Monday, November 8, 2010

Paw Paw: Another Town Left to Rot

Right in the middle of my high school experience growing up in San Francisco, I was hastily uprooted from the state of California and transported to a small town in Southwest Michigan titled Paw Paw.  The time I spent in this town was the peak of my youth's turmoil in numerous ways.  The terms in which I had been sent to Michigan were rocky to begin with, and my mindset entering this new place was nervous, frustrated, confused, unsure and saddened all together.  I wanted to be with my friends, the people I left behind in San Francisco.  But, there was nothing that I could do about it at the time, and I knew that I had to buck up and prepare myself for the next two years of finishing high school living in this new, strange and geographically secluded place.  My first initial feeling moving to Paw Paw was that of isolation.  The town is located about thirty minutes outside of a larger town/city called Kalamazoo.  Yes, there is a town that exists called Kalamazoo.  Somehow I had found myself thirty minutes AWAY from a town that nobody where I came from had ever heard of.  I was an outsider in every way -  personality, appearance, experience, expectations, way of life.  I might as well had come from another country.

The point I'm trying to make is that I came into Paw Paw as an ignorant, untainted individual who had no idea of what the town was like, what the people were like, what the people did and what I had in store.  Boy, was I in for a surprise.  I had no idea that what lay ahead - the things I'd see.  They were unlike anything I'd ever seen before - I had come from an upper middle class family and lived in the heart of San Francisco my whole life- a true city girl.  I had no idea that I had just stepped into the middle of a full blown, out of control meth epidemic at the age of 16.  I want to forewarn anyone about to read this piece: what lays ahead might offend you.  And, please keep in mind that there are exceptions, not every single family or person I met was like what I am about to describe.  But, I'm not going to keep my silence on this generally ignored subject any more.

I hadn't ever met anyone who had used meth - let alone people who use meth, sell meth, MAKE meth.  I expected life in the middle of nowhere to be excruciatingly boring and uneventful, but what I got were visions and experiences that will haunt me forever.  I learned first hand that meth is the single most despicable, family-ruining, health-destroying, insanity-inducing, life-ending substance known to human kind.  I learned first hand that meth, in a matter of months, has the capability of turning an otherwise good person into a half-dead corpse that will stay awake for weeks - yes, weeks - at at time.  These were large numbers of teenagers - kids 16, 17 - that all of a sudden looked like ailing elders in their late stages of life with scabs all over their faces.  Meth: the new mind altering substance of choice that seemed to have replaced the original "gateway" drug (marijuana) and drinking alcohol. I learned for the first time what a staph infection is.  I learned that if you shoot/inject meth with a syringe into the wrong body parts, that pockets of staph-infected puss fill those parts of your body and develop infection until one can be seen by a doctor to have them lanced and treated with antibiotics.  I learned that a person's teeth are delicate bits of porcelain-like material, and will rot away after only a handful of months using this substance.  I learned that an alarmingly high number of my high school peers were using meth with their family.  Including their parents.  I learned that meth also commonly goes along with hoarding - and that pets are often the innocent souls that are left to die when their owners go on their latest meth binge.  I learned all of this from first-hand experience watching this drug eat away at the lives and souls of an entire community.  I feel lucky to have witnessed it the way that I did - as a newcomer with an unpolluted mind who had no experience with rural life or with meth.  This allowed me realize and watch what was going on with the upper hand and as a bystander: people who had been exposed to this slowly and steadily for so long that they became victim to the demon without even realizing it.  Slowly and slowly, it got closer to home and more of a common occurrence.  Before they knew it, their cousin was on meth.  Then, their sister.  Then, their best friend, then themselves.  Because I was so suddenly exposed, I was lucky enough to watch what was happening as an outsider and therefore realize the weight of the situation and just how unbelievably out of control things had become.  How had it gotten to this point?  How had this not been spotlighted in the media?  How had so many good families allowed their children to die?  To slowly kill themselves?  To allow themselves to become wrapped up in it with their children?  The questions were endless.  And, it seems I still don't have answers after all these years.  I do know that to this day, the problem is still as prevalent as it was throughout the two years I lived there from early 2002-late 2003.  People are still dying, still abusing, still being abused. 

I'm so thankful I never got into meth use throughout my time in Michigan, and I accredit that to the multitude of types of people, diversity and array of experiences I was exposed to at such a young age growing up in San Francisco.  My parents protected me, but they did not shelter me.  I had to learn lessons the hard way - and I definitely messed up a few times.  Before Michigan, I had been around under aged drinking, smoking marijuana, other various drug usage and slight violence that entailed drunken high school kids beating each other up at keg parties.  But, what I saw was mostly recreational - out at parties, on an occasional basis.  This was nowhere near a way of life - the way meth is used in southwest Michigan.  Violence involved with meth equals bodies being set aflame when meth labs explode and crazed individuals going on killing sprees.  This was a far cry from the things I'd seen in California.  The problem was so severe while I was there, that authorities actually sent in an undercover federal agent into our high school my senior year disguised as a female student who transferred in from another county to investigate the meth situation.  We came to learn this after her six month stint, when she successfully gained enough evidence against a group of kids in my class who were involved with meth distribution  to prosecute them.  This memory is one of the only bright spots against the war on meth I can recall throughout my time there.  Otherwise, the police spent most of their time busting kids for smoking pot and underaged drinking.

