Nearly a half century ago, rock star Neil Young stood before a hushed and rapt crowd at UCLA, singing the fateful words: “I’ve seen the needle and the damage done, a little part of it in everyone, and every junkie’s like a setting sun….”
It was a cautionary tale for the Baby Boomers, many who would smoke pot but winced at the notion of striking a vein and injecting smack. Where we find ourselves today is an Indiana in pandemic, facing a 500 percent increase in overdose fatalities since 2000. Some 80 percent of Hoosiers entering the Department of Corrections have a drug problem, often beginning in the family medicine cabinet.
Part of it was cultural, with small-town pill mill doctors keeping the RV assembly lines humming with speed for the workforce. There were thousands of doctors prescribing opioids for back problems and other pains.
On Wednesday, with Gov. Eric Holcomb gazing a few feet away, a new face of the pandemic stood forward. Her name is Amy Rardon, a beautiful Hoosier woman from Indianapolis whose back pain commenced a harrowing decade-long journey into addiction. Her pain and pills “quickly became a huge problem,” Amy said, noting that her condition “spiraled out of control so fast.” Then came the cheap heroin. She said she would go off the narcotics for three days, become “so incredibly sick” and returned to the narcotics “so I could go back to just functioning.”
Conventional wisdom conjures the junkie as the high school dropout, a greasy rocker conniving for a buzz. But it is now a little part of everyone. I’ve had friends ranging from key political figures to solidly middle class folks who have seen their beloved sons fall into the heroin trance. Some make it, and some are gone far too early.
It is a wrenching tide exploited by foreign cartels running the drug from Mexico and China to Dayton and points west to Richmond, Connersville and Winchester. We now read of overdose spikes in places like Evansville, LaPorte and Bloomington.
Amy Rardon is now being treated with methadone in a drug detoxification and maintenance program.
“We are normal people,” Rardon said. “We just want to go back to work and do our job. We just want to be heard.”
A few minutes later, Family and Social Services Commissioner Jennifer Walthall announced five new regional opioid treatment centers for Fort Wayne, Lafayette, Bloomington, Terre Haute and Greenwood. As of Aug. 1, there will be methadone treatment available via Healthy Indiana Plan 2.0 and Medicaid.
During the past week, I’ve spent parts of two days with Gov. Holcomb, and what is striking is how passionately he is plunging into this crisis. When we traveled from Richmond, where he signed four bills dealing with this crisis last week, I asked him his point of orientation on the pandemic.
“It did start in Delphi Indiana when an individual came up to me, stuck his hand out, introduced himself and said he would like to talk to me in six months,” he explained. “I didn’t know what he meant by that, but after the conversation unfolded, he meant that he hoped he was alive in six months. He said he had been clean and sober for the last six months and that he was hopeful to have another conversation with me.”
Do you know if he’s still alive? “No,” Holcomb said. “I would like to.”
If this man reads this, please call the governor’s office.
Holcomb tells other stories, like that of a Lake County woman.
“She was having her ninth child taken from her. She looked at the judge and said, 'Judge, I’ll have these babies as fast as you take them away.’ So we have people, and their brains have been, in my opinion, hijacked by this drug. That’s where the treatment comes in — get them on the road to recovery.”
“That’s when I talk about you either decide right here and now you’re going to do all you can if you’re concerned about life, or you’re going to look away,” Holcomb continued. “Everything else just pales in comparison. It’s a life and death issue. It did not matter if I was in the most affluent community in the state of Indiana or if I was in the most desperate.”
On Wednesday, Holcomb stood next to Amy Rardon and said with obvious emotion, ”I will never look at the state seal again the same. Seeing the sun rise and people going to work in the morning, seeing that light shine down in this individuals’ darkest hour, this is a day that encourages us all.”
He was obviously referring to Indiana’s seal, with the pioneer chopping wood, a buffalo leaping and a sun emerging over the knobs. For the Holcomb administration, this is a workforce, an economic and a humanitarian dynamic.
The message from Gov. Holcomb and Amy Rardon is this: The sun also rises.