Mary Sue Connolly; Director of Overdosed, a documentary about the US opioid epidemic. More importantly, I am also a family member of someone who was lost to addiction. I lost my 21-year-old nephew, Paul, to an overdose on November 24th 2016 in Morgantown, West Virginia. Since the devastating loss of Paul, I have been on a journey to find answers about how this epidemic unfolded and snowballed into the largest public health crisis the country has seen.
This story starts in Ireland
Today I feel the stress.
The stress of knowing that the world, as I had perceived it, is really not so wholesome.
I am back in Ireland.
The country of my childhood,
The country of my ancestors,
The country of my identity,
My safe harbour.
But is it still?
Does it still inspire me?
Does it still leave me speechless with its beauty?
It angers me.
More and more,
Like a kettle on the boil.
That defines my relationship with Ireland.
It is not the place it was
Or, it is not familiar to me anymore
Or, maybe it was just that I did not see behind the curtain before.
You see, 5 years ago I lost Paul on the 24th of November 2016.
Paul was my nephew.
He was 21 when he left us.
Though I saw little of him, we spoke quite often and for some reason there was this deep, deep connection.
He was the one person that I felt truly understood me.
If I was adrift, I called Paul.
I knew that he knew my pain.
Someone once told me that Paul was my twin in my past life.
That completely made sense to me.
Losing him was like losing a twin.
Also, the way I lost him.
The way I didn’t save him.
The way I regret each and everything I have done prior to his passing.
The way I cry out his name in ongoing shame for not knowing his pain,
Not helping ease it.
(Being too preoccupied with my own)
Paul had gone to live in America with his dad when he was a teenager.
He went to live in West Virginia.
I had gone to New York.
Paul was fun.
He was gregarious,
He made everyone laugh,
They called him Irish Paul,
He was so dashing.
We thought West Virginia was such a beautiful place.
“Country Roads, take me home…”
Things look so bucolic;
Barns and farms,
But there was something very dark afoot that we were not aware of.
It had become a hotbed of “pill dumping”:
Oxycontin, aptly called “heroin in a pill”.
Paul’s friend had a car accident.
Thousands of pills followed.
The supply seemed endless.
They were everywhere.
The state was lost in a mountain-top cloud of opioids
And teenagers, being teenagers, didn’t object.
But the party didn’t last long.
The party quickly became a nightmare.
Addiction had spread like a fungus,
Devouring their minds.
Their young, optimistic, innocent, minds
Their beautiful minds….
And you can’t just stop.
That’s the greatest fallacy of all time:
It’s not an option.
It’s not even reasonable to expect a 21-year-old to face this.
But Paul tried,
More than once.
He tried so hard,
And he almost made it.
It was heartbreak, that was the final straw.
Young love hurts,
And there was always something in West Virginia to take the pain away,
And it did.
But for good this time.
The Darkest Day
I got that phone call.
Immediately I went into denial.
It was all wrong.
It couldn’t be true.
He couldn’t be gone.
It was a lie.
He had faked it, (he sure was clever enough)
It was a cruel joke.
I kept thinking he would show up.
It wasn’t until his wake, until I saw his lifeless body,
Without the light in his eyes,
He wasn’t of this earth anymore.
My world collapsed.
My whole world went black.
The color was gone.
My laugh would never return.
It had been so hearty.
It was gone.
Joy was gone.
Hope was gone.
Everything good was gone.
Paul was gone.
Paul was gone.
Paul was gone.
I screamed into the night sky,
Night after night.
I screamed in my car with the windows up.
I beat the steering wheel.
I walked aimlessly at night, like the tortured soul I was,
A wail that is otherworldly,
A wail that came from the deepest part of me,
The death wail.
This gruesome guttural sound seemed to shatter the stars; did it break through the barrier between worlds?
They say that sound is the last of the senses to go when you leave the world.
Maybe they can still hear you.
Then I read Eric Eyre’s award-winning story about all the pills that went to West Virginia,
That drug companies had targeted these communities.
I met a journalist named Chris McGreal in Morgantown.
