Carolyn Weems remembers watching the phone tumbling in the air between her hand and the ground. It happened in slow motion. She remembers hearing a scream that sounded like a wounded animal. It was her own.
These were the moments she learned that her daughter, Caitlyn, was dead—a young victim of the drug epidemic sweeping the United States. Caitlyn was 21 when she died of a heroin overdose.
Joined by other panel members whose lives were impacted by drug abuse, Weems recalled the experience to an audience gathered at the Community Coalitions of Virginia’s 2019 State Summit. Weems said that for her daughter, the issue began with the painkillers to which she became addicted after a tenth-grade soccer accident. At the time of her death, Caitlyn had been staying in a sober living house, “doing quite well,” Weems said.
“Addiction took our daughter,” Weems said. “It didn’t care about how strong our family was, how strong our faith was, how committed we were to each other. It didn’t care about fairness—it’s not fair to outlive your children. And it sure didn’t care about our two and a half-year-old granddaughter.”
CCoVA’s October 30th summit convened attendees from across the commonwealth in Roanoke, Virginia to address the drug crisis. The summit, titled “Emerging Trends in Substance Use: Where do we go from here?” aimed to promote genuine understanding of the issue of substance abuse and to determine a collaborative response to it.
Community Coalitions of Virginia (CCoVA) is a statewide parent organization for smaller, community-based coalitions spread through the commonwealth. CCoVA is like the glue that holds the smaller coalitions together.
Some remarks at the daylong summit reflected a shift of perspective for some in how drug addiction is perceived. “It is a disease. It is not a moral failure. It is a sickness.” Carolyn Weems said. Patricia Mehrmann, whose daughter Tess’s struggle with drugs was featured in the New York Times bestselling book Dopesick, spoke of the rejection and abandonment her daughter faced, “built on false beliefs at the time that substance use disorder was a disease of moral failure.”
Just outside the ballroom where Weems, Mehrmann, and third panelist Logan Horne shared their stories, exhibitor tables promoted resources to respond to the drug crisis. Tables for treatment and recovery centers and government agencies like the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and the US Drug Enforcement Administration flanked the foyer. One table was topped with a display promoting Narcan—the naloxone nasal spray used to reverse an opioid overdose.
Drugs like naloxone have enabled people outside the emergency department of a hospital to respond to an overdose, according to Mary Crozier, Immediate Past President of CCoVA. For Crozier, that decentralization parallels CCoVA’s aim for its coalitions. “We’re trying to engage all different sectors of the community...that includes schools, business, government, young people, older people, the media, military.”
“Coalitions are a low-cost, effective way of engaging people in positive change,” Crozier said. “So, it doesn’t take much infrastructure.” CCoVA, is “basically in the cloud...we’re a coalition of coalitions,” she said.
Nour Alamiri, Chair of CCoVA, says participants have their own day jobs, but do this work because “we care.” Coalitions are the eyes and ears of the community, she says. “We’re volunteers who really take a deep look at what substance use looks like on the ground. We look at schools, we look at health systems, we partner with our local and state agencies, and it’s our job to...see the complete picture.”
Alamiri says the coalition’s responsibility is to humanize users and humanize the experience of having a substance use disorder. She says people can read about substance use disorder but only see facts and figures. “Even if a story is mentioned as an anecdote, you might not know that person,” she said. “But the coalitions really represent those stories, and they don’t see it as, ‘Oh, a user did x, y, and z.’ They see it as ‘Jimmy down the street, this is what happened to him and let me share his story and what we can learn from that.’”
Carolyn Weems, mother of Caitlyn who died of a heroin overdose, has turned her own grief into action. Though Weems said her heart was “shattered” and “nothing’s going to fill the Caitlyn hole,” she decided to take the pieces of her heart and use them to pad the injury. For Weems, this includes remembering “what a great young woman Caitlyn was, what a kind person she was, how helpful she was to everybody, what a great mom she was.” And it also includes talking about her daughter, ceasing to blame God, and getting involved in activism. She formed the nonprofit Caitlyn’s HALO: Helping Addicts and Loved Ones. “Addiction took my daughter, and I am not going to let it take me, too,” Weems said. “Caitlyn would want me to live, not only to survive but to thrive.”
Despite the summit’s weighty subject, the final hour assumed an upbeat tone as Eric Rowles, CEO of Leading to Change, led the group in interactive activities in a session titled “The Path Forward: This is Where We Go.”
The work done with coalitions “never has to be boring” Rowles said, demonstrating the idea as he introduced attendees to techniques like graphic facilitation and crowd control games. He coached the crowd through the responsive reading of six phrases—“Don’t talk. Just act. Don’t say. Just show. Don’t promise. Just prove.”
Rowles shared his own story with the audience. Kicked out of school, he landed in an alternative education school, then a boys correctional facility. “I am here because somebody like you gave somebody like me a second chance,” he told the crowd.
While the term “opioid epidemic” may dominate the national conversation, opioids are not the only drugs haunting the United States. Several summit sessions zeroed in on marijuana and one on methamphetamine—neither of which are opioids. Tracking the past progression and future trajectory of Virginia’s drug problem may be a complicated task. But CCoVA’s summit and its attendees indicate that the crisis is not invisible and its victims are not forgotten.