Whitesburg KY

The high cost of addiction

I don’t consider myself poor. Actually I consider myself really rich and it’s not because of money and material goods. I grew up happy and I grew up in place where I played in the creeks and we climbed mountainsides. I went to church on Sundays and I knew all of my friends from the time I started kindergarten to the time I graduated from high school.

But I also grew up in a place that faces very unique issues and probably the one that is the most dear to me is the drug abuse issue. Kids that played in the creek with me and climbed on the mountainside are the kids that are hooked on drugs. They are the ones when I go to town I see them out and they can’t make complete sentences. These weren’t the ones that sat in the back of the classroom, or the front of the classroom. It’s the whole class.

Sad thing is it isn’t a drug that is illegal. It is a prescription drug problem. What really scares me is this drug is legal, and how are we getting such a large number here, enough to feed every addict’s habit in the community and enough to keep growing addicts? What also really scares me is those addicts don’t have a true place to get clean.

Imagine sitting in a room with everyone you love – your elementary school teachers, neighbors and childhood friends. Then you leave the room and find out that every single one is addicted. That’s how I felt when I returned after four years away in college. I have no social circle here anymore. Almost all of my friends here are addicted to prescription drugs. The epidemic has touched my family also but in a place where you don’t air your dirty laundry, it’s not something you can talk about.

Kids growing up in my hometown now can’t remember a time when families weren’t affected by drug abuse. For them the addiction epidemic is just another part of the landscape, another abandoned building. It’s not hard to see how we got this point. With hundreds of injured coal miners, this area has one of the highest chronic pain rates in the country. So it makes sense that companies like Purdue Pharma would market their prescription painkillers in a place that for generations has suffered from pain, all kinds of it. While OxyContin is not the only drug being abused in this area it has made its mark on us because of its powerful strength. Combined with the lack of jobs, generations of kids growing up in working poor households, and the struggling schools, it was a lethal combination.

I remember in high school watching kids I had known since kindergarten crush pills and snort them on their desktop. You were either someone who did drugs or weren’t; there weren’t anyone in between.

We weren’t an addiction-free community before OxyContin triggered a popularity for prescription drugs but the addiction is different. Families are spending every dime they have trying to get loved ones sober; nothing seems to work. It’s easy to blame the victims and write it off as a hillbilly problem but I definitely see some shared responsibilities with drug companies facing penalties. OxyContin created a culture of addiction in east Kentucky and just taking the drug away won’t erase that. Besides, even $6 million doesn’t change the fact that the things I valued most in my community have changed forever – trust between neighbors and intact families. We are going to live with the human cost of addiction for generations. Addicts who get clean still won’t be able to find jobs in our coal-dominated economy. The mother who gets her child back from the courts won’t be able to make up for the many years apart. For the communities that have paid the price for the addiction epidemic with their sisters’, brothers’, mothers’, friends’, and fathers’ lives, millions of dollars won’t begin to cover the costs.

Natasha Watts is from Blackey. She read this essay aloud to former Senator John Edwards on July 18 during a forum held at Appalshop in Whitesburg. The text was transcribed from an audio recording of that forum.

Leave a Reply