I was a swimmer by nature. My parent’s swore I was born with gills.I could always find the water, and there I felt at home. Even when l was completely alone in deep water, with nothing to support my feet or arms but my own movements, I felt more safe there than anywhere on ground. There, in the water, I could let go of all pretense, all complaint. I would lie back in the water and float and let the sunlight drench me — see the halo of leaves above framing the light. I was at peace. I needed no one but myself and the God that created this natural beauty.
A couple of decades later, a coal mine explosion occurred beneath the Blue Hole where I swam as a child. Thirteen miners were trapped beneath the earth for two days there. The state and nation garnered all its efforts to save these men. National media decended upon our small town even though we didn’t have enough motel space to house them. Everyone from Geraldo Rivera to news anchors for CNN were in town. It was eerie. We were walking around on the earth and those men were beneath us, possibly dying, suffocating, and no one had the ability to save them. I can assure you, I never turned on a light or moved the thermostat up a notch to feel warmer again without remembering those men trapped beneath the earth and everything their deaths represented. All the celebrities and national attention only served to make the disaster more surreal. False reports by the national media stating that all the miners had survived inspired hope that we would have a happy ending, a miracle, but the reports were wrong. All the miners did not survive. As the nation watched, rescuers carried the bodies of 12 lifeless men from the mine. We would only have one miracle, one survivor that day.
Today, I watched the President of the United States come to Charleston, WV, our state capital, to discuss the opiate epidemic in our state and nation. We don’t have many Presidential visits to our beautiful state. Collectively, all the people of our state warrant only two electoral votes in a Presidential election. The candidates and the media don’t usually spend too much time in our little state, but today, President Obama, personally, came to West Virginia, in his final term, without having a real agenda to push, because West Virginia has the highest rate of fatal overdose of opiates in the nation. We have a national catastrophe and a state-wide epidemic. That’s why he was here — because there was, yet another, National Disaster.This time the disaster wasn’t as visible, not as condensed to one place as a mine disaster or a tornado. It was a disaster of a more insipid nature and more wide spread than any natural disaster.
Again, the eye’s of the nation were upon us because of a catastrophe, a tragedy.
The President met with local citizens in a town hall meeting to discuss ways to cure the epidemic. Some of his opening remarks and the remarks that followed made me weep. I have known too many people who have been afflicted with this addiction. It is crippling. It devastates entire families. In our state, there is no one that has not been, personally, touched by the opiate epidemic.
West Virginians are not the poor, ignorant caricatures that are so often depicted in the media. We are a proud people, and we are feeling the brunt of a nation-wide problem.
Yet, when the teenager’s in my town go to the Blue Hole today, I don’t think they are swimming and feeling the sun on their faces. I don’t think they are remembering the miners that died beneath the river so that they could have electric. Today, they are popping prescription opiates or shooting up heroine. They are suffocating right before our eyes, as surely as the miners died nine years ago, trapped beneath the earth. These people, these sons and daughters, fathers, mothers, and friends are suffocating right before our eyes, and we feel unable to save them.
This drug-addicted generation is not able to float in the water and feel safe without anything supporting them but there own limbs. They are relying on a chemical to make them feel as if they are floating– to give them a very false sense of security. In West Virginia, we are surrounded by natural beauty. There is no reason to seek a high beyond that you feel when you look around yourself at the natural wonder. I don’t know where we went wrong as a state and a nation that our youth have turned to something so destructive, so ugly, so unnatural as this serious drug, but I know we have to fix it. We can not allow our children to die before our eyes of a disease we can cure. This is a tragedy that we can stop.
I know I do not know all the answers, but I do know, that there is still a deep hole in the Sago River, not far from where I was raised. It is a deep spot called the Blue Hole. Men have died there, beneath the river, and peoples have made the choice to get high there that would eventually result in their deaths…
…but, I believe our children can still float there and view the beautiful sunlight streaming through the leaves. We just have to teach them to swim again. We have to teach them to feel secure even if the water is over their head, even if there is nothing to support them but their own limbs. We have to teach them, again, to need no one but themselves and the God that created such natural beauty.