Tucked along the Mississippi River on the western edge of Tennessee, Memphis has a rich cultural history with deep roots in music, American literature and the fine arts. Since it was founded in 1819, Memphis has been the hometown of award-winning actors, Nobel laureates, renowned athletes, politicians and prominent figures in American history. As such, hundreds of thousands of people visit the River City each year, immersing themselves in the unique culture that continues to make Memphis a treasure of the American South.
However, like the rest of the U.S., Memphis and its surrounding communities have been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, particularly when it comes to heroin.1 And media coverage can’t fully do justice to the devastation that heroin has wrought, which has become part of most Memphians’ daily life. If recent headlines are any indication, though, residents of the Memphis area are taking a stand against heroin and its reign of terror.
Showing that “Addicts’ Lives Matter”
On a poster that hung outside the city hall on Sunday, April 23, 2017, the faces of men and women — some of whom were barely out of adolescence — who had been lost to heroin addiction were featured as part of a community-led event called “Addicts’ Lives Matter.”2 Meanwhile, there was an emotional and tear-filled presentation being held at Court Square, attended by a large gathering of locals who agree that heroin has claimed far too many lives. And not only were attendees mourning people who’d been lost to the ongoing epidemic, many of them were also individuals who had overcome heroin addiction themselves and, therefore, felt passionate about the event’s thesis statement: addicts’ lives matter, too.
Following the presentation, most attendees participated in a march, making their way from Court Square to the city hall where 144 pairs of shoes were placed, symbolizing the 144 Americans who die from a drug overdose every day.3 One of the attendees was Ron Heirs, a recovering heroin addict whose heroin overdose at a Memphis bus stop was caught on video and went viral online,4 making him one of many faces of heroin addiction in the U.S. Fortunately, the publicity that surrounded his video was a wake-up call for Heirs who sought help for his problem thereafter.5 At the event, Heirs emphasized that others who suffer from heroin addiction need only to reach out for help to begin living a better life.
Providing Valuable Resources to the Community
In Desoto County, Mississippi, located just south of Memphis across the Tennessee-Mississippi border, the rate of heroin overdose deaths is higher than anywhere else in the state of Mississippi, according to the Desoto County Coroner Office.6 And it seems like every Desoto County resident has had their own experiences with heroin addiction, whether it was due to their own battles with the drug or having lost a loved ones to the epidemic.
Recognizing the need for intervention, co-founders Carol LeMay and Kristina White-Wilmoth have started a nonprofit called Wings of Hope Desoto County. The goal of the new organization is not only to spread awareness, but also to be a valuable resource to those fighting against heroin addiction. For instance, Wings of Hope is holding a number of fundraising events, such as concerts and a memorial march, which will allow the organization to help supply families with Narcan kits for a layer of protection against heroin overdose. Overall, the organization aims to be an on-demand resource for anyone needing advice or support during times of need.
A Show of Solidarity
Each of the past several years has been record-breaking when it comes to the number of drug overdose deaths in the state of Tennessee with Shelby County (and Memphis as its county seat) seeing some of the most dramatic increases. Moreover, opioids account for 72 percent of those deaths, which is why Memphians have started banding together to fight the state’s addiction problem, particularly when it comes to heroin. And among the many individuals who have taken up arms in Memphis’ War on Heroin is Emily Harvey, a resident for whom the epidemic has hit close to home with the death an ex-boyfriend from a heroin overdose.
As a show of solidarity with others who have lost people to heroin addiction, as well as a way of honoring her lost friend, Harvey spearheaded a permanent art installation called the Phone of the Spirit. The installation consists of a phone booth that contains an old-fashioned rotary phone; the booth isn’t actually connected to a phone line because it’s more symbolic than functional.7 According to Harvey, the purpose of the booth is to serve as a reminder of those who have been lost and to encourage grieving and healing. The idea is that the booth will be a designated space to which a person can go to pay respect to someone who died of a drug overdose. Harvey also hopes that as a fixture of the community, the booth will increase awareness of the ongoing heroin problem while also inspiring hope and perseverance.
Making a Real Difference
Brian McCabe was tired of losing loved ones and close friends to heroin addiction and decided to do something about it. The idea was to make stickers and give them to anyone and everyone, hoping that the stickers would start a conversation. On the sticker, McCabe — owner of the well-known live music venue Hi Tone Cafe and Dirty Cotton, an online memorabilia shop that celebrates Memphis culture — depicted a stop sign with the words “STOP doing heroin,” and it quickly became a hit.8 In fact, he was soon being asked to produce larger quantities so that Memphis locals could send batches to family and friends living across the country and abroad. Thus, the STOP Doing Heroin activist group was born.
Today, this grassroots group produces and sells buttons, T-shirts and other products (in addition to the original stickers) to raise funds that are helping STOP Doing Heroin to make a real difference in the community. Besides the products, the group also hosts benefit concerts and other fundraising events at McCabe’s Hi Tone Cafe. With the funds raised, McCabe helps to pay for community members’ addiction treatment, funds a needle exchange, provides Narcan kits and offers free HIV testing to anyone in need. And this is only the beginning.
In 2016, there were 122 Memphians who died from opioid overdose and 1,700 doses of Narcan administered by emergency responders. The problem is getting so severe that we can no longer ignore it. McCabe hopes that STOP Doing Heroin will help to ease the stronghold heroin addiction has held on Memphis and its surrounding communities.
Meanwhile, similar initiatives are emerging throughout the rest of the United States, too. Although the opioid epidemic rages on, more and more people are taking a stand. It seems many Americans are realizing that the only way to solve this problem is to take positive action to effect change in tangible ways at the local level.
Written by Dane O’Leary
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