44 Days, 422 Miles, Christy with Unicoi County Prevention Coalition

44 Days, 422 Miles, Christy with Unicoi County Prevention Coalition
May 8, 2018 Heather Starbuck

It’s been a hard two days. Somehow my grief came and slapped me down on the ground back to square one. I found myself isolating, challenged to interact or connect with fellow hikers, tears welling into my eyes for hours on end as I hiked causing frequent stumbles on the rocks and roots lining the path. At one point my grief had me feeling so hopeless and defeated that I dragged my two poles on the ground trailing behind me like a sad Charlie Brown character as I inched my way up an hour long hill. It’s not the hiking, the hiking is fine – and really my only option for sanity during moments like this, but god these waves of grief can shred you and any stability you think you have built up into a million pieces.

Days like this are hard, when I get to this place I feel so dark and alone. As if there is no out from the torment and the idea of festering on like this for another some odd decades seems completely out of the question. The reality is, life without Matt sucks. There’s nothing I can do, or that could happen, that would make me not wish I could turn back time to the way things were. Working on this project, connecting with the people who ‘get it’, hiking all day long and honoring Matt’s memory do help me get through most days, but sometimes nothing can keep the pain from thrashing me in an emotional blender. But I guess what I can take from it, each day, especially the ones like this, serve as this gut wrenching reminder of what this epidemic, addiction, opioids, all of it have done to me, and done to other widows and families across the US. It’s a miracle that we can still stand.

Over the past week or so, Matt’s story has received some press reaching local communities along the Appalachian Trail region. Since then, I’ve had message after message of other young people, mainly young women, in this same awful life situation. Often, when I talk to them I get this connected feeling, as in, wow you are me, I’ve thought that exact thing, yep I do that too and no you’re not crazy, I think I’m crazy too, but really this whole thing just is terrible and confusing in every way possible, maybe we are crazy, who knows anymore, we’re all just managing as best as we can (or something along those lines).

The reality is, this crisis is leaving behind a whole slew of widows of addiction, and all of us are sitting here beating our heads against the wall wondering how this happened, what went wrong, how is this not stopping or even slowing down? At 174 per day, more young people are dying on a daily basis now from this than during the Vietnam War. And so here we are, thousands of young families shattered right out of the gate, before they ever got a real chance at life. No white picket fence, no retirement strolls through the park, no front porch sessions watching the grand kids playing in the yard, and for many of us, instead of saying our vows, we are saying eulogies, all before the age of 30.

It’s depressing. I know. Everyday I wish I could wake up from this horrific reality. But that’s simply not in the cards for me anymore. But, as I’ve been learning from others further down on this path, the only way forward is one step at a time, while channeling all this pain and sadness into something more positive. Which leads me back into some of the conversations I’ve been having over the last week.

I’ve talked to other widows of addiction, mothers of lost children, people in recovery, and advocates for change. One very generous family even brought me and my tramily pizza and we exchanged our shared struggles and experiences with opioid addiction.

I think back to my conversation with Christy, the head of Unicoi County Prevention Coalition, which reminds me both of the work that has been done and all the work still left to do. Christy told me that Tennessee was once ranked #1 in the country for opioid pill abuse, but they have now dropped to #3. Since 2016, tighter regulations have cracked down on former pill mills and she says that starting 7/1, doctors will only be permitted to prescribe 5 opioid pills to first time users (chronic pain patients grandfathered in).

Christy confirmed that Tennessee, like North Carolina, also lacks resources needed for those seeking recovery. As a certified prevention specialist she helps direct people to different treatment options. “Sometimes those seeking one year of treatment have to go all the way to Memphis, that should never happen” she said regarding viable long term treatment options in the area. And without a local NA or AA chapter, the churches have become refuges for those in recovery, offering transportation, community and support.

The problem now is becoming multi-generational in the community as more and more newborns face neonatal abstinence syndrome, born exposed to opioids. Christy says that according to the NDA, young people are 40-60% more likely to become addicted to opioids if someone in the first generation of their family is already. So what we have now is a crisis that is ricocheting across generations like dominos where we have yet to see even the beginning of the results. Starting in July is a grant for East Tennessee University to research and follow some of these infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome as they grow through the years, charting everything from physical to learning skills to see what effect this is going to have on the generations to come.

Once again, the conversation led to the shame and stigma, and how destructive it is for those seeking treatment. Christy echoed that the stigma makes people in the community reluctant to get the help they want and need. When I spoke to a young person in recovery recently, they told me that it was too embarrassing for them to talk openly about it, unless of course talking to someone also in the throws of it via their own circumstances. While that makes me so sad, because it’s a medical condition, and I believe those bravely facing recovery should be applauded rather than judged, I saw a bit of Matt in this person. Matt shared his struggles on a one on one basis but only did so when he was talking to someone he knew could understand and would not judge. Otherwise, he felt he had to hide it, feeling embarrassed and ashamed, despite everything he’d overcome. It’s hard for me to understand how there is such a dark shadow over it still, even with policy changes happening, high profile lawsuits, media coverage etc. somehow there still is this massive stigma. Hopefully we are at some sort of tipping point, where soon this disease is treated with as much compassion and care as any other medical ailment out there, but until then I guess we just need to keep talking about it and standing up for our loved ones.

This post is a tough one, I’m still in a funk. My dad and sister both called me today and helped my get out of my tunnel vision of doom and despair but I’m still not quite all here. Taking it easy tomorrow and the next day then I will be crossing over into my fourth state, Virginia. It’s kind of hard to believe, but then again, walking up and down all day everyday, living in the woods, eating slightly powdery instant mashed potatoes everyday has become my new normal so I guess we really can get used to anything.

Much love and thank you for following this journey.


Get a Purple Bandana to Support Opioid Recovery