Have you traveled to or lived in a place that took your breath away because of the people and natural beauty? And did your impression change because beneath the glittering surface lay a dark underbelly?
In some ways that happened to us when we pulled stakes and moved to East Tennessee, a region where even young people wave, say hello, and knock themselves out opening doors for middle-aged women like me. So polite are the people, no one has ever flipped me off, even though my sometimes-aggressive driving probably warrants it.
Our adopted state charms us.
But the blinders are gone.
Though world-renowned for its mountainous beauty and friendly people, a dark underbelly plagues our community. Not confined to East Tennessee or other regions in the state, the dark underbelly is everywhere. But I’ll concentrate on what’s happening here because my eyes were opened here.
The underbelly is opioid abuse.
According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), about 70,000 Tennesseans abuse opioids, making the Volunteer State third in the country for prescription drug abuse. While prescription drug abuse is down, the prevalence of heroin, fentanyl, and its derivatives has surged.
Through my involvement with ReUnite Ministries, working with women who’ve lost custody of their children primarily because of drug abuse, and meeting people, like recovered drug addict, Tylor Trotter, the underbelly has become real to me.
Citing statistics and dutifully reporting the opinions of law enforcement officials isn’t the focus of this story. Giving voice to attorneys who have observed the effects of the opioid crisis firsthand and getting your opinions are.
Attorney Sarah Miracle specializes in criminal defense and serves on ReUnite Ministries’ Advisory Committee with me. At our first committee meeting, she off-handedly commented that the opioid epidemic had annihilated an entire generation of young people in our county of 138,000 souls.
That got my attention. Was the epidemic really that bad? An entire generation?
“Heroin and fentanyl are the problems now,” Sarah says. “Fentanyl is especially scary. Everything is getting laced with it. I’ve heard of police officers, who were picking up evidence and overdosed. That’s how potent that stuff is.”
Users and sellers come from all socioeconomic groups and congregate in cheap motels along major highways and in houses tucked away in the countryside or the mountain hollers. “It’s happening all over the county,” she says. “The relapses break my heart, people who were clean and then used. It was the last mistake they made.”
Just as heartbreaking to Sarah is the plight of poor mountain people. Unlike the wealthy, they can’t afford recovery programs. And because they’re already distrustful of authority figures, they are the most difficult to reach with whatever free services are available.
So, they suffer alone and isolated, and the abuse continues from one generation to the next.
Attorney Brittany Nestor has personal experience with the drug scene. After the death of her father, she began using drugs and alcohol at age 14. She finished high school in rehab, missed her senior prom, and ultimately escaped. She graduated college and then earned a law degree.
In 2015, she moved back to Blount County where she now practices family and juvenile law. She takes court-appointed cases and often finds herself “across from or representing many of my old friends and peers from my crazy high school days.”
The situation was bad enough in the late 1990s and early 2000s, she says. It’s since exploded.
“No one would touch a needle” in her teenage years, she says. When she moved back, people she knew were shooting heroin. “I’m tired of seeing my former friends and classmates dying,” she says. “Literally, I will look into their faces, and think, they’re going to die.”
The wreckage is everywhere. “Everyone is drowning in the system,” she says. The courts are overcrowded, as is the jail. Too few detox and mental-health facilities exist to accommodate the burgeoning need. And too few affordable after-school programs exist for at-risk kids.
Grandparents are raising grandkids because their own children are in jail or deep into addiction, and so the cycle continues.
What Do You Think?
The dark underbelly isn’t unique to Tennessee. It affects people everywhere. Dear friends and acquaintances living in other parts of the country have lost children to opioid overdoses.
What do you think? Is the opioid problem getting worse, as Brittany and Sarah believe? What are the root causes? How do we eradicate the dark under belly?
I’d love to hear your opinions and devote another blog post to the answers you provide.