How the drug epidemic devastated one of the counties that won Trump the election

Cynthia Weber is one of many Erie residents who knows the destructive effects of illegal drug use.

ERIE, Pa. — “Are you guys doing this for your mom?” Cynthia asked my brother and me that question before we interviewed her at Community Shelter Services, a homeless shelter here in Erie.

We had ostensibly come to CSS so that we could tell Cynthia’s story. And what a story it was: one of broken relationships and destroyed lives, of the pain, loneliness, loss and regret from which drugs offered the false promise of deliverance. 

But Cynthia sensed a deeper reason for our interest. We told her that nearly 20 years ago, we had spent a week or so here in Erie, pacing the halls of St. Vincent’s Hospital, watching as our mother, Leslie Allott, slowly succumbed to complications from alcoholism. She ended up here after her brother had made a desperate attempt to save her life by driving her from her home in Madison, Wis., to his in Upstate New York. 

Cynthia would return to investigating our interest in the topic of drug abuse, but first she told her story, and she started with her mom. 

Lynn Weber was born in Erie and grew up with a loving mother and three sisters with whom she was close as a child. Her biological dad committed suicide when she was still in the womb, which, in addition to a succession of stepfathers — four in total — created a trauma that left her to searching for ways to cope. 

Cynthia began running away from home, shoplifting and smoking pot as a teenager. She would occasionally return to being “the good girl, playing by the rules and getting straight As,” she said. But her family’s itinerancy and her realization that her mother couldn’t afford to send her to college made her stop trying. 

At 15, an older boyfriend introduced her to LSD. “I loved that. So I did a lot of hallucinogens, mushrooms, LSD.” She also took crack cocaine for the first time, a drug she’s used on and off for the last 30 years. 

The crack, she said, made her “forget about hating my mom because she wasn’t completely honest about my father’s death and how it happened. And [I] would forget that I’d had three stepfathers. You know, it made me forget that my brother got ripped from me when my mom got divorced, because he went with his dad.”

Cynthia’s quest to forget put her on a cycle of drug abuse and sobriety, of employment and joblessness, of motherhood and of motherly neglect. Boyfriends came and went, and so did Cynthia — from Pennsylvania to Florida, to New York, South Carolina, Texas, New Mexico, Nevada — often in an attempt to flee an abusive boyfriend or to meet up with one who’d eventually turn out to be abusive; more often in an attempt to escape an environment rife with drugs, and sometimes to seek one out. 

Cynthia’s drug of choice changed over time. First it was marijuana, then LSD, then crack, then heroin, then crystal meth. She’d steal and fix the books at work to support her habit. She also dealt drugs. 

Cynthia had a daughter, Alyssa, at 19, and a son, Michael, four years later. They were a blessing to her. When all seemed lost, even when she felt like a “horrible mom,” she took solace in knowing that “my kids still loved me. They didn’t judge. They didn’t even know what I was doing. They were so innocent.” The problem was that Cynthia wasn’t always a blessing to her kids. 

“Quitting is easy,” she announced at one point. “I do it all the time.” Cynthia laughed at this line because, she said, if she didn’t laugh, she’d cry. 

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But she still cried — on and off for most of the interview. The tears flowed freely when she spoke about her daughter, who Cynthia says started down the same road of addiction and abuse when she allowed her to smoke marijuana as a young teen. By 15, Alyssa was doing heroin, and Cynthia knew she had only herself to blame. 

“I was running dope from Pittsburgh to Clarion County [Pennsylvania] every other day,” she said. “I was selling it out of my job. I was a bartender yet again. Selling it at my job, selling it on the street, selling it to local business owners. Ultimately probably selling it to my kid without knowledge, third party.”

Soon, Cynthia was smoking crack with Alyssa. When Alyssa ended up in juvenile prison for a drug offense, Cynthia often needed to get high just to get through visiting her. “I’m snorting lines in the bathroom for God’s sakes during my visits.”

It wasn’t long before Alyssa began prostituting herself on to support her habit. “Nineteen years old, making thousands, all getting spent on crack. The rent wasn’t paid,” Cynthia said. “We’re in and out of grandma’s and we lost our place and now she don’t have stable living and none of the family would help us because we’re drug addicts, and she’s a prostitute. 

“Every mother’s dream. This is my fault because I let her smoke pot when she was 13 years old because ‘it was no big deal.’”

Alyssa has had two children, both of whom were taken by the state. Alyssa smoked a lot of crack during her first pregnancy, so that child, who’s been adopted, has a lot of medical problems. 

Cynthia’s story is unique but familiar. Drugs kill nearly 50,000 people annually in the U.S., a number that has doubled in a little over a decade. More people die from drug overdose than from guns or cars, making it the leading cause of accidental death in America. Much of the increase is attributed to the rise of opioid deaths.  

Opioids are pain-relieving drugs that include both prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and illegal ones such as heroin. A government report published in June 2017 showed 1.27 million emergency room and inpatient visits for opioid-related issues in 2014. That’s a 64 percent increase in inpatient care visits and a 99 percent rise in ER visits since 2005. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that opioid overdoses have risen 400 percent since 2000.  America has at least 2 million opioid addicts. Every day, 91 people die from opioid overdose. 

The problem is particularly pervasive in the Rust Belt, including Pennsylvania. A recent study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that fatal drug overdoses in Pennsylvania increased 1,400 percent between 1979 and 2014. The highest rates were seen among white women. 

Erie County ranks in the bottom quintile in terms of its residents’ health outcomes, their quality and length of life, and the rise in drug overdose deaths is the main reason why. 

Drug deaths here nearly doubled in 2016, and in just the first two months of 2017, Erie County had already seen 25 drug deaths. Things have gotten so bad that many employers are turning to refugees, who are seen as preferable to native-born workers because they can most reliably pass the mandatory drug tests. More positively, families are beginning to include the cause of death in their loved ones’ obituaries in an effort to increase awareness and combat the stigma surrounding drug addiction. 

Cynthia knows the scope of the drug problem all too well. “Between me and my daughter, we lost 20 people, literally 20, to heroin overdose in less than six months,” she said. 

Louis James Barry, 62, another resident at Community Shelter Services, said the drug problem in Erie is “real bad.” He figures he’s seen 15 or 20 people who have overdosed and died in the seven years he’s been in Erie. “The pills is easy to get out here.” Drugs are “everywhere. Every corner.” 

Barry, who broke his back after falling while high on drugs, has lived in Erie for seven years and says opiates are “running rampant” here. “And heroin, its right around, I mean, every corner. Every time I go out and people seeing me in my scooter or on my crutches they thinking I’m getting pain pills and they come up and ask ‘you getting them pills?’ ‘Nope,’ I have to tell them, ‘Nope, I’m not getting no pills.’”

When Cynthia spoke to us, she had been sober for 36 days. But her sobriety is very fragile. Almost anything can trigger a relapse — the guilt and stress associated with Alyssa’s drug use and prostitution; the sadness associated with her granddaughters being taken away in closed adoptions; the pain of having a son who barely speaks to her; the regret of having one sister is prison, another who’s dead and another who won’t speak to her. It is during these moments when Cynthia will sometimes say, “Fuck it. Why am I sober? Why?” And the cycle would begin anew. 

Cynthia’s mother died in January, and that seemed like the coup de grace for her. She was clean at the time, but it prompted a relapse. “So, at that point I had three months of sobriety and … anybody got a guess?” she asks.

CLAP! She smacks her hands together as she says, “Flat on my face again. And I mean I went all out,” she laughed. “All out! I was trying to overdose. I was … trying to die. I wanted to die. I had no reason to live.”

But Cynthia survived and got clean, and when we spoke, she was excited about her sobriety and new boyfriend, Toby.   

A few weeks after our visit, Cindy texted to give me her new number and tell me she’d left the shelter and had taken a room in a boarding house. “I’m slowly climbing up the ladder,” she wrote. Cynthia would conclude her text updates with the number of days she’d been sober. Thirty-six. Sixty-three. June 26 marks 91 days sober.  

Two days after our initial interview, we again met up with Cynthia. She repeated her initial question: “Are you guys doing this for your mom?” 

After she had answered all our questions, for hours at a time, we didn’t have a good answer for her. I didn’t know whether my mom had played a role in searching out this story, and still don’t. But I know Cynthia’s mom played a role in her telling it. 

“Mom’s up there listening,” she said through tears at the end of our first interview. “This is probably her proudest moment.” 

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