Saturday, November 20, 2021

Fentanyl Is The Grim Reaper's Constant Background Hum In Nashville

nashvillescene |  On April 7, Tyler Smith graduated from a 10-week addiction treatment program in Athens, Tenn. His family traveled from Knoxville for the occasion and felt optimistic that, this time, his recovery might last. At 31 years old, he told his mother Danita McCartney that he was ready to be done with the cycle that had shaped his life for more than a decade.

Like many teens, Tyler partied in high school, drinking beer and smoking weed on occasion. But the beast got its claws in him toward the end of his senior year, when a co-worker at a restaurant — a work environment where drugs are often found about as easily as any other ingredient — showed him how to crush an OxyContin and snort it. He spent the next 12 years in and out of the clutches of addiction. Danita would cling to hope where she could find it. As a young boy, Tyler had always been deathly afraid of needles — perhaps that would at least keep him from shooting up. It didn’t.    

But Danita says there were wonderful seasons of sobriety. Tyler loved the Grateful Dead and the mountains. Despite it being where he was introduced to hard drugs, the restaurant industry had made him into an excellent cook, and he delighted in taking over the kitchen at holidays to make a meal for the whole family. 

In between those seasons, Tyler wandered, living for short stints in various places around the country. When he struggled, he had the support of his family, and his mother says he found great treatment through urban rescue missions similar to the one where she works in Knoxville. He spent time in recovery programs in Alabama, Indiana and Florida before moving to Nashville, where he rekindled a relationship with a young woman he’d known in high school. He found a job at a downtown restaurant — there, again, he found drugs. In January of this year, he survived an overdose after his girlfriend was able to revive him. That prompted his family to send him to the program in Athens, where he stayed for more than two months. 

After he graduated from the program, Tyler returned to Nashville and got a job at an irrigation company, deciding to stay away from the kitchens where he’d been unable to resist substances. He talked on the phone with his mother frequently, never failing to end a conversation by telling her he loved her. But on the morning of Tuesday, April 14, Danita received the phone call she’d been expecting for years but could never prepare for. Tyler’s girlfriend had found him dead in the living room. A toxicology report later revealed what was in his system: meth and fentanyl, the latter a synthetic opioid that can be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and lethal in doses as small as 2 milligrams.

Tyler’s death inducted his family into a growing, grieving community — those who have lost loved ones to a raging epidemic of drug deaths, the majority of which have been caused by fentanyl. It’s the other epidemic, one that has been largely overshadowed by the global COVID-19 pandemic. But in Nashville, it’s claimed almost as many lives. From March 20, 2020 — the day of the first confirmed COVID-19 death in Nashville — to Oct. 16, 2021, the city reported 1,113 deaths from the virus. In that same time period, 1,070 suspected drug deaths have occurred in Nashville. That figure includes residents, non-residents and people whose status is unknown. According to the Metro Public Health Department, residents have accounted for around 70 percent of all drug deaths in Davidson County this year. 

The coronavirus pandemic has made us all terribly familiar with the notion of the so-called curve. Fentanyl deaths are still rising, and this curve is showing no signs of flattening.

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