Episode 11: Moving Out of the Shadows and Into the Light with Sam Quinones
CASAT Podcast Network
Hello and welcome to season four of CASAT Conversations.
I am your host, Heather Haslem this season we will explore the impact of trauma on those who work in human services.
You’ll hear from researchers, authors, and people with lived experience.
We hope you enjoyed today’s conversation today.
I’m delighted to welcome Sam Quinones. Sam is a journalist, storyteller and author of three acclaimed books of narrative nonfiction.
We’re happy to have you here today.
Well, it’s great to be here Heather.
Thank you for inviting me.
I appreciate it.
So as we dive in, please share with us about yourself and how you came to write your most recent book, The Least Of Us.
Yeah, The Least Of Us um, is about several things.
Um the subtitle is the True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth.
It really grew out of my previous book, which was Dreamland, which was about, which was a history of the opioid epidemic.
Beginning with uh widespread, I would say aggressive, sometimes wanton perhaps as a proper term prescribing of opioid painkillers branded ones.
We all know if I could and Percocet OxyContin etcetera, etcetera.
Um, and how that then uh, and, and that was based on the idea promoted by drug companies and pushed on doctors that these pills were now virtually non addictive when used to treat pain if you’re patient and pain and that then led to widespread addiction in fact because that didn’t prove to be true and um, and then uh, that led to a big surge in among some of those folks in heroin addiction and the mexican trafficking world getting involved and understanding that we were in the process in the United States creating this brand new market that they could very, very easily take advantage of which they did.
And um, as I wrote that book, I was finding that um, in 2013 and 14 there was very difficult to write that book principally because the, the, the, the families involved, people who had loved ones who are addicted to these pills and then heroin were very reluctant to come forward, very unwilling to talk about it publicly.
You know, there was this nationwide silence and that was really one of the reasons that spreads So so completely from coast to coast doctors were everywhere of course.
But it was also because there was just this real silence, nobody want to talk about is like the early days of the AIDS epidemic when all the obituaries said cancer and don’t put HIV in my son’s obituary, that kind of thing.
And you found that as well.
And so I found it very difficult.
Then the book comes out in 2015, Dreamland comes out in 2015 and I just watched everything changed.
It was a remarkable thing to live through because I had lived through it.
And you found um, all across the country.
First of all, I began to get all these speaking engagements to come speak, which I did not expect when I was writing and I was certain the book was going to just fade away because no one wanted to talk about it.
It was this taboo subject and suddenly people began to come out of the shadows into the light and this affected a lot of things, media coverage, political debate and discussion budget priorities.
And you began to see it really exp and you know, when I was uh writing Dreamland, there were three lawsuits against drug companies.
Within a few years of Dreamland, there was 2,606,000.
Eventually no one when I was writing the book, very few people knew what naloxone was or how to pronounce it correctly.
Uh no one really knew what an opioid, the term opioid meant.
And so I put in the subtitle to Dreamland, the true tale of America’s opiate epidemic, because that was the word that people understood, I knew that.
And so I watched all that change.
It was remarkable thing.
But my, my publisher wanted me then to write another book, began pushing very quickly.
We need another book.
And I’m like, first of all I was exhausted.
It was a major story.
I knew this was a huge story, was about what we had done to community and how we had shredded community in America and all that kind of stuff was about how we wanted convenient answers to very complicated problems like how to treat pain.
Well the convenient magic answer was one pill for every human being right.
But I still was exhausted.
And I have to say sheepishly that I was thinking old school like an old school crime reporter, which in part is what I am and I just thought to myself what could be worse than heroin?
I mean I wrote about heroin, what’s worse than?
Well, as I began to do speaking engagements over the next several years, 2016, 17, 18, 19, up until the pandemic, I, you know, obviously found out what was what was worse than heroin and I was fentaNYL and the synthetic drug revolution that very much like the opioid revolution in american medicine.
The synthetic revolution has taken place down in the mexican trafficking world on the western side of of of of Mexico in which they have discovered um gradually more and more people.
And they understand that synthetics are in every way a better proposition.
If you’re a trafficker there more there, you don’t need land, you don’t need rain, you don’t need sunlight.
You just make all these things in the lab.
It’s all chemical based, you only need shipping ports to get access to the the chemical markets in china and India in various places around the world which they have, they have two major shipping ports right there.
And I began to see that and it occurred to me that we were now in a new world and we really are synthetic drugs change everything about drugs about manufacturing, smuggling, profit use addiction treatment there almost as really nothing that remains um uh the same and and and there was this, this revolution really took place and now what has happened is that they’ve really covered the country in in an unprecedented way, no, no one source has ever done this before, covered the country with not one but two drugs methamphetamine and fentaNYL and I watched this kind of proceed as my, as I was coming to the idea that I need to write another book and that became part of my focus as well as the focus being on um the the, the world of the toxic soup that you and I and everyone else lives in constantly of addictive, legal and addictive substances and products that are massively marketed at us and and lately the most prevalent one, if you brought sports at all are gambling just everywhere but you know, sugar porno, video games, social media and stuff and smartphones etcetera etcetera, um you know fast food, soda etcetera etcetera.
