During the fall of my freshman year of high school, doing homework on my bed, I got a call from my eldest sister. The call came as a happy surprise since she was busy studying for the LSAT at the time and didn’t call often. When I picked up, her grim, very serious voice sent a wave of dread through me before I even knew why. She told me that my other sister, living in New York, had found her friend and roommate, a bright and talented NYU graduate, dead in their apartment from a heroin overdose.
My sister’s roommate had been struggling with the addiction for years despite rehab and the efforts of friends and family. My sister was, and is, deeply impacted by this tragedy—and therefore, so am I.
The year that followed intensified—and focused my concern around the opioid epidemic. It started with Christmas at home where, in one week, I read or heard the condensed and paraphrased versions of almost every article on the crisis—which echoed against and within the vast amount of media coverage it was gaining. Everywhere I looked, there was a new story about the epidemic’s devastating toll, and awful statistics therein.
In today’s political climate, I find myself consumed with helplessness and driven to complacency. Reading these articles had no great, transformative effect on me; their impersonal numbers gave me no call to action. It was only by chance that I came across Margaret Talbot’s New Yorker article, “The Addicts Next Door,” in a doctor’s office. I admit, this is the only New Yorker article I’ve found the wherewithal to read in its entirety, but it gripped me from the first paragraph. Talbot opens with a scene emblematic of the American Dream—a little league softball practice (in Berkeley County, WV)—and juxtaposes it with the present, tragic American reality: mass opioid addiction.
In the article, Narcan must be administered to two parents after heroin overdoses during the practice, and the other parents aren’t happy about it, whispering their dissatisfaction to one another. This scene reminded me of my childhood in Mississippi, and the dynamics that come with small-town life. The commentary in the article, however cruel, illustrates that addiction is a community issue; everyone knows who the addicts are and everyone has to bear witness to overdose and addiction. In short, everyone is affected.
“The Addicts Next Door” compelled me to act when so many other articles hadn’t. When applying for my school’s independent study grant, the Hester Fellowship, I knew what I wanted to do. I wouldn’t try to learn about the opioid epidemic in general; too many others had gone over this ground. In order to learn about the epidemic in a meaningful, personal way, I needed the perspectives of community members, not outsiders, and I needed to meet them where they lived to fully understand the epidemic’s true impact.
At the beginning of my project, I expected to hear different perspectives from everyone I interviewed. In fact, I carefully selected a diverse variety of people to interview so that would be the case. But an overriding consensus quickly emerged amid everyone I spoke with: the unifying idea that the only true path to relief from the opioid epidemic is communication and cooperation facilitated by a strong community.
One America, a nation-wide organization new to West Virginia, is utilizing community to assist in the fight against opioid addiction and its causes. Andy Hanauer, director of the One America Movement, described the organization’s mission as “bring[ing] Americans together to address pressing issues in their communities.” One America held a listening session with health, faith, first responder, police, and community leaders in the Eastern Panhandle earlier this year, and the message delivered was loud and clear: we need to get everyone working together.
For One America, this meant not just coordinating between churches and doctors and police, but getting the whole community talking about an issue that thrives on stigma, silence, and isolation. So, after learning about One America, I realized it was not a coincidence that all my contacts knew each other in some way. It was the bond of the battle, so to speak.
Often, One America must create a two-way street, as Hanauer described it, between two very different, sometimes adverse, communities—so they can solve their mutual problems together. Within the opioid epidemic, this two-way street acts as a bridge connecting the rural-urban divide. One America aims to bring urban Jews, Muslims, and African Americans in D.C. together with largely white, Christian, West Virginians. Hanauer said that alleviating opioid addiction, “doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, more than one community can win.”
Throughout Jefferson and Berkeley County, community recovery efforts, much like One America’s model, are taking place—pioneered by mothers and doctors alike, bringing groups of all types together in a common cause.
