Addiction in the Berkshires: Four-part ‘Sara’s story’ hits homeMore Info
Journalists are insulted, scapegoated and martyred for telling the truth. With every news story that afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted, I am spurred on to earn the title and join the brave ranks of afflicters and comforters.
This little story I’m sharing today is reminder about the power of journalism to do good in the world — in our little world of south Berkshire County.
I was recently invited to be the guest speaker for two journalism classes at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington. The students, about 35 all together, had prepared questions for me based on their reading the day before of my recent four-part series, “Addiction in the Berkshires: Sara’s story,” in the Berkshire Edge. That series ran over four days and was a first-person account of the 12-year heroin addiction of a local woman I interviewed over the summer.
First surprise: The kids, by and large, seemed to have read the entire 5,000-word story! Perhaps reports of the death of sustained reading are premature. They’d come up with insightful, substantive questions to boot, questions suggesting that they’d really engaged with the difficult subject matter.
“Sara’s story” is deeply personal, visceral and jarring. There’s no polite introduction/trigger warning to explain what the reader is going to come upon. (I’d written a polite introduction/trigger warning and then, at a smart friend’s suggestion, deleted it. The story of a disorienting life ought to disorient the reader.) The journalism students wanted to know how long it took to get my interview subject to translate addiction and withdrawal into images I could visualize. It took five hours, over three interviews and about a dozen long text exchanges. They wanted to know how I had corroborated Sara’s version of events. I told them there were newspaper accounts of certain things and facts I could confirm with court records, but, other than those, I took her compelling word for it.
Here are a few of the more interesting exchanges, which were recorded thanks to MMRHS English teacher Meghan St. John. These led up to the end-of-class moment that inspired this follow-up story.
Student: This story made me scared of heroin. Did you intend to involve a fear factor?
Sheela Clary: No, I didn’t; her story was going to go where it went. I was very interested in hearing what withdrawal felt like and hearing about what taking heroin felt like because I didn’t know those things. I don’t understand why people would try heroin. I was pretty judgy. I just thought, why would you do that to yourself? I wanted to understand why, and she explained, really eloquently, why. But I wasn’t hoping to scare anybody.
Student: Do you think that [our high heroin rates] are because it’s more of a wealthy population here?
SC: It’s an area to study. I got involved with Railroad Street Youth Project when it started, and it started as a result of drug overdoses, suicides and car accidents. I think it’s one of those things that people would like to think doesn’t exist. But if you walk down Main Street, you notice heroin addicts, or Pittsfield, anywhere in the community. If you pay attention, you are gonna notice heroin addicts.
Student: Did it upset you, talking about this difficult subject? Was that jarring?
SC: Well, I read a book about flippin’ Chernobyl. When I was pregnant, I read a book about World War II. I don’t read beach books. I was able to go pick up my kids afterward and have a normal day. But I will say, when she described banging her head against the wall trying to knock herself out, I was speechless a while. I tried to imagine being so desperate that I’d do that.
Student: Has writing “Sara’s story” reinforced your views of addiction or changed them?
SC: Completely changed my view. I came at it from a judgy place, like just don’t do it. But after listening to her, she had good reasons. People have good reasons for using drugs. She was having a lot of problems and it helped her feel better. I ended up with not even a trace of judgment.
A discussion about the reasons kids turn to drinking and drugging in the first place prompted this astute comment, from a boy in the back of the room:
Student:… it can actually be worse to be left out so much than to be bullied, and … I think that, when you start feeling included by that [the drug-using] community, that’s when it spirals into getting worse. Because they are the first people that include you and you’re willing to go down whatever path they go down.
“Wow,” I said.
“Wow,” Ms. St. John said.
At the end of the period, the class filed out the door and I wondered what difficult secrets the exiting students carried around with them. Addiction and substance use affect everyone, and I wanted to know how they had been affected. But a high school classroom isn’t the place for that sort of conversation, and so I was left with my wonderings. Then the astute young man from the back of the room approached me.
He looked troubled and, in one long rush, poured out a story, one he hadn’t told anyone. The short version: He lived with his grandmother. She had full custody. The last time he’d seen his father, on a weekend visitation, he’d been arrested on heroin-related charges, which resulted in the 10-year prison sentence he was now serving. This young man had never been inclined to either visit his dad or to try to understand where he was coming from. He had written him off and gone about his life without him.
Then the outpouring of words stopped. His eyes filled with tears. He fought with himself to finish. “But now, I think, after reading this story, hearing this presentation, I think I might go see him.”