Our national opiate-addiction epidemic is different from other American drug scourges for many reasons.
It’s the deadliest and the most widespread. It didn’t begin with drug mafias, but through the promotion of narcotic painkillers by pharmaceutical companies to doctors, who were pressured by we Americans, demanding an easy solution
to our pain.
But the epidemic is also remarkable for whom it has forced to its frontlines.
Librarians make up one such group.
I’m in Ohio this week, speaking at four regional conferences of librarians around the state. Today was Gallipolis — pop. 3500, in rural Gallia County, along the quiet, majestic Ohio River.
I stayed after my talk to listen to a panel made up of a university librarian, an elementary school librarian, and a public librarian talking about their experiences with this epidemic.
We heard about needles in the bushes, about how a child who lives in a drug house smells, about calling 911 because a customer had overdosed in a bathroom, about the look of some people who come into the library high. The epidemic has made danger zones of innocuous public places.
One school librarian, I was told, suspects two girls at her school are being abused. They come to school smelling badly. She takes their clothes home and washes them.
I was also struck by the stories many in the audience (80 people or so) had to tell about addiction in their families. Several librarians were raising their addicted relatives’ children.
Librarians are also perfectly poised, though, to be great catalysts for change – community organizers in the fight against this plague. That’s what I believe. They have the spaces, the local trust and credibility, and often small towns need folks like librarians to bring them together — and this is happening.
As I said to the group I spoke to, who better than purveyors of the book to be the leaders in this fight.
Plus, librarians are looking for new roles to play – rebranding libraries as community centers, places where people can come together. This catastrophe is offering libraries and librarians that moment to reinvent themselves towns and counties.
In the afternoon, I drove through the pristine southern Ohio farmland – white houses, white churches, silver siloes, blue sky, and acres of green corn.
I stopped at the Dairy Queen in Washington Court House, another small town with a bunch of opiate addiction problems.
Tomorrow Dayton – then Findlay and, finally, Twinsburg.
Next week I speak in Weber County, Utah, and after that Brunswick County, North Carolina.
All frontlines in America’s epidemic of opiate addiction.
Elkhart, Indiana sounds like a town that needs to stop watching 24-hour news.
This Jackie Calmes story in the New York Times reports that the town once on its back, having lost many jobs and about to lose thousands more should Chrysler have gone under in 2009, has rebounded from the depths of the Great Recession and now is near full employment (3.8% unemployment down from 23%).
This has a lot to do with Barack Obama’s auto bailout and stimulus package passed to resuscitate the ravaged economy he inherited upon taking office.
Obama visited this town as a candidate and as president and did not forget it, but instead helped save it. Yet support for him is weak in Elkhart, Indiana. Yet somehow they find something to support in Donald Trump, and can only fault the president.
The problem here goes pretty deep, I think. If nothing – not even solid political performance – is good enough for us any more, who are we then? Has the great American ideal of accountability been taken to such absurd extremes? Will only perfection suffice?
It used to be common for people to have mixed allegiances, because their politics were born of their towns and the solutions people saw locally, which stretched quite naturally across party lines. Today we’ve grown into bubbles, even locally, obeying the stark divides in Washington and in the broadcast media. We view politics as some sports contest and we’re fans of one team or another. I’ll admit it: nothing the Dallas Cowboys do is going to make me their fan. But that’s not how politics, governing should be.
We excoriate government, but government is our way of coming together, in community, to solve problems.
Why imitate our national political leaders who live captive to politics as sport? And what about some courtesy? How about saying thank you?
I’ve written a lot about my belief that our heroin and pain pill-addiction problem stems from years of destroying community in this country, leaving us without the social immune system to combat a drug as isolating as opiates. Elkhart is one place where that happened. Now it appears that this town is forming community again, becoming a place where people are working and putting their lives back together. I assume it’s not perfect and that much remains to be done.
But this attitude expressed by people in Elkhart now that things are better, to me, feels childish, feels unserious. Above all, it feels as if they’ve downed too much of the dope of alarm, frenzy and anger dealt by 24-hour cable news and talk radio, which traffic in all that and never heard of a solution to a problem, nor reported on one.
We luxuriate in complaining about politicians, yet won’t support those who follow through and who help create community out of destruction?
Seems to me that if we believe the alarmism of 24-hour cable news despite the evidence looking us in the face, then we’ve become infantile, hardly deserving of our world-power status, and we deserve the loonies we get.
After many many months of traveling the country, reporting, interviewing, of writing and rewriting and more rewriting, I just turned in the manuscript to my book about the country’s epidemic of pill and heroin abuse.
It’s called DREAMLAND: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.
Comes out in April, Bloomsbury Press.
I’m still walking around in a daze.
Writing a book is a process of discovery, I found again to my delight.
This is my third book. It started out very differently than it ended up.
Quite unexpectedly, it became a tale about the country, where we are as America and Americans, about rural America, the Rust Belt and the country’s nicest suburbs, about what excess will do, and the value of community. About what we lose when we undermine that which gives us community.
None of that should have surprised me, because unlike previous drug scourges this one has permeated virtually the entire country – or at least all of white America.
The story’s about drug marketing, and about our belief that we are entitled to feel no pain.
It’s also about Mexico, and the Mexican town that has devised a system for selling heroin like pizza. Making heroin convenient, and cheap and potent, as well.
On one level, the story’s about Mexican drug trafficking, but it’s probably as much about the impulse behind immigration, and the Mexican village, and envy and desire.
I didn’t start out thinking that parents of addicted kids would be part of the mix. But if you keep your mind open, new directions present themselves. So they are now. I love this about journalism.
I belong now to a Facebook site called The Addict’s Mom, where parents write in daily about their addicted kids. So many have died recently. So many people are wrapped up in addiction or the addiction of their children.
It’s amazing that it’s so quiet, because this is happening everywhere.
Given how hard this dope is to kick, it’s going to be with us for a long long time.
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.
Well, I’m not gonna lie — I like this guy’s style.
Brad Belcher was upset that people in his hometown of Marion, Ohio (north of Columbus) weren’t talking about the rampant heroin/opiate addiction in their midst.
Home to President Warren G. Harding, the rural town of Marion, like much of Ohio, has been hammered by departing jobs and a general malaise of defeatism and inertia, Belcher told me.
Heroin (in the form of courts, jail, the underground economy, etc) has taken the place in the economy of a lot of manufacturing and other businesses that for decades kept the town tight and townspeople concerned for each other. (Marion was once home to Marion Power Shovel, which once employed 3200 people making earth moving and mining equipment. It closed in the late 1990s.)
Now people were dying. Dope was everywhere.
So to ignite discussion about all this, Belcher printed 800 signs and late one night put them up all over town: in front of Walgreens, outside cornfields, in the wealthy neighborhoods, along the retails strips.
He was caught in the act by three officers of the law just as he was about to put them around city hall and downtown.
They took down most of the signs, but his little bit of guerrilla political theater — a la Abbie Hoffman — was taken up online and in social media.
Belcher, a former addict himself, became a cause celebre.
The signs made the topic okay to talk about, he says. Before people were mortified to admit they had addicts in their families.
The town, he says, is now at least attending to the problem it avoided. Churches are involved. Local folks recently organized a heroin march. The cops arrest more heroin dealers than ever before. People talk openly about what they once kept silent. But the town doesn’t have any drug treatment facilities — besides its jail, that is, which serves as de facto center for detoxifying from heroin.