Where to go from here? The overdose crisis in Ohio, many years on

Our columnist wrestles with the emotional weight of reporting on the overdose crisis, and with finding a way forward in this grief.
A memorial to some of those who have died from overdose.
A memorial to some of those who have died from overdose.Jack Shuler

Just over a year ago, I started going to therapy for the first time. A traumatic event sparked a realization about my work as a journalist, particularly related to the effects of reporting on the overdose crisis.

Over the course of the previous year I had interviewed five different mothers grieving the death of a child by overdose. We spoke seated together at a dining room table, on a porch outside, over the phone while the mother was on lunch break, in a drop-in center for unhoused people, at an overdose awareness rally.

It’s not like writing about hard things was new to me. Over the past 15 years, I have reported on and written about state-sanctioned violence, about brutality, and about the drug war.

But to sit with a parent as a parent, trying to comprehend the loss of a child from an overdose, something shifted inside, and a bridge to comprehension was crossed. Listening to their stories led to my own feelings of fear, guilt and sadness, much of it rooted in the knowledge that there is nothing I could do to make their grief better, and in the recognition that there is much more we can do to prevent such loss.

For years, I told myself that I was capable of writing about the awful things that humans can do to one another because I was privileged in so many ways. I had my physical health, strong family support and years of study and practice under my belt. It’s an obligation, I told myself. Besides, I would focus my attention on the scrappy people fighting for change.

And yet, here I was, sitting on the edge of a therapist's couch, feeling so much tension, feeling burned out and angry.

I was lucky to find a wonderful therapist, and I understand that this, too, is a great privilege. She helped me to begin thinking about what it means to write about such things, and to figure out how to make this work sustainable. She helped me determine where I was in the world, and how to move forward.

Sailors once called the process of determining where they were in the world a “dead reckoning.” They would meet up on deck and calculate their position using previous measurements, current speed, and the stars above. GPS has mothballed the practice, but I think about that term often.

In the context of my own reporting on the overdose crisis, a public health catastrophe claiming the lives of some 100,000 Americans a year, I know that placing the words “dead” and “reckoning” next to each other is troubling.

It should be. In Ohio, we have many dead mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and lovers. These are losses that should be reckoned with, people who should be accounted for. We cannot normalize what should never be normal.

Over the past year, I’ve thought a lot about what this sort of reckoning looks like for me, about what has come before, and about what will come next.

Around 2015, when I began reporting on the war on people who use drugs, I was carrying my own baggage. I understood the effects that substance use disorder could have on communities and on families. I understood, too, what happens when people don’t get the help they need. And growing up in the South (hell, in the United States), I was aware of what the New Jim Crow looked like.

I would like to say that I’ve seen enormous changes since then. Certainly, there is wider acceptance of harm reduction as a public health approach in addressing substance use. Yes, there’s pushback. But on the whole, we’re in a better place than we were in 2015.

But we still have much work to do to address the great harms of the drug war. My fear is that we are on the verge of stepping backwards.

Federal legislation to schedule Xylazine is on the horizon, and political candidates evoke “fentanyl” in the same breath as they espouse xenophobia. In Ohio, legislators are busy punching down on transgender and queer youth and working to overturn a voter-approved measure to legalize marijuana. You cannot say you wish to address the overdose crisis and substance use disorder, and then pass legislation that exacerbates mental health issues and leads to more people being arrested. 

I was reminded many times over the past year that harm reduction is not just a public health approach but a movement, and that there are many people who feel the same way as I do. I am not alone.

In a Zoom conversation with some of my students, Canadian journalist and activist Garth Mullins said he made a conscious decision to be part of the fight to address the overdose crisis rather than watch everyone die and be part of the wreckage. "We cannot wait to let the alienation of doing nothing and letting history just happen, consume us,” he said. “Instead, we can be together. It feels better working together, mourning together, hoping together.”

I have learned to accept and address my own feelings when the stories of those who are grieving wash over me and become a part of me. It is, I know, an ongoing process, but one that I must be intentional about.

I have learned, too, that none of us should act like these things do not affect us. In a state like Ohio, or our neighbor West Virginia, where the overdose rates are exceedingly high, there is a collective trauma.

Activist Benji Hart writes that, “It is not merely OK to grieve. It is wholly necessary if we are to remain connected to our collective power, truly invested in our liberation, and whole enough to sustain ourselves in struggle.”

Like Mullins said, we are all better when we allow for mourning and working and hoping together.  

You don’t have to tell that to those mothers I spoke with. They are working to prevent other lives from being lost, in big and small ways. One marches. One gives naloxone to neighbors. One advocates for the unhoused and recently ran for office. Another speaks up in the state house every chance she gets and teaches young people how to test for fentanyl. And another has been fighting for fair distribution of opioid settlement dollars.

We must use our experiences, our imaginations, and our love to propel us forward. In this way, grief can be a kind of power.

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