And to me this was like a fascinating way of conceiving what was going on because the sinaloa drug cartel as well as the purveyors of all those products I just mentioned were basically interested in the same thing, which was to picking away plucking at our brain chemistry to get us to follow those reward pathways, those impulses to buy to use their products and they were doing so constantly, um with a lot of know how a lot of money involved and, and, and to me that felt like an amazing idea and that we were up against a seer and array of forces that which our brains are really not prepared to deal with, you know, because they evolved millions of years ago, really.
And so as part of that, I began to ask myself, what was the, what is the, what, what, how can we defend ourselves?
What am I to say?
As a journalist, I’m not a preacher, what am I to say?
So I began to write, I came to think that the story was really about the way to defeat this or the way the best defense that we had was really what we always have had in our brains, which is this impulse towards community, towards being around other people.
Only in the United States, we have turned away from that last 40 years, We’ve done so much to shred community thinking we don’t need it, it’s too messy.
Other people drive us nuts, we want to be alone and all that.
And it’s really been one of the symptoms of that I think has been, um, well there’s a lot of stuff, there’s suicide, there’s isolation, there’s friendless Nous, there’s loneliness, I believe that the, the, the addiction to all manner of stuff is including meth and fentaNYL are, are kind of symptoms of that.
And so the idea became to write stories about people who were doing in the smallest least sexy way.
We’re doing what they could to help prepare community in America and that’s became half the book.
So as part of half the book was, was this fentaNYL and meth and, and the neuroscience of how, how you know, sugar works and addicted addiction works.
But then also stories of how people in the smallest way.
Because I did not want anybody who thought he was saving the world.
I think we need to get away from that as a, as a country that is, brings all kinds of unintended consequences.
And so my feeling was like half this book is really about these stories of these folks were just in the, in the smallest, unnoticed uh, non sexy way, just doing what they can to make their little corner of the world a little bit better place.
So that is very long winded explanation of how I came to write The Least Of Us.
I’m curious how you, um, sounds like you wrote this book during Covid and I’m curious if you saw, um, ways that Covid impacted.
I wrote half the book during Covid.
Um, as I said, I was doing all these speech speak speaking engagements all over the country.
And then about, and I had about for 2020 I had maybe another good number.
I can’t remember how many, but, but certainly a good number And and by March, they were all gone.
They were all just evaporated March 2020.
And so, you know, it was such a damaging thing for the country.
So many families I will say.
However, for me it was actually a benefit.
Um, I just sat in my garage office and wrote for about 14 months straight.
I finished the book.
It was it was it was I was well into it, but it needed a lot more work still.
And so I finished it and I would say that yes, it it was it was if you think about it, Covid was really returning us to the to the status quo, that really got us into this in the sense that it created a whole lot of isolation, A whole lot of job loss too.
And a lot of just separation from other people.
All these 12 step meetings now had to be on zoom, which I assume is a nice, nice, nice technology.
But it does not really uh substitute for real human face face interaction at all.
And and so um you began to see that it Covid happens.
It is the great one of the great tragedies of the covid pandemic That it comes along just as what I was talking about earlier has happened already.
And that is by 2019 you see the trafficking world of Mexico essentially has covered the entire country with fentaNYL and methamphetamine.
The final blow in that I think is is that methamphetamine, the method that they’re making out of Mexico um made it all the way up to New England.
Which really never had any methamphetamine of any sustained quantities um to speak of ever.
And now now it’s certainly now it certainly does, covering the entire country with meth and dropping the price by 80%.
And meanwhile fentaNYL is coming.
It starts in like the midwest and the opioid states, so to speak.
And it goes east and west.
And by 2018 19 it’s fully all over nine by 2019.
It’s all over California.
So what you see is as this great push towards to isolate because we have to stop this horrible pandemic.
The drugs have changed and have become these extraordinarily deadly things and and mind tangling things like methamphetamine is uh today.
And so to me that that was really that those two things happening together is what what pushed us to these um horrible new record overdose uh tallies that we’re seeing and probably gonna see for 2021 22 as well.
So all of that is kind of um the the way in which covid really um Just brutalized the country.
It was a sad thing too because I really thought by 2019 I was so impressed with the progress that had been made towards rethinking a lot of things.
Now everybody knew how to pronounce naloxone now it was very, very available.
Now Medical assistant treatment was, was becoming more accepted now people were moving out of the shadows into the light, which was, I can tell you was absolutely not the case.
When I was writing Dreams in 2013 and 14, I was stunned by all those lawsuits, all that money being dis launched.
Now you see CVS and Walgreens, five billion here, five billion there you see all these pharmaceutical distributors and companies like like Purdue, you know, I’m gonna pay all this money.
I never, ever, ever thought any of that was possible when I was writing Dreamland because there was no movement that the folks who were, who were affected by it were made awful plaintiffs, They were, you know in and out of jail stealing their kids christmas presents, you know, for dope and this kind of thing.
There was, there was no feeling like this was was a great um that this would, would linda’s result in a vast accountability on the part of some of these very, very, very powerful corporations and yet that’s exactly what’s happened.
I’m stunned and very gratifying, very, very feel, very kind of vindicated.
