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This Heartbreaking Photo Series Shows Who Opioid Addicts in West Virginia Really Are

Lori Swadle

Teachers, mechanics, nurses, corporate managers — opioid addicts come in all forms.

But once addiction to painkillers or heroin takes hold, people develop remarkably similar habits. They squander money, relationships, health, reputations.

That’s what peers and neighbors tend to remember — the awful and exhausting downward spiral.

For Lori Swadle, though, addicts are so much more than their addiction. A wedding photographer based in Martinsburg, West Virginia, Swadle has lost 13 friends to opioid addiction.

Each loss has been devastating. But the trauma she’s felt and witnessed isn’t unique in this part of the US.

Read More: The Opioid Epidemic Is Killing More Americans Every Year Than Ever Before

“Most people around here do know somebody that has struggled with [addiction],” Swadle told Global Citizen. “The trouble is that a lot of people, when they’re struggling with addiction, they become someone who they wouldn’t be, they lie, they steal, they do horrible things, they alienate their families.”

The toll of opioid addiction in West Virginia is staggering. More people die from overdoses in the state than anywhere else in the US.

Yet the severity of this public health crisis hasn’t triggered a proportional medical response. More mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers know how to use Narcan — a cure for overdoses — than ever before, but treatments and paths to recovery for addicts are hard to come across.

The closest rehab center is more than two hours away, according to Swadle, and it’s usually filled to capacity. Further, unless someone has private insurance, getting into a rehab center is extremely difficult. Many addicts end up poor, without jobs, and are on Medicaid.

As a result, many addicts end up dying while waiting for a spot to open up.

Swadle said she was angered by the seeming complacency surrounding this ongoing tragedy.

Many people, jaded by crisis, adopt the mantra: “leave ‘em lie, let ‘em die,” according to The New Yorker. This means that people should be let to die when they overdose, rather than being revived with Narcan.

In particular, Swadle remembers a community meeting in 2015 for a potential rehab center. She was hopeful that the center would be approved and progress would be made in the fight against the health crisis.

Read More: Bold New Photo Project Tackles Appalachian Poverty Porn

“So many people came to the meeting and spoke against it,” she said. “They said they didn’t want [the rehab] in their backyard,

“A lot of people with that attitude think that people should be able to quit on their own,” she added. “There’s this whole group attitude of negativity, so I wanted to basically show that addicts aren’t what they had envisioned.”

So Swadle set about combatting this mentality by using her platform as a widely respected photographer.

She started a series called “52 Addicts” to tell stories of people who recovered from addiction or people who have loved ones who struggled.

Join me in congratulating Greg on his new journey of recovery after a long battle with addiction. Greg comes from a great family, yet he fell on the path to drugs early in his teenage years. One thing led to another, and before long he was hooked on heroin here in Berkeley County. Eventually, he was given the chance to join a program in Huntington, WV to get clean and start his new life. He is one of the success stories of the recovery program started by the last #52Addicts participant I featured here, Justin Ponton. Greg is loving his new life of sobriety and the new friendships he has made over these last few months. He is shown here volunteering his time cooking for all the people who came out to the Stomp Out Addiction event at War Memorial Park in Martinsburg on Mother’s Day. Let’s give him encouragement to continue on his path to success! Follow along on my journey this year to meet 52 people who have struggled with opioid addiction. These are our mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, nurses, teachers, military members, business owners and more. Let’s end the stigma of addiction, so we can move forward with a plan to make positive changes in our community. Visit the link in our profile for more info on this project, and please share!

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It’s part education, part inspiration, part “Humans of New York.”

Swadle wants to show that addicts come from all walks of life and that they all have unique backgrounds. She wants to show that if they’re given a helping hand, addicts can bounce back and become positive member of society.

Read More: 23 Million People Could Lose Health Care Under House-Approved Bill

“My initial goal here was to show those people who have that negative attitude against addiction that these people are just as human as they are,” she said. “They could be your nurse at the hospital, your kids’ teacher, it can be anyone.”

After launching the project, the response has been powerful. Above all, she’s inspired by the fact that her work has helped addicts speak up and share their stories.

“At least you can get a little glimpse of their personality or what they’ve done in their lives,” she said. “Especially the people who have become clean and have done so much for our community."

Denny is one of those people whose strength amazes me after all he has endured. He was born into drugs, and was given to his grandmother at only a few months old after being found alone with a baby bottle full of beer while his mom was at the bar. He thinks he would have thrived if he could have stayed with his grandma, but he was forced to go back to his mom at 5 years old where he was raised in an environment no child should be exposed to. At only 10 years old, Denny found drugs could ease his pain of abuse and neglect. He started with marijuana, then went to huffing paint thinner and eventually on to every other drug he could get. He liked that it made him feel like he didn’t know where he was. His addiction grew worse as he became an adult and had to deal with the responsibilities that come along with everyday life. His first wife left him when she couldn’t handle his addiction, but he met another woman with whom he fell in love. After many relapses, and many times where she was fed up with his behavior, she ended up getting pregnant. She gave him an ultimatum, and Denny woke up to the reality of what he needed to do. He was determined to stay clean for his new family. He became a workaholic to keep his mind off his addiction, sometimes working 3 jobs to stay busy. Today, he is a superintendent for a construction company in DC and actively involved in the recovery community. He is proud to say he has 23 years clean! Follow along on my journey to meet 52 people who have struggled with addiction. These are our mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, nurses, teachers, military members, business owners and more. Let’s end the stigma of addiction, so we can move forward with a plan to make positive changes in our community. Visit the link in our profile for more info on this project, and please share! #52Addicts

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I’m so excited to start sharing more stories of hope and recovery through my #52Addicts project! This strong, beautiful woman is Verdell at her birthday party in May. She is surrounded by the family that was instrumental in helping her get through her addiction. Many years ago, she went through a long period of time where her only goal in life was finding her next high. She knew she needed help, but could never quite get over her addiction on her own. Her family never gave up hope on her. They loved her and kept loving her until eventually one day they were able to break through and get her to try rehab again. This time it worked, and she found a new life and a new appreciation for her wonderful family. She has been drug-free for three decades and lives each day as a testimony to God’s love for us all. Follow along on my weekly journey to meet 52 people who have struggled with opioid addiction. These are our mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, nurses, teachers, military members, business owners and more. Let’s end the stigma of addiction, so we can move forward with a plan to make positive changes in our community. Visit the link in our profile for more info on this project, and please share! #52Addicts #MartinsburgWV #HeroinCrisis #EndTheStigma

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Crystal visits this spot on Winchester Avenue for the first time since her accident over a year ago that put her in this wheelchair. She is not angry at what happened. Instead, she is grateful to be alive, with a new found love of life and recovery. You see, she was one of those fully functioning, girls next door, mother of two who held it together on the outside, yet struggled with a long history of heroin addiction behind closed doors. You never would have suspected that she was an addict if you didn’t know any better, just like so many of the young moms you see every day. She had tried to quit multiple times, but kept going back to the same life when she was faced with no resources or support system to help her. Last January she quit again, but again she soon gave up and made plans to meet her dealer... only this time was different. Since it was nighttime, she was cautiously walking along the side of the road watching her footing, and was so careful to look both ways before crossing the street. However, her cautious actions became futile when a car without it’s headlights came and hit her as she crossed. She suffered many critical injuries, including broken bones and severe nerve damage. She is truly lucky to have survived such a horrific accident, and even luckier to have escaped what may have been the deal that killed her that night. I am amazed at how positive this girl is about her life! She is in a constant state of happiness, and just being around her is enough to put a smile on your face. I am so honored to have met her, and to be able to tell a small part of her story here! ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Follow along on my weekly journey to meet 52 people who have struggled with opioid addiction. These are our mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, nurses, teachers, military members, business owners and more. Let’s end the stigma of addiction, so we can move forward with a plan to make positive changes in our community. Visit the link in our profile for more info on this project, and please share! #52Addicts

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Ever since high school, Sara struggled with stomach pain that was ignored by every doctor she went to. They eventually gave her pain pills to manage the pain, even without a diagnosis. When pain pills became harder to get due to the crackdown on prescriptions, doctors and nurses ignored her pain and some even told her she was a drug seeker. She ended up buying pills on the street, and then moved to heroin since it was much cheaper. After years of heroin abuse, she made it to the point where she wanted help and went to a detox. That was four years ago this weekend. After leaving detox, she found out she was pregnant with her first child. With a new team of doctors treating her during pregnancy, she finally found an answer for her chronic pain. Sara was diagnosed with Lupus, Fibromyalgia and IBS, along with other ailments that had been untreated for so long. Now that she has answers, Sara remains strong in her recovery and has 3 beautiful children who hold on to her dearly. 🔹🔹🔹🔹🔹🔹🔹🔹🔹🔹🔹 Follow along on my weekly journey to meet 52 people who have struggled with opioid addiction. These are our mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, nurses, teachers, military members, business owners and more. Let’s end the stigma of addiction, so we can move forward with a plan to make positive changes in our community. Visit the link in our profile for more info on this project, and please share! #52Addicts #MartinsburgWV #HeroinCrisis #EndTheStigma #RecoveryIsPossible #OpenMinds #OpenHearts #BerkeleyCounty #Martinsburg #WV #SwadleyStudio #CommunityServiceProject #Addiction #Stigma #Heroin #Opioid #StayStrong #MiBurgWV #recoveryroadseries #Epidemic #Addict #Hope #Inspiration #na #12steps #soberissexy #staystopped

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Lorenzo is about to walk into the elementary school that he volunteers at as part of the PASS program in Berkeley County. His eyes light up, and he giggles as he talks about the kids who he works with to provide support and encouragement to succeed. Twenty-two children who look forward to his visits and have a better chance of doing well in school by gaining the confidence and self-esteem that they so desperately need. He fought for us in Vietnam so many years ago, and like so many of our Vietnam veterans, he became a heroin addict. When he returned from the war, he went on to remain an addict until 2002 when he became clean and sober. He is such an encourager to the community, serving as a deacon in his church and working with various programs to bring spiritual enlightenment to those around him. Follow along on my weekly journey to meet 52 people who have struggled with opioid addiction. These are our mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, nurses, teachers, military members, business owners and more. Let’s end the stigma of addiction, so we can move forward with a plan to make positive changes in our community. Visit the link in our profile for more info on this project, and please share! #52Addicts #MartinsburgWV #HeroinCrisis #EndTheStigma #RecoveryIsPossible #OpenMinds #OpenHearts #BerkeleyCounty #Martinsburg #WV #SwadleyStudio #CommunityServiceProject #Addiction #Stigma #Heroin #Opioid #StayStrong #MiBurgWV #recoveryroadseries #Epidemic #Addict #Hope #Inspiration #clean #sober #addict #soberissexy #na #12steps #staystopped

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