Burnt Away: America's Opioid Crisis

Every day, opioid prescriptions are given to Americans in staggering numbers. It’s a national epidemic that has made headlines and devastated communities. For the lucky few, recovery programs offer an escape from addiction and a chance to start again.

The below story was taken from Issue Three of Us of America. 

 Photo: Rebecca Calhoun

Photo: Rebecca Calhoun

It was almost like I didn’t exist in the world anymore.
— Julie McAlister

Julie McAlister, 44, was getting high with her son, twenty years her junior, at a friend’s house one night earlier this year, when her house burnt to the ground.

“Home,” however in Julie’s case, is a generous use of the word. After more than a decade of prescription-induced opioid addiction, Julie and her husband had been evicted due to their failure to make payments, as well as constant visits from emergency services, which, in the previous year alone, had knocked on her door 63 times.

With the approaching eviction, they stopped paying their bills, and the house was without power. So, with their neighbor’s permission, they borrowed some electricity by running a cord into the living room. In short, the cord overheated atop some exposed insulation, sparked, and took everything with it. 

Fortunately, her husband and her other son, who had passed out in their bedrooms from pill-induced high, escaped out a window, awakened by the pops and bangs of an electrical fire. In four short minutes, almost everything disintegrated. When she heard the news from emergency services, Julie thought it was a joke and burst out laughing when her son sent her a picture of the burnt husk through a text. But the fire station confirmed in a phone call: “Mrs. McAlister… your house is gone.”

In the middle of the night, high, wearing only a tank top, underwear and shoes, she finally made her way home. A gentle soul, she stared at the scorched remains of her home and saw the pills as a metaphor for her life. Burnt away.

She recalled the times she had walked into her son’s bedroom and saw him blue-faced, on the floor with a needle in his arm, approaching death. She remembered performing CPR on her husband multiple times after he had overdosed. She recollected taking care of her mother after a massive stroke. She even thought of the earlier days, when Jay had a full-time job and she was finishing nursing school.

“Gone,” she said. “Nothing left. It was almost like I didn’t exist in the world anymore.”

 The only remaining item from the fire that took Julie McAlister's home is the above image of her oldest son sitting in front of her husband. 

The only remaining item from the fire that took Julie McAlister's home is the above image of her oldest son sitting in front of her husband. 

After spending four days at a shelter, her family received a tent from the Red Cross. They weren’t supposed to re-enter their house, but they pitched their tent in the back yard and began to comb through the wreckage. One item survived the fire: a photo of Julie’s oldest son Cody as an infant, wrapped in her husband’s arms.

Walking around the blackened remains of the living room, they found the picture atop a pile of ash. “How many more signs do we need?” Julie murmured to her husband, wondering if they would ever be clean again.

With family ties long severed, no one came to help, and none but a few coyotes even peeked in to see what these strange folks in a tent were up to. But Julie wanted help, and memories of her previous good life surfaced and made her hungry for something that felt out of her grasp: sobriety. Like so many other opioid addicts, things hadn’t always been this way for Julie McAlister. 

 

***

Like many Americans, the McAlisters were a normal family before they became drug addicts. Eleven years before the fire, Julie was a nursing student with one year left. Her husband worked full-time, and they worked hard to parent their two teenage sons.

Then Julie had a hysterectomy, for which she was prescribed Tylox, a since-discontinued brand of oxycodone and acetaminophen mixture, well after the staples were removed from her stomach. While she was recovering, she took her husband to the emergency room four times in one day for pain in his head. They were sent home from each trip with opioids and no questions asked. Once it was discovered that Jay had a tumor, he was brought in for emergency surgery and sent out with a prescription of more than 600 Percocet pills per month.

Following doctor’s orders, they “snowballed into full-fledged abuse of pills,” as Julie put it, and were so addicted that, “As soon as we woke up in the morning, if we didn’t have pills, we were in pain.”

The pills were soon not enough. Addiction to pills passed into addiction to stuff in syringes, which swallowed up their inner light and compass until one day Julie found her husband teaching their teenage sons how to shoot up. It was a line she never would have imagined approaching, and on that day she and her husband crossed it without remorse. It was better that the kids partied at home, she thought, in a safe environment, instead of out with their friends.

Opioids are more accessible than they’ve ever been, and poorer communities, such as many of those that went for Trump, are being drowned in them.

It’s a horrible story—but many of its twists are common, and even cliché, as many drug addictions begin innocently in the doctor’s office or in the home. In 2015, 38 percent of U.S. adults were given an opioid prescription. And Castlight Health reported that one third—one third—of opioid prescriptions written in America are abused. “In 2012,” the report adds damningly to the medical industry, “259 million opioid prescriptions were written, enough for every American adult to have [his or her] own bottle of pills.”

