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A Journey through Pain


A Journey through Pain
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VOA Connect Episode 194 - In this special edition of VOA Connect, we learn the story of Chris Dennis. He is an accomplished author from a small American town who has also journeyed through the devastating cycle of prescription pain medication, addiction, and jail. Camera/Producer: Deepak Dobhal

VOA – CONNECT
EPISODE # 194
AIR DATE: 10 01 2021
TRANSCRIPT



OPEN ((VO/NAT))
((Banner))
A Journey Through Pain
((SOT))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
A doctor had prescribed me hydrocodone for pleurisy of all things. And I stayed on pain medication for almost a year. I had no understanding of its long-term effects. What I knew, above all else, was that when I took painkillers, I felt good, really good. They annihilated the undulating sadness I'd been navigating since childhood. I had never felt the weight of my own depression until I had an opportunity to exist without it.
((Open Animation))




BLOCK A




((PKG)) THE STORY OF CHRIS DENNIS
((TRT: 19:57))
((Topic Banner: The Story of Chris Dennis))
((Reporter/Camera: Deepak Dobhal))
((Map: Eldorado, Illinois))
((Main character: 1 male))
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
In less than a year, I was shooting OxyContin, heroin and then finally meth because it was cheaper and opiates were no longer enough. My roommate kicked me out and I took it as an opportunity to disappear completely. This is the part where it gets confusing, where I have to hover over myself in order to tell the story. I can't quite ascend high enough to gain insight into my own behavior because I'm tethered to the horror of it and it keeps pulling me back down into an abyss, black with regret.
The first time I was arrested, I was walking down the street at 3 a.m. A police officer stopped me and assuming that I was high, searched my backpack. I bonded out. A few months later, a friend came out to her car in the morning and found me unconscious in the front seat. She called 911. The paramedics finally woke me up, but a cop was standing by to search me. I was arrested for possession again. Then once more, a few months later.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
I published this in the Paris Review in 2019 and I'd probably been sober at that point for seven months. So, reading it now, it's like freshly sober Chris, who was trying to process all the stuff that had just happened from this like new sober place. Even that feels bad, like those early months of sobriety were so hard. I don't know why I wrote this. That just seems so fresh.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
So, I'm going to these hearings this morning for several charges, all felony charges that happened three years ago and earlier. And I've been out on bond for those charges for almost three years, two and a half years now. I was in jail for a little over six months the last time I was there. And my grandma, very reluctantly at first but eventually, bonded me out of jail for those charges. I have a lot of charges so, you know, it's not, it’s not certain that they're going to either extend the probation that I'm already on, which would mean that I could, you know, keep going on with my life or sentence me to an amount of years in the Illinois Department of Corrections. I'm just, so I'm always anxious about that possibility.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
There's always this anxiety when I go to court or talk to anybody who has anything to do with the court, you know, that I need to look very professional, and I need to look like a sober, well-adjusted person. So, I like to show up to court early and at least look somewhat presentable, so that I look like a contributing member of society. It's like, I feel like it's a drag show. But really, it's, I mean, it's just one part of how I can, you know, look well, I guess, healthy. I want them to know that I'm healthy.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
It's very hot this morning already. It seems to be a hot day. I've done it so many times which is frustrating because I feel like it's sort of in limbo, but also, I've had all this time to make changes in my life. So, in that way, I'm like grateful for the sluggish pace of the court system. I think, I hope it's worked in my favor.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
I just have several friends and family members that had to deal with this stuff, so it wasn't uncommon.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
((Photo Courtesy: Chris Dennis))
I grew up queer and Pentecostal [Christian denomination], loving Dolly Parton and the public library, in the housing projects of Eldorado, Illinois, a town with a population under 4,000. At 14, I ran away from home. At 17, I met the mother of my son. I was still a teenager when he was born. I was a high school dropout with a GED [general education certificate]. And then, I was the first person in my family to go to college.
((end Courtesy))
((NATS/MUSIC))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
Once, during my time as an undergraduate, a doctor had prescribed me hydrocodone for pleurisy of all things. The condition caused a stabbing pain in my right lung each time I took a breath. And I stayed on pain medication for almost a year. I had no understanding of its long-term effects, how addictive it was or what was waiting for me when I finally stopped taking it. What I knew, above all else, was that when I took painkillers, I felt good, really good. They annihilated the undulating sadness I'd been navigating since childhood. I had never felt the weight of my own depression until I had an opportunity to exist without it.
((NATS/MUSIC))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
That probably went on for about a year. But it was definitely on the trip to Tennessee with my son, because we were there for days and I ran out of pills, that I experienced severe withdrawals for the very first time. It was so scary. And I stopped taking them, you know, after that.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
Then I went to grad school, and I was seeing a therapist, and I didn't take drugs or even really drink for a decade, probably. The whole time I was in grad school, I was sober until I moved back to southern Illinois.
((NATS/MUSIC))


TEASE ((VO/NAT))
Coming up
((Banner))
The Return
((SOT))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
This house here I stayed in for, I don't know, maybe four or five months. All the people living there also used. But they would let me just sleep in the garage because I didn't really have anywhere else to go.


