Queen City Nerve

Charlotte's Cultural Pulse

On the Front Lines of a Crisis
The monster is no myth

By Ryan Pitkin

July 31, 2019

Sitting in a banquet hall in the Ballantyne Hotel on June 13, it was clear that — despite how much it may sometimes seem like Mary Ferreri is on a mission all on her own — she has an entire community behind her.

As I wrote about in this issue’s cover story, which will go online on Friday, Aug. 2, Mary has spearheaded the effort to bring the Carolinas’ first recovery school to Charlotte, and more than two years after she made that her mission, she will finally see all her hard work come to fruition at a ribbon cutting for her Emerald School of Excellence on Aug. 17.

Mary Ferreri in Emerald School. (Artwork by Abstract Dissent, Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Mary’s operation is small. The school is located in a church in east Charlotte, and basically consists of a single hallway with six classrooms, two of which will be used mainly by staff. Ferreri expects less than 10 students in her first class, which doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a start.

Not many people at the Emerald School fundraiser luncheon in June had to be convinced of the importance of a recovery school, which serves students who are struggling with substance use disorder between the ages of 13 and 20, because most of them had been affected by addiction in some way or another.

One woman had recently lost her son to an overdose after he took pills he didn’t know anything about. Another woman told about how her daughter had developed a heroin addiction at 16 years old and had spent so much time in recovery in six years since that she only lived at home for four months.

Another woman talked about her own addiction — how she became addicted to pills in high school and would show up to class so high that she’d regularly have to spend the day in the nurse’s office sleeping it off. Though that woman grew up in New Bern, Mary told similar stories about students she taught during her time as a health and fitness teacher in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

So with recovery schools showing objective success in cities around the country — the relapse rate for recovery school students is 30%, compared to 70% for those who leave treatment and return to their original school — why has it taken so long to get one in Charlotte? I graduated out of the CMS system 15 years ago, and I know from experience that the crisis in our schools is nothing new.

Ryan Pitkin (Photo by Ryan Solan)

Weed, ecstasy and pain pills were everywhere at my school. I ran in crowds that dabbled with all of it, and I was lucky not to have picked up that penchant for addiction. I would say I did more than experiment in my day, but never got a taste for hard drugs and dropped them not long after leaving high school. 

But I have friends who weren’t so lucky, and I watched helplessly as things only got worse for them after high school. Since then, I’ve lost two friends to heroin overdoses and two friends to pain pill overdoses. So why isn’t more being done locally to address these issues at a young age, before young people find themselves too far gone down the road of addiction?

According to multiple people I spoke with while reporting, the stigma around addiction is especially strong in Charlotte and the South in general.

Betsy Ragone, whose son Michael died of a heroin overdose in 2016, told me that she often thinks of how she tried to save face and salvage her family’s reputation while Michael struggled, when she could have spent that time on the actual fight in front of her.

“I always look back and think if I knew then what I know now, I don’t know that I could have saved my son, because this is bigger than anyone, but I know that a lot of my behavior might have been [different]. Instead of punitive I would have been a little bit more inclusive and brought this to light as being the disease it was, not a character flaw or a moral failure,” Betsy told me. “I would have been more restorative in a lot of my conversations with him, because I really thought he had a choice just to stop, but when they’re that far in they don’t have that choice anymore.”

Betsy launched Michael’s Voice just six months after her son’s death. She now helps the families of people struggling with addiction as they grapple with how to come to terms with this “monster,” as Betsy calls it. For some, the shame does not go away even after the monster has taken a loved one.

“It is something that I still see it in the rooms with people. ‘I left the country club because I didn’t want people to know,’” Betsy told me one night as she left a Michael’s Voice support group. “We’re embarrassed over situations in death, we’re stigmatized, and we’re losing a generation. So Mary’s on the front lines of saving a generation. It sounds dramatic, but it’s true.”

Not dramatic, just bold, and we need more people like Betsy and Mary making bold moves in if we want to stand a chance against the monster.

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