Portsmouth, a small town I wrote about in Dreamland, has been slowly rebounding from years of economic decline and drug addiction.
That’s a remarkable thing. For it was Portsmouth – on the Ohio River — that led the way into our national opiate-addiction epidemic. The town was where the Pill Mill – sleazy pain clinics prescribing massive amounts of pills to almost anyone for cash – was born.
With the town blasted by this huge supply, and the sense of community shredded by job loss and more, widespread pain-pill addiction was a fact of life in Portsmouth by the end of the 1990s.
But a lot has happened since then. The town, each time I return, seems slightly more energetic, more invigorated, more about positivity and less about dope’s inertia and fatalism. A recovery culture has taken hold there that’s exciting to watch.
Not that all the problems are behind Portsmouth, Ohio. But there’s another story now competing with the “let’s get high” culture that gripped the town for so long. I wrote about the beginnings of this at the end of my book – the small clues of rebirth: new gyms, a coffee shop, lofts, refurbished buildings and more.
Along that line, the folks of Portsmouth – 500+ volunteers – get together this Saturday to wash, repaint, redo their downtown in something they’re calling Plant Portsmouth.
They’ll be painting light poles, scraping and painting all the curbs, replacing 120 streetlights, and more. “None of this has been done in 20 years,” said Jeremy Burnside, an attorney in town who got the idea started.
They’ll also be planting plants as a way of signaling the town’s rebirth.
Burnside’s hoping to set a Guinness World Record for the most people planting plants simultaneously.
(Folks — please send me photos from the day and I’ll post them here and on social media. #plantportsmouth)
Organizers have raised $75,000 from local businesses to pay for supplies. That itself is a sign of how locally owned businesses are now growing in Portsmouth. None of that money came from the chain stores and corporate fast-food restaurants that have dominated the town’s economy since things began to go bad in the early 1980s and the shops on its main street closed. (Btw, I bought a couple t-shirts, inspired by Dreamland and the community pool that was the source of my book’s title, from a company called 3rdand Court that began in downtown Portsmouth. Check them out.)
The antidote to opiates is not naloxone. It is community. I say this often in my speeches when I’m traveling around the country. We Americans have isolated and fragmented ourselves in a million ways – this in poor areas and in wealthy areas. That left us vulnerable; it left us dangerously separate and disconnected from each other – strange to say in this time of technological hyper-connectivity.
The final expression of all that is our national epidemic of addiction to opiates – the most isolating class of drugs we know.
Rebuilding community (in a million different ways) is crucial to fighting it, I believe.
I’m glad to see Portsmouth leading the way on that, too.
I was living in South Shore when Dr. David Proctor arrived in 1978. I had just come back from college and was working at the local brickyard. For a few years I was still apart of the local drug crowd but slowly moved away from it because I found it scary and upsetting. I did not like buying from biker dudes I did not know and I did not like the small dealers that sold drugs to kids.
In small rural towns there are the “saints” and “sinners” and the doctors in any town normally are in the “saint” category. One of my local small dealer friends went to Proctor while he was still apart of Dr. Riddle’s office. Proctor told him he would write him a script for any drug he wanted. When my friend told me this I will never forget the stunned and serious look on his face, even though he got a prescription for Black Beauties. My friend knew in the back of his sinner brain that something was very wrong.
Once my extended Pentecostal rumspringa was over, I returned to church. I got married and left the area. However, my husband was an abusive man and I returned to my mother’s home in South Shore with a small child. It did not take me long even in my state of mind to see that Dr. Proctor along with another doctor had done major damage to my small town. Even in my mother’s church there were five people that I knew about that were addicted to prescription drugs.
Your book focused on the opiates but there was a doctor who ran a “diet” clinic who was free with the amphetamines. I would walk around the corner to see his lot filled with cars from Hamilton, Franklin, Pike and other counties in Ohio plus cars from counties in Kentucky and West Virginia. The people I saw were lean not obese. So South Shore was a one-stop on the small time dealer network for both opiates and amphetamines.
