A Month Down The Drug Ravaged South
While this story is one I’ve felt compelled to tell for almost two years — it’s one more than a few people wouldn’t appreciate me writing.
For the sake of not of embarrassing innocent family bystanders and protecting the guilty ones — names of the people involved, my relationships to them and the place where it all happened — have all been changed.
I’d like it understood how fragile of a topic this truly is, as people I’m related to involved are already facing criminal charges that could put them away for life.
It should be noted, when I googled the real name of the town it all took place, the only thing it returned was a few posts from the local church’s website. The internet was considered an unnecessary luxury in this town it seemed the rest of America might as well not have known existed. It even stumped Google. So you’re not missing out on much by me not revealing it’s real name. Trust me, you’ve never heard of it and you’ll never end up in it — at least not on purpose.
This time two years ago, my Aunt Dee was dying of cancer. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer years earlier but it thankfully went into remission. She was one of the lucky ones who caught it early enough.
Or so we at least thought at the time. It came back with a vengeance in late 2015. By early 2016, it was clear she was tired of fighting. She had battled breast cancer, survived strokes, was living with diabetes — you name it, she probably went through it.
The human body can only take so much before something inside says it’s had enough — and it prepares itself for departure.
Though we weren’t close for most of my life, I was blessed enough to have her living around the corner from me for the last year or so of her life.
I was able to make runs to the store for her and try to ensure she was as comfortable and happy as possible before she eventually passed away after suffering a massive stroke, in May of 2016.
As sad as her passing was, I know she was constantly in pain in the end. A big part of me was just relieved she was no longer suffering.
She had struggled and fought — in some capacity or another — for her entire life. The fight was finally over.
Why that part of the story is vital to the rest is because her memorial service brought family from down in North Carolina, all the way up to us in Philadelphia, to pay their final respects to her.
A man I’ll refer to as my great Uncle Ike — one who I hadn’t seen in over fifteen years — made the trip from a town we’ll refer to as Charming, North Carolina.
My mother’s side of the family has deep south, Native American roots. We’re not talking the parts of North Carolina most are familiar with or vacation to. I’ve spent a week down the Outer Banks. The town my family originates from and where the rest of this story takes place, though only a two hour drive away from the luxurious beach front homes in Nagshead, NC — might as well be in another country. Charming’s population of 3,000 makes for a very different life than the city life I came to know in Philly — a city of 1.5 million. There is literally twice as many cops in Philadelphia, than there is people altogether in Charming, NC.
So when my Great Uncle Ike approached me after my Aunt’s service and after a very brief conversation, offered to move me down to Charming, let me stay on his land and put me to work — it wasn’t one I seriously considered at first.
Then, I really started to assess it with an open mind. I had just quit my office management job, wasn’t happy with my living situation at the time and was become increasingly unhappier with where I was as a whole. I realized I had nothing to lose. What solidified my decision to go, was my Mother telling my Uncle Ike there was no way she’d ever ‘let me’ go. The quickest way to get me to do something is to tell me I won’t, can’t or am not allowed to.
The Plot Thickens
Before the service for my Aunt Dee ended, Uncle Ike pulled me aside and asked me to sit down and talk with him. He informed me if the move was something I was considering, there were a few things I needed to know.
One thing in particular actually — he was facing manslaughter charges for shooting an armed trespasser on his land. A man who later died at the hospital. This probably should have been the part where I decided against the move. But all I could focus on was how I had nothing to lose, nothing to stay for, how much time I’d have to write down NC because I wouldn’t know many people and now Ike had just subtly let me know — I’d be provided with plenty of writing material. Life may be slower down south but it’s far from dull.
The red flag I should have never ignored, a last ditch effort that was meant for me to come to the decision to stay as opposed to trying to manipulate me into doing so, came in the form of a conversation with my Godmother a few days before I was scheduled to leave for North Carolina. Though I wasn’t one to talk about it much, most my family knew I was in recovery and had been clean from drugs and alcohol for about a year at that point.
So, I guess my Godmother felt it was only right to tell me how Uncle Ike had been making his living since getting hurt at his construction job years prior — Uncle Ike sold narcotic pain medication. Percocet to be exact — my poison of choice in my heyday. I don’t know why I decided to overlook this but I did. Maybe it was because it was too late, I had already told everyone I loved I was leaving. Travel arrangements were made, farewells had been bidden. I felt like if I backed out at that point, everyone would just tell themselves I knew he wasn’t going to actually go through with it. Not this time, I was going. Gone.
We’re Not in Kansas Anymore
After a fourteen hour trip, two painfully long and horrific bus rides with a three hour layover in Washington D.C. and lugging my entire life along for the ride — I arrived at the bus station in Fayetteville, NC just after midnight.
To his credit, though it was something he should have told me back in Philly — Uncle Ike came clean about what he did to make a living from the very moment we got back to his property. I say property as opposed to house because there were very few houses in Charming. The majority of folks lived in double wide trailers, that were very much like houses inside.
Charming, North Carolina was once a proud and close knit farming community. One of strong Christian beliefs and an old school work ethic. In many ways, it lived up to the Bible thumping, shotgun toting stereotype plagued upon so much of the south.
While all the people I met during my stay there are very different from my friends and family up North, very few fit the “dumb southerner” stereo type.
Yes, many of them were less formally educated than family back home due to the fact they had to quit school young to work, in order to help support their struggling but happy families — but they were educated and advanced in areas Northerners just aren’t. There is a grittiness and enduring attitude about them, we just don’t have. They’re tough, proud people, many of whom I came to grow very fond of in my short lived stay.
We had a family reunion in Charming, some fifteen years earlier. The amount of damage addiction (opiate addiction specifically) had done to the area and the people who lived there since my last visit was shocking. There were very few people I met, who weren’t hopelessly addicted to prescription pain pills. Very few people worked regular jobs. In fact, those who did were held in high esteem, as if they performed some sort of wizardry to acquire gainful employment. Those who did work, typically stopped by my Uncles for their pills both before and after their work day. The large majority of their paycheck, went to my Uncle Ike and his wife Belle.
Coming from Philly, I’ve met my fair share of people who were hopelessly addicted to drugs — yet it was a drop in the bucket compared to what I witnessed in Charming. Addiction had absolutely ravaged the entire town. I met young mothers who put the well being and welfare of their child second to their addiction. Parents who brought their kids with them to buy drugs, as well as with them on the side jobs they did for drug money. They’d leave them sit in the truck, with the blazing North Carolina sun beating down on them while they mowed grass, shoveled gravel and picked produce.
Like I touched on above, the economic situation in Charming is unforgiving. Businesses were few and far between. Mostly small, family owned and operated, not to mention struggling. Even those looking for help, don’t pay a whole lot. Those who work regularly, still seemed to have to supplement their income with some sort of side hustle, for what amounted to very little. To say these folks appreciate every penny is a bold understatement.
My Uncle Ike’s wife, who I’ll refer to as my Aunt Belle, is one of the toughest, yet sweetest women you’d ever want to meet. Born and raised in the poor, gritty south — she has an endurance and perseverance about her I truly admired. For this reason, she is well respected throughout the community and really the town at large.
It was my very first full night down there, July 4th 2016 to be exact, when I first got a glimpse past her sweet southern belle front and into the tough and fierce woman who did what she had to do to feed and protect her family. It was casually mentioned over dinner, that the local Sheriff had been cruising through Charming’s long, dark country roads every night for the last week or so. I’ll never forget how quickly Aunt Belle’s face transitioned from sweet southerner to all business as she put the bowl of potatoes down and exclaimed “He oughta’ be careful ridin’ round here at night by himself like that. Folks round here don’t take too kindly to that sorta’ thing. Good way to get himself shot”.
As tough as my Aunt Belle is, she truly does have a loving heart. In her heart of hearts, she knew what they were doing was wrong. People would come and spend the majority of their paychecks on pills, she’d send them home with wrapped plates of food, knowing they probably didn’t even leave themselves with money to eat with. While clearly, she was no angel or innocent bystander, seeing her give food off her table to these people as they left, truly warmed my heart. Sure, you could make the claim she was partly responsible for why they had no money for food to begin with but it’s simply not true. If my Aunt and Uncle weren’t selling these people pills, they would have just been forking over their paychecks to someone else. Someone who wasn’t concerned with whether they had anything to eat or not. To me it showed the remorse she had for what they did to make a living, she was often vocal about how much she hated it and how wrong she knew it was. Though I’m not defending their choices, I can personally attest to the fact the work down there is few and far between.
As I’ve stated, ironically enough, my Aunt and Uncle themselves were two of very few people down there who weren’t addicted to prescription pain medicine. That being said, my Aunt Belle had several nephews, nieces and children of her own, who were caught within the grips of addiction. I’ve never seen a woman who went so far out of her way and made so many sacrifices to make sure the children of her drug addicted family members were okay. They’d often come over as a unit anytime food was being served. Then the parents would leave their young kids with my Aunt Belle, for her to take care of while they went and did their dirt. I never once heard her complain about having to take care of those kids. In fact, they seemed to be one of the few innocent and positive things in life she had to hold onto and she no doubt cherished them.
Living on a Literal Southern Pill Mill
Over the next few days, I’d come to realize, Uncle Ike and Aunt Belle didn’t just sell a few pills here and there, they were the towns primary source for prescription narcotics. All day long, from bright and early until a few hours after the sun went down, people were in and out buying pills. The layout of my Uncle’s land, the swinging country gate at the beginning of it, as well as how openly he conducted his business from sun up to sun down almost made it feel like they were running a farm of sorts — which in a way they were — a prescription pain pill farm.
Though being they were both prescribed them, always kept all pills in the bottles they belonged in and when they ran out, they would buy the same exact pills off the street and refill their bottles before reselling the pills again. This way, if and when “The Law” came kicking down the door, which I was warned happened often, the only thing they’d find was what would appear to be legal prescriptions. Though it sounds simple, it was essentially a foolproof system for keeping them out of prison.
It’s not an exaggeration when I say every cop in town knew my Aunt and Uncle by name and face. It was literally like something out of a TV show. Perhaps even the one I borrowed the town name of Charming from, if you replaced guns with pills. Their last name, which was also my Grandmother’s last name, was infamous in town. It was one of those situations where everyone knew what was going on but nobody was doing anything about it. Though the cops became increasingly aggressive since my Uncle killed the armed trespasser on his property. They knew it was drug related, they just couldn’t prove it.
The amount of stories I have from my next thirty days there are countless and range from hilarious to tragic. They paint a picture of what prescription pain medicine and drugs in general have done to so many towns throughout this country. Stories that never hit the medias radar, as if the towns themselves have been completely exiled from the union and forgotten about.
This was an introduction to those stories and the outlandish things I seen and experienced in the month I lasted down there on my Aunt and Uncle’s land in “Charming”, North Carolina. Again, that’s not the real name of the town, as I didn’t tell this story with the intention of incriminating family members — guilty or not. It’s simply too compelling of a story not to tell and one that has been largely ignored by America as a whole for far too long. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be publishing another part of this story, once a week, exclusively here on Medium.