Up from Rock Bottom: Recovery from a National Overdose Epidemic

WILLS, Pennsylvania—Andrew Ayers is busy working on loading and unloading several machines at Guy Chemical—a massive, 30,000-square-foot industrial facility that sits tucked along the border of a tiny unincorporated town in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. People call Ayers one of the lucky ones for surviving his addiction to both heroin and methamphetamine, but he says luck has nothing to do with it. 

“The first thing I did was physically extract myself from being exposed to it,” he tells me. “Now, that might sound simple to someone who has never been exposed to it, but if everyone you know is doing some sort of drug, whether it is family or friends or neighbors, that takes a whole new level of moving on.”

Two incidents, one big and one small, helped get the 30-year-old on the road to recovery: his father’s overdose a few years ago and a friend who he said literally dragged him from everything he knew in North Carolina to the middle of Rust Belt Appalachia to turn his life around. 

“I found my dad overdosed years ago, and I was able to save his life,” he says. “When it happened, it literally opened my eyes to what could have happened to him or eventually me.” Shortly after the incident, a buddy gave him the opportunity to move away, have his own place and take a well-paying job.

Today, Ayers is in that job, working alongside several other co-workers. He is changing a drum, putting new compound in, and drilling the old drum out; he then heads over to the machine making silicone and ensures that it is running properly. 

The chemical company, specializing in developing and formulating high-end silicone sealants, greases, and two-part epoxy adhesives, is abuzz with activity. Several skilled laborers, chemists, engineers, scientists, and IT specialists are working to make the company’s products. 

The North Carolina native says drug addiction isn’t just about economic despair or a sense of being left behind: “It is also unaddressed mental illnesses, the unbelievable access anyone can have to drugs, and little incentive to not use them.” 

The United States is in the midst of the deadliest drug epidemic in its history, with opioid overdoses at the heart of it. During the 12-month period beginning September 2020, a record number of Americans, more than 104,000, died of drug overdoses, with opioids accounting for 78 percent of cases. 

A Brookings Institution report showed much of the meth and fentanyl supply comes indirectly from China through Mexico across our porous southern border. While the Biden White House looks at the border as an opportunity to take a pious and humanitarian immigration stance, many parents in cities, suburbs, and rural areas look at it as an open door to a free-flowing supply of cheap drugs that will fall into the hands of their family members. 

A new government report out last month detailed how opioid trafficking in the U.S. has changed recently, with Mexico now the dominant source of the country’s fentanyl supply and synthetic opioids rapidly saturating drug markets. 

This reflects both policy failures and cultural problems: poor border enforcement, the knee-jerk reaction of throwing money at problems, and the reluctance to confront and discuss mental health problems. Throw into the mix a new factor: a generation of young people who have endured two years of pandemic restrictions, with unpredictable effects on their mental health. 

We cannot just use “kids are resilient” as a throwaway line and hope that it is true. There is a reason so many young people have become addicted to opioids and meth, kids whose family members thought they’d be resilient, too. Drug deaths among children ages 10 to 14 more than tripled from 2019 to 2020, according to an analysis done for CNN by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Although the numbers are not yet available, experts expect the problem has gotten worse during the pandemic. And children’s access to drugs comes from the thing most parents blindly give their children access to: social media. 

Ayers says he knows the things that keep him from shooting up and sticks with them. 

“Honestly, staying busy with my hands, it helps me keep my mind preoccupied, so it helps me from thinking, ‘Hey, I need to go get some drugs,’ or, ‘Hey, I need to go relieve some stress,’ or something of that nature,” he admits candidly. 

So, he works a lot—anything, he says, to keep his mind clear. At the root of the problem, he says, is mental illness, something Ayers argues we are less comfortable talking about in our country than drugs. “Odd as it may sound, people find it easier to self-medicate to ease their pain or adjust their mood swings than to talk about what is at the root of it.” 

Ayers says he is in a good place now. He is deeply thankful that the company owner took a chance on him. And despite the temptation, he’d much rather be sober than not. 

“I have a bad addiction, to the point to where if I was to see it, I would jump right back into it,” he says. “Having this job and the sense of community I have here at work and in Johnstown, where I live, keeps me from being tempted.” 

As far as luck goes, Ayers shrugs. 

“This is hard work, one that I am mindful of every day,” he says. “I go back in my mind and remember the first time I shot up and wish I could take it back. This is my way to take it back.”

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