in their 30s, 40s, 50s who basically have had a few drinks every day of their lives.”
According to Buschel, there may be a less sharply defined line between dyed-in-the-wool addicts and so-called normies. For him, it all comes down to something ineffable. “You’re looking for spirit in a bottle but you’re really looking for spirit, period,” he opines. “You have to replace the seeking of the spirit from a bottle or a drug to finding it on the natch, so to speak.”
It was in rehab that Buschel realized it was actually possible to live without getting high. “It would’ve been like saying, ‘Wow, you don’t really need oxygen after all!’” he remembers. During his first year of sobriety, he attended three meetings a day in Marin County, and holds his own recovery very dear to him. “It takes a lot of diligence, almost like a daily contrition,” he says. “You have to recommit on a daily basis.”
Regardless of REEL’s come-one-come-all philosophy, Buschel has a more personal mantra for it all. “The whole motto of my organization is, ‘Treatment works,’” he says. “Period. It could be the greatest month of some people’s lives. You’re dropped into this world where all the possibilities and all the potential you ever thought you had, you can actually see yourself accomplishing and achieving.”
In addition to the film festival and Writers in Treatment, Buschel is also the man behind The Addiction/Recovery E Bulletin, a packed missive which posts 30 stories a week and goes out to 20,000+ subscribers. “It’s not like a blog—it’s hard news,” he says of the industry standard newsletter, which is celebrating its third anniversary next week. “It’s about anything to do with drugs and alcohol, with treatment and recovery.”
If there’s anything that stamps Buschel’s recovery projects, it’s a personal touch that helps addicts address the “loss of connection to any kind of poetry, to their own humanity” that Buschel feels is one of the true leading causes of overdose. “My son, who was 35, got sober when he was 19,” he says. “He said, ‘AA provides me with everything I was ever looking for in my existence on Earth.’ How many people start the day with a Serenity Prayer holding hands with a bunch of strangers? That’s highly evolved behavior.”
Above all else, Buschel’s abiding passion for life may be at the heart of his projects’ success. “I just thought, ‘Let me do something where I can exercise all the things I love,’” he says. “It’s possible you only live once, what’s wrong with having feelings? Maybe God exists through feelings—you’re in touch with your Higher Power when you have a feeling. The point is to just feel them, not judge them, which is easier said than done. Viva la feelings.”
To see all our AfterParty Heroes, click here.