Photo by Brad Deel

Living in Appalachia isn’t getting any easier but you have to have hope

Living in Appalachia isn’t getting any easier. In fact, it’s downright depressing.

According to an article that focused on Appalachia’s mental state, things seem to be depressing in more ways than one for the inhabitants of these mountains. I’ll admit it;  I am one of those inhabitants like many others, who chose to stay in Appalachia because of several reasons.

And like the featured photo I am displaying by photographer and Dickenson County native Brad Deel, it’s a beautiful view, but for me, the sun is setting before I’ve had a chance to really enjoy myself.

I am a dreamer but a much different kind of dreamer than what is being talked about in the national media with DACA and immigration today.  The type of dreamer I considered myself was one hoping for a better life than what I am experiencing now. I still hold on to that dream in Appalachia but in recent years, my turn of luck, or fate as some might have it, has not been the greatest.

I am living in a moment where the first thing you hear when disappointment sets in is, “You need to pray about it”, “Give it to the Lord” or “Turn it over to the Lord”. It brings me to question, who in the world would want to tackle my problems, let alone why should I turn my problems, my shortcomings over to God, at all?

I mean, seriously, why would you want anyone, especially a deity such as our Creator, to have the burden that has been resting on your shoulders, weighing you down? If I am not hearing those before mentioned phrases, I am hearing another set of words, telling me to “pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get moving.”

I’m going to be to the point with this and honest. There are days that I am on top of the world with what I am doing.  Writing a blog, working social media, writing, and enjoying some of the opportunities provided me over the last few years but the world and Appalachia have not been kind to dreamers like me.

I feel empty and without direction as to where to go.

I have fought and won some small battles along the way but it seems that I have lost the big battles. Deep down, my emotions and yes, personal faith has been tested and has pushed me to the extreme, especially in recent weeks.

A recent experience had me so convinced and assured that I am going to break this bond that has held me in place for so long and reach that land of accomplishment. I felt good deep inside about this and thought to myself, “This is it.  This is going to be the game changer in my life that I have sought.”

As it turned out, it was another disappointment for this Appalachian dreamer via e-mail.

Yes, upon getting that disappointing e-mail, I put on the strong face, the face that told the world that I am not going to let this bother me.  I will not cry. I will not give in or quit. But after a short time, the protective walls started going up. I wanted to shut off the outside world and just simply go away from existence.

After sharing the news with someone who had been following my progress that I had received the “e-mail of rejection”, the follow-up message was to hang in there. “Don’t give up,” the message read. “God has a plan.”

Yep.  Knew that one was coming. Just was wondering how the delivery would be made. Turns out, the delivery was like getting hit by 100 mph fastball while standing at home plate. Just like the Facebook posts I have seen before about “How many times did Abraham Lincoln fail?” or the videos about Elon Musk and his failures to Albert Einstein and his shortcomings.

This “failure”, this end result, made me deeply ashamed. Not only had I let others down who had high hopes for me, I had let myself down.

I was ashamed that once again, despite my abilities, I had failed once again.  I was ashamed to tell my dad that once again, I had failed to get that prize and in turn gave him another reason to be disappointed in me. Yes, that’s me. The only child of the family, the youngest on both sides of my mother and father’s sides of the family, the one who can’t achieve on the level others have in the family.

I didn’t want to share the result with my wife, who has stood by me through thick and thin.  My string of disappointments and failures has taken a toll on her. Upon finding out this latest news, she cried on the way home from school the evening I found out. I didn’t want to share the result with one of my best friends who has been there to support me emotionally.  I just couldn’t bear to hear the disappointment in his voice.

So, with all of this, and the cascading disappointment over the last few years, you can see why I was emotionally devastated when I didn’t reach my goal.

It turns out that I am not alone when it comes to questioning your faith, holding your emotions together and putting on the strong, game face for all to see. I am not the only one suffering.  Many of us in Appalachia are suffering as a whole when it comes to succeeding.

A 2016 study by the Appalachian Regional Commission found a higher proportion of Appalachian adults reporting serious psychological distress and major depressive disorders than in the nation as a whole. Things seem to be depressing in more than one way to the Appalachia’s inhabitants.

Yes, the region known for centuries as an economic hub in the country, mainly because of the coal mining and logging industries suffers from a lot of depression. The shifts in the industry combined with a decline in mining have led many residents and businesses to move out, leaving the rest of those in Appalachia, not only in a financial squeeze due to lack of jobs, business opportunities and more in a state of deep emotional depression.

The article quotes psychologist Steve Tackett, citing that “in our culture, men often define themselves as being the ‘provider’ for their families, and when they cannot do this due to the inability to find a job, this poses a direct threat to their character and who they are as a person. Excess stress can have a very detrimental effect on us, including depression, anxiety, irritability and health issues as well, such as headaches, backaches, stomach issues, poor sleep, fatigue, etc.”

He adds that “the lack of progress in Appalachia has contributed to economic problems for individuals, as many of the jobs young people expect to be available to them have disappeared.” And the situation is super competitive on all fronts, for young and old alike when it comes to finding a job.

WCYB, the local NBC affiliate out of the Tri-Cities ran a story during the evening news highlighting that every Southwest Virginia locality in their designated market area saw a percentage drop in unemployment in 2017, according to data from the Virginia Employment Commission. Ten localities saw an average unemployment drop of 1.95 percent with Buchanan County having the biggest percentage drop at 3.2 percent.  The figures of the drop were displayed on TV for the world to see. It was a “bright spot” when you see a decrease but a harsh reality check when you hear that Buchanan County was tied with Dickenson County for the highest December unemployment rate in the region at 6.6 percent.

Now, while I am thankful to have a job, I also realize there are many others in the region that don’t have jobs, who are looking for better opportunities and those who have quit looking while others have left the area. That’s just another layer of snow on the job snowball rolling down the hill, gathering more snow as it becomes larger.

So if people have quit looking for jobs or have simply given up and combined with the attitude Appalachia has toward “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and the negatives some people have in regard to “the blues”, it’s less likely for some people to seek help addressing serious mental health issues.

There’s a stigma here.  That stigma about seeking help when it comes to mental health issues in Appalachia. It’s either a misunderstanding or distrust, according to Tackett, of mental health issues that reveals a lack of emotional intelligence or lack of communication skills.

I was raised to believe that we’re not supposed to be that way in Appalachia. We’re fighters.  We overcome adversity. We’re supposed to have faith that things will get better. We “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.”

It couldn’t be farther from the truth.

“When we stuff our emotions down or avoid them, they only get worse. When we do this over a long period of time