There is one thing I would like to say about kids raised in fundamentalist churches. This is about the saint and sinner perspective. They will be zealously saint or zealously a sinner and there seems to be no middle ground. This especially applies to rural areas. If you are trained to live your life a religious zealot then when you turn away from your religious upbringing you live your worldly life just as fervently and passionately in the negative. However, when these same people turn back to their religious roots from the addictive life they are not ashamed to help others to do the same.
I left South Shore in the middle nineties with my middle school aged daughter. I went back to Morehead State and cleaned up my mess from the 70’s and graduated with honors just in time for my daughter to start college. My daughter went on to get her masters at UK. After reading your book I am glad we left the area for I can see decades of destruction manifest in South Shore when I go back to visit.
A positive note: I loved your description of Chillicothe Street especially during the holidays. I was not part of the middle class but was raise by a single mom with three children and no welfare. We would take a taxi to Portsmouth to shop on Christmas Eve. I can remember the Salvation Army Santa ringing his bell in front of Kresges’ and my mom singing “Silver Bells.” We would go to Kresges, Greens Five and Dime, Kobacher’s and to Martings to see their window display and buy hot peanuts from their candy area and play on the escalators.
All of this is etched into my childhood mind as well as all the great times swimming at Dreamland with my brothers and the neighbor kids who took us with them. I thought all city pools were like Dreamland.
I’m a reporter with an earring, from L.A., a Berkeley grad who doesn’t go to church. In the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time in small American towns, meeting people from fairly traditional, church-going places in the Midwest.
On paper, on social media, or on 24-hour cable news, we would seem to have little to share.
Yet in these places, meeting these people, I’m struck by how much we have in common. This may sound trite, but it is true. The commonality is there if you want to look for it. Not that hard to find when you look someone in the eye.
At each place, I’ve had the great privilege of talking with folks about their lives, their jobs. I’ve been struck by the intensity of feeling of the people with whom I’ve spoken, hugging folks I didn’t know. I remember a paramedic telling me of saving overdosing addicts, and of a chamber of commerce president telling me how many people couldn’t pass drug screens. I remember a grandfather in Portsmouth who wouldn’t let my hand go as he told me how he was raising his granddaughter, that his daughter was in prison. Many had lost children, and many others were cautious yet happy that their children were doing well now.
It is a humbling and powerful thing to be brought so quickly into the intimate lives of strangers, and I hope more than anything that I’ve been up to the responsibility.
Today, I want to say how thankful I am to the people I’ve met in those places – Peoria, Van Wert, Scottsburg, Logan, South Shore, Marysville, Portsmouth, Marion, Huntington, Albuquerque, Medford, Zanesville, Knoxville, Covington, Chillicothe – for their warmth and hospitality and, above all, their willingness to share a bit of their stories with a guy from out of town.
These are not towns typically on most authors’ book tour itinerary, and I feel so lucky that I was able to get there.
I’ve met folks at conferences of associations I didn’t know existed two years ago: Kentucky Association of Counties, National Association of Community Health Centers, Indiana Hospital Association, Ohio Association of School Nurses, Illinois Rural Hospital Association, Oregon Narcotics Officers Association, West Virginia Medical Association, National Association of Medicaid Directors, and the Iowa Association of County Medical Examiners, among them.
Meeting people at these conferences has been a real light of the last year as well. The Kentucky Association of Counties a couple weeks ago was an amazing event, as the state has 120 counties for four million people. So it was really like a small-town convention. Folks with strong Kentucky accents and me with my earring – yet I felt so welcome, and their reception to what I had to say was overwhelming.
I’m thankful for my family, who has been so important in all that’s happened. They were able to accompany me on a trip to Chillicothe, Ohio, which we’ll never forget.
I’m thankful that my wife and I are in good health, happy with our lives. My daughter is a cheerful, intelligent girl, healthy and polite to others. My wife and I are thankful for that.
It’s been a good, full year and I hope it was for you, too.
Some people think that my use of Dreamland as the title to my book refers to the euphoria addicts are seeking.
In reality, the title refers to an enormous pool that existed years ago in Portsmouth, Ohio, a town mightily afflicted by opiate addiction. Dreamland was the town square, in a sense. Life revolved around it. Kids grew up in public, under the watchful eye of hundreds of parents. It was a place where everyone was equal in bathing suits. The pool embodied the feel of community.