I think in large part because I know what it was like before when I was writing the book, I really love how you talk about moving out of the shadows into the light and it sounds like your first book, Dreamland had such an awareness raising consciousness raising for the United States.
Um, and I’m curious to see how this new one will kind of revolutionize how we think about addiction.
I think what’s happened is that this book is coming out just as Covid is retreating and a lot of what had happened in 2019 wasn’t always apparent to people.
And then 2020 21 we’re all about Covid and that was the discussion and all the newspaper and the media coverage was all about that.
And now you see Covid kind of retreat last many months and then now people are understanding what, what has, what this opioid thing has kind of morphed into.
And it’s it’s become a major issue for so many communities I would say to it’s very connected to the homelessness and the homeless encampments that you’re seeing in many cities across the country, and small towns as well, I would say.
Um I would say a big factor and all that is methamphetamine.
Methamphetamine is becoming coming out of Mexico.
One of the things that the book, The Least Of Us um, broke, I think was the fact that this methamphetamine was no longer kind of a party drug once you want to be around other people.
Um it was a drug that created um, a very solitary sense and also, most of all, um very rapid onset of symptoms of schizophrenia intense paranoia, intense delusions.
Um, and and a feeling like you don’t want to be around other people.
And so therefore, um people would very quickly become homeless when they’re on this method.
They would then not want to be in a homeless shelter and the tent encampments kind of a perfect place then for people who are on this, this myth, because it’s, you can hide from the world in your little tent pod, but you’re also around other people who are doing the drug and so you kind of feel and engaged and encouraged and and also get the drug is available through those, through those folks.
And so you’re seeing tent encampments homeless.
The shape of homelessness has has changed the form it takes, has changed in America since this mess began really covering the country when it when it really entered the United States in enormous quantities, beginning about roughly say 2012, 13, 14 on the west coast and then pushing east to to New England about 2019.
You’re seeing the same kind of tent encampments that you saw on skid row in Los Angeles, which is kind of where a lot of the starts and meth is really huge in that that area.
You’re seeing those same tent encampments in rural indiana you’re seeing in Portland’s seeing and you’re seeing them in boston till they clear them away, this kind of thing.
And so, um all of that is part of what I think The Least Of Us is trying to talk about.
Um these are some of the very, very dire and sinister forces that we’re kind of facing as a, as a culture.
Yeah, and I want to spend a little time um really hearing your perspective on these legal addictive substances to um I think of course the fentaNYL and the meth are really important.
I mean honestly we talk about it, it just horrifies and scares me thinking about what’s on the streets and the repercussions of that.
Um but I also think it’s important to acknowledge these legal substances and kind of the similarities that are happening in the brain.
Oh, oh, I would say that that’s the fascinating thing.
Um one of the chapters in my book, um I was just blown away by this, There’s this wonderful neuroscientist who studies the addictive properties of food.
Nicola Nicola vanna at um at Princeton.
And she was very, very generous with her time and and and really a brilliant, brilliant person and and very, very good at explaining to to laymen like myself um these very complex and anyway, early on, and as as they were, they were some of the first um um experiments uh rick regarding the uh the scientific experiments establishing the addictive properties of sugar were done at the Princeton lab, which was which were where she was then a graduate student many years in the early two thousand’s.
And back then it was just in the basement of the neuroscience of the psychology department now, you know Neurosciences have blossomed blossomed into this standalone thing.
And there’s a big building now the neuroscience Institute of Princeton and so on.
He got these different buildings all over Vanderbilt, various places, you know.
Um Anyway back then that was not the case.
They were doing their own little research in the basement of the of the of the psychology department and they did a study on what they asked themselves, what would the effect be if we gave naloxone two rats that were dependent on sugar.
Okay, would they experience the same, demonstrate the same symptoms of withdrawal withdrawal.
Sorry that that um we associate with rats when they are withdrawing from other drugs.
And so they got these rats dependent on sugar for about a month or two I think uh 10 hours, 12 hours a day of sugar, water, you know, that kind of thing.
And then they gave they did this experiment a couple of times they gave these rats um naloxone.
And sure enough they went through the same withdrawals rats apparently according to Nicole, have these symptoms, you can very easily tell when they’re under a lot of stress.
Like with withdrawal they begin to they teeth chatter, they do a lot of like man and grooming uh they do the wet dog shaking, rapid, rapid shaking, this kind of thing.
And they were just blown away that this was the same reaction they had when they were addicted to um other drugs, heroin and in particular.
And so um it led to the idea that sugar is hitting the same reward pathways and opioid uh receptors as um as is heroin and opioids and in every opioid and it does in in in in general, you know, and it just was part of this, establishing that there are addictive properties to these foods and granted they don’t have the same euphoric effect as drugs of abuse, which are like a nuclear bomb on your, you know, reward pathways, but they do hit the same places and you can understand how addictive they are then by that.
So that that was part of my I just I just love that experiment and you just you’re you’re addicting these rats and then all of a sudden they go into withdrawal just like anybody withdrawing from heroin or another opioid, you know?
So, um I I think that is that is um that became like this part of the book that I thought, you know, that’d be interesting to talk about.