Getting Out in Front
Early on in my trip to the Mountain State, I was able to clearly see this bond, or “two-way street.” The second day of my fellowship, I did a joint interview with Pastor Joel Rainey of Covenant Church, a Baptist church in Shepherdstown, as well as Dr. David Didden, Jefferson County’s health officer. They greeted each other with a hug, obviously friends, but as the interview progressed, I realized that both men were polar opposites politically. Despite this difference, our conversation revolved around bipartisanship and its importance in fighting the epidemic. Rainey and Didden are in fact partnering, church with medicine, and aim to decrease the West Virginia death rate by 25 percent over the next four years.
Religion aside, one reason faith-based recovery has proven successful is due to the tradition of churches being central to communities. Similar to Rainey and Didden, Deanna Thomas, who runs Covenant Church’s youth program, has partnered with Tina Stride, co-founder of Martinsburg-based The Hope Dealer Project, and mother of a “recovering warrior” (the stigma-free term they use for recovering addicts), to lead prevention seminars for teens. The women of The Hope Dealer Project use their personal experiences to offer guidance for families with an addicted love one, to help them navigate the maze of emotions that come with addiction—free from judgement.
When speaking to members of Covenant Church, Tina explained, “… they talked about addiction openly. That is all that needs to be done; show an active addict love, and compassion, and some will reach out for help.”
With the same approach, Jan Hafer of Trinity Episcopal Church in Shepherdstown is organizing a “Day of Hope” for Shepherdstown—to start conversations about the epidemic in the community, in hopes to open the door for recovery (with a service and vigil on Saturday, September 15, at 7pm) and raise awareness (with a service and information fair on Sunday, September 16, at 10am).
To that end, West Virginians on the local level are not only bridging the gap between counties, but states, as well. Stephen Skinner’s Charles Town law firm is part of a multi-state litigation effort to hold pharmaceuticals companies accountable for mass distribution and false marketing of opioids.
In an interview earlier this year with The Observer, he noted: “We’ve got well over a hundred municipalities represented across the country at this point—the epidemic has hit many smaller governments, and now they’re stepping up. We’ve all felt the impact of it—with more crime, public health disruption, and incarceration—and up to this point, taxpayers have been taking the hit in both Berkeley and Jefferson Counties—in addition to the overdoses. The manufacturers and distributors have to be held accountable for that.”
Similarly, the Berkeley County Recovery Resource Center (BCRRC), directed by Kevin Knowles, tries to stay one step ahead of the crisis by communicating with Baltimore and D.C.—often the source of new drug strains, from heroin to fentanyl. The BCRRC is looking to the future by utilizing new technologies and encouraging the expansion of resource centers like their own across the Panhandle. Utilizing an app, they receive live updates on overdose patterns in major neighboring cities to anticipate and prepare for overdose outbreaks in the Berkeley County area, which in turn, allows them to communicate more effectively with emergency medical services, and support local addicts with open arms and minds.
Cause for Hope
It’s easy for outsiders to think of the opioid epidemic, or any drug epidemic, as a contained event. Truth be told, I’ve known only one victim of the opioid epidemic, and he was two levels removed from me. But my time in West Virginia showed me that there are places where there really is no level of separation. In my fellowship proposal, I shared one statistic: if 321 million people live in the U.S., and 115 people die of an opioid overdose every day across the country, imagine the depth and range to which people literally everywhere are affected, impacted, by these deaths.
A crisis of such proportion is staggering, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to fix. The first step, as I’ve learned, is talking about it. Conversations. Discussions. Open lines of communication. That said, perhaps the most important thing I learned by visiting West Virginia was that people have seemingly put whatever differences they might have aside in order to stand (and work) together to confront a mutual adversary in the fight against opioid addiction. I was greeted with hospitality, openness, and passion. Inspired by the indominable spirit of people helping people. And that gives me hope.
— Kate is a senior at the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C. In college, she hopes to study English and history while exploring career paths that merge her love(s) of writing, business, and politics.