I’m still awed by the letters I continue to get in response to the book. Here’s another …
I grew up in Portsmouth, born in 1952. It was a safe blessed time in post war America. I had 6 cousins in my Catholic school class, picnics with the families on weekends, a perfect childhood of Dreamland every summer day, walking home from school with friends each fall, enduring the brief winter to count the days until Dreamland reopened.
I left after high school and did college at Ohio Wesleyan where my husband and I met. We moved to PA and I did law school as my husband served the United Methodist churches of Central PA. We made semi-annual trips to Portsmouth with our three children to see family. Each time we went, the town was more depressing. Family members became drug addicts. We were stolen from at my mothers funeral. I rescued my dad from a nursing home where the facility clearly had users on staff. This was in 2013. He was not safe in his own home due to a family member selling drugs right under my dad’s nose.
He died in 2014, in PA, after having lived 92 years in Portsmouth. He knew Branch Rickey, Rocky Nelson, and the great years of Portsmouth. 4 of his six brothers served our country; my dad was deferred due to problems after having polio and rheumatic fever. I have Ohio River blood in my veins.
Thank you for making me understand a bit more that the addictions which decimated my family were not totally their fault. I worked 35 years as an attorney in health care law and I knew the power of the pharmaceutical companies and the collision of profit in healthcare.
If you would like to take on another pharmaceutical issue in the future, let me suggest Lyrica. It was presented as the holy grail for nerve pain. I am no longer practicing law as I had to quit due to seizures after using Lyrica. Facebook even has a Lyrica survivors page of which I am a member. It is another sad tail of “big pharma” all over again.
Thank you again for your wonderful work of Dreamland.
When neck-deep in writing a book, I’m never sure if it’s any good. Too much time spent laboring over every phrase, whether one clause should be separated by a comma or a semicolon, which adjective best describes a person’s mood – on top of all the facts that, like cats, need to be corralled and herded in one direction or another.
And new facts you learn every day that may change everything.
Then there’s the rewriting – which is what writing is all about.
So I’m thrilled to hear reaction to the book – that people couldn’t put it down. Love hearing that, I have to say.
I’ve had great appearances at the LA Times Bookfest and at Vroman’s, with more to come at Powell’s Books in Portland, Elliott Bay Town Hall in Seattle and Bookstore West Portal in San Francisco, not to mention the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock, where I’m heading as I write.
Amazon.com chose Dreamland one of its Best Books of the month, alongside books by Toni Morrison, TC Boyle and others. That was nice of them.
The NY Times ran a column of mine on the front page of its Sunday Review opinion page. Nice of them, as well.
KPCC in LA aired an interview i did on their show, Take Two, and CSPAN did the same with an interview at the Bookfest, then covered the LA Times Bookfest panel I was on with some terrific nonfiction crime authors – Ruben Castaneda, Barry Siegel, and Deanne Stillman, and Tom Zoellner doing a bang-up job moderating.
All in all, an exhausting but fulfilling first few days to a book’s life.
Thanks to all who’ve bought the book, and especially to those who’ve written me about it with such feeling.
Two weeks from today, my third book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (Bloomsbury Press), is officially released.
The story of this epidemic involves shoelaces, rebar, Levi’s 501s, cellphones, football, Walmart, American prosperity, with marketing, with Mexican poverty and social competition, and with the biggest swimming pool in the US and what happened when that was destroyed.
It’s about the marketing of prescription pills as a solution to pain of all kinds, and about a small town in Mexico where young men have devised a system for retailing heroin across America like it was pizza.
The tale took me from Appalachia to suburbs in Southern California, into one of the biggest drug-abuse stories of our time – and one of the quietest, and whitest as well.
Among them, Portsmouth was ground zero in the opiate epidemic that is now sweeping the country. I’ve been there four times for the book: twice to hear about the degradation that took place with economic decline and the rise of prescription pill use; twice to hear the stories of how Portsmouth is emerging from that hell and a recovery community is forming.
I hope to return a fifth time.
What I found electric about the RWR video was that it was not a celebration of thuggery. Instead it was journalism — a description of what these guys had grown up in, using Portsmouth as the video backdrop — and a call to rebirth for their hometown.