And it became kind of my obsession after a while, I included five full chapters on it and and the neuroscientists I was able to talk to were really helpful and brilliant, brilliant folks and I’m in all of these folks and it’s just such a wonderful time for neuroscience research now, but it does get back to the whole idea that this is a continuum, It’s really, you know, you got this panorama of people.
The facebook software engineer, the gambling casino designer, the pornographer, the video game manufacturer, the soda manufacturing teacher.
And at the end out there is the sinaloa drug cartel, right?
It’s you know, it’s they’re all about the same idea.
They’re all plucking away at our brain chemistry.
And I have found that once you operate in that way, once you operate without understanding you all of a sudden are kind of you can be a free born american again, that’s how I feel like you can make these choices that say, okay, I’m not gonna buy this at the supermarket.
I’m not gonna gamble.
I’m not you can under you can understand I am going to defeat what they are trying to do to my brain chemistry.
I’m gonna go exercise, I’m gonna walk away from this, this junk, I’m gonna buy plant based food, you know this guy and this is what I’ve been doing.
Um I I kind of rethought, I kind of rethought certain things in my life to get away from the stuff that I know I can understand now is what it’s doing to my brain chemistry and I try to do what I can to to to uh defeated.
And exercise is probably the most important one of all.
You know, I I’ve read her research before and I’ve been really interested in the sugar piece for a long time.
And something that struck me that I think about often is like in treatment centers or different places.
The craft that we feed people while they’re in treatment, um just blows my mind or the crap that we give people of low socioeconomic status and we’re making them sicker by giving it to them.
And it’s unbelievable my mind and as it does mine, it’s great of you to bring that up.
I think that I was in a, I never forget once I was doing this part of the book, I would think back a lot to a treatment center I wandered into, I can’t remember even how now.
I think it’s Anaheim in Orange county California.
And there were a bunch of guys sitting around on a sunny afternoon by the way, uh, and not doing drugs, but they were eating, they were drinking Pepsi’s, they were eating like Doritos or some stuff.
There was a pizza box there and they were drinking like sodas, Pepsi or monster drinks or whatever the heck it was, you know, and I was thinking, I’m not sure now this was long, this was one just shortly after.
I mean, it might have been even while I was writing a dreamland, um, I thought to myself, I don’t think that’s a healthy way of recovering from drugs.
You know, I’m amazed, as you say that there is not far more focus placed on two things in, in drug, in treatment centers, nutrition and exercise.
Both of those things are part of your brain healing, feeding it junk food and cigarettes is simply, I don’t know, it seems to me like counterproductive, you know what I mean?
And I would also say that it’s an outrage that we subsidize as a government the production of corn, high fructose, corn syrup, which is so prevalent in so many foods and used to kind of uh, you know, prod you to eat more because it subdues your, your feelings of satiation, satiation all.
But apparently, so, all of that to me, I mean, why we can’t subsidize vegetable growing, I simply don’t get, you know.
Um, but, but to me that’s, that’s yes, again, a kind of a, how we developed this, this in the last 40 50 years and more probably, um, a culture where we just kind of get away from what really sustains the human being and, and, and, and, and bows down to substances and, and, and forces that just would would beat us up for for money.
Just yes, exactly, Exactly.
Um, it makes me think, I used to do a lot of work in crime disease and um, working with older adults and I was working with a senior living complex, um, trying to get college students in there to create a community garden and they had tons of land and um, so I proposed it to the person who leads this organization and I will never forget that she’s like, no, we can’t do that.
The seniors might fight over the fruits and vegetables, just like people are fighting over fruits and vegetables.
That is a fantastic problem to have rather than being isolated in their apartments.
Um, you know, the list goes on.
So I think we have a lot of work and shifting the way that we think about.
And I think it what right now it comes down to individual choice.
And I began to feel that the opioid epidemic was about nasty drug marketing and was about heroin trafficking and all that kind of stuff.
But it was also, it comes down to always our own individual choice.
You do not have to buy that stuff.
You can find other ways of eating healthy.
And I believe cheaply to frankly far more so than than buying junk food and whatever is just in the center part of the grocery store.
You know, um, I do believe that and I believe that that um, you know, it we do need exercise and exercise and nutrition.
I just think I have to be part of every drug treatment protocol, you know?
Yeah, I agree.
I do love that.
Just made me think in your book, you have a line where you talk about supply reduction is the best harm reduction.
And I just that really resonated from, I feel that that is what what, um, frequently what happens, um, you know, um, the first time that the sinaloa drug cartel figured out what fentaNYL was, was in 2006, it’s a story I tell in the book about this underground chemist that was in the United States, a mexican guy.
It was, you know, grew up in the United States, became a fentaNYL cook, He went to prison for a lot of years, became a better fentaNYL cook was deported.
And the similar drug cartel hires him.
Um he turns them on into fentaNYL.
They did not know what fentaNYL was in Mexico until he shows them that this is a synthetic heroin.
They no longer need to grow poppies under the sun.
Uh you know, with irrigation all that.
And um and he begins to make this fentaNYL and they begin to ship it.
This one element was one part of the Sinaloa drug cartel uh is funding this and they send his fentaNYL up to Chicago.
And from there, it makes its way also to Detroit ST louis philadelphia Cleveland maybe I think.