He helped me understand why this state had become a war zone.
He was the only journalist I met down there.
A war zone with only one reporter.
I soon realized that doctors were being bribed,
That they were falling prey to their own addiction,
That whole communities were being wiped out,
That children were in foster care. (In West Virginia, it’s estimated that more than 50% of students in some counties are not being raised by their parents)
That the whole state was being robbed of a future,
Robbed of life,
Robbed of happiness,
Robbed of pride.
Take Your Broken Heart and Turn it into Art
I felt Paul beside me.
I felt him in my car,
I felt him in the hotel rooms,
Sitting at the bottom of my bed.
I felt him everywhere.
I saw him on the street,
Though it wasn’t him, it could easily have been.
I met him in my dreams.
He spoke to me.
He begged for justice.
Justice for West Virginia,
Justice for the state he loved.
Justice mattered to Paul.
He wanted to be a lawyer.
He wanted justice,
And he asked me to get it.
That is how I started my journey.
“The Real Story Behind America’s Opioid Epidemic”
I drove around the state,
Through the mountains.
I met users, dealers, doctors, DEA agents.
I pushed on relentlessly, like a demon had a hold of me,
But it was no demon; it was the guidance of an angel in heaven.
I was a single mother with a 3-year-old daughter in tow.
Though this went beyond comprehension, her soul understood:
We had to do this.
This was our fate.
Her little hand holding mine,
Me, looking out the window to hide my tears,
Turning up the music to drown the sound of my gasps.
The disbelief and shock were still ever present.
My daughter sat in the backseat of our rental car,
Watching the world go by,
Mountain by mountain,
Valley by valley.
Gazing at us from the roadside.
I would pull over and film in random places,
Captured by an image that would help me tell my story.
We journeyed the length and breadth of the state.
I cried into my pillow at night with Paul’s photo by my bedside.
But there was never a question of turning around.
Come hell or high water.
That feeling of being on your path, I absolutely had that.
This was our journey,
But It was a journey not without risk.
I hid out in hotel rooms, sometimes pulling a dresser to block the door shut.
I sat beside murderers.
I sat in prison visiting rooms.
I was threatened.
I was followed.
I shoved cameras in people’s faces.
I knocked on so many doors.
I drove through the snow.
I drove through the freezing rain.
I drove for days.
I had to know,
WHY WHY WHY WHY
I met a former dealer named Bre.
She helped me find answers.
I had to find answers.
I got them.
It was true!
This was a manmade epidemic.
All of this pain was avoidable.
This was akin to murder.
I made my film.
I found the people responsible.
I found the doctor that that ran a pill mill and circulated his pain pills in the West Virginia University campus.
I found the dealers.
I found the DEA agent that took the doctor down.
I found the pharmacy that was making money off it all.
I found the drug companies; they were the ones most culpable.
I spoke to a member of the Sackler family (of Purdue Pharma),
And I found many others like Paul,
Way too many….
I left the US after shooting my film.
I couldn’t live there anymore.
Knowing the truth now,
About how death was part of the regime,
I lost all faith in everything.
I blamed the US, this was their policy failure.
I was going to go back to Ireland, a reasonable country. I was going back there to edit my film.
I came home.
The green little land:
But all was not well….
Shortly after returning I realized that Ireland had too betrayed Paul.
The DEA released its database of drug diversion in West Virginia.
The single biggest manufacturer of oxycodone pills sent to WV during the height of the opioid epidemic were from an Irish company.
Mallinckrodt is that company,
Under their subsidiary SpecGx,
They were the largest supplier of pills to WV between 2006 and 2012.
Every single pharmaceutical company in my film had offices in Ireland.
They were there for tax purposes,
Because Ireland is a tax haven.
Our government was harboring criminals.
In plain sight.
Think of the guy on the bike who delivers drugs for the dealer:
They were McKesson.
But they weren’t on BMX bikes riding around Baltimore,
They were the 8th biggest company in the US.
And guess what?
They had 2 offices in Ireland.
