Wheres My Sister?: My Little Sisters Struggle with Addiction, Adoption, and Mental Illness

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Drug cartels sensed an opportunity, and began flooding rural America with heroin. Daniel Ciccarone, a professor at the U.

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They worked very hard to move high-quality heroin into places like rural Vermont. In West Virginia, many addicts told me, an oxycodone pill now sells for about eighty dollars; a dose of heroin can be bought for about ten. However, this drop coincided with an unprecedented rise in heroin overdoses.

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Louis, looked at some three thousand heroin addicts in substance-abuse programs. Half of those who began using heroin before were white; nearly ninety per cent of those who began using in the past decade were white. This demographic shift may be connected to prescribing patterns. A study by a University of Pennsylvania researcher found that black patients were thirty-four per cent less likely than white patients to be prescribed opioids for such chronic conditions as back pain and migraines, and fourteen per cent less likely to receive such prescriptions after surgery or traumatic injury.

But a larger factor, it seems, was the despair of white people in struggling small towns. On heroin, you curl up in a corner and blank out the world. Much more so than coke or meth, where you want to run around and do things—you get aggressive, razzed and jazzed. Nearly everyone I met in Martinsburg has ties to someone—a child, a sibling, a girlfriend, an in-law, an old high-school coach—who has struggled with opioids.

Yet there is a chronic shortage of beds in the state for addicts who want help. Weeks, months. West Virginia has an overdose death rate of New Hampshire has the second-highest rate: Martinsburg, which has a population of seventeen thousand, is a hilly town filled with brick and clapboard row houses.

It was founded in , by Adam Stephen, a Revolutionary War general. The town became a depot for the B. Railroad and grew into an industrial center dominated by woollen mills. Interwoven, established in the eighteen-nineties, was the first electric-powered textile plant in the U. The Interwoven factory whistle could be heard all over town, summoning workers every morning at a quarter to seven.

Nevertheless, many residents I met brought up this history, as part of a larger story of lost purpose that has made the town vulnerable to the opioid onslaught.

The void has been filled, only partially, by people from neighboring states. The Eastern Panhandle is one of the wealthier parts of a poor state. The most destitute counties depend on coal mining. Berkeley County is close enough to D. Nevertheless, Martinsburg feels isolated. Several people I met there expressed surprise, or sympathy, when I told them that I live in D. The Interwoven mill, derelict and grand, dominates the center of Martinsburg. A local police officer has proposed turning most of the mill into a rehab facility. Michael Chalmers is the publisher of an Eastern Panhandle newspaper, the Observer.

It is based in Shepherdstown, a picturesque college town near the Maryland border which has not succumbed to heroin. Chalmers, who is forty-two, grew up in Martinsburg, and in he lost his younger brother, Jason, to an overdose. I asked him why he thought that Martinsburg was struggling so much with drugs. The Interwoven mill, derelict and grand, still dominates the center of Martinsburg.

One corner of it has been turned into a restaurant, but the rest sits empty. A police officer named Andrew Garcia has a plan, called Martinsburg Renew, which would turn most of the mill into a rehab facility. Maybe it will be drug rehab. In the past several months, I have returned to Martinsburg many times, and spoken with many addicts there. Lori Swadley is a portrait and wedding photographer in Martinsburg. When I looked at her Web site, she seemed to be in demand all over the area, and her photographs were lovely: her brides glowed in afternoon light, her high-school seniors looked polished and confident.

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The Addicts Next Door

But what drew me to her was a side project she had been pursuing, called 52 Addicts—a series of portraits that called attention to the drug epidemic in and around Martinsburg. It was clear that Swadley had a full life: her husband, Jon, worked with her in the photography business, and they had three small children, Juniper, Bastian, and Bodhi. Swadley is thirty-nine, tall and slender, and she looked elegant in jeans, a charcoal-colored turtleneck, and high boots.


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She and her husband had moved to Martinsburg in , she told me, looking for an affordable place to raise children close to where she had grown up, in the Shenandoah Valley. Soon after they arrived, they settled into a subdivision outside town, and Swadley started reading the Martinsburg Journal online. Because at that time it seemed like everybody else wanted to hide it.

And, to me, that seemed like the worst thing you could do. I said that it seemed like an extraordinarily high number, especially for someone who was not an addict. She agreed, but there it was. All thirteen were young men—Swadley had met most of them when she was in her early twenties, and she had been a tomboy back then. The first time she heard that a friend had died, she had been photographing a wedding for some mutual friends. They were sitting around a bonfire at the end of the day. When Swadley spoke of a crazy horror film that she and a guy named Jeremy had made in high school, somebody mentioned that he had recently died, from a heroin overdose.

She threw up, and wrecked her car on the way home. At the time, Swadley was hanging out with her old crowd in bars and restaurants every weekend.

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One by one, the group dwindled. As the overdoses piled up, she was appalled to find that sometimes she had trouble keeping track of which friends were dead. The funerals had a peculiar aspect. In January, , she started photographing addicts in recovery. For the first few portraits, Swadley reached out to her subjects, but soon people started coming to her. She took their pictures, asked them about their lives, and told their stories in a paragraph or so.

There are now two dozen images in the series. In one of the portraits, an E. A woman named Tiffany posed holding a snapshot of her younger sister, Tabby. Both women had started off on pills—Tabby had developed a problem after a gallbladder operation left her with a thirty-day supply of meds—and then became heroin addicts. Tiffany had received treatment, but Tabby had fatally overdosed while she was waiting for a rehab bed. Swadley took the portrait in a park where Tiffany had once begged Tabby to stop using.

When I called Tiffany, she told me that she had recently lost a second sister to heroin.

What does the empty mirror reflect for you?

Swadley hopes that her photographs will someday be displayed all around town—in coffee shops, restaurants, perhaps the library. I want to show people they deserve a chance. One day, Swadley told me about a local effort against heroin addiction, called the Hope Dealer Project. It was run by three women: Tina Stride, who had a twenty-six-year-old son in recovery; Tara Mayson, whose close friend had gone through periods of addiction; and Lisa Melcher, whose son-in-law had died of an overdose, and whose thirty-two-year-old daughter, Christina, was struggling to overcome heroin addiction.

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All three had known addicts who wanted to get clean but had no place to go. Last fall, like car-pool moms with a harrowing new mission, they had begun driving people to detox facilities all over the state—any place that could take them, sometimes as far as five hours away. The few with private insurance could get rehab anywhere in the country, and the Hope Dealer women were prepared to suggest options.

But most people in town had Medicaid or no insurance at all, and such addicts had to receive treatment somewhere in the state. Currently, the detox facility closest to Martinsburg is about two hours away.

Stride works full time at the General Services Administration, in Washington, but spends up to twenty-four hours a week giving rides to drug users. The other two focus on reaching out to addicts and families. When Stride and her client arrive at a detox facility, nurses are waiting at the door. For them to walk in those doors, that takes a lot. After five to ten days in detox, patients are released. If beds are all full, a lot of times they come back here to Martinsburg, because they have nowhere else to go.

Stride usually drives clients to a detox center immediately after picking them up. I tried to stay up, but I knew I had to drive four hours to the detox place, and four hours back. So I slept some. We were up at 4 a. Stride, who is forty-seven, wore her hair in a ponytail and had curly bangs; Mayson, who is forty-six, had long, sparkly nails.