I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years thinking about West Virginia. It is the safest, most comforting place in the world to me, home to nearly all my favorite people. Her mountains offer a sweet embrace: fiery in fall, lush in spring and summer, spare but no less striking a beauty in winter.
Our people…thinking about the people who reside in these mountains is enough to bring me to tears. Because while I know no finer folks than those I’ve found here, the people of West Virginia have been traumatized, brutalized, taken advantage of time and time again.
If you’ve looked into commonalities in addicts, in studies which have tried to discover what might cause one person to be more susceptible to addiction than another, you’ll find one word over and over: trauma. Addicts are exponentially more likely to have experienced trauma than non-addicts. And trauma begets trauma; violence and addiction are cyclical, and there is maybe nowhere which displays it more clearly than the West Virginia classroom.
The children of West Virginia are desperate. They are continually traumatized. What we would’ve considered difficult circumstances to grow up in twenty years ago are now nearly the norm. If you look at the statistics of displaced children – children who no longer live with their parents, who must be with a grandparent or other family member or in the foster care system, what have you – we lead the nation. Many of those who do live with parents are living with addicts or in undesirable situations where trauma is frequent, but our foster care system is so overstressed and understaffed itself that we no longer have the means or capacity to serve all of those who are in need. We have such profound need here. Despite this, lawmakers voted recently to take measures to not only prohibit same-sex families from accepting foster children but also to exclude children who identify as LGBTQ – the most likely segment of the population to be suicidal – from being included in foster care programs.
People will passionately point at LGBTQ West Virginians, addicted West Virginians, West Virginians so poor that they need the help of our government to exist, and lay our problems at the feet of those populations, say that they are to blame for the state of things in our state.
Our state is in crisis, but by nurturing divisions we are stepping away from what is actually the best thing West Virginia has to offer: the relationships between her people. We are a state made up of communities filled with citizens and organizations who love to take care of other people. When help can be given, when a need is there, we step up to give it, to fulfill that need. It’s in our churches, 4-H clubs, private businesses, food pantries, community centers and clubs. It’s sharing the needs of a family whose house burned down on Facebook. It’s raising money for a little boy with cancer. When West Virginia teachers went on strike in 2018, we had our communities behind us; our state prides itself on its legacy of labor leaders and community support. We take care of each other here, at least when we are at our best. It is the finest thing about us.
And it is also the most significant thing we as individual West Virginians can do to break the cycles of trauma and addiction, because relationships are absolutely critical to healing from traumatic experiences and addiction. In recovery groups, in continuing education classes for teachers, in community-sponsored workshops across the state trying to help us build a better future in these hallowed hills, the importance of relationships – particularly to those who have suffered trauma - is preached until the preacher is blue in the face. There is no overstating the necessity of those relationships. There can be no recovery without human kindness and support.
So instead of focusing on what differences we may have and nursing extreme views which only work to divide us and dehumanize our fellow man, we should remember that all of us in West Virginia have been traumatized; no one here has escaped unscathed from the loss of industry, the opioid crisis, high poverty rates, limited job opportunities.
But we all feel sweet relief when we see that Wild and Wonderful sign come into our sights after time away. Our hearts all flutter when we hear those first few notes of “Country Roads” playing out across the radio or at the ballgame. Each of us has staked a claim here, buried pieces of our hearts in her hills and hollers, and we owe it to that sacred communion which lets us call West Virginia our Mountain Mama to seek to build and sustain relationships with our brothers and sisters in state instead of allowing fear and hatred to lead our paths.
West Virginia can heal from her hurt, she can move past the trauma to be healthy and happy and proud of herself once again, but it must be done from within, from the hearts and hands of her people doing that holy work of loving our neighbors and rejecting those who would try and exploit our differences for the advancement of their own desires.
We all are West Virginia. We owe her our best, and we can only do that by recovering together, building relationships and healing traumas one by one.