We have all heard the phrase “the boy (or girl) next door.” This means a person is perceived as accessible, familiar, and dependable—a seemingly ordinary, wholesome, unassuming or average person. Prescription opioids are the drug next door. It is safe to assume that in every medicine cabinet in our neighborhoods there is the drug next door.
If you are reading this and thinking to yourself, “I do not know anyone struggling with opioid addiction,” you might be surprised. The American Psychiatric Association reports that nearly one in three people know someone addicted to opioids.
The challenge with the opioid crisis is that the drugs are familiar, accessible and highly addictive. According to the American Society of Anesthesiologists, they convince your brain and body that the drug is needed for survival. Consider the following story as a testament to the hope that exists within the epidemic that is destroying lives, eroding communities and fueling fear across our region, state and nation.
If you are reading this and thinking to yourself, “I do not know anyone struggling with opioid addiction,” you might be surprised.
But first, some background. Haywood Pathways seeks to meet the needs of individuals and families in Haywood County who need a meal, a place to stay, mentoring, a faith-based relationship or education in order to help them become self-sustaining citizens. Over the years, the impact of the opioid crisis has been felt across our communities, and organizations such as Pathways are there to meet the need at both the personal and community levels. While opioid addiction erodes foundations, Pathways focuses on building foundations.
Pathways served a person around 18 months ago that we will call Chris. Chris was an attorney with a specialization, ironically, in pharmaceutical law. The stressors associated with the life he was living led him to use prescription pills—first to deal with pain and to help him focus—but eventually resulted in a dependence on opioids and amphetamines.
His life started to fall apart. In the beginning, he had the resources and support to go to various treatment centers to fight his addiction. He did well for a while, but recovery is challenging, and he had many ups and downs. Eventually, the downs got the better of Chris, and he wound up with no money, no vehicle, no support, no job and no home. He ended up at the doorway of Pathways, not sure of what to do next.
After settling in for a couple of weeks, getting used to his new structured environment and feeling human again (with a shower, hygiene products, clean clothes, a bed), Chris made a choice during a case-management meeting to focus on his recovery for a few months before looking for work. He found a sponsor, attended meetings, completed programs with Meridian Behavioral Health Services and focused on his inner self.
After about four months, he felt strong enough to start looking for work. He worked as a waiter and did a little carpentry on the side, saved money to purchase a vehicle, then saved more to move into his own place. He reconnected with family and friends, and poignantly said that he was able to “release the shame” that had been hanging over him for so long. To this day, Chris is in his own home, which he shares with his dog, and is living a life in which he gets to be his best self.
So, what can each of us do? As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The effects of the drug next door can be mitigated by the thoughtful, committed citizens who reside in our communities. Solutions will come from the communities and citizens who demand change.
Here are a few ways you can contribute to addressing the crisis:
Waynesville resident Lane Perry is executive director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning at Western Carolina University.
Mandy Haithcox is executive director for Haywood Pathways Center.
In partnership with the Jackson County Community Foundation’s opioid and addiction awareness campaign, WCU’s Center for the Study of Free Enterprise is hosted a town hall focused on the opioid addiction crisis.