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Eastern Kentuckians recovering from addiction scramble to rebuild lives after flooding

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Ryan Van Velzer
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When Eddie Sandla got ready to go to work in the early hours of June 29th, he opened the door to his home to find 10 feet of water and his neighbors clinging to each other on the roof. He’d never seen rain like it before.

“We lived 50 feet from a river. We lost everything to this flood and we don’t have much here. This is poverty here, I don’t care how much you work, whatever you do, there’s just not much here,” he said.

Sandla lives with his wife and 17-year-old daughter in Whitesburg, and goes to work at a strip mine in Hazard, 20 miles from home. He said when his house flooded, survival mode kicked in. He immediately fetched his wife and daughter and stayed in their room until the water receded. Once the rain stopped, he went to check on his mother and decided to stay with her.

Once waters receded, Sandla ripped up the carpets and tried to save the house from mold, but there was something else at the back of his mind.

“There’s always going to be that little dude, he’s over in the corner, doing pushups and waiting for me. It’s my addiction, and I know this,” he said.

Sandla is referring to his 22-year struggle with methamphetamine addiction. He began using when he was in his early 20s when he worked at a strip mine in Hazard.

“There’s nothing to do here really. There’s no skating rinks, bowling alleys, there’s none of that here. The only thing we had to do was go on strip jobs, drink and party,” Sandla said. “All I thought was getting high and partying, and it progressed to robbing, gunplay. I just let my addiction take everything from me.”

Sandla spent 16 years in and out of prison for burglaries, breaking and entering and dealing drugs. But it was in prison where he heard about a recovery program at the local hospital and got on Suboxone medication. He still works at the mine, but is now 27 months into recovery. Eddie considers his wife, who is six years into recovery, and daughter, as the reasons why he decided to quit and stay alive.

“If I kept going like that, I wouldn’t have survived. The addiction had consumed me,” he said.

A week after the flood, he made a visit to his doctor at the Mountain Comprehensive Health Care in Whitesburg where he refilled his prescription and talked through his fears of relapsing.

But he also received support to get back on his feet with a gas voucher for a week, rolls of toilet paper and food, a bag of charcoal and a grill.

“Things like that makes me know that they’re willing to help me. Any medication I need, if I feel a little freaked out, they really support me, but they also support me through my basic needs,” he said.

The 10 therapist rooms that make up the center’s behavioral health wing sit on the ground floor and were hit hard by the flooding. Parts of walls had been stripped out with insulation and wires exposed. Three weeks after the disaster, floors were still drying, and therapists’ rooms had been converted into relief centers stocked with supplies.

Dr. Sonji Adams, the behavioral health coordinator at MCHC, said her staff was focused on checking on patients who were in recovery and needed support. Cell service was still down in many areas and Adams was going through a list of phone numbers and emergency contacts to check if everyone was safe and had access to their medication. She has also begun screening patients for suicide risk.

“Some of our employees are still working from home and are having a hard time themselves recovering from trauma. One of our therapists told me she can still hear water gushing into her house weeks after the floods, but we’re doing the best we can to work through our own trauma so we can be there for our patients,” she said.

Adams said trauma from surviving a flood or any natural disaster can make recovery from addiction tougher and bring a host of other mental health issues.

“‘I’ve made it through this, but I just don’t feel like I can go any further’ is a very common rebound emotion,” she said. “ That results in increased suicide attempts or increased relapses because they just give up and just want to escape, they just want to be numb for a while.”

Adams said many with substance use disorders struggle to cope with the “survival mode” that kicks in for weeks or months after the onset of a disaster. When the adrenaline wears off, withdrawal or a host of other symptoms could sink in and put a person at risk for relapse or rebound, especially if they don’t have basic needs met, she said.

“They’ve also got physical needs, they don’t know how they’re going to get their next meal, they don’t know where they’re going to live, they don’t have employment, the don’t have a vehicle, so we’ve got this plethora of issues that they’re going to need a treatment team. Right now is not the time for pride, they need help,” Adams said.

Dr. Johnathan Hatton, MCHC’s addiction medicine doctor, said he has seen patients experiencing withdrawal mostly from alcohol and benzodiazepines since the flood. He said the flood was unprecedented and puts people struggling with addiction at major risk for relapses and overdoses, especially if they lost their homes. Those in recovery who have to live with friends or family actively struggling with addiction would have access to substances that could become strong triggers in a highly stressful situation.

“You don’t know where you’re gonna live, you don’t know how you’re going to get to the doctor, then that’s a recipe for relapse, and you know any time you relapse that’s a recipe for overdose,” Hatton said.

“I still think a lot of the effects from this situation are going to happen down the road,” Hatton said. “There has never been a disaster like this.”

But Sandla is determined. He has his medication, a support system and the kindness of his neighbors and wants to set an example for others struggling.

“Today, I just choose to fix this. If I can work on this every day little by little, I’ll have it back, I’ll have it fixed,” Sandla said.

“People come to me, ask me how are you coping with this. One day at a time man, we don’t have to live like it, we don’t have to do this stuff no more.”

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