KERMIT, West Virginia — Etta Lea Kiser has been sober for almost two years. But it hasn’t been easy. “I pray daily,” sometimes by the minute, she said. “You have your good days, and your bad days.”
Etta wanted to share the story of her nearly 20-year struggle with addiction in hopes of helping someone else who is now where she once was.
The 43-year-old mother has lived her entire life in the small town of Kermit. With a population of less than 400, her hometown became the epicenter of the nation’s opioid crisis more than 10 years ago when painkillers — 3 million pills in 10 months — flooded the town through a local pharmacy. But Etta fell victim to addiction years before, as the crisis was building.
“I was probably 25 or 26, it’s been so long ago,” she said, recalling that she was introduced to opioids at parties, where painkillers hydrocodone and oxycodone were readily available. What started as recreational use of pills, rapidly spun out of her control.
“After a year, I was wondering why I was getting sick when I didn’t have it — it was like I had the flu,” she told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. “Then I put it together that when I did have one, I didn’t feel that way. I was already addicted. I was so young and naive.”
Etta eventually got help and was sober for six years. But she relapsed. This time, however, it was heroin that she turned to. “My disease came back more rampant and more vicious than it was the first time I was using. I went from never using a needle or never using heroin to (doing) that within a year. You have to be ever vigilant,” she said through tears.
“It morally, spiritually and emotionally bankrupts you when you’re in addiction,” she said.
Because of the government crackdown on painkillers, heroin has made a huge comeback in Kermit and throughout West Virginia. When asked how easy it is to get heroin in Kermit right now, Etta answered, “Two minutes down the road.” And just five minutes away, someone is selling cocaine, which she said has also made a comeback. These, in addition to crystal methamphetamine — better known as crystal meth — and painkillers still, are all easy to obtain in her small town.
For Etta, rock bottom hit when she was sentenced to prison for 14 months for driving on a suspended license, third offense and revoked for driving under the influence. At the time, her daughter Sami Jo was just 9 years old, and she would be cared for by Etta’s ex-husband, her boyfriend and her parents. It was a long 14 months for Etta, thinking of everything she was missing — birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Sami Jo. Time she will not get back.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever been away from my daughter,” Etta said. “When I came home, she was upset with me. I had people, while I was gone, raising her which I am grateful for. But they were telling her, ‘Your mommy was hanging out with the wrong people.’ Putting the blame on other people, basically, except for me. So, when I talked to my daughter I made it very clear that this was nobody’s fault but mine. I chose to do these things,” Etta said, breaking down into tears. “But I choose not to live that way now.”
Now, it’s about restoring the trust of her daughter.
“I’m faithful in being there for her — being home when I say I’m going to be home, doing what I say I’m going to do, so she has that comfort and that security,” Etta said, “because she had it taken away from her.”
Etta goes to counseling in Williamson, a half hour from Kermit. She wants to be able to help others in their recovery from addiction as well, and just recently became certified as a recovery coach. She’s now getting ready to enroll in peer to peer counseling, working on getting her license.
“I want to help others,” she said. “I want my daughter to see me helping others.” Over the years through her struggle with addiction and recovery, Etta has had the support of family and friends. One of them is Franciscan Sister Therese Carew, who heads Christian Help, an emergency and basic needs center in Kermit.
“Sister T is ever relentless,” Etta said. “She’s always going to check on you. She’s always been very honest with me and always, ‘If you need me let me know, I’ll help you anyway I can.’ So, she has always kept up with me from the time I met her.”
Looking to the future, Etta is ever mindful of her disease of addiction, which she also describes as a mental health issue.
“If you don’t treat both, the problem is not going to get solved,” she stressed. “It’s just not going to happen.”
Etta talks to her daughter about the dangers of drugs, and just how easy it is to become addicted. When Sami Jo is older, Etta said she will talk to her about what she has gone through in her addiction. Etta believes that the key to stopping this opioid epidemic, which has devastated her community and state, is to educate both children and adults about addiction. And what she wants those suffering from addiction to know is that recovery is possible for everyone — no matter how long it takes.
“If it takes one person 20 times,” she said, “then thank God they’re alive to make it to the 20th time.”
– – –
Rowan is executive editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.