“You seen a lot of people depressed after that, wonderin’ how they were gonna make it
, how they were gonna pay their bills, how they were gonna live, how they were gonna pay their mortgage,” says Leach. “It was devastating. A lot of people didn’t have a good education, so there wasn’t anything else to turn to. The coal mines was all they ever knew. My dad, he didn’t finish high school. He quit in his senior year, went right into the mine.”
Heizer speaks in the slowed cadence of someone who puts a lot of medication into his body. He recently lost his car after crashing it into a fence. His life with his two roommates is sedentary. The three men each have a television in their bedrooms and two more they share, including the big-screen television that, along with an electric piano for Hovack, were bought with Heizer’s first disability check. The men spent the $20,000 from the check in a few days.
“I became disabled back in late 2006,” Heizer tells us. “I had degenerative disc disease and I hurt my back. I was workin’ at this convenience store. They knew that I had a back injury, but yet they had me come in on extra shifts and unload the truck. Now I’ve got four discs jus’ layin’ on top of each other, no cushion between them. For three years I lived here without an income, and my dad helped support me, and then last November I finally was awarded my disability.” Heizer, who is gay, saw his drug addiction spiral out of control four years ago after his boyfriend committed suicide. He tells us he has been struggling with his weight -- he weighs 324 pounds -- as well as diabetes, gout, and kidney stones. These diseases are common in southern West Virginia and have contributed to a steady rise in mortality rates over the past three decades.
OxyContin takes a few hours to kick in when swallowed. If the pills are crushed, mixed with water, and injected with a syringe, the effect is immediate. Heizer says that after the drug companies began releasing pills with a rubbery consistency, they could not be ground down. Heizer heated the newer pills in a microwave and snorted them -- leading to his recent overdose. It took place at his mother’s house. He went into renal failure. He stopped breathing. His kidneys shut down. He was Medevac’d to a hospital in Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, where he stayed for four days.
“I was just sittin’ around watching TV and started aspiratin’,” Heizer says flatly. “The medication was goin’ into my lungs. You gurgle with every breath. You are drownin’, basically. I remember walkin’ down my mom’s steps and gettin’ in the ambulance. I remember at Welch, they put me on the respirator and then transferred me. After they put me on the respirator, I stopped breathing on my own. And then I remember in Charleston wakin’ up an’ they had my hands restrained so I wouldn’t pull the tubes out. I had a real close call.” . Modified from Tomdispatch