Observations in Opioid Country

Observations in Opioid Country

My husband, James, and I offer free hep C testing and resources in rural areas across the US where the opioid epidemic has hit the hardest. Testing clients give us an opportunity to speak to people about things deeper than the weather. Before we test, we have already asked our clients to fill out a consent form that lists whether or not they have been in prison, used drugs, or had rough sex. By the time a client sits in front of us, we have already decided to trust each other. So, I ask questions. Partly because it’s my job as a patient advocate but also because I am nosey and like to go deep in conversations. Why has this happened? How can we solve it? Are you going to be okay? What motivates us? Who is helping you? No, I don’t ask that blatantly, but just a casual How long did you have to camp in the parking lot? can open up opportunities to share hearts.

Here Are Some Things I’ve Learned

Apparently, many of these areas used to support good mining, timber, and chicken farming jobs. Things changed several years ago and unemployment rates, along with opioid abuse, skyrocketed. There seems to be a connection between working, producing, serving and staying busy and being sober–not always, but I can imagine how hard and depressing it must be for a man whose family has worked in the mining industry for generations to be laid off and told his only option is welfare or nothing at all. It’s demoralizing to lose your job, heritage, identity, and manhood all in one swoop. Drugs often follow.

In Tennessee, many clients who use drugs live in rural areas where there is poor infrastructure. Things like transportation, specialists, free testing, education, and access to clean needles are scarce when you live on a hill that isn’t paved or in an area that is 50 miles to the nearest Walmart, and 80 miles to the nearest Walgreens.

Another common factor amongst people who use drugs seems to be proximity to good clean fun, fellowship, sports, hobbies, socializing, and friend groups that gather for something other than drug use. You know drugs are powerful but they are rarely done alone. There is something exciting and attractive about joining a group that is taking risks, refusing to conform, and breaking the law. It’s hard to break a drug addiction, it’s also hard to leave a close-knit group of friends. You know we hear people say drug users are not your real friends and I understand the sentiment but what if your drug buddies actually are your only friends, and you really do have a tight bond. Maybe living recklessly in a community, feeling loved, and accepted is part of the addiction. One final thing we have observed while serving people in these situations is that these they are kind, funny, lovable, talented, spiritual and extremely valuable.

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