And through that period from a fall of 5 2002, this april of 2006 when his lab was busted in Mexico and he was put in prison again.
Um it killed thousands of people.
And then when his lab went away, all those people, those people stopped dying.
It was, it was the exact example of of uh where supply reduction equals very, very graphically equals harm reduction.
And um, and I think that that that is a lesson that we we ought to continue to understand that um that we both the country of Mexico and us have done very, very little and a binational collaborative way to um to defeat this.
And and and because of that the supplies have grown so catastrophic in Mexico.
Of course there’s a gross corruption.
Um, I live down in Mexico for 10 years as a reporter.
My first two books, in fact about Mexico um, which are all available.
People can see them online on amazon and whatever.
And I live down there 10 years.
And so I don’t have really any rose colored glasses through HIV Mexico love the country.
But there’s a lot a lot of problems on the other hand, we to um have encouraged the impunity with which those traffickers produce such catastrophic quantities of dope by the guns that are slow smuggled so easily here in the United States and then smuggled south.
And this happens constantly.
There’s a little drip, drip, drip of guns going south every day in in small amounts 357, but over time it’s huge quantities of weapons and and a lot of them are assault weapons.
And I think that the they’re the cartel wars that really kicked off the year after I left Mexico, I left in oh four and 05.
They really kick off.
And um, and coincidentally or not, that is the year after, uh, which are our national assault weapon ban collapsed and expired.
And so 2000 and it expired in 2004 and five.
Um, you could sell these guns um, anywhere.
And I believe that has maybe that’s a coincidence, but I’m so, I certainly believe that there’s a connection there between the amount of assault weapons in particular and ammunition obviously as well and the gross quant ability of them to, to produce such staggering quantities of dope that they can cover the country with 22 of these drugs, not just one, you know, this, our season right now that we’re recording for is about trauma and secondary trauma.
And I’m curious what you’ve seen on the impact of first responders, behavioral health providers, um, from this current epidemic.
Yes, I would say that.
Um, I would say severe and, and withering, I’m not sure of other, uh, ways to describe it.
You know, um, I would say to that in some cities, particularly on the, on the west coast, there is a company, It’s accompanied by a real frustration among first responders with the policy of a lot of city and county governments that just kind of believe that well, this is the natural course of things and people have a right to do drugs and all that kind of, I found that among paramedics in particular, uh, people are very upset about, um, about the policies that seem to be encouraging this drug use and and certainly not penalizing it.
There are no consequences is what people have told me.
Um, and you see this also in, um, I was just spent a lot of time on, on skid row and they have um, uh, they have a business improvement district, believe it or not, for the Skid row area of Los Angeles.
Um, and I wrote a story there um, this month and well, in october I should say, um, for um, uh, Los Angeles magazine about that and they have a um, a security detail that’s not really police force, but you know, and, and these folks are constantly dealing with, um, you know, horrifying scenes inside tents pimping and disease and people who have passed out and their tents on fire.
The tents like climbing up the wall of the business, it’s right next to, and, and all of this is just a kind of a withering away of the spirit and, and energies of people, I believe we take far far too much for granted, um, as if they’re always gonna be there no matter what happens.
And, and I would add to that, as I said, that there is a very, very serious um, frustration would be a charitable word, um, uh, with regard to um, the policies that, that the results of which and the consequences of which first responders see on the streets every day.
Um, and, and, and, and they see this, they see methamphetamine creating horrible, horrible um, mental illness and homelessness and tent encampments and all the rest.
And so I would say that that’s its pad, you know, it’s been a devastating thing from the folks and I haven’t talked to hundreds of people and you know, it’s a limited number, but I still, you can see here the same things over and over when you talk to folks, you’ve gone to a lot of conferences where you present on this topic and I would imagine even just understanding the history is really helpful for people because there’s perceptions that people may develop without that kind of broader picture.
And I would say that I would say that one of them is that there is one of the misconceptions I think that we need to understand is that there is some kind of board of directors down in Mexico ordering up stuff that is simply not the case.
There’s, there are cartels, they’re very fearsome and sophisticated.
But overall it’s a pretty diffuse industry or ecosystem, you might say of drugs.
Uh, the division of labor is pretty stark.
You have drivers, you have cooks, you have all these different people who are different doing different work.
Um, you do have control on certain things, but you, you don’t have the kind of board of directors making policy.
In fact it’s the opposite and that’s why we have so much supply and why the prices dropped.
If there was some control cartel type control at ala, opec say, you know, where you reduce supply to force price up, then we would not be seeing the price drops that we’re seeing all across the country for this stuff.
You know, it’s it’s really a function of a vast free market that has no limitations and almost no limitations.
Let’s say they can get all the chemicals they want, their the consequences that legal ramifications are minor for most people.
Um, and the profits are, are there to be, are there to be made?
And if the price drops that because you can, the response is not to cut back the responses to produce even more, You know, so you’re making what you used to make with double the product, you know, because you can, because the chemicals are there because there’s a labor force that’s able to do this.
And because the law enforcement is not going to be an issue down in, down in, down in Mexico and that is how you get to the current situation we have in the country where we have these drugs covering the country, you have, the supply is just unrelenting and and it’s like, it’s not a wave that’s important to understand too.
