Alcoholic turns to opiates as “substance of choice”

One of the abandoned houses along Crystal Creek, Beattyville.

America’s poorest white town: abandoned by coal, swallowed by drugs

In the first of a series of dispatches from the US’s poorest communities, we visit Beattyville, Kentucky, blighted by a lack of jobs and addiction to painkillers

http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/nov/12/beattyville-kentucky-and-americas-poorest-towns

Karen Jennings patted her heavily made up face, put on a sardonic smile and said she thought she looked good after all she’d been through.

“I was an alcoholic first. I got drunk and fell in the creek and broke my back. Then I got hooked on the painkillers,” the 59-year-old grandmother said.

Over the years, Jennings’ back healed but her addiction to powerful opioids remained. After the prescriptions dried up, she was drawn to the underground drug trade that defines eastern Kentucky today as coal, oil and timber once did.

Jennings spoke with startling frankness about her part in a plague gripping the isolated, fading towns dotting this part of Appalachia. Frontier communities steeped in the myth of self-reliance are now blighted by addiction to opioids – “hillbilly heroin” to those who use them. It’s a dependency bound up with economic despair and financed in part by the same welfare system that is staving off economic collapse across much of eastern Kentucky. It’s a crisis that crosses generations.

One of those communities is Beattyville, recorded by a US census survey as the poorest white town – 98% of its 1,700 residents are white – in the country. It was also by one measure – the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 2008-2012 of communities of more than 1,000 people, the latest statistics available at the time of reporting – among the four lowest income towns in the country. It is the first stop for a series of dispatches by the Guardian about the lives of those trying to do more than survive in places that seem the most remote from the aspirations and possibilities of the American Dream.

Beattyville sits at the northern tip of a belt of the most enduring rural poverty in America. The belt runs from eastern Kentucky through the Mississippi delta to the Texas border with Mexico, taking in two of the other towns – one overwhelmingly African American and the other exclusively Latino – at the bottom of the low income scale. The town at the very bottom of that census list is an outlier far to the west on an Indian reservation in Arizona.

The communities share common struggles in grappling with blighted histories and uncertain futures. People in Beattyville are not alone in wondering if their kind of rural town even has a future. To the young, such places can sometimes feel like traps in an age when social mobility in the US is diminishing and they face greater obstacles to a good education than other Americans.

At the same time, each of the towns is distinguished by problems not common to the rest. In Beattyville it is the drug epidemic, which has not only destroyed lives but has come to redefine a town whose fleeting embrace of prosperity a generation ago is still visible in some of its grander official buildings and homes near the heart of the town. Now they seem to accentuate the decline of a main street littered with ghost shops that haven’t seen business in years.

Jennings shook off her addiction after 15 years. She struggled to find work but eventually got a job serving in a restaurant that pays the $300 a month rent on her trailer home. She collects a small disability allowance from the government and volunteers at a food bank as a kind of atonement. Helping other people is, she said, her way of “getting through”: “I just want to serve God and do what I can for people here.”

It was at the local food bank that Jennings spilled out her story.

“There are lots of ways of getting drugs. The elderly sell their prescriptions to make up money to buy food. There are doctors and pharmacies that just want to make money out of it,” she said. “I was the manager of a fast food place. I used to buy from the customers. People could come in for a hamburger and do a drug transaction with me and no one would ever notice.

Even as Jennings related the toll of drug abuse – the part it played in destroying at least some of her five marriages, the overdose that nearly cost her life and the letter she wrote to her doctor begging for the help that finally wrenched her off the pills – she spoke as if one step removed from the experience.

“You get hooked and you’re not yourself. You go on functioning. You do your job. But I really don’t see how I’m alive today,” she said.

It was only when Jennings got to the part about her son, Todd, a bank vice-president, that she faltered. “I lost my son three years ago from suicide. My lifestyle contributed to his depression. I take responsibility for my part of it,” she said.

 

 

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