Book brings state’s opioid crisis home with stories

Jun 6, 2019

“Nobody’s escaping it now. It’s in every family, every community, every church.”

Author Annie Highwater is talking about Ohio’s opioid abuse epidemic, as seen from her home in Grove City, a Columbus suburb. A writer on addiction recovery, she’s one of more than 50 people from 20 counties across the state who have contributed to a new book on the state’s opioid crisis, edited by faculty members from the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“Not Far from Me: Stories of Opioids and Ohio,” was put together by Daniel Skinner, Ph.D., assistant professor of health policy at the Heritage College, Dublin, and Berkeley Franz, Ph.D., assistant professor of community-based health at the Heritage College, Athens, and holder of the Heritage Career Development Faculty Endowed Fellowship in Population Health Science, Osteopathic Heritage Foundation Ralph S. Licklider, D.O., Research Endowment.

The book, which can be ordered from The Ohio State University Press, features a forward by Ted Strickland, former congressional representative and governor of Ohio. It collects personal accounts from a variety of Ohioans, including recovering drug abusers, affected family members, members of the clergy, health professionals, government officials and more. Most of the contributions are written stories, but others are poetry or photographs. Taken together, they offer a portrait of life on the frontlines of the opioid epidemic in a state that’s among the hardest hit in America.

Understanding through personal stories

Other books have worked this territory, notably Sam Quinones’ 2015 work, “Dreamland.” But where “Dreamland” used stories related by the author, “Not Far from Me” tells its tale through the voices of its contributors.

“It was really important for us to think about getting different perspectives in the conversation,” Franz explained. “We’ve heard a lot about the opioid epidemic in Ohio but also nationally. People have come up with a lot of ideas about why this problem exists and what it’s going to take to solve it. We wanted to hear from the people who know this intimately instead of speaking for them, which I think has been done a lot. We believe that their perspectives matter.”

“And the words that they use matter,” added Skinner. “Paraphrasing somebody is different than letting their words come out. We spent a good deal of time in our introduction talking about some of the interesting word choices and even words that seemed a little bit to be traps or potentially stigmatizing language. And I think that one of the themes of the book is that the contributors are working out the very language that we want to use to talk about this thing.”

The book is broken up by themes, with sections on establishing place, processing loss, making sense, devising solutions and challenging assumptions. The aim is to allow for a kind of community forum, in which firsthand experience can replace boilerplate concepts of “crisis” and “epidemic.”

In an extension of that impulse, Skinner and Franz have gotten support from the Ohio Humanities Council to hold a series of community conversation forums in 10 Ohio counties this summer and fall, in which the storytelling will continue live. They previewed this campaign at the Ohio Osteopathic Symposium in Columbus in April, where they used excerpts from the book to facilitate discussion focusing on the roles and responsibilities of medical professionals. The upcoming forum series is supported by the Ohio Humanities Council, and has an accompanying website that includes resources for those who wish to organize public conversation events in their own home communities.

Ken Johnson, D.O., Heritage College executive dean and Ohio University chief medical affairs officer, called the book and forums a valuable contribution to an ongoing effort. “The Heritage College has always provided the care that is most needed in our communities, and we are committed to lending support toward addressing the opioid abuse crisis, which may be Ohio’s most desperately urgent public health battle,” Johnson said. “By sharing the voices of Ohioans who have grappled with this scourge at the grassroots level, Drs. Franz and Skinner remind us that populations, like individual patients, have an important role to play in their own healing.”

All after-tax sales proceeds from the book will be donated to three Ohio organizations that deal with opioid addiction:  Stark County Mental Health & Addiction RecoveryCircle Health Services ; and  Health Recovery Services.

Reducing the stigma of addiction

The book aims to destigmatize addiction by showing how across-the-board its impact has been.

“That’s part of why the book is named ‘Not Far from Me,’” Franz said. “Because we never realized how many people had been affected. Even people you might not have thought of, like a teacher. We knew it would affect doctors and patients, and firefighters, people like that, but we didn’t realize the scope of who was affected in Ohio. So we really did want to leave it open, to hear some stories that might challenge the existing narratives around opioid abuse.”

Highwater, who writes about how her star athlete son struggled with and overcame addiction, agreed that showing the personal face of the problem can help people understand that addiction doesn’t happen only to certain flawed individuals.

“I wanted to get across two things,” she said. “First, that it can happen to any family no matter how that family presents. Because my family looked from the outside like a church-going family. My mom doesn’t even cuss! And I wanted to present that anyone can recover no matter how bad it gets.”

Contributor Joe Gay, Ph.D., is a chemical dependency counselor who for 18 years was executive director of Health Recovery Services, headquartered in Athens County. In his essay, he recalls how he watched opioids, including heroin, begin to take the county by storm starting in late 2007. Though he admits he tends to view the problem through the lens of his training in data analysis, Gay agrees that stories like those in “Not Far from Me” can help many people get a better grasp of the issue.

“I think for a lot of people, storytelling is the way to go,” he said. “It’s not what persuades academics, but for the general public, it’s what seems to move them. For people who can’t relate to the statistics, it can make it easier for them to relate to other people’s experience. When they read stories about how people got addicted, it helps them to identify with them and maybe removes some of the stigma.”

And stories can move the emotions – even for academics.

“I was really unprepared for the emotional aspects of being an editor of this collection,” Skinner said. “I enjoyed talking to contributors early on, but I didn’t realize that I was going to become close to some of them, that I would be on the phone just listening to them, that I would actually cry myself…  And for me, that was transformational. It helped me to realize the depth of the situation.”