I suspect Bruce Springsteen and Merle Haggard would find a lot to value in the RWR and their song.
Plus it was DIY all the way, and, as a fan of early punk rock that pioneered DIY attitudes, I thought it looked great.
Anyway, five of the nine members of RWR took some time to talk to me about the group, the song, the reaction and more. Portsmouth born and raised, they are: Clint “Random” Askew, Nick “Big Mung” Mungle, Donricko “D’Gree” Greene, Barry “B.E.Z.” Munyon, Justin “JLew” Lewis. (Others in the group include Lexxy “Riide R Diie” Jackson, David Packard, Arrick “Lil Mont” Montgomery and Angelo “Anjo” Jackson)
You can listen to them at the link above or download it.
Check out their story. Tell me yours. Leave it in Comments.
Meanwhile, you can read the fantastic comments so many left on earlier posts I did last week.
So I sifted through the comments for some excerpts that tell the story of a small American town that is beaten down and rising up.
“…I’m 60 yes old….have lived here since I was 9. I cry when I see what had become of the town I grew up in. I remember a downtown that was filled with stores and restaurants. Christmas shopping was magical. Shoulder to shoulder, bells ringing… You could find anything you wanted! There were no Kmarts, Walmarts or malls. …”
“…We never locked doors and never had to worry. Now we live behind closed locked doors with alarms on them. The working class is worried about keeping what they have while the others steal to get what we work for. Kids being raised by grandparents because of the drugs here….”
“Drugs have been prominent as early as Dr.Lily and Dr.Proctor. With a steady and fast decline ever sense then. With businesses shutting down. No work around the area….”
“…Watched the girl next door go from straight A’s to prison in just two years from the first O/C. watched my son’s friend go from valedictorian to living in his own filth, without any utilities. … At one point the estimate was that of every 10 adults in Scioto county, 7 were addicted to oxycontin. think about this. you go to the store, the clerk is high. you take your dog to a vet, you see the pinprick pupils. you stop at the post office, you see the obvious proof of addiction, it is … as if someone crop dusted the county. with opiate.”
“… knew our town was on trouble when people young and old were lined up down Chillicothe (the main street in Portsmouth) to see the pain pill doctor. Or maybe it was when I bought pills from friends Grandmother. Or how about when I saw a former high school cheerleader walking the stro….’
“…I got pregnant I was unable to stop so my son was taken from me n I went to treatment immediately after five weeks of treatment my father was shot and killed robbing theCarry out…”
“…You can’t leave the house alone without fear of coming up missing to never be heard from again….”
“…You got to survive the 740 is what the hell I know….”
“…My daughter is an addict in early recovery. She was in the top 10 of her graduating class, and on the dean’s list at SSU…until the dope got to her. She went from pain pills, to heroin, to meth. … She got busted and sent to jail. … Maybe I never paid enough attention, maybe I was just to busy trying to work to survive. Maybe I just didn’t want to believe that things were so bad in our town….”
“…I’ve only been free from prison since May 31st,2013 and I know I can’t go back to living in Portsmouth….”
“…I noticed an out-of-towner at a coffee shop and asked what brought her to town. She was on a boat trip down (and back) the entire length of the Ohio River. In all her trip preparations, no one had ever mentioned Portsmouth. She had pot lucks and stops scheduled in towns all along the river, but stopped in Portsmouth by accident, to pick up supplies. She added a couple of days to her itinerary to look around. “What happened here?” she asked. “This was a real city once,” she said. “All the buildings are taller than a lot of places I’ve stopped. But it seems like a ghost town.”
“…7-4-0 reminds me of my hometown, Elkhart, Indiana (574). Elkhart was built on the pharmaceutical, band instrument, and musical instrument manufacturing industries. Because of the mobile home industry, it tags along with the fortunes of Detroit. Don’t know about heroin, but backpack meth and home meth labs (one blew up across the street from the high school) are everywhere….”