It’s a new high tide, it’s a new less sea level.
That’s what it’s not a, it’s not a wave that comes and goes, this is here and it’s everywhere.
And the, and the, and the stuff is is uh, and the prices, you know, um reflect that to me at the conferences, I go to um particularly people who work in treatment or public health or you know, local government, that kind of thing.
There’s this misconception that people that there’s some directive from down in Mexico and I think it’s more likely that there’s just so many people who see that they can get make money doing this and they’re they’re not infringed upon by law enforcement and the lease down there.
And so hence you have what we’re, what we’re, what we’re dealing with here.
I’m really curious, you know, you witness a lot of people’s suffering and trauma and you take in their stories, um in order to do your work as a journalist.
And does that have a personal impact on you?
Um That’s a good question.
I I would say yes, but not as much as you might imagine.
Um One time when I was a crime reporter for early on in my days working in the, in the city of stockton California I interviewed and did a long story about the, with the medical examiner in that town and he said, you know, there are times when it affects me, but most of the time I see a body in front of me, it is a, it’s a question of how to decipher from the bodies, evidence what has happened to this person so that I can tell that story to the family, right?
And I view my job, I’ve come to view my job the same way he says, it doesn’t help me if I’m like crying and hugging them and all I feel terrible about your death.
What they need most is clear answers from me and to the extent that I’m capable and the evidence shows it, I’m gonna try to do that and I don’t break down and cry, I don’t feel.
And so I would say that that’s kind of my feeling as well.
I love my work, I love telling stories.
I particularly tell, love telling stories that I think are huge that nobody else is telling.
And I think that’s what the last 10 years of Dreamland Book and The Least Of Us is really all about.
Um I have kind of gotten used to dealing with people who are bereaved and who are dealing with very, very traumatic uh situations that that no parent should have to go through or no family should have to go through.
I know how to deal with them.
I know that what they most need to do, even though they may not understand it at that moment, is tell the story.
I know that this and they will thank me in the long run.
The problem is, you know, they don’t want to at the moment, maybe I need to be very, very, very patient, quiet careful with their with their feelings and I’ve learned how to do this, but I understand that my job is um not to cry and hug them and and so on.
It’s really to tell the story because if I don’t, there’s probably not too many other people are gonna do it, you know?
So, um, I kind of have thought of myself in the same way as that.
It’s not that deaths don’t affect me or that certain expo exposure to certain situations aren’t impactful.
It’s the how you how you then manifest that the effects of that in your writing and in your report in my writing and my reporting, that’s what I think is really important.
So I try and I try to say this is the job this is.
And I’ve got to make sure that I tell the as powerful a story as I can with the evidence with the with the time and the space that I have.
Um and and and and and that will be my that is my job.
That is the role of the journalists in the civil, in a democratic civic society.
You know, And and uh, too often I think we we judge reporters based on how well they cry on camera or how well they touch their person their eyebrows and say, oh, that’s terrible.
We know that when a three year old kid is killed in traffic and that’s a bad thing, nobody needs to tell me, you know, with their pursed eyebrows and they’re shaking the head, but tv has led us to believe that in order to show that you really human, you have to be like weeping and stuff.
I don’t think so.
I think it’s, it’s a, it’s a question of how well you do the job to tell the story.
Just the same way as that medical examiner, uh, piecing through the, uh, you know, using the body as, as the, as the canvas of evidence.
Uh, did well, it sounds like one you’re very clear on your purpose and to that.
Um, there’s a lot of meaning that comes from giving space to are really shining a light on these stories.
Oh, I can’t that’s absolutely true Heather.
I would say that some of the most powerful moments of my life or when I give, I’ve been given speeches right?
And family members would come up in tears and hugged me.
I did a lot of hugging because in a situation like that you’re not really, I don’t really know what to say.
And I think most people would just kind of, these are families have been through horrible, horrible hellish ordeals.
And I don’t know the words sometimes, you know, a reporter sometimes.
And so the best thing is simply to hug tight.
You know, mothers, brothers, grandfather.
I mean, you know, it’s just, there’s so, uh, so I began to do that as much, but it meant a lot to me, um, that I loved your book and made me understand what had happened to my my wife for my son.
You know, um, and uh doctors coming up to me, I changed my practice because of your book.
I think I must have heard a dozen doctors at least tell me that either in person or over email, um, you know, uh, whole boards and directors of hospitals being given the book to read that happened so many times.
I’ve lost, I’ve lost count really.
Um, you know, it’s just like this amazing feeling like you’ve done the job right?
And it begins to, and and above all, I have to say this, as I said earlier, it really can, I think was a major, played a major role in convincing people to step out of the shadows into the light and that it was healthy for them.
And that was healthy, healthy for the country to or their region or wherever it really revived it revived conversation and, and media coverage and story telling you, you’ve got to tell those stories.
And if the people who are can best tell those stories are hiding away in their bedrooms, crying for the photo album, that doesn’t, it’s bad for them, I believe, frankly.
But it’s also not good for the country.
You need those folks out there telling the stories and what Dreamland.
Um, that’s what I began to see people coming out.
I could see it grow every single year.
Um, the power uh, that, that they then possessed as a group, even though it was not organized.
There was no, no president, no spokesman.
There’s no press release any of that stuff.
It was just people from coast to coast coming out of the, of the, of the, of the, of the shadows and telling their, their stories.
And I think a lot of that had to do with Dreamland and for that, I feel that is what makes me tear up.
They’re like, wow, this book had that effect and a positive thing to push people to a healthier place maybe.
I think so anyway, when I would imagine that gives you energy to continue doing the work that you do too.
That’s my feeling.
Um, so you, in the second part of your book, you really talk about community resilience and the power of community.
Can you share more about that?
Well, I began to say that as a journalist, you know, the best thing to do as a journalist is not preach, not tell people what you want them to know, show them stories of people doing what you think is important.
So for example, this one story that I could tell is about uh, the guy Bird in muncie indiana.
Uh, this fellow named bird nickname a bird.
Um, mike McKissick was real name.
He lived across in the south muncie neighborhood that had many too big enormous transmission factories for a lot of years and months.
He was a transmission capital of America for a lot of years and those plants began to fade, classic rust belt thing and they began to lose and then they were sold a bunch of times and finally Mid 2000s.
They they were, they were, they were closed that the city government is thinking, well, you know, we have the budget right now.
So we have to close the community centers and one of the community centers was right across from bird’s house and he had once worked there.
So they do that, they cut the budget, they close it, they padlock it and everything and they think that they’ve closed the south muncie community except Bird keeps the key right?
And as this neighborhood goes through this very stressful, very tumultuous time with not just job losses, but then the opioid thing was really taken hold there too.
And all that meth cooks were everywhere.
This was pre mexican meth basically.
And um, Bird every day would just open the community center.
Unbeknownst the city fathers, you know, he paid for the toilet paper and the burned out light bulbs and he paid for the, he did the mowing of the lawn and, and, and, and people and, and the kids would play in the community center.
The folks, the older folks would play cards, There was a base birthday parties and wedding receptions and basketball games on sunday and all of this because there’s one guy became kind of a community center onto himself helping this one neighborhood whether this very, very stressful time and then in a few years that the budget got better and they reopened that the community center and he and then had a full time job working there until he died a couple.
There’s a couple years later.
But those kinds of, that’s the kind of story that I just love to tell.
You know, it’s like uh it’s it’s the small stuff, it’s the daily work.
It’s this not thinking that you’re kind of saving the world by what you’re doing some noble virtuous way and not caring that you’re not saving the world and understanding that the real social change comes in the smallest daily steps forward.
And to me that is a beautiful, powerful, powerful idea that we have gotten away from in the United States because it’s so easy to to demand from everybody from our politicians or what have you um in a very childish way.
I think when we do it’s to demand that they immediately fix the problem.
Oh, that didn’t work Well, it must be that you’re wasting taxpayer money, that kind of stuff.
I just think that that we need to move far far away from that.
And and and so that’s the kind of story that I wanted to tell simply as a way of saying this is this is one way of going about it.
I’m not telling you, I’m not preaching from the, from the pulpit here.
I’m just saying these are stories about how people just and so there’s another story of a woman uh retiree from corporate America who begins to tutor in the jail in her in her county and and realizes that first of all, people really need tutoring, but a lot of the folks you’re tutoring have these tattoos, her husband dies, leaves her a lot of money um, and and she’s fairly well off anyway and she uses the life insurance money from her husband to buy a laser uh tattoo removal a machine and forms a nonprofit and begins to remove people’s tattoos, small stuff, getting rid of those teardrops or those bizarre sayings on people’s foreheads or those, you know, those, those sleeves to go a little bit to your chin and hand tattoos and swastikas and whatever and all that, you know, and it’s just in a small way she’s doing a little bit to help these people kind of move beyond the being the mired state on the street that they constantly are finding themselves in and the tattoos helped keep them.
And that’s the key thing.
So these kinds of stories to me that that it was all about daily work, it’s all about daily showing up and not worrying if you’re not changing the world because in a small way you’re not, but in a larger sense, in a step back since you actually are and and with in my opinion, fewer unintended consequences than those magic bullet solutions that we seem so intent on demanding from our politicians.
I love that.
It, you know, when you were speaking about giving people hugs.
Um, and in hearing both of these stories, what strikes me is the power of presence, people showing up noticing what’s going on and then taking action.
That’s how I view it.
And, and, and, and being that that was the, the devastation of Covid was deprived us of that.
And even people who needed it.
People who thought they didn’t need everybody needed it.
We, we saw how essential we are to one another to be, you know, caught up, uh, you know, isolated at home.
You know, you needed to be around other people, you needed to be able to see the faces of other because just seeing the eyes turned out not to be enough to be able to understand meaning.
You know, you need to undersea the mouth and the nose and how all of that moves were very, very good.
Human beings are exceptionally good at at deriving meaning from the smallest little twitch of an eyebrow or, or um, or or a forehead or, or a lip or, or the nose, you know, or the scrunching of the, we know what all those mean.
And when you can’t see that it’s extraordinarily difficult to understand what people are saying.
You know, the interesting thing is we now live in a, in a time when we are supposedly more connected than ever, but really that connectivity through social media is really prehistoric.
It’s, it’s without any nuance.
It’s when people didn’t know how to speak or didn’t know how to speak in the, in the, in the more nuanced way that we know how you’re, you’re only getting like very blunt instrument communication and that’s why it’s misunderstood and so often and lead lead so often to, to outrage and and and ending friendships and all that kind of stuff because there’s no tone, there’s no ability to impart nuance and meaning and so people misunderstand and I think early facebook was kind of very much like that.
I saw many friendships just ended because people start shouting at each other on facebook, you know, over stuff that really had they been in the same room, they never would have said anything like that, you know.
Um, but this is the prehistoric version of communication, the tone deaf version of, of connection.
I should say that we are in the middle of with with social media the way it is social media apps, twitter and facebook and instagram and all the rest.
I’ll put a request in for maybe you can highlight some of those pieces.
I’m at the moment I have to tell you whether I’m really interested in in just like, you know like taking a nap or something.
I mean right now I’m just, it’s been a long, I’m normally a breaking news reporter, a crime reporter and stuff and in the last 10 years I’ve been all about writing two things, two books and great and I loved it and all that, but I kind of miss the daily excitement and getting your name in the paper all the time and that kind of thing.
So I’ve been trying to write magazine stories now and trying to get do the stories that take three months instead of three years, you know, as the books do.
So my final question for you sam is you know, really your love of storytelling, but why do you think that storytelling is so powerful and why is it so cathartic?
Well I think it is um powerful because we, we have this very, very powerful urge, we evolved our brains well to need it, not just think it’s a good thing to need this very, very powerful urge towards community so much.
I mean that’s why we survived, I would say you know the caveman who marched off to his own drummer, that guy broke his leg and no one was there to help him when the cheetah came and ate him, you know what I mean?
So we, we evolved from people who understood that you were, we were better together and I think through human history we have always understood that as messy as human relations always are and as conflicted as they frequently aren’t as tense and as you know war, like sometimes we have always always needed um community and one and there are many ways in which that is expressed eating together music playing music together.
But storytelling is absolutely one.
We have always needed stories from cavemen again to homer to um uh, sitting around the fire in some parts of africa to Shakespeare to Breaking Bad and the Wire on tv these are, it’s all about telling stories about ourselves and about others and through storytelling.
I don’t think there’s, there’s any more powerful way of developing empathy for others that we have always needed story.
Now those stories can take various forms told by the person themselves told in the newspaper, told in a book, a novel, a fictional account or whatever.
There’s a million different ways of told on what written on walls, whatever, but we need, we need that.
It’s not the community is a good thing.
It’s not the storytelling, we need it, it satisfies something deep inside our psyche.
And, and I think um, and I’ve come to realize that as I’ve been a reporter, I wouldn’t have thought they say 10, 15 years ago, but I’ve come to realize how essential all that is and that, that, that is the way we come to understand each other and come to understand like empathy for other human beings.
It’s very, very important to do that.
And so that has been my approach other people have other approaches, preachers, public health paramedics, they have their own roles and they are beautiful at them And I don’t think I’d be very good at those.
I just want to be a storyteller that’s all I really want to do.
But I do believe now after many years of this, that that it it does satisfy something fundamental and our great, great crime I guess against ourselves is that in the United States we decided we didn’t need any of that.
You know, we could be all on our own, we could be in our homes and on our cars and not around other people because yeah, being around other people are messing.
We were so prosperous that we actually didn’t need anybody.
We are food was provided for us at the grocery store, our entertainment was in our house.
You know, we didn’t need other people.
We thought and that is a very, very dangerous idea for human beings because we absolutely have need and do need other other other people.
We just The last 40 years as I say, I think we have just kind of gradually decided that we didn’t because it’s so messy cost more tax money, we’ve decided defund things that that bring us together.
Um we’ve built cities that are really designed to keep us lonely and suburbs, you know, sidewalks in places where no one sees one another and all that kind of stuff just drives me me nuts.
A lot of that stuff.
And so all of that is really in my view um related to this, this desire for community and storytelling is just an essential outgrowth of that.
It also strikes me that storytelling is a way to make meaning of these traumatic experiences that people have um in a pretty powerful way.
Yes, and I think that that is that absolutely, absolutely.
And that is why in my opinion, um it’s so healthy for people to come out of the shadows into the light as I’ve been saying, they are telling stories that were bottled up inside them, stories of grief, stories of, of um you know, love destroyed, trust betrayed stories, stories of deep deep regret.
Um stories of, of how wonderful their kids may have been at one point and you know this kind of thing and there’s there’s all these stories that that really allow you to feel too when, when they, when they’re told, they kind of like take some of the pain away, it seems, it seems to me in many cases I don’t want to generalize too much of course, but that’s how it seems seems to me.
But I do think that when, when you tell those stories, other people learn from them, other people develop um empathy, understand your story better when they might have just dismissed that person you’re talking about, have they seen them on the street now they understand a little bit more the fullness of that person’s story and that is another reason why storytelling is so so important and why I love doing it.
Well, thank you for being here today.
It’s really fun to talk with you and hear about your work and thank you for the work that you do.
It is so important.
Well, it’s my pleasure.
I really appreciate your interest.
Thanks so much for from sparing some time.
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