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Happy Valley's Tragic Epidemic Isn't Going Away -- Unless We Start Asking the Right Questions

No illness should be a source of shame, but there are some illnesses where the shame is unspoken, silenced or medicated. Behind every addiction is someone in pain, someone with a mother, sister or grandchild -- and someone with a story to tell. I know this.
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Down the street from my house, about a five-minute walk, my street leads into the "Meadows." The Meadows is fertile farmland bordering the Connecticut River that snakes through the valley; it's a great place to walk the dog, bike, run, or go birding. Acres upon acres of feed corn and rye sometimes fill the open fields. When there are heavy rains, everything is underwater. Last summer, I saw rows of rotting zucchini.

It's not unusual to see two or three tents tucked in the woods throughout the summer. Homeless people make the meadows their home in the warmer months. I was surprised to see a tent still standing this past November into the beginning of December. It was way too cold to be living in a tent. Temperatures had dropped into the 20s for several nights. Puddles were icing over. The river was running cold and steady with heavy rains.

A week later, the police found a dead body in one of the tents. A young boy, James, 24 years old. Northampton, Massachusetts is a small town. Our newspaper is thin with new, mostly AP wires, and the front page is just like a good, old-fashioned local newspaper -- local fundraisers, news about the high school football team, the local mayor's latest announcements and news from the local colleges, too.

I knew the boy's death would come out over the next few days. Something like that doesn't happen here in the valley without it making the front page -- a young man found dead in a tent in the Meadows section of town. Police said no foul play suspected.

That's when I knew: another heroin overdose, another young person dead from drugs.

I thought a few days will slip by, and another silent death will be filed away. And some parents somewhere in town, some brothers or sisters, maybe grandparents will spend a lifetime grieving for this lost child.

The story did unravel for the next couple of weeks. A story that our little town won't call an epidemic even though the governor knows it is. No one's had the courage to say what our neighboring Vermont's Governor Shumlin called, "a full-blown heroin crisis."

I was glad when a week later someone in the family came forth and told the boy's story -- his struggle with addiction, arrests, courts, jail time, rehab, numerous attempts to save this child's life. I say child because when I think of myself at 24, I was still pretty innocent, still ignorant when it came to being responsible and taking risks. One of the local judges even piped in about how the courthouse is trying to deal with the issue of "addiction" that he sees daily in the justice system. But the sister talked about trying to get counseling, but told "not allowed" when you're in jail. The family tried to get long-term rehab, not available. Trying to get any help from a community that is keeping eerily quiet about the heroin use and heroin deaths here in what is commonly referred to as the Happy Valley.

The Pioneer Valley is made up of three counties: Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties (Franklin having the distinction of being the second poorest county in the state). Last year, within a five-month span, there were 42 heroin-related deaths. There have been over 200 deaths in the three counties that make up the Pioneer Valley in the last two years.

A local attorney, a friend of mine, remembers back in the '80s when he (and others at the courthouse), snorted cocaine in the courthouse bathrooms. He said it was rampant. But then, he says, "We grew up."

I'm not interested in "outing" the local authorities that have indulged in drug use, but I do find it painfully frustrating to deal with the hypocrisy of substance abuse -- hypocrisy within the medical community, the justice system and even in our happy valley neighborhoods.

Northampton is famous for its progressive politics. If there's an anti- anything, Northampton has signed the petition, organized the march, and hung up the banner. I think it's safe to say that much of this is due to a town influenced by a well-educated, academic population and the '60s generation that changed the course of history, if nothing less than from a demographic point of view. This was the generation that coined phrase "sex, drugs and rock n' roll." This was (is) a generation that liked to get high.

I wonder if it's going to take the life of someone important in town for people to march, take to the streets, organize like they did when the local elementary school needed a playground, or when the local cancer support group needed funds. It's easy to open our hearts for those that suffer from cancer, as well as those that have type 2 diabetes or heart disease.

We have races, fundraisers, and organizations to give money to support research-even though these illnesses are often caused by one's personal habits. No illness should be a source of shame. This shame gets in the way of taking care of those that suffer.

We are asking all the wrong questions.

I ask myself why are we, as a society/community, so lonely, so isolated, so yearning to feel any other way than the way we do when we are not eating our way out of pain, smoking our way out of anxiety, shopping our way out of loneliness, or bullying our way for power to hide our own sense of perceived inadequacies?

But no one says to the heart attack victim's family, "What a waste, if only he could have made better choices about the food he ate."

No one says to the diabetic (or in the commercials selling drugs to treat it), "Your indulgence in constant food addictions and your failure to get exercise is costing taxpayers a good deal of money."

No one ever has to serve 18 months in jail for spending gross amounts of money at the mall because shopping feeds some sort of emptiness in their lives.

There are some illnesses where the shame is unspoken, silenced or medicated.

Addiction to heroin is easy. It's as easy as addictions to alcohol, food, consumerism, money and power. It makes you feel good. It helps you find peace. Why are we so afraid to say that? Who doesn't open the wine bottle, pour the martini, light the joint, light the cigarette, buy something new but unneeded -- all because it makes us feel a little better for a little while?

But some addictions are worse then others. Some addictions kill very quickly, some are illegal, some are not. Most are horrifically difficult to deal with, to face your family with, and to face your friends. Most carry this added pain of shame. People turn to alcohol, drugs, food and consumption for many complex reasons. For some it may be a genetic predisposition, for many others it becomes a mask for our culture's many ills. Behind every addiction is someone in pain, someone with a mother, sister or grandchild -- and someone with a story to tell.

I know this.

I have been to three funerals in the last two years. Dear friends buried their 22-year-old granddaughter, Ashley. I write that name out so that you can imagine her -- see her as someone who suffered, who struggled, who died, someone whose needs were unmet by our health care community, our justice system, our community.

And I buried my niece, Sophie. She was 25. She never hurt anyone but herself. She made poor choices in a time when she struggled with impulsive behavior as we all do in different ways.

Let us address heroin addiction and those that suffer. Let us find help for them -- help from the medical community and the justice system. And when it comes time to bury another human being that has died of a heroin overdose, let us mourn an unfinished life.

Any death diminishes us all.

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