“…WTH do I know about the 740? I was born and raised here I watched it go from a quiet little town, where you didn’t have to be afraid to go out at night, or lock your doors, to a poverty sticken, low job rate, drug capitol. Portsmouth is starting to fight back finally …”
“…went to prison cause I couldn’t stay clean my mom did a lot by raising my oldest most of her life,sometimes it’s like a never ending battle,but we do have recovery in our town,an once again back in treatment…”
“…am a mother who use to addict to pain pills been to prison twice and finally went to treatment in the 740 which changed my life for ever.Now I have been working full time for 5 years going back to school to finish my degree and have overcome a lot trying to stay clean and sober it is possible in the 740…”
“…I’m currently involved with a group of people who are looking to start a worker cooperative in the city as a means of providing work and education for the unemployed. …”
“…here are 2 options: be the change you want to see, or change your surroundings & the people you spend your time with!…”
“…I am finishing my Master’s in natural resources and environmental science so I can publish research on this post industrial town and its resulting drug addiction….”
“…we are recovering like crazy down here in little ole Portsmouth!!! I also know one of the men in the video, watched him grow into adulthood and become a GREAT man, a father, and a caretaker despite all of the hurdles that he faced, and he really did beat the odds…”
“…I personally have overcome my past, and will not let the downfalls of MY hometown get me down or pull me back! I did it and so can you Portsmouth!!!! All you need is a lil inspiration, and thats what these men are!!!…”
“…I really dont like rap i usually listen to country but i loved this song n so proud of them….”
“…What I know about the 740 is good people are doing something about it….”
“…The people here need to save our “740″. No one is going to do it for us….”
“…I’m still here and I recently just got out of rehab….”
“…No longer does this have to be a “junkies town”, or “drug infested” … she is inching herself back to be the home I grew up in. A place where doors are left unlocked at night. A place where its okay to send your children to the store. … It doesn’t come easy. It will get better though. (progress not perfection) I’m an addict. My story and the stories of many of my fellow addicts are similar to the story of our city. We can/do Recover. Today I am proud, honored, and happy to say that I am living in the solution and not in the problem….with that I pass….”
So that’s Portsmouth’s story, folks. Share it if you like it.
I said I’d never been there before I went to Portsmouth, Ohio.
Later, when I thought about it, and saw the video by RWR (Raw Word Revival), I realized I had been to the 7-4-0 many times.
Seems like the 7-4-0 is in the 6-2-0 (southwest Kansas), where the farming towns are empty, streets are vacant, and storefronts are boarded up. I was there several years ago.
One reader said this:
7-4-0 reminds me of my hometown, Elkhart, Indiana (574). Elkhart was built on the pharmaceutical, band instrument, and musical instrument manufacturing industries. Because of the mobile home industry, it tags along with the fortunes of Detroit. Don’t know about heroin, but backpack meth and home meth labs (one blew up across the street from the high school) are everywhere.
I was in Youngstown — which looked a lot like the 7-4-0, now that I think about it.
I was in the 7-4-0 in Pecos, Texas, where there aren’t enough food stores of any kind but the fast food variety.
In Huntington, WV (3-0-4), I did a story about the spread of black-tar heroin that had reached the city from one very similar small town in Mexico. More pizza joints in Huntington than there are gyms in all of WV, I’m told.
And having lived in Mexico, I can say that a thousand villages down there are in the 7-4-0, which is why those folks have left en masse, just like so many have left Portsmouth.
I was in the 7-4-0 in Marion, Ohio, where a guy got so upset at the lack of attention to the heroin problem that he put up signs saying, “Heroin is Marion’s Economy.”
And it seems like I’m in the 7-4-0 when I walk the aisles of any Walmart. I always imagine them haunted by ghosts of the storeowners who once sustained small-town America: one aisle by the departed local grocer; down another the former hardware store owner, and next to that, the long-gone woman’s clothier or that pharmacist.
That was a long time ago, though. Portsmouth has gone from a population of 55,000 to less than 25,000 today.
In one shopping center, a WalMart shares space with the smokestack to what was once a steel and coke (coal) plant, employing 5,000. Talk about poignant transitions.
Many of the old industrial buildings, beautiful brick structures, are empty. This one, as it happens, is not quite one of them. There are offices on its first floor, which I’m told acts as an administrative office for far-flung shoelace production around the world.