So, when I needed b-roll for my film, I just had to drive up the road to Cork to get it.
McKesson on big letters outside their building.
Right there in beautiful, gentle, unassuming Ireland.
I remember being in their parking lot with my camera,
Seeing a McKesson employee walk around his office.
It was a glass office, so I could see him clearly
Talking on the phone, pacing,
He had a family no doubt; maybe he had a son Paul’s age.
He looked out the window at one point and I sunk into my car seat.
Did he wonder who I was? What I was doing?
Are the employees shielded from the truth?
Would they work there if they knew?
They played a part in Paul’s death.
I called Mundipharma, the European arm of evil giant Purdue Pharma. The ones who started this pain pill racket in the first place by announcing that OxyContin was not addictive (that’s one of the biggest lies ever told in the history of medicine).
They had a marketing office in Dublin with 15 employees.
They had won an award for being “one of Ireland’s best workplaces”.
Marketing of all things. They were pushing pills, just like the dealers on the street.
I was put in contact with their PR dept.
They sent a response in an email.
This was their response:
“We are very sorry to hear of the loss of your family member – please accept our condolences to you and your family. Opioids have a valuable role to play in the treatment of pain when used appropriately in patients for whom they are a suitable option. However, we also recognise that there are risks that can lead to abuse, addiction, overdose and death. That is why we have always been careful in our communications to doctors to only recommend appropriate use. The information provided to prescribers states that when used in chronic non-malignant pain OxyContin’s use should be no longer than necessary to minimise the risk of dependence, that account should be taken of any history of addiction and substance-abuse, and that the patient should be regularly reviewed by their doctor. Warnings about the risk of addiction are included in the prescribing information and the patient information leaflet in the pack.”
“Careful in your communications to doctors“?
You blatantly peddled this drug as non-addictive!
Flash Forward to 2022
Back in Ireland:
I just returned from being in West Virginia. I was there for the fifth anniversary of Paul’s passing.
I spent that anniversary sitting in a car outside his apartment in Morgantown, where he used to live, just to feel close to him. It was raining, a soft rain. It tapped on the roof of the car. I lay across the front two seats and fell asleep. A peaceful sleep. I was in the right place for once. The place where he took his last breath. I could feel his closeness.
As it was thanksgiving, there was hardly a soul on the street. Just the gentle tapping rain. A little bit of Ireland maybe, or a little hello from heaven.
It had been five years. It had been a long five years.
While Purdue Pharma has since faced some reckoning, what about the other culprits? What about Mallinckrodt? And McKesson?
My stress level is still high.
Watching these drug routes operating
From the USA (the birthplace of the opioid brand) to Ireland (corporate headquarters, marketing, some manufacturing, Irish domiciliation for tax purposes) then back to the USA (which consumes 80% of the world’s opioids).
Watching my nephew’s death being swept under the carpet (West Virginia has continually been the state with the highest drug overdose rate per capita),
Watching how the media doesn’t want to address this (Purdue Pharma makes headlines, no one else does),
Watching pharma company after pharma company set up office in Ireland with a big hoopla from our leader about how wonderful this is for our country.
Well, it sure wasn’t “wonderful” for Paul or our family… not to mention the families of the hundred thousand plus people lost to overdose per year in the US).
Watching them dismiss the Paul’s of the world,
Watching how the stock price is the only thing that matters,
Watching them turn a death story into a glory story.
That’s why I am writing my story.
About how Ireland both raised and betrayed my beautiful nephew.
(His home city)
Sligo, Galway, Dublin, Cork….
These places on these maps.
For me, they mean only one thing.
Which city harbours these criminals? And how many do they harbour?
Where to go now?
Having exiled myself from both countries.
Both countries betrayed me,
And my daughter, now 8
Carrying the weight of loss.
We still bring Paul’s picture everywhere we go.
We will not stop
His life matters.
He will not be another statistic on a pie chart of those lost to a “dreadful epidemic” that no one can control.
Because they CAN control it.
And they don’t.
They reward it with tax incentives.
Well, I have to tell you this:
He told me to tell you.
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