After a decade of mounting deaths and the spread of opiate addiction from small towns and rural backwaters into the wealthy suburbs and cities, political and health care leaders turned their eyes toward America’s addiction crisis over the past few years. Funds were found for long-ignored research and treatment programs. There’s some hope among the experts.
But what if the answer isn’t to be found only in society-wide programs? Can individuals make a difference? That’s the struggle Andrea Brunais and her husband, Hal Gibson, haphazardly wandered into when their fixer-upper real estate project in Bluefield, West Virginia, morphed into a temporary shelter for Jesse-Ray Lewis.
Brunais chronicles the next six months of their lives in “Hillbilly Drug Baby: The Story,” published in December by WriteLife Publishing.
Lewis was born to an addicted mother, who disappeared from his life, and was raised in a drug-shattered family and a series of temporary homes. He aged out of foster care into the arms of a rural dope ring in southwestern Virginia. Seeking to escape both his family and his gang -- and some looming jail time -- he wandered across the state line into Bluefield and lived on the streets and in an abandoned building.
When he sought help at a local mission, his life became entwined with Gibson and Brunais. Hal had recently finished remodeling an apartment in a house yards from their own, and the couple offered to let the mission use it to house clients in need of a way off the streets.
The plan was to let the mission handle all the interactions with the tenants. Hal would be busy fixing up the rest of the building; Andrea was away most weekdays at her university communications job in Blacksburg, more than an hour away across the mountains.
The hands-off approach didn’t last. Gibson appointed himself the young man’s mentor, and began to involve himself in his daily life, steering him toward a daily routine, an educational goal and a way out of homelessness. Brunais discovered his roughsawn poetry, became his editor and writing coach, and found a publisher willing to make his raw, emotional verse into a book.
Brunais spent hours interviewing Lewis, and his stories are the most captivating parts of the book.
“He didn’t remember an adult ever cooking him a meal,” she wrote. “I pressed him to recall his favorite food from childhood. He said he couldn’t. But one recipe stood out. It was called ‘bitter potatoes.’ His grandmother told him that he first sampled this delicacy when he was three.
She never spared the gory details when she filled in the pictures of his toddlerhood. What made the potatoes bitter? They were laced with Xanax. With a little half-grin cutting his broad face, Jesse-Ray said he liked them even better when he got older.”
They made some progress. Lewis applied for community college; his book, “Hillbilly Drug Baby: The Poems,” is in print and has captured the eyes of a few readers.
But, as Brunais painfully recounts, there was a problem. It became hard for her and Gibson to sort out which of Lewis’ many stories were truth; which were shaky memories; which were wishful thinking; and which were flat-out lies. He made only meager efforts to lead the sort of ordinary life that the couple envisioned for him.
Brunais, an award-winning journalist with a passion for detail, tells an unsparing story about the impact the ordeal had on her family. Her husband, a man with a passion for projects, took on the brunt of the effort, spending countless hours shuttling Lewis to appointments and shepherding him through various bureaucracies in an attempt to find him support and treatment for his drug issues.
Brunais moves past the generalizations and stereotypes that often dominate discussions of addiction and treatment, and tells a story of a human being and how he affected those around him. Jesse-Ray Lewis has a personality, a point of view and plenty of opinions. And as Brunais realized, he has a talent for condensing his messages into verse:
"People with no needle tracks say they know what rock bottom is. Do they know what it’s like to sleep abandoned by everyone but surrounded by everyone?
"I slept in a house whose foundation was vile on a ground made of maggots and the spit of the vengeful.
"They spit on the grave of a lost boy."
— Jesse-Ray Lewis, “Utterances from the Present”
Their monthslong encounter with Lewis left Brunais and Gibson sad and disappointed, and their meticulously refurbished apartment in squalor. But the book of poetry he created and Brunais’ memoir are valuable contributions to understanding Appalachia’s drug problem from a human perspective.
Both “Hillbilly Drug Baby: The Story” and “Hillbilly Drug Baby: The Poems” are available from WriteLife Publishing at hillbillydrugbaby.com and from bookstores and online retailers. The publisher’s website includes photos and audio interviews with both Andrea Brunais and Jesse-Ray Lewis.