By ANYA WAKEFIELD
The Putnam Herald
HURRICANE - More Than Addiction, a newly emerged local support group, addressed Hurricane High School on April 8 about the impact of substance abuse on the lives of those addicted and their loved ones.
"You are not alone" - a powerful message that there is hope and help - was shared when the guest speakers, who were recovering addicts-turned-ambassadors and those who lost loved ones to overdose took stage to share their personal stories in front of hundreds of students.
The speakers - Shanna McClure, Travis Jones, Joe Young, Melissa Pemberton and Adam Foster - had the audience's full attention as they talked about their lives with drug addiction and their journeys to recovery.
The goal of the event was to raise awareness of the devastation and pain that addiction causes, demonstrate recovery success and encourage the young people to make smart choices and seek help.
"Because we are More Than Addiction" is one of the group's slogans on social media, where they bring real people and their stories together, hoping to break the stigma of addicts being seen simply as "junkies" and inspire compassion in the community.
"We want everyone to hear these stories," said Kate Farmer, a co-founder of the group who lost a loved one to overdose. "We want to help people understand what a person with addiction and their loved ones are going through."
"Behind every addiction there is a person who is someone's child, parent, sibling, spouse, a loved one....It is a person with hopes and dreams, talents and aspirations, who, for one reason or another, happened to stumble over a powerful obstacle in their path," one of the contributors said.
Sadly, in many cases drug exposure and addiction enters lives at a very young age. It was true for Joe Young, whose addiction started with opioids at the age of 11 when he was diagnosed with leukemia and was given morphine for pain management. The illness went in remission and later in high school he had a successful basketball career until a serious injury happened, causing a lot of personal stress. Combined with family problems, the stress caused him to turn to drugs and alcohol. Young has been in long-term recovery since and became a recovery coach. He emphasizes the importance of having a mentor. "When you struggle, find someone you trust. You don't have to bury your problems," he said.
Melissa Pemberton was a successful high school athlete, when a car accident left her with a broken neck and took her grandfather's life. Being given ample amounts of painkillers by the doctor, combined with a trauma of losing the "most important person" in her life, started an opioid addiction that would last for many years. Despite her problem, she was able to get through college and get a master's degree in teaching. While working as middle school teacher she also coached volleyball.
"I was living a double life," she said. "I smoked weed and took pills while at work."
One day the police came to school and arrested her.
"I spent my 24th birthday at a psych ward. I felt very humiliated, the most because my volleyball students were looking up to me," Pemberton said.
Despite several attempts to break the addiction, Pemberton kept relapsing and getting into stronger drugs, overdosing a total of four times.
"Once you put that stuff in your body, you become obsessed with it," she said.
Yet, Pemberton, too, is now a success story, with a job and a house of her own and, more importantly, sobriety.
Travis Jones was a high school football player with dreams of playing in the NFL and changing lives. Being an exceptionally good football player, Jones received multiple scholarship offers from big-time schools.
"I started running with the wrong crowd in my junior year," Jones said. "I had this attitude like I can do whatever I want. I let my ego get in the way."
He got into alcohol and was experimenting with various drugs.
"I was dreaming of becoming successful and buying a house for my mom. But it got to the point where my mom was just happy to see me alive," he said. "It all starts with that first bad decision. I made many bad choices. I am lucky to be alive."
Adam Foster has been surrounded by drugs since he could remember, with alcohol and drug addiction present on both sides of the family.
"I started abusing Benadryl when I was 8 to help me sleep. At age 9, I brought pills to school and tried to sell them," he said.
At age 11 he was into weed and drinking and started intravenous drugs at 17.
"By 19 I couldn't even get out of bed without dope," he said.
After his mother became a user, Foster turned to crime to help pay the bills.
"I felt my mom would die if I wasn't there," said Foster, who at 19 years old, went to prison for robbery.
"The jail makes you adopt this 'tough guy' attitude, like I can take anything I want from you," he reflected.
For the past 11 years, Foster has been in and out of jail with addiction.
"After recent incarceration I felt I didn't want to be this person anymore," he said. "I felt I lost the ability to say 'no.' I was sitting there, ashamed, with a pistol in one hand and a needle in other," he said about his suicide attempt. "But, thankfully, I am a coward."
A family member reached out to him and encouraged going into a rehab facility. Foster has been sober for eight-and-a-half months and became an activist.
"Addiction doesn't care who you are," he said. Having met other addicts of many different backgrounds and professions, he emphasized that no one is immune to this problem, and the key is to speak up and seek help.
"The person cannot do it on their own," said Shanna McClure, a Hurricane native, about the importance of reaching out. A granddaughter of one of the past mayors and a daughter of a school teacher, she felt the pressure of reputation when trying to cover up the problem for one of her loved ones.
"Don't try to hide it," she said. "It is everywhere."
Each day, the drug epidemic is affecting more families in West Virginia.
"I don't know a single person that hasn't been affected," said Kate Farmer, adding that she wished she knew what she knows now back in high school.
Organizations like "More Than Addiction" do an important work of educating the public, raising awareness, and encouraging addicts and their loved ones to speak up and reach out for help, as well as provide the resources and support.
More Than Addiction
n 'Loved Ones' support group meets at the Hurricane Church of Christ at 7 p.m. every Tuesday
n Help & Hope WV: www.helpandhopewv.org
n West Virginia 211
n Stigma Free WV: www.stigmafreewv.org
n Help4WV: 844-435-7498
n Teen Crisis Hotline: text 741741