Posts Tagged ‘West Virginia’

Heroin addiction comes to West Virginia

June 5, 2017

As a boy and well into adulthood, I thought of heroin addiction as a product and problem of big city slums—a world completely alien to me.

My old friend Steve called my attention to a harrowing article in The New Yorker about heroin addiction in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, just across the river from western Maryland where the two of us grew up.

The Eastern Panhandle as I remember it

I am shocked, although I know I shouldn’t be, that heroin addiction could capture so many people with the same small-town white Protestant background as me.  But in fact rates of drug addiction are higher among non-Hispanic white people than among Hispanic or black people.

Like much of Appalachia, as well as the Rustbelt along the Great Lakes, the city of Martinsburg, W.Va., lost its main manufacturing employer, the Interwoven textile mill, and nothing has ever taken its place.

Citizens of Martinsburg today are thinking of converting part of the old Interwoven plant into a drug rehabilitation center.

Margaret Talbot, the author of the New Yorker article, gives harrowing descriptions of how drug addition has become normalized.  She opens with a description of a mother and father suffering a drug overdose while attending a Little League game.

She reported on how marketing of painkillers such as Oxycontin enabled West Virginians to self-medicate for physical and psychic pain, and then how heroin was introduced as a cheaper substitute.  She went on to write:

Michael Chalmers is the publisher of an Eastern Panhandle newspaper, the Observer. It is based in Shepherdstown, a picturesque college town near the Maryland border which has not succumbed to heroin.

Chalmers, who is forty-two, grew up in Martinsburg, and in 2014 he lost his younger brother, Jason, to an overdose.

I asked him why he thought that Martinsburg was struggling so much with drugs.

“In my opinion, the desperation in the Panhandle, and places like it, is a social vacancy,” he said. “People don’t feel they have a purpose.”

There was a “shame element in small-town culture.” Many drug addicts, he explained, are “trying to escape the reality that this place doesn’t give them anything.”

He added, “That’s really hard to live with—when you look around and you see that seven out of ten of your friends from high school are still here, and nobody makes more than thirty-six thousand a year, and everybody’s just bitching about bills and watching these crazy shows on reality TV and not doing anything.”

Source: The New Yorker

As I see it, large numbers of Americans think that what gives meaning to life is economic success, or at least being able to pay your way and be a breadwinner for others.  When that meaning is no longer available, they feel worthless and fall into despair.

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