There is one idea that consumes my mind, even still after seven years since leaving southwest Michigan.  The idea that those were people who truly started out good, and had gone bad. People who had settled in such an isolated location in the first place as an effort to seclude their lives and their children from the potential of exposing their families to violence and drug use.  How ironic - the people that originally had good intentions of preserving the safety of their families have now become the epicenter of the worst kind of lifestyle imaginable.  I do know that I saw a lot of parents choose to remain ignorant to what their kids were doing, believing that their kids couldn't possibly be getting into too much trouble.  The fact of the matter is that it only takes a few weeks to go from a first time meth experimenter into a full blown addict.  Are the parents victims?  Or are they the perpetrators?  Who's fault is it?  How have so many lives been lost to this?  How did this happen?  I have spent countless hours pondering this, and I have never come up with an answer.  It is almost as if the meth epidemic is *too* crucial to have just happened on its own - this had to be intentional.  It has gotten so severe, the thought that it just sort of evolved this way on its own is mind blowing.  However, sadly that seems to be the case - this is a problem that slowly crept up on society, without anyone really taking notice or giving it enough thought, and while everyone had their backs turned, had suddenly exploded out of control.  

This isn't just an issue in rural southwest Michigan, this is also very prevalent in many rural areas in America.  I'm left with many questions: is city life now a safer bet than rural life?  Does rural life even have the capability of being as safe as it once was?  While city life provides more access to trouble and an array of trouble to get into, does it also provide more ways and opportunities to escape or avoid it altogether?  One of the main themes throughout my stay in Michigan was that of desperation.  Many people I met, feeling lost, hopeless and desperate.  Many people resentful that they've been stuck in a small town their entire lives with seemingly no way out.  I believe that this is a huge contributor to the reasoning behind why people open themselves up to meth in the first place - because it's a way to escape.  After my time there, it is my opinion that many people feel threatened by the idea of leaving the one place they've known their whole lives to venture out on their own - were they really strong enough to survive in the outside world?  So living in a small town has now become a burden instead of a privilege, and has left people ill-prepared for life outside this tiny bubble.  So, they take a vacation.  A vacation with a piece of foil and a lighter.  This was the outlet without actually having to leave. Meanwhile, the parents with good intentions of protecting their children maybe have protected them a little too much.  Maybe protection has become sheltering - and has left these individuals with many less opportunities than if they were to have grown up in a more urban area.  It's a new phenomenon - small town rural American life actually being more of a threat than city life, and parents are incredibly ill-prepared and unaware of this.  It's time that parents wake up and deal with the weight of this issue - your children are completely vulnerable to this.  

Without meth I believe small towns would be much safer than cities, but we need to face reality - meth is now an everyday staple in rural life, and as long as it's around, your children are not free of harm.  I think a great amount of parents do have good intentions and in an ideal world would like to keep their children away from bad influences, myself included, but if I had a choice to raise my child in either an inner city or a rural town, I would hands down, instantly choose the inner city.  Rural area parents need to be just as - if not more- cautious, aware and hip to the fact that their kids might as well be living in the middle of a crack-infested inner city ghetto.  From my experiences there, its was evident to me that many parents were simply cavalier and overly confident about what their kids are up to - whereas if they were living in that metaphorical ghetto - they would parent in a completely different way.  And this is when it goes back to the population being snuck up on- many people did not see this coming.  It has blindsided the entire community, and parents are left defenseless after their children become completely enchanted with the drug and it's too late.   I'm not sure what action to take against this evil phenomenon, but I know that it's still raping and ravaging Paw Paw.  In the last two months alone, I've heard of two people I used to know when I lived there who have died as a result of being involved with meth.  It's time this silent epidemic is realized.

There is one thing I'd like to say to anyone who feels desperate living in a small town: the only thing stopping you from your success and your growth is yourself.  I felt like a lot of the people I knew in Michigan wanted to leave, but were too scared, felt hopeless and like prisoners. You may feel like it's impossible to escape your situation, but if you have the aspiration to leave make the risk and do it.  It will be hard at first, but it will be incredibly worthwhile.  With honest motivation and determination there is no way you will fail, and you will only improve your life.  You don't have to live the existence that you feel like you are trapped in.  You owe it to yourself and to your future to provide yourself with better opportunities and a better way of life.  You're not alone.



  1. Wow....those are strong feelings Vieve. It was terrible and although it is not as bad now, it is still pretty bad. I for one did not have too many hands to help pull me up from my trouble (since most people where in the same boat) but thank God that I was strong enough to survive. Glad you did too.

  2. I will never get over the worry and fear I had for you living in Paw Paw, the agony you went through comming from San Francisco and the snubbbing you had to endure by the clicks of people who lived there all thier lives. The bad kids, the parents who made, sold and used drugs, the bad infuances and the struggles you endured. Thank God we got out, thank God you got out unharmed. I am so sorry for what you saw and for your haunted memories. Take care my sweet girl. I love you. Mom

  3. Just wondering what would make a family of your caliber move to such a place in the first place. Fill us in.