The goal of any nation is to extend the life span of its population. Here in America, that number has grown regularly with the average life expectancy close to 79 years. Last year, however, the U.S. saw its first decline in more than two decades.
A major reason behind that drop can be traced to what's happening in rural areas. Instead of falling, death rates are actually rising, especially for middle-aged white women.
Doctors point to obesity and smoking as causes, but there are others. Small towns across the country are dealing with an alarming increase in deaths from accidental opioid overdoses. Opioids are a type of narcotic that include prescription pain killers as well as heroin. Other reasons for the increased death rate are alcohol abuse and suicide.
Why Are White, Middle-Aged Women Dying?
In recent years, death rates rose a reported 30 percent among middle-aged, white females living in rural areas, according to research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed by The Washington Post.
Alane Vance grew up in a small coal-mining town. She almost became one of those statistics.
"I remember the first time I ever did heroin," she said, "I remember thinking, 'This might kill me. I may die,' and then the longer I was in active addiction I remember mixing it up in the spoon and saying, 'I hope this kills me. I'm ready to die.'"
From Pain Killers to Heroin
Hers is an all too common story. It begins with taking prescription pain medication and developing an addition that ultimately leads to heroin. Like many, she switched to heroin because it was cheaper and more powerful than prescription pain medication.
"And over time, you build up a tolerance," she explained.
At first, getting high helped escape painful emotions...in Alane's case, from divorce and poverty. Soon after, the drugs took control of her life.
"I had no willpower at all. It was too powerful for me," she recalled, "It consumed my every thought. It dictated my every action."
In rural America, many opioid addictions begin rather innocently, starting with an injury from a car crash or an on-the-job accident that prompt doctors to prescribe painkillers to these patients.
Lynn Eldridge is the director of Clinical Services at Process Strategies, a drug treatment facility. In the more than 20 years she's been serving rural West Virginians, she said the current opioid abuse explosion is like nothing she's ever seen. She says the scenarios often sound similar.
"They may get hurt. They are put on a pain pill. It's Oxycontin or Hydrocodone. Whatever it might be," she explained, " And as they go through the prescribed usage of the drug sometimes they'll say, 'I felt a little better when I was taking it, then my neighbor had some left over, and I decided to take hers, and when that got difficult to get, I got introduced to somebody who had heroin."
Eldridge says compared to the city, buying, selling and even taking drugs in the country is not hard at all.
"As far as the rural areas, it's very easy to do your drug deals. You don't have to go on the street corner or shopping mall. You just go out to a back road," she said, "Because there's nobody around to see you."
Breaking Free from Addiction
Despite the growing death toll, people can break free. Eldridge says the first step is detox.
"You need to be detoxed professionally in a medical setting so that it can be handled in a safe way."
She said after detox, a 28-day inpatient treatment or three-month intensive outpatient treatment followed by outpatient therapy is often an effective strategy. Eldridge says that might include the medication naltrexone, also known as Vivitrol.
"One of the newest and best, a game-changing medication, is Vivitrol. It's an injection that's received in a doctor's office. And it will take away the craving, and they get their life back," she said.
While Alane credits her recovery to detox and a 12-step program, she gives most of her victory to God.
"I started getting to know Jesus," she recalled, "and I realized that the same power that rose him from the grave is what fights addiction. Not me. I can't beat it. And once I realized that was the power fighting for me, I knew I was never, ever going back."
Alane went to One Voice, a Christian outreach center with locations serving rural West Virginians. They offer addicts and their families treatment referrals, food, clothing, friendship and most importantly, the Gospel.
"God gives you an opportunity to choose life or choose death. And that's what we want to tell them," explains One Voice founder Debra Davis, "So we get to brag on God and tell them that if they want to see a difference in their life, that that's only the true way to do this."
Prayer is crucial to the process. In fact, most people who walk through the front door of a One Voice center don't leave before first visiting the prayer room.
Alane said the blessings she received from One Voice inspired her to bless others.
"I needed their help, I needed their mentorship. I needed their prayers. I needed their suggestions and their advice, and most of all I needed their love, and I received all that from them," she said, "So now I just try to give that back. I try to be that person for the next me."
Davis says all Christians are responsible for fighting the war on drugs.
"Where there is light there can be no darkness. So that's our job. We have to be the light. Maybe the Christians aren't being the light they should be."
She points out that you don't have to be a recovering addict or even a trained professional to make a difference.
"You can pray," she suggests, "You can also open up your church classrooms to do 12-steps. You can offer a 'Day of Testimony' for the voices of those that have chosen to recover and do well, come and talk, share their stories, give hope to the others."
So while substance abuse is cutting short the lives of far too many, particularly in America's heartland, it's not a lost cause. Awareness and treatment, powered by the Holy Spirit, are making a positive difference.