Washington D.C. is the murder capital of the United States—the most dangerous city in the country. Baltimore is full of Baltimorons, hon. Chicago is mob city.
We all know these stereotypes aren’t completely true. Washington hosts thousands of visitors from around the world safely every day. Baltimore is home to writers Edgar Allan Poe and Anne Tyler and to some of the smartest coaches around, as the recent Super Bowl showed. Chicago gave us Barack Obama, and if you don’t like him, you must at least admit that he is a family man who has strong values—and if you can’t even do that, think Abe Lincoln.
And now…we have a documentary about my hometown, Oceana, West Virginia, that has been named as a feature film at the Tribeca Film Festival—Oxyana, a film about the prescription drug epidemic that has made Oceana a far different place from the town I knew when I grew up. And even before anyone has seen the film, people are already taking sides about whether the film is a good thing or a bad thing for the town—as though it must be one or the other.
My family moved to Oceana when I was in sixth grade. It was far more metropolitan than the coal town my family had left—it had a library and a two-man police force. But it was still a small town—home to the Kathy Lou Drive-in that served the best hotdogs on toasted English buns anywhere. The Oceana of my childhood was a place where everyone knew everyone and where, if you did something wrong, your parents generally knew it before you even got home. I once went along with a friend who was sneaking out with her boyfriend, and my dad found me before the evening was over.
I got a great education there, though much of the state was plagued by illiteracy. My sixth grade math teacher insisted that we use our heads “for something besides hat racks,” and my English teachers, especially Jeanette Toler, encouraged me to go to college and helped me figure out how to make it a reality.
This was not everyone’s experience—not even in my own family. My sister, who was in tenth grade when we moved to Oceana, was refused a place in college prep classes, and had it not been for her fiery journalism teacher, she might not have envisioned herself as a college student or a journalist. One of my brothers, who had difficulty reading, slipped through the cracks, and his favorite teacher told my mother that somewhere along the line, the school system failed him. And he has fought drug addiction for much of his adult life—an addiction that started with experimentation in Oceana.
Most tragic of all, the most affable of my siblings died of a prescription drug overdose at the age of 47, with six different prescription drugs in his system at the time of his death. His flirtation with drugs began in Oceana, but it was not Oceana doctors who perpetuated his addiction. It was the Veterans’ Administration doctors in Virginia who gave my brother six different prescriptions for painkillers within days of each other. He died in my mother’s guest bedroom, and she has never gotten over it. Even now that she has had a debilitating stroke that makes it impossible for her to speak plainly most of the time, she still gets tears in her eyes when she sees pictures of my brother who died, and among the few words she can get out to my brother who has, so far, survived his addiction, are to, “Be good.” He has been clean for six months now, and I pray every day that he can stay clean.
And when my sister and I share our sadness about our brothers with others, we almost always have people whisper back to us that they, too, have a family member who is fighting addiction—or worse, someone they love who lost the fight, just as my brother did.
We have a problem in this country. It isn’t just in Oceana. It’s in every city and town in this country. And almost every family is touched by it. And if this documentary can encourage a conversation about this tragic epidemic, then I hope it’s a blockbuster.
But, as with every issue that faces us, we need to stop being an either/or world. Either you have an addiction or you don’t. Either you’re an upstanding citizen or you’re a parasite. Either we do this or we do that. When, oh when, are we going to learn that we are just spinning our wheels in the mud if we keep insisting that we must either do one thing or its opposite, that we must either be on this side or the other side?
Oceana definitely has a problem with prescription drug abuse. But my favorite teacher, Jeanette Toler, still lives on the corner of the two main streets in town, as do many of her students who grew up to be loving parents and hardworking people who stayed in the town. My mom’s best friend, a lay minister, has used her talents to keep small Presbyterian churches going. My classmates, with whom I’ve renewed friendships on social media, support each other and take care of the least among us.
All of us are tired of the negative stories others tell about the people and places we love. So, come now, tell me your stories of the goodness of humanity.