Northeast Michigan has several of the poorest counties in the state. Alpena is the regional capital where the Lafarge Cement plant used to have 1200 workers. It now has 210. Locals are proud of the beautiful woods and water and, according to the city manager, they have plenty of reasons to be proud of their downtown revival and economic development. But like anywhere in the world, joblessness can break up families and leave children behind.
In 2011, The Kellogg Foundation put $2.4 million into the Northeast Michigan Children’s Behavioral Health Initiative. More than 30 organizations were involved in the project that ended in December 2014. Schools and clinics across the region support children from birth to their teens, many of whom suffer from depression, obesity and even hunger. People need help.
Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus visited Alpena recently. Though not a member of the project, Sunrise Mission is doing similar work with young people. McCarus found 34 year old Chris Wright who said he was troubled even before the age of 14 when he began using drugs.
A car accident prevented Wright’s mom from ever working. His dad was in Vietnam. He suffered from post-traumatic stress and alcoholism. Chris Wright says he grew up poor. He had enough to eat but new shoes and clothes were rare. Speaking about his father:
Wright: “He did the best that he could with what he had. But he had a kid to take care of, and a disabled wife to take care of, plus his own struggles. It was hard growing up here. Besides school, there really wasn’t a lot to do. Alpena was a lot smaller then. There was no Walmart. Since we didn’t have a lot to do we kind of got into mischief ourselves as far as alcohol and partying. That was just the thing to do then around here.”
CMC: “What kind of drugs and alcohol?”
Wright: “Any kind of alcohol, mostly vodka, whiskey, you know beer. Painkillers became a big deal when I was in high school. Oxycontin was a really big thing back then. It was widely available and cheap around here. That became a lot of people’s favorite that I went to high school with. Alcohol and painkillers, oxycontin, morphine and then heroine made this big comeback. I did just about every drug in the book.
CMC: “What kind of feeling do those drugs give you?”
Wright: “A feeling of peace. A feeling of being content, of being satisfied with whatever situation you’re dealing with. If it’s a negative situation you can just numb out and you just don’t care.”
CMC: “When does it catch up to you?”
Wright: “It took several years to catch up to me to where everything fell apart. My whole life. Then getting in trouble legally didn’t help. I’ve lost a lot of people along the way… my step sister. It was tragic. I’ve lost a lot of friends to it. A lot of the people I went to high school with are in prison or dead. It’s amazing to think that we all started out as regular kids going to high school trying to do regular things in a small town and this huge wave of drug addiction and alcoholism came over so many of us.
“I’m just trying to rebuild my life now. It’s hard to change. It can be done but it’s really hard. But it’s a lot of work. You have to make mistakes and learn from them.”
CMC: “What was the lowest point for you?”
Wright: “I guess the lowest point was waking up in the hospital, detoxing, delirious right here in Alpena. It wasn’t just one time. It happened several times. Then I realized that when I didn’t have my alcohol or drugs so I could not function. I was at a point where I couldn’t live with them or without them. It’s a low point for any addict. It’s a realization that this secret way of life that you’ve found to live, this tool that you’re using to cope with everyday life has turned against you and it’s almost impossible to see a way out.”
Claude Oleson of Farmington played the guitar used underneath these first two conversations with Chris Wright.