Tag Archives: Oxycontin

What Do People Say About Your Hometown?

Oceana Sign

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.


Duck Sunset

Excited to spend New Year’s Eve on the Outer Banks, I leapt from bed the minute the alarm went off this morning.  I took the dog outside, brought him in, filled his bowl with food, and turned on the television as I do almost every morning.  My cheer promptly evaporated when I heard the lead news story about how pharmaceutical companies minimized the risks associated with opiate pain medications.  Now, according to the news report, overdoses of prescription drugs have replaced illegal substances as the leading cause of overdose deaths.

Since I often feel that the 24-hour news cycle has done our collective psyche more harm than good, I’ve learned that I have to walk away sometimes from tragedies that are replayed repeatedly even when there’s no new information.  So I left the room, sad beyond measure and more than a little angry at the drug companies that have profited by creating a generation of addicts.

But this wasn’t a story in a far-away place that I could dismiss by turning off the television or putting down the morning paper, which also carried the report.  Like many others, I could have told this story long before it appeared in the media.  I grew up in Oceana, West Virginia, a town that has come to be nicknamed Oxyana because of the devastating effects of addiction painkillers on its residents.  And like many families, my own family has suffered pain that, rather than being eased, has been exacerbated exponentially by the addiction these legal drugs have caused. In 2007, my younger brother traveled from one medical facility to another, gathering over 300 painkillers.  He died in my mother’s guest bedroom, after months of draining her savings account, with six different prescription painkillers in his system.

I adored my brother—the one I knew before he hurt his back and got his first prescription for pain medication from a Veterans’ Administration doctor—a brother almost unrecognizable in the addict he became.  Though he had partied so much he never made it through college, he had many years of being a productive adult—a man with a good job, a wife, and two children he loved fiercely.  None of that was strong enough to save him, and he would have been homeless had my mother not taken him in, though she was powerless to help him.

My youngest sibling is headed down the same path, unable to stay clean for any length of time.  He shared our brother’s drugs and feels guilty that he lives while his closest sibling died.  The health problems resulting from his abuse of his body have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in treatments and hospital stays that have given my remaining siblings and me a very personal glimpse into why health care costs keep sky-rocketing.

So after hearing the news report, I got into the car with a heavy heart.  My husband and I had planned a stop to visit my mother on the way to the beach, and I had found a plastic snow globe picture frame to give her.  In it, I’d placed two pictures—one a family picture of my siblings and me with our parents at a happy Christmas years ago, the other a picture of my mother’s six grandchildren.  Both were taken the last Christmas we were all together.

When we arrived at the nursing home, my mother’s eyes lit up, and she reached out to touch my face and kiss me on the cheek.  Her gaze falling on the snow globe, she took it from my hands and turned it over, doing her best to shake it.  She held the globe out for the nursing assistant to see, saying, “This is my baby girl.  She’s a teacher.”  I marveled, as I do each time I see her, that she can get out that one clear sentence, though when the assistant asked her my name, my mom was at a loss, repeating only “my girl” in a garbled string of chatter.

Sitting with Mom for a few hours, I was reminded, when she pointed to one foot that had slipped off the footrest, of how much pain she has endured from the lymphedema in her legs.  And now that she is nearing the end of her long journey of illnesses, I’m grateful for the Hospice staff that ensures she gets the palliative care she needs to help her be as free of pain as possible.

So the medication that took away my brother’s life has also made my mother’s leaving of this life more bearable.  And I’m reminded again of how few things in this world come in black and white, good and evil—of how the problems we face as a nation are complicated.

And so this once, I think I’ll be grateful if a 24-hour news-hungry media machine keeps this issue churning until we begin to seek help for those who can still be saved.

There is hope.  My pain was assuaged a little when we arrived at the beach just in time for another spectacular sunset.  And when we came back inside from watching the sun set, where my husband had set his iPhone on shuffle, Van Morrison sang out a reminder:  “Whenever God shines His light on me / Opens up my eyes so I can see / When I look up in the darkest night / I know everything’s going to be alright.”

Coincidence?  Maybe.  But I choose to think not.

Tell me your stories of unexplainable hope that is a Presence in moments of pain.