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Speak Up! – “7 Days: The Opioid Epidemic in Arkansas”

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  • Jessica Keener
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Drug addiction – specifically opioid addiction – is something I became familiar with all too early in my life. I first remember a family member actively seeking pain medication when I was about 11 years old ...

My parents would pay my cousin – who was nine years older than me – to babysit when the rest of my family was at a school or sporting event. I had four siblings, all who played on different teams throughout the year.

I, however, had just finished collecting money for a school fundraiser. There was an envelope of money, burning a hole in the bottom of my backpack. I was in my room, listening to the radio and daydreaming about which “prize” I was going to collect from the table in my classroom when I turned the envelope in the next day. Suddenly, my cousin rushed in, a dishtowel wrapped around her bloody thumb. She said I had to drive her to the emergency room. I panicked! “Me? Drive? No way.”


The Hospital


Miraculously, my 11-year-old self drove to the nearest hospital, almost 10 miles away. My cousin was calm and collected as she bled in the passenger seat. I just figured she was trying not to think about the cut. Since I was so young, they let me stay with her in the back room. I watched as they stitched up her hand. I remember her wincing silently.

The doctor gave her a shot in the thumb and instructed her to treat it with ice packs and Motrin once we got back home. She begged the doctor to give her something else for the pain. She was insistent. I remember being struck by how panicked she seemed in the hospital compared to how serene the drive in had been. The doctor glanced at me and repeated that he couldn’t give her anything stronger to ensure her mind would be clear for the drive home.

“Doc, please, it hurts so bad. It’s not the cut that hurts, my finger HURTS bad!!!! Please, I need something for the pain!” She was persistent and, eventually, he gave in. The doctor scribbled something down on to a piece of paper, a nurse wrapped up my cousin’s thumb and we left.


A Step Deeper


At the pharmacy, my cousin gave the note to a sweet lady behind the counter. She told me to sit on a bench and wait on her … she left (I assumed to go the restroom) and returned a few minutes later. The little, old lady called my cousin’s name, and we went to the counter where she realized she didn’t have enough money to pay for the prescription.

My cousin dug into the recesses of her purse for any loose change and, then, laid it – coin by coin – on the counter. Eventually, she asked me if I had any money. I remembered the envelope of school fundraiser money in the bottom of my backpack in the car.

Before I knew what had happened, the envelope was rifled out of my bag – the majority of its contents handed over to the pharmacist, and the rest was gracefully slipped into my cousin’s back pocket. I was confused and stunned but, oddly, relieved to be free of the pharmacy and heading back home to put this bloody event behind us.

In the car, my cousin swallowed two of the pills and pulled out of our parking spot. On the drive, I remember thinking, “How can she be gripping the steering wheel so tight with her injured thumb?” But I assumed the medicine must just have been working quickly.

She dropped me off at the end of my driveway – my parents still weren’t home. She told me she had to go see a friend but would be back shortly. I remember sitting on my front porch until my family got home (my house key was in my backpack, next to my empty fundraising envelope, still in the floorboard of my cousin’s car). When my parents asked what had happened, I was in such a daze, I assured them my cousin had only been gone for five or 10 minutes. Looking back, I probably sat alone on the porch for over an hour.


Protecting Her


I remember telling my teacher the next day that I had left my backpack at home. Eventually, I told my mom I needed a new bag. When she asked what happened to my fundraiser money, I simply said I had spent it.

Why was I lying for my cousin? Was it to protect her? I didn’t know, but I felt in the pit of my stomach that I had been a part of something wrong – and the simple lie was the quickest way to put it behind me.

And that was the foundation of our teenage relationship for the next several years. I was very close to this cousin and, from that day on, she considered me a trustworthy confidant – so, I got to know her dangerous habits much more personally throughout junior high.


Fast-forward 20 years ...


My adult brain remembers that day much more clearly.

My cousin intentionally cut her finger with the knife (she had no reason to be cutting anything in the kitchen; there was no food nor snacks that needed cutting). She needed a reason to go the ER to beg a doctor for pain medication. Pain medication that didn’t need to be prescribed for a trivial injury that required only three stitches.

My cousin stole money from an 11-year-old’s school fundraiser to pay for the ill-gotten drugs and, then, abandoned me to share those pills with “friends.” This was the first time of many that my cousin would use my youthful ignorance and need for acceptance to enable her addiction over the next several years.

She was an addict with a serious drug problem.

I lied for her, gave her money, let her borrow my car, stole insulin syringes from my diabetic mom and picked her up from strange places late at night. Through it all, I felt like I was somehow protecting her, keeping her safe.

I enjoyed being invited (along with my friends) to older parties where we had no business being.

But, most of all, I was overwhelmed with guilt at the thought of admitting to my mom how often my cousin was too high to get me home safely. I was terrified of being seen as a bad daughter for letting it happen or as a mean cousin or friend for ratting her out.


 The Aftermath


Over the next two decades, my cousin married and divorced a string of abusive men. She was in and out of jail for drug possession; she continuously abandoned her children – even stooping as low as to sexually traffic one of them to secure money for a newly developed meth addiction.

When I was in college, my cousin and I fell out of touch after she moved away with her third husband. She showed up roughly every fifth Christmas – sometimes sober, usually not – always refusing rehab. Always insisting she could kick it on her own.

My cousin died from an overdose this summer.

The toxicology report showed several drugs in her system. Her two kids (now adults) are also addicts. Their struggles stem from the trauma of their childhood, and I now recognize my cousin was also working through childhood trauma I couldn’t see – using her addiction as a crutch to numb the pain.


Bringing Addiction Into the Light


I have a lot of regrets about passively enabling my cousin’s habits and the part I might have played in her death. I grew up in a family where mental health and drug addiction weren’t talked about. They were swept under the rug. And now – with my career in education and youth safety – I hope we as a society can move past these tendencies and pull the ugliness of addiction out into the light. The only way we can beat it is by naming it.

Ask the uncomfortable questions; talk about drug use with your kids; monitor prescriptions in your household; have the difficult conversations; don’t hide questionable behavior for fear of getting in trouble; and listen to your gut.

Speak up.

Save a life!

We all need to understand addiction is a disease and a dangerous one at that. There is help out there for people who are suffering! Find more information about the growing opioid epidemic in Arkansas and resources to fight it at




Find resources to fight opioid addiction this Red Ribbon Week and year round at

Hear more local stories and learn about the fight against the opioid crisis in the Arkansas PBS and Arkansas Department of Education documentary “7 Days: The Opioid Crisis in Arkansas” from filmmaker Nathan Willis Monday, Oct. 25, at 8 p.m.



Monday, Oct. 25, 2021

“7 Days: The Opioid Crisis in Arkansas,” 8 p.m.