 Photo: Rebecca Calhoun

Photo: Rebecca Calhoun

McDowell’s opioid abuse problem, however, is made visible by its host of recovery organizations—a blooming group of nonprofit organizations and government programs to help addicts through the years-long work of becoming one of the “formerly-addicted persons.” According to the Brookings Institution, “Nearly 80 percent of counties experiencing high or severe increases in drug poisoning deaths have no registered substance abuse nonprofit organizations.” (“A nation in overdose peril,” Sept. 25, 2017) McDowell county, with a population of less than 50,000, has five.

Julie’s house was in Buncombe County, which neighbors McDowell and has zero recovery organizations. In light of that, she tried quitting cold turkey, asking friends and family for help, and even step-down treatments. But her family refused to join her in her new quest to get clean, and the streets of Buncombe fed off her hunger, pain, pill cravings, and desperate need to forget who she had become and kept her high.

Finally, Julie learned about McDowell’s Friendship Home, a homeless shelter for recovering addicts, and hitched a ride there. From the moment she knocked on its door to the time of this writing, she remains sober.

 

***

 

Julie still has a long road ahead of her—once an addict, always an addict, as the saying goes. One might be in recovery, but the habits needed to stay drug free still need forming, vigilance is forever necessary, and the bonds and friendships that sustain hope must deepen and take root. Good recovery organizations such as the Friendship Home help liberate people from opioid addictions by providing years of holistic assistance that address recovering addicts’ mental, physical, material, and spiritual needs. Friendship Home gave Julie a drug-free world by surrounding her with expertise, aid and friendship, filling in the cracks through which the pills would otherwise slip.

“People come to us, and they want help, but they just don’t know where to start or how to get it,” said recovered addict Crystal Sweatt, 36, director of operations for the Friendship Home.

 Julie McAlister attends weekly group therapy meetings at the Freedom Life Ministries office (shown above), where recovering addicts work through their common struggles together and study the Christian bible.  

Julie McAlister attends weekly group therapy meetings at the Freedom Life Ministries office (shown above), where recovering addicts work through their common struggles together and study the Christian bible.  

“Once someone is addicted, they are unable to make normal choices on their own,” added former addict Jacqueline Fox, 29, another Friendship Home staff member. “Something bad has happened in their life, and they need help to overcome it. That’s what we are here for.” In addition, the Friendship Home collaborates with other area organizations to provide anything an addict might need for recovery.

As a Friendship Home resident, Julie is part of its two-year, three-phase recovery program. For her first 30 days, she was not allowed to leave the home except for scheduled appointments. Subsequent phases include more privileges and responsibilities, but during every phase the Friendship Home staff connect clients to a myriad of recovery resources in the community and walk them through the process of building entirely new lives.

Each Friendship Home client works with a case manager to create an individualized program for recovery. This may include support groups, family and individual counseling sessions, behavioral health classes and assessments, and/or career instruction. The home is almost completely staffed by formerly addicted women who were once residents themselves.

“Being surrounded by people who understand, who’ve been through it and have recovered, that makes the difference for people,” said Crystal. “Plus, we allow room for people to make mistakes, and we offer them a lot of grace. Recovery is hard, and it takes a long time. We know that.”

Julie said the stability, structure and friendship the Home offers is crucial to her recovery. “Every addict is about three seconds away from using [drugs] again. That’s why they keep us busy. I’m up at six every morning. By eight am I’m doing my chores, then I’ve got classes all day, and Bible studies and counseling sessions.”

During these free months, Julie has begun to learn what her “triggers” are. “When I start to get stressed out about money, or I think about my family still out on the streets, it triggers the impulse to find drugs again. I have to stay busy and pray for myself and my family.” She paused, then said, “Even as I’m talking right now, I’m praying in the back of my mind.”

We allow room for people to make mistakes, and we offer them a lot of grace. Recovery is hard, and it takes a long time. We know that.
— Crystal Sweatt

But Julie sees people making full recoveries all around her, so she has hope for herself. Seventy-two percent of women who lived at the Friendship Home in the past two years graduated from the program, made full recoveries from their addiction, and remain clean to this day.

The Friendship Home provides such effective and comprehensive programming for recovering addicts because of the support it receives from community members, local churches, and similar organizations in McDowell. The Home runs almost entirely on donations, and other organizations fill in the care gaps, such as RHA Health Services, which provides free educational substance abuse recovery classes. Many recovering addicts no longer have a license or vehicle, so volunteers drive them wherever they need to go: to work, church, school, the doctor, anywhere. 

Freedom Life Ministries (FLM) helps former felons find work, for many addicts have also been imprisoned. FLM’s Client Care Director Melissa Nealley said formerly addicted clients must relearn almost every element of what it means to be a functioning adult in society. She teaches clients everything from how to fill out a job application to how to talk about their addiction in a job interview to how to create a personal hygiene routine.

Julie’s family is still on the streets of Buncombe, but unlike them and the vast majority of opioid addicts in America, she has the resources necessary to make a full recovery from her addiction, because she is surrounded by experienced individuals and holistic programs that are successful at teaching people how to think with a sober mind and kick their habits.

 

 

Words: Rebecca Calhoun