How a few “musicianaries” are breathing life into the fight against America’s opioid epidemic.
STORY // Eric Maitlen • PHOTO // MEGAN MELLINGER
A NEW REALITY
Every day, 175 people are dying of a drug overdose in America, 140 of them from opioids. That’s the equivalent of a 737 going down and killing every passenger on board. And that’s the death toll that’s been ringing every day for more than 300 days in a row. It’s a tragedy that happened yesterday. It happened today. And it will happen again tomorrow.
In just five years’ time, deaths caused by drug overdoses increased by 33 percent in Indiana.* Drug overdoses have risen so sharply in the state that they now kill more Hoosiers than car crashes and gun homicides combined. In fact, drug overdose is now the leading cause of death for people under 50 in the U.S.
This is our new reality as a nation, and yet the majority of people I talk to don’t see how this is their story or their problem.
It wasn’t until heroin showed up in my small hometown of 6,000 people that I realized it was my story. Then it affected a family member, and I realized it was my problem.
My wife, Jillian, and I have done music and missions for over a decade now. I guess you could call us “musicianaries.” We found that, as musicians, we could gain access to platforms that other missionaries couldn’t. We lived in RV’s during the first four years of our marriage and used every open door we could find to share our faith through music: school assemblies in El Salvador, worship services for conferences in Thailand, outreach concerts at the Olympics in Canada and China, youth retreats in Germany, bars in Indiana, street outreaches in a Jamaican ghetto. One year, we toured a bunch of Teen Challenge recovery centers in Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi and got to minister to addicts fighting to be free from addiction.
Jillian was a drug addict from the time she was in middle school until she was 20, so a lot of our ministry focus over the years has been helping young people step out of the culture of addiction. Then, this past December, my niece nearly died from an opioid overdose. In January, she told her parents about her heroin addiction and my brother took her to Fairbanks in Indianapolis to begin the process of detox and recovery. Jillian and I had spent 13 years traveling the world trying to help young people with addiction, and yet there was someone in our own family fighting this battle.
We nearly lost someone we love so much, and we had no idea. It was terrifying.
Early last year, Jillian and I set out to study the epidemic here in Indiana. We attended any and every meeting we could get into: after-school meetings for parents of students with addiction, recovery groups, Narcan training, and conferences on opioids like AIM (Accelerating Indiana Municipalities). We interviewed addicts, recovered addicts, and parents of deceased addicts.
Before long, we realized this epidemic was far worse than we had heard or imagined, but only a small percentage of the public seemed to know much about it or share our concern for the growing death rate.
“After all, these people are just junkies and drug addicts, right?”
Wrong. A lot of the stories we heard went like this: A high school student had a friend give him a pill for pain after a football game. An elderly woman was given a long-term prescription for an opioid to treat her back pain. A young girl found her mom’s OxyContin in the cabinet. The stories we heard were about teachers, students, heroes like firefighters and soldiers, moms, dads, grandmas, and grandpas—it doesn’t discriminate.
When the FDA began cracking down on prescription opioid dosage (because of a growing number of overdoses) patients turned to heroin or started buying prescription drugs off of friends, family members, and dealers to get their fix. One healthcare professional told me, “Your brain can’t tell the difference between an opioid and heroin.” Seemingly overnight, millions of people in the U.S. with no history of substance abuse ended up with an addiction they never signed up for.
Using Music to Fight the Epidemic: The “Our Story Our Time” Tour.
At the beginning of 2018, our team began building a video-driven concert experience to tell the story of this epidemic through the lives of individuals who had lived it. It’s really hard to get a lot of people to come out to an “informative presentation on opioids,” but it’s not hard to get a decent turnout for a concert, especially when most small towns in Indiana don’t have touring bands coming through.
Our goal with the “Our Story Our Time” Tour isn’t just to inform people. We want to hit the heart and make people care about the families that have been devastated by this epidemic. One of the biggest barriers to recovery is the stigma of addiction. No one wants to admit to having a drug addiction after society has programmed us from birth to think someone with a drug addiction is a moral degenerate. America’s stigma of addiction has led to thousands of unnecessary deaths each year. People simply hide their struggle from their friends, their family, and their church for fear of shame and judgment. We want to create a safe space for individuals and families to come out of hiding and get connected with their local recovery resources.
Doug Carter, Superintendent of the Indiana State Police, said at one of the meetings I attended, “Until we start caring about human beings as human beings, we are going to lose this battle.” I think he’s right. After all, this epidemic is not about drugs; it’s about people. Our hope is that “Our Story Our Time” will encourage the broken and convict the proud. But we all have a next step to take as we figure out our role in this story. Parents of addicts need counseling and support groups as well. Children of addicts are flooding the foster care system. We are praying that the Church will rise up to these challenges and help reconcile families back into community—families that have felt isolated and have tried to fight this alone for too long.
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