BREAK ONE
BUMP IN ((ANIM))


BLOCK B


((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
The poverty and isolation I returned to, the working-class dystopia, the rolling swaths of lonely wilderness, at first, felt like the exact kind of strange, off-kilter environment I needed to finish my book.
I thought I was standing in just the right spot, calibrating fair measures of empathy and objectivity to describe what I saw. I thought it was important to say what this place looks and feels like, to draw the peculiar experience of living in a deteriorating coal town. It seemed to reveal something crucial about living and dying in America. But like most U.S. communities in the last 50 years, where industry and religion and intellectualism failed, drugs flood in to soak up the empty space.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
I was suddenly around a lot of people, after moving back home, who regularly used something. They took opioids or they were using methamphetamines.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
Because it was so frequent, it became sort of normalized in a way. And even then, I was sober, you know, for a year, year and a half, after I got here.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
But then I fell at work. When the doctor gave me, you know, painkillers again, opioids, I just started taking them even though I knew what had happened before, like I remembered how awful that was. I had already been in a really bad place, you know, just mentally, and I took the pills and I just kept taking the pills.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
This house here I stayed in for, I don't know, maybe four or five months, because, you know, all the people living there also used. But they would let me just sleep in the garage because I didn't really have anywhere else to go.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
I went to this park a lot. There's a bathroom up here where I could go clean myself off or get high or whatever.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
It's hard for me to drive down any of these streets and not know someone in one of the houses who I used with or know that they used.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
The last time I went to jail, I stayed long enough to get completely sober, to form rational thoughts again. As the days went by, the very idea of punishment, of using incarceration to exact justice, grew more and more absurd. The majority of the inmates had been there before, had been in prison at least once for similar convictions. How had it served us? The penalty for our drug use and crimes we'd committed as addicts was extended confinement in close quarters with other addicts. I thought about the terrible mistakes I had made every single day. I obsessed over them. They were what had led me here, to the worst place I have ever been.
((NATS/MUSIC))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
In a letter from jail to my friend, Amy Baily, I wrote, "I've made a lot of bad decisions and hurt the people I love. But I feel ready to begin the long, difficult road to the hill where there's a path that leads to a cliff that if you climb down many feet, there's a cave that goes for several miles beneath a nearby river, that eventually comes out in a neighboring state, where one is allowed to submit paperwork at a tiny glass window in the side of a tree that is also an office for “The Department of Forgiveness."
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
I was having a really bad day when I wrote that, actually because it’s from a letter that I wrote while I was in jail when I was working in the kitchen there. And sometimes in between prepping the food, there's a little desk we could sit at. And this is the only window I ever got to look out the whole time I was in jail. It's a tiny glass window with little bars over it, in the kitchen. You couldn't, you could only see another brick wall, but you could see a shaft of sun. And so, I would just like sit there and stare at it, so I could see the light sometimes. But I sat down by that window and wrote Amy a letter with that sentence in it because I was thinking about the future. And now here I am. Feels good. Really good.
((NATS/MUSIC))



TEASE ((VO/NAT))
Coming up
((Banner))
What Lies Ahead
((SOT))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
A lot of overprescribing happens in rural communities from small-town doctors. Maybe that's not their intention to addict a community to opioids, but it’s certainly the outcome.



BREAK TWO
BUMP IN ((ANIM))


