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How Appalachians Are Finding Strength, Peace, And Sobriety During A Pandemic (Hint: Community)

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REA OF HOPE
Volunteers drop off cleaning supplies and masks at the Rea of Hope in Charleston

Human beings are social creatures, but the pandemic is making it difficult to interact with one another. It is also bringing to light just how important human connection is in our lives.

Across the country, drug overdose deaths increased in 2019. This follows several years of increased attention on the dangers of prescription drugs, which have led many who struggle with substance use disorder to turn to street drugs like heroin, many times laced with Fentanyl. 

Experts fear 2020 may be even worse. Social isolation, increased anxiety and widespread unemployment can all trigger relapses for people who struggle with substance use disorder.

“It got so bad that I would have moments, like, I contemplated the fact that I may not wake up tomorrow because of how much I'm drinking,” said Barlow Harlin, who struggles with substance use disorder. “It's kind of scary to get to that point when you're drinking so much that you realize that you may end up killing yourself with alcohol, but yet you still don't do anything about it.”

In this episode of Inside Appalachia, we’ll listen to stories about people who are overcoming challenges, finding ways to connect with each other, and staying sober. 

It was a relationship with one person that saved Harlin’s life. In recovery he learned that interpersonal connections are essential to maintaining his sobriety. 

“Because when we isolate and addicts and push people away, a lot of times we create our own problems that we think the public doesn't care about us. But when you get into recovery and you get sober, whether you realize it or not, you depend on other people to support you,” he said. 

In This Episode: 

Get Help

If you, or a loved one, would like to talk with a professional counselor about recovery or addiction call 1-800-662-HELP or 1-800-662-4357. That’s the hotline for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. They offer free, confidential counseling.

wvpublicnews · Substance Use Disorder Is A Disease: 5 Stories of Appalachians Battling Addiction Amidst A Pandemic

Finding Sobriety

We hear from a recovery coach in southern West Virginia named Ryan Elkins. Before he could help others, Elkins said he had to find peace within himself.  “Which is something that I've lost along the way. So, it's really, really nice and comforting to know that I have this inner strength,” Elkins said. 

His mother died when he was 11 years old, and as a child, his father abused him. For a time, he found love and support after he left the state to move in with his mother’s extended family. But he said he couldn’t accept that love at the time. “They were so loving and caring that it scared me. I tried to avoid people.” 

Eventually, Elkins did find help after he moved back to West Virginia to live with his paternal grandmother. Connecting with other people, he learned, was essential to his recovery. 

“I always wanted to be distant from people. I never wanted to be around people, I hated people,” Elkins said. “But then coming into recovery, it's like, ‘Did I really hate people? Or did I just hate myself?’ And that's what I come to understand from working steps, and being clean, and recovery, is that I was just scared of people and I hated who I was, as a result of the way I was raised. And it really didn't have anything to do with anybody other than myself. And now I absolutely love people.”

Elkins is now a recovery coach in Lincoln County, West Virginia, and a student at Marshall University.

Making Connections

Fighting isolation is something that just about every human on the planet is struggling with right now. Some of the best tools for connecting are digital. For people in recovery, meetings on Zoom or Skype have become a lifeline to maintaining sobriety. And they’re meeting every day. 

Ashley Temple is a single mother with three kids who lives in Charleston, West Virginia. She works full time at a hospital and she’s a single mom.

“I usually get up about 5 or 5:30 a.m. I get up and I feed the baby, get her ready, and I go get myself ready and then I wake the three-year-old up, get him ready,” she said. “And then I drop the kids off to where they're going, and I go on to work. I work from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Every day. I get off work, I go pick the kids up, come home. I'll cook dinner. I'll usually sit down, play with the kids for a little bit. Then I’ll do my meeting online.”  

Temple found a community of support for her recovery when she moved into a sober living facility at Rea of Hope in Charleston, West Virginia. 

“I was broken and just wanted a better way of life,” she said. “I wanted to be an example for my kids and show them that I made mistakes in the past, but I didn't let it define who I was. And I persevered through all of that. And then I'm a strong, independent woman that could take care of them.”

Data from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources show there’s been an increase during the pandemic of people going to an emergency room because they suffered a drug overdose. Mental health experts say more people are struggling to maintain sobriety because of the added challenges our society is facing due to COVID-19. 

These added pressures may hit Appalachia even worse than the rest of the country, because our region already struggles with high rates of substance use disorder. 

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Credit Trey Kay / WVPB
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WVPB
Debbie Preece of Kermit, W.Va., lost two brothers to the opioid epidemic.

One of the communities hit hardest is Kermit, West Virginia. At the peak of the opioid crisis, drug companies sent 12 million hydrocodone pills to the town of about 350 people. Cars would line up at the one pharmacy with people waiting to pick up pain pills. The so-called pain clinics of a decade ago are gone. In their place, a continued need for addiction treatment and recovery resources.

Lawsuits against big pharmaceutical companies continue to bring in settlements, but so far Kermit hasn’t seen any money from the litigation. Trey Kay, host of the Us and Them podcast, visited with residents in Mingo County to see how the community is healing and what the future might look like.

wvpublicnews · InsideApp200821 WHOLE PODCAST

Telling Difficult Stories

There are heroes among us who are trying to break down barriers. Several of them are featured in two Netflix documentaries, “Heroin(e)” and “Recovery Boys,” both directed by Elaine McMillion-Sheldon, and her husband Curren Sheldon. They are both West Virginia natives. 

Back in 2018, just after the release of “Recovery Boys,” Elaine sat down with Sarah Smarsh, host of a podcast called The Homecomers, to talk about what drove her to devote her career to telling stories about both the difficult realities, and the resilience of Appalachians. 

Sheldon and her team won a daytime Emmy last month for work they did bringing the struggle families face with substance use disorder to Sesame Street. In a social media post, Sheldon wrote that it’s “amazing to see that the voice of a brave, young girl - sharing her family's story of hope and resilience - can have great power and influence.” 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGgW-f0RyfE&feature=emb_title

Returning Home

Our Inside Appalachia team is working on an episode about returning home to Appalachia. If you came home, what brought you back? What changed? Was it just like you remember? Send your story to Insideappalachia@wvpublic.org. Or better yet, record yourself telling your story using a voice memo app on your phone. 

We had help producing Inside Appalachia this week from the National Geographic Society, The Homecomers and Us and Them.

Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Dinosaur Burps, Anna and Elizabeth, Marisa Anderson, and Blue Dot Sessions.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer.  Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. We had editing help this week from Kelley Libby. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode. 

You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.

Inside Appalachia is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Glynis Board hails from the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia and is based in Wheeling at the First State Capital Building. She’s been reporting full time for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2012. She covers a broad range of topics but focuses on producing and hosting the West Virginia Public Broadcasting's daily news show West Virginia Morning.
Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. Her stories have aired on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards for Best Use of Sound and Best Writing for her stories about Appalachian food and culture.
Eric is a native of Kanawha County and graduated from Marshall University with a degree in Journalism. He has written for newspapers and magazines throughout his career. After completing the certificate program with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, he began producing documentaries including Russia: Coming of Age, For Cheap Lobster and West Virginia Voices of War.