My younger brother, Gus, doesn’t go to class reunions. He doesn’t meet up with friends at the local bar or exchange pictures on social networks. In fact, he rarely sees his friends.
But when he does, there’s always a casket.
Eighteen years after walking out of Scottsburg High School, diploma in hand, my brother is one of the last of his group remaining. Like some real life Ten Little Indians, his friends from high school are dying one by one.
Mostly victims of overdoses.
Gus and his friends were edgy. They wore their hair long with undercuts. Dyed it with Manic Panic green or indigo or black. They wore saggy pants and metal band tees, and accessorized their wardrobe with thick chains. They weren’t Goth, grunge, or hoods, but they had a certain coolness counter to the sports-centric focus of our school.
They had a flippant attitude toward grades and the SAT and sports and our town and their future and life in general. They were witty and relaxed. Most of all, they were fun. Occasionally, one of my friends would warn me that Gus’s friends were “trouble,” but I always brushed the warning off. I didn’t know what that was code for: My brother and his friends were into drugs.
It was the late 1990s and drug abuse in Scott County, Indiana, was steadily growing. By 2014, this county of roughly 24,000 people would be the hub of an HIV outbreak that major news outlets from New York to Los Angeles and the BBC to Al Jazeera would report on (with a degree of inaccuracy that makes me grind my teeth).
The same small county that turned out in droves to support its high school kids, filling gyms for away games—which was what initially attracted my East Coast parents to settle there—was now being dissected for its failures to protect its kids. And the audience was global.
From what I read, I barely recognized the county where I spent my childhood. Sometimes, it was only the statistics horrified me, like the fact that 10 percent of the town of Austin, Indiana, injects opiods daily. Four-hundred people who nurse a daily habit.
Against the seriousness of the HIV crisis currently affecting 184 people, these are very small things, but the more I read, the more defensive I felt about the small town I’m from. I especially hate the word “rural.”
Technically, it’s the correct word, but it doesn’t feel accurate for a county that’s only 30 miles from the heart of downtown Louisville, Kentucky, where many from Scott County work. It doesn’t feel right applied to a county that’s rich in land, but has few citizens earning income derived the land. Scott County isn’t tony enough to be an exurb and too far from the city to be a suburb. It’s is something in between, but in the end I have to admit that the only word that works is rural.
Which is precisely why it’s gained such traction as a story. We expect people in rural areas to be immune to the dangers of drugs—either from isolation or religiosity or slow-paced life or whatever other Norman Rockwell-esque visions we have about small town life.
It’s a naïve notion that grows from the same root that kept me from noticing my brother’s addiction: It doesn’t happen here. It doesn’t happen to us. We’re not like that.
No matter what we want to believe. It can happen anywhere. And it does.
The silver lining is that this outbreak is focusing some attention on drug abuse in smaller communities like Scott County. Attention that brings needed resources. In the year or so since the first cases were diagnosed, a needle exchange program has been set up, overdose treatment kits have been distributed to first responders, and research is underway to figure out how to help people seek care for their addictions.
Gus and I were close growing up, but I didn’t see that he had a problem. It wasn’t until he checked himself into rehab that I knew. I still don’t know much about his addiction; I don’t ask and Gus doesn’t like to talk about it, except to say that he was uncomfortable with needles, so he never injected. I don’t know how many of his friends could say the same.
He’s clean now, but his friends are still dying. When a call comes, he joins the waning numbers of his friends. Together they toast with a Diet Coke, share the light of a cigarette—caffeine and nicotine their drugs of choice these days—and remember the good old days.
Hoping for better days to come.
Photo by Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons.