The opioid epidemic is a national crisis. But what does that mean? To answer that, Yahoo News traveled to Middletown, Ohio — a city once considered as ordinary as its name, more recently known for an explosion in opioid use — and explored quantitative research about drugs, health care, and national public opinion. This is a problem so serious that it requires big data, so human that it needs a face. Here is what we found:
Beth Genslinger doesn’t fit the stereotype of a victim of a drug epidemic. She thoughtfully sets out glasses of water for her guests before they arrive and wears a teacher’s warm, open smile: She retired from Valley View Junior High right before her granddaughter was born, after 33 years of teaching. Her husband was an insurance agent and, to his children’s friends, a formidable breakfast chef.
Their son, Andy, died of a heroin overdose in October 2015. The same thing happened to his cousin Daniel Weidle less than three months later, the day after Christmas. A third cousin had died after a battle with opioids in 2005.
The Genslingers live in Germantown, Ohio, a close-knit country community nine miles north of Middletown on Ohio State Route 4. The median family income here exceeds $50,000; less than 6 percent of the population is under the poverty line. These houses have porches, and their porches have flags. Beth grew up here. Her parents live right next door; they have now lost three grandchildren. The family is what a neighbor calls “preeminent” in the community.
The opioid epidemic does not discriminate. Unlike crack or meth, there is no single cultural profile. National statistics suggest that more men than women use, and the demographic is largely white. But the rich are affected almost as much as the poor, those with college degrees alongside high school dropouts. A local Ohio sheriff says the opioid crisis is about family structures breaking down and fading work ethics. But the facts say that this epidemic permeates all strata of society: the nuclear family in sedate Germantown as well as the prostitutes in Middletown’s boarded-up houses.
“We both come from ‘Leave It to Beaver’ families,” Beth says of herself and her husband. She is modest about the life they created (“Maybe we weren’t perfect role models: We did have alcohol in our home”), but they built a solid middle-class household of their own: family dinners every night, family vacations to the lake, family pictures throughout the house.
Beth sits upright on the plush couch and launches into her story in a matter-of-fact manner, as if ripping off a Band-Aid.
Andy was popular, funny, a great football player: He could have played Division III. And he was kind — friends with everyone, the kid who took in strays. Voted the most attractive in his graduating class, he looks every bit the boy next door. A photo of Andy stands propped in an easel off the living room. With sandy, tousled hair, he could be Zac Efron plus a few inches and minus a little gel. “We displayed this photo at his funeral,” Beth says, with a faint smile.
Andy had graduated from high school and was at college in Dayton, working part time, when Beth got the call. It was the mother of a high school friend. Did Beth know her son was on heroin?
“You could have knocked us over.”
Andy admitted everything. He had been out with buddies the first time, and a friend had offered heroin. Andy snorted it. He told his mom that after that, he was always chasing the high. He also told his mom not to blame the friend: “It was my fault. I went to him.” The friend died of an overdose — before Andy did.
Andy began using in 2010. For the next five years, the family tackled Andy’s disease the way they do most things: together. He had already stopped by the time his parents first confronted him. They had him tested to be sure. “We all thought we had dodged a bullet,” Beth remembers. When Andy started using again, he told his sister. When he tried to give blood and was found to have Hepatitis C, he came bawling to Beth. And after a relapse brought about a paraspinal infection from contaminated needles, he moved home. He struggled to manage the medical opioids that the hospital had prescribed after his infection. His parents helped administer them, and he began in intensive outpatient treatment. He abused anyway, and they talked about it. He told his counselors. Andy spent hours in spiritual, philosophical conversations with his grandfather — talking about the Bible, the stars, space. His grandparents wanted to be sure that Andy felt he could “just be with” them. They didn’t try to give him advice; they simply listened.
It was Beth who found Andy’s body. When she awoke on the morning of Oct. 7, 2015, she noticed that his light was still on. He was never up that early. His room was a mess. She went in to yell at him, to tell him to clean up, that if he continued he’d never be ready to move back to his own place. But when she shook the body slumped on the bed, it didn’t move. Turning Andy over, she found him blue and cold. “He had foam coming out of his mouth and blood coming out of his nose.”
Andy wasn’t breathing. Beth called 911 and administered CPR. When the medics pulled her aside to tell her, she just said, “I know.” Andy was 25. He had been in outpatient treatment for a week.
Beth still starts when her phone rings unexpectedly. Is it bad news? Andy’s sister does the same. A day rarely passes without the Genslingers breaking down in tears. “You never recover,” Beth says, “You just learn to go on.” She works in Andy’s old room – running an antidrug coalition founded by a group of concerned community members in 2016. Beth is careful to stress that this has been a group effort. The coalition is not just about her. The coalition combines law enforcement, faith-based, education and community planning efforts. Beth finds that Andy’s room brings her calm. Her husband doesn’t go in.
Here in southwestern Ohio, families hew to tradition: You are born here, get married here, move next door, die here. The sheriff comes from a family of law enforcement officials, the firefighter’s father is a firefighter, the addict’s daughter is an addict. But there’s a new twist now. The teacher’s child is an addict too.
Emily de La Bruyère has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and the Daily Beast. She is a student at Sciences Po in Paris on the Michel David-Weill fellowship.
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