New book tells stories of opioids

In “Not Far from Me: Stories of Opioids and Ohio,” Ohioans tell their stories of loss, recovery and hope in forms as different as poems, paintings, journal entries and letters.

There are also many traditional first-person narrative accounts from people describing their connection to Ohio’s opioid crisis in the book, which was published in June. But it is perhaps this assortment of styles of expression that makes the book stand out from the typical account or story of opioids people are used to reading.

The book’s co-editors, Berkeley Franz and Daniel Skinner, from the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine in Athens, write in the book that they understand new solutions are necessary to combat the opioid crisis in Ohio. But as they say in their introduction to a section in the book titled “Devising Solutions,” “What these pieces make clear, however, is that the most impassioned solutions grow out of specific contexts and in response to firsthand personal or professional experiences.”

The book abounds with more than 50 of these firsthand accounts.

Reading this book, one hears from a doctor in Athens speaking about the cultural ability to accept some pain as a part of life; a church in Toledo run by former addicts who spread their message in urban neighborhoods throughout the region; a longtime nurse in Kidron, who is fed up with giving his time at the hospital to people who continue to overdose again and again; a director of a symphony in Delaware whose “therapeutic drumming” program has taken off in his county.

The diverse offering of voices inside the book include parents, children, law enforcement officials, football coaches, teachers, professors, doctors, nurses, mayors, public and social service professionals.

Franz and Skinner called for a wide variety of submissions in their correspondence with people throughout Ohio. Skinner spoke about the eclectic nature of submissions included in the published edition of “Not Far from Me.”

“We wanted people to use as many different media as possible when telling us their story, whatever medium they were closest to. This is because the story of opioids in Ohio needs a diverse approach,” Skinner said.

“You hear the news stories about pharmaceutical companies and things, but obviously visuals and poetry tell the story in ways that narrative and interviews and first-person prose can’t,” he said.

Asked about creating a singular book out of the many varied submissions they received, Skinner said “we wanted to make sure that there was balance in the book.

“We were attentive to not having too much of any one perspective, which was one of the hard parts: it’s hard to tell people you have too much of their perspective,” he said.

“Not Far from Me” received advance praise from some of Ohio’s most public-facing politicians, including positive blurbs from senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman. And former governor Ted Strickland provided the book’s foreword.

“While most citizens now have at least a general awareness of this ever-expanding public health crisis, we are still not doing what needs to be done to deal with it,” Strickland wrote in his foreword to the book. “It is my hope that this book – that these stories – will provide us with the insight, the determination, and the hope we need to fight for policies and programs that will bring an end to the crisis.”

And the project that comprises this book doesn’t stop after the last page is turned.

On the official website for the book, notfarfromme.org, there is a listing of numerous public meetings and discussions personally led by Franz and Skinner taking place around Ohio. Many of these scheduled community conversations are funded by the Ohio Humanities Council, Skinner said.

“We were pleased to find out when we were putting this book together that the Ohio Humanities Council was looking for a project to address the opioid issue. In fact, a bunch of groups across the country have been trying to see how the humanities could play a role in addressing the issue,” he said.

The Ohio Humanities Council is funding the first 10 public discussions, which Skinner does not consider to be “promotional events” but instead “opportunities for people to engage critically with the material.”

Regarding the community conversation events Franz and Skinner have led so far, Skinner said, “the events have been as diverse as this state is, since every library and community are different.

“Every county is different in terms of its public health engagement with the opioid crisis, too,” he said. “Some communities are really well-resourced and others are not.

“Urban and rural areas also tend to have slightly different takes on the situation,” he said. “For example, mental health services are really needed in rural areas right now and that shows in what we’ve experienced so far.”

Skinner said he hopes they are able to organize many more events throughout the state in the future.

In keeping with this notion of expanding the project’s reach as far as possible, the book’s website contains numerous activities and discussion questions to be used in community conversations. The materials are based off of personal accounts from the book and are organized according to the book’s sections, with titles like “Establishing Place,” “Devising Solutions” and “Challenging Assumptions.”

As the website states, the materials “are designed to help community members facilitate in-depth community discussions to encourage critical, historically-informed dialogue around opioid use, with the aim of reducing stigma.”

The materials are available free so people can easily access them, Skinner said. He added that he and those who worked on them always envisioned them for public or private use in all environments, whether in “libraries, churches or living rooms.”

Kyle Rosenberger, an Elmore native who received his master’s degree in education from Tiffin University, designed the activities and materials for the project and website. Rosenberger is an instructional designer at the Ohio University Office of Instructional Innovation and Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, and he is working on his PhD.

“I was approached by Dr. Skinner and Dr. Franz at Heritage College, whom I’d worked with before. We wanted to find a way to design activities that helped community members to engage in a more critical discussion with each other about this topic,” he said.

“There is the book already, but we wanted to create a platform where community members could also have a discussion about opioid abuse to reduce the stigma surrounding it,” he said.

Regarding the way the discussion questions and activities on the website are organized, Rosenberger said his main focus was to allow for the conversations to be “facilitated by anyone, anywhere.”

“We wanted the materials to be accessible, so you don’t even need to buy the book to use them. And we made the navigation on the website really intuitive: they all have an outlined structure and all share a similar approach for that reason,” he said.

As an instructional designer, Rosenberger said he is used to working on projects in the academic and corporate spheres. But this project gave him a chance to take instructional design principles and apply them to community education.

“The discussion questions on the website are the crux of what we want the experience of using the materials to be. There are thoughtful questions on there that really encourage critical dialogue,” he said.

As a lifelong Ohioan, Rosenberger said he relished the opportunity to work on a project that contributes to a problem affecting the state.

“An interesting aspect of this project for me was in trying to raise awareness out there to reduce stigma around this issue throughout the state,” he said.

“I felt like it was a really important thing to be a part of this project,” he said. “It’s one thing to just read a book; it’s another thing to actively engage in the content and bring that content alive in these community conversation events.”

The closest scheduled community conversation Seneca County residents can attend is to take place at Lima Public Library Aug. 19 at 5:30 p.m. The discussion, titled “Fostering New Spaces,” is to be led by the book’s editors Franz and Skinner, and will be focused around “building spaces that support recovery from addiction,” according to the library’s website.

To find the free discussion materials based off of the book, go to notfarfromme.org. The project’s organizers of future community conversations also can be reached via email at conversations@notfarfromme.org.