The Interview Series: What’s Left Behind

I’m an obsessive reader of all things relating to drug addiction, be they memoirs, ethnographic studies or public health reports. Addiction and its effects on individuals and communities fascinates me, and so when my dear friend Kyle posted the following facebook status about his hometown, I knew I had to find out more:

“Podunk please stop sucking out loud…There hasn’t been any growth in thirty+ years other than the amount of DUI’s and deaths from heroin, coke, etc. Statistics that no one is proud of. Stop looking at the police blotter as your high school yearbook. Change comes from within, or we’ll all be left without.”

Kyle was willing to talk to me in depth about the continued erosion of the Upstate New York community in which he was born and raised. Being from cities myself, I also wanted to understand the dynamics of small town life.

About 8,500 people live in and around Podunk (which we are calling his town for the purposes of anonymity) and Kyle says he’s been to more funerals of friends (who have died from drug overdoses) than weddings. Most people in town are related or friends, and the town is a bedroom community for people who commute into New York City for work. I asked him if the commuter population contributes to the issues the community is facing.

“No, the problem is inherent due to the lack of cultural growth. Drinking is the number one thing to do here other than drugs. Nothing for kids to do except get high, rob and sell drugs to buy more.” I asked him to tell me about the lack of growth. “There was a proposed college moving in to the old Psychiatric Center (where the Lobotomy was perfected) but due to government and naysayers, the project continues to be delayed.” In his estimation, the town powers-that-be have dug in their heels, keeping things stagnant and curtailing growth. He told me recently they destroyed an historic town landmark, a café from the 1700’s like it was nothing. I wondered why anyone would care about the town if government leadership doesn’t. It seems like it would be hard to maintain a sense of pride or community in a place without growth, where history is paved over “without blinking”.

Kyle had moved away from Podunk not long after the September 11th attacks on New York, to Arizona with a group of friends. I asked what it was like for him to be back home after close to a decade away. He noted that the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut happened not long after his return to the area, “I leave after 9/11 and come back to that. This area is just disturbing.”

I asked him to elaborate. “It’s sad due to the fact that when I left, even close friends were doing hard drugs, and fighting amongst each other. I came back to more death than I saw in ten years in Arizona.” When he was growing up, he and his close friends made a pact that they would never try hard drugs, and to this day, Kyle is the only one of that circle who has kept the oath. “My friends and family were hanging out with each other after I left, a close circle of friends, but when I came back no one wanted to look at each other or hang out together.” I asked if he knew the reasons for the rifts. “Cocaine mostly, and the greed and ego that follow it.”

Were the deaths being caused by cocaine, I wondered. “No, they were dying for poor choices, low self-esteem and the inability to see past their own problems. The drugs were just the vessel of destruction. There have been many suicides as well.” I wanted to know if heroin was involved, as I’ve read many recent reports of the drug’s resurgence specifically in the Northeastern United States. Kyle reported that heroin has caused a lot of the recent death he’s seen in Podunk, “people who I used to play with after school, faces you could count as family.”

I asked if he would be willing to share more detail about a friend he lost. He began to tell me about Rachel, the first person he knew to fatally overdose on heroin, who had also helped destroy his relationship with his ex-fiancée  and adopted son. He told me I could share it with you, as long as I changed all names, which I have. “It’s a big chapter in my life, one that was taken away from me without any of my doing. I just watched as the place I love and the people I cared about fell away.”

Rachel started dating his fiancée’s father, Jim, who was twenty-five years older than she. They did heroin together until Rachel died of an overdose and JIm lost his farm. Before heroin entered the picture, Kyle had a good life going.

“I was living on a cute farm with my high school sweetheart. She got pregnant by another guy I didn’t know [before we were together]. When we finally told each other how we felt I took her to her prom. Her father [Jim] was a kind of rebel hippie, a folk hero with a great voice and guitar. He blessed us with his approval and I stood by her because I loved her and her whole family.”

Then Rachel came along, bringing heroin with her, and things darkened. Kyle was studying toward his associates degree and working full time to secure a life for his fiancée and their child, who was being raised as Kyle’s son. “My fiancée’s dad was [named] Jim, like his father, and Big Jim owned the farm, Little Jim got the farm when his Pappy died, and that money went right into his arm. Having a twenty year-old girlfriend made him feel I guess invincible and made him forget about his dad.” Prior to heroin’s arrival on the farm it had been an idyllic place where large gatherings of friends and family occurred on a regular basis. Now people were hanging out behind closed doors, shooting heroin. Things were spiraling out of control.

Kyle’s fiancée took a trip to the Carolinas to see her mother and never returned, taking their son with her. I asked Kyle how, in the face of such personal and community devastation he wasn’t drawn to drugs. He reminded me of the pact he had made as a teenager never to try them. I know Kyle to be a man of great integrity, and it didn’t surprise me that once he made a commitment, he would never break it, no matter the circumstances. And these were truly terrible.

I wondered what it was like to be back with his wife (a woman he met before moving to Arizona), after a decade away, after leaving that awful scene behind. “Hardcore. Cold and lonely.” I asked what “hardcore” meant. “It’s different here because life is harsh, you see a lot of death, and you deal with very conservative people, i.e. my father’s hunting club, butchering deer, helping cousins kill pigs for cookouts. You think of rednecks as being Southern, but there are more here than anywhere I can think of. It’s the lifestyle.” I asked how that lifestyle influences the culture and vice versa. “The people are country and set in their ways, anything alternative is frowned upon, so that’s where young people rebel the most.” By doing heroin, and leaving prescription pain pill abuse to the older generation.

I was curious about what the answers could be to the issues Podunk is facing. “My new thing is going out and finding new ways to have fun. I went out to see my friend Richie go bowling and I wanted to play that skill crane game, I won about eight Ty beanie babies and had a crowd of people laughing.” It became clear during our conversation that Kyle believes in personal responsibility, and that if Podunk town leadership isn’t going to make changes, the citizens need to. Later he sent me an article about raising children to be respectful, and how that could be an answer. If people respected themselves, their friends and family, and operated from that level, it would create ripples of good, influencing the community and driving out the problems.

Our conversation gave me a snapshot into a life I haven’t experienced firsthand, watching your hometown stagnate around you, losing friends and trying to stay together and positive. I’m grateful to Kyle for sharing such a personal glimpse into the struggles of a place I’ve never seen.

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