BLOCK C


((NATS/MUSIC))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
I'm trying to feel less ashamed about it. The kind of work that I do every day, it makes me feel like, that maybe I'm being helpful a little bit.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
Hey, Georjane. It's Chris Dennis at Egyptian Health Department. I'm the overdose prevention educator and we've been trying to set up some Narcan distribution events in your county and I was just wondering if you could help me with that.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
I've been working here for over a year in overdose prevention. Mainly what that is, is distributing Narcan and training people to recognize and respond to an overdose from opioids. Because Narcan is a overdose reversal medication. So many people see it as kind of enabling, like the community is enabling drug use.
((NATS: Chris and a colleague))
Awesome. Well, I think it's okay. Alright, thank you. You're the best.
You're welcome.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
A lot of overprescribing happens in rural communities from small-town doctors. Maybe that's not their intention to addict a community to opioids, but it’s certainly the outcome. ((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
So, we're in Wayne County at their public health department where we're going to have the Narcan distribution event. ((NATS: Chris with unidentified people))
You need some Narcan?
Yeah.
How many do you want?
Two.
Okay.
How many are you going to give us?
Do you need more than two? If, I mean, if there are other people you think can really use Narcan, we are happy to give it to you.
Yeah, go ahead and give us a couple more.
Our son has a problem.
Yeah, absolutely.
Thank you very much.
Thank you.
Absolutely.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
I mean, I hate that we have to give that to anybody. I hate that they need it. But it feels good to say, like we have this thing that can be helpful to you, and you can have it for free and we're not going to ask any questions and hopefully you'll never need to use it, but it could save someone's life. ((NATS: Chris with unidentified people))
Have a good day.
You too. Thank you.
This works for like prescription opioids too, right?
Any kind of opioid.
It’s good for fentanyl?
Yeah, absolutely.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
I think, it's just sort of the beginning of thinking about addiction outside of the like criminal justice system, outside of the judicial system, as like a community problem that we can all work together to help change.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
Making it a crime, at least in the way that we have in the United States over the past several decades, this war on drugs has made it harder for people to get help, I think.
((NATS: Chris with unidentified person))
She said, “thank you.”
Yeah.
This is awesome. She has been clean for about two years over heroin. So, she, that’s actually saved her life.
Really?
Yeah.
I have been clean for three years, so.
Congratulations.
I never had to use that though.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
Every person that came to get it, wanted to talk about how opioids had been a problem in their life in one way or another.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
And I think those moments of connection with people and reminding them that, you know, other people care whether they're safe or not, it's like just a small step towards the possibility of recovery, I think.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
It's such a weird thing because it's like we wish that we didn't have to do this kind of work, but it feels good to be like responsive to the problem in this small way that we're able to do.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
So that feels good, but it is exhausting sometimes. I get tired of talking about it. I get tired of thinking about it. I want to do things that have nothing to do with drugs.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
Sometimes I feel like it's like a penance I have to pay, doing this sort of stuff, to make up for the negative impact that my addiction had on the people around me or my community.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
Just like want to live a life that is the opposite of that now. It's hard to learn how to do it the right way.
((NATS))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
So, this is just the date for the next hearing, which will be in September now. So, I just went in and then my attorney had kind of talked with the prosecutor for a few minutes. She sent him a few emails with sort of what's been going on with me the past couple of years, from work, from my boss. Just like updates on my like progress. But he hadn't been able to see them because he's been really busy. So, they reset it for 90 days from now. The prosecutor did say that the more time that passes from my last offense, the more likely he is to offer something like extended probation rather than prison time. So that part feels very good. It's not a guarantee but that felt good to hear. So, and that he reset it for 90 days is frustrating because I've been doing it forever but I'm willing to wait if it means that he's not going to send me to prison.
((NATS/MUSIC))
((Chris Dennis, Author))
My book "Here Is What You Do" was published by Soho Press in June of 2019. I recently reread the title story, the one about a young addict jailed on drug charges. I wrote it about myself before it ever happened. At the end of the story, the protagonist is released and finds himself faced with the danger and uncertainty of being a free person.
((NATS/MUSIC))
((Text on screen:
In September, Dennis’ court hearing was rescheduled for January 2022))



NEXT WEEK/GOOD BYE ((VO/NAT))
In coming weeks
((Banner))
Connect with…
((SOT))
((Kassie Culbertson, Subway worker))
My name is Kassie Culbertson. I live in southwest Louisiana and I work at a local Subway [American fast food restaurant].
Oh, everybody knows everybody here, and if they don't know you, they know your grandma because they've been drinking coffee with her for 20 years. Yes, the community is very, very tight. Everybody knows everybody.
My wife's mother had died. Her brother had died. And those were some of the most horrible things that I had to live through while we were going through these hurricanes, while we were going through COVID, while we were having ice storms and all kinds of things like that. And it really just took a big toll. But it took a big toll on a lot of people.
((NATS/MUSIC))
((Banner))
Breonna’s Garden
((SOT))
((Ju’Niyah Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s Sister))
I think my favorite memory overall will probably be living together. She didn't want me to be a roommate because she told me I was too messy for her and she had real bad OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder], but it's probably going to be living with her as the best memory.
((Lady PheOnix, Creator of “Breonna’s Garden”))
What would she cook? What was she good at?
((Ju’Niyah Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s Sister))
She can’t cook.
((Lady PheOnix, Creator of “Breonna’s Garden”))
Really?
((Ju’Niyah Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s Sister))
No.
((Lady PheOnix, Creator of “Breonna’s Garden”))
She looks like she…
((Ju’Niyah Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s Sister))
We had, we ate the same seven meals. Me, her and Kenny.
((NATS/MUSIC))
((Lady PheOnix, Creator of “Breonna’s Garden”))
Breonna’s garden, which is an augmented reality experience, and the idea behind it was sparked by Ju’Niyah getting death threats in her social media and saying like, okay, clearly if the online space isn't safe, right for someone, then I'm going to create a container for her.
((Ju’Niyah Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s Sister))
We see Breonna. We see there's people leaving messages. And then there was a point where I was like, “But you're going to record. You're going to let these people hear and tell your side of the story about who your sister was.”
((NATS))
((Ju’Niyah Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s Sister))
When she first got on as an EMT [Emergency Medical Technician], she was super excited.


CLOSING BUMPER ((ANIM))
voanews.com/connect


BREAK THREE
BUMP IN ((ANIM))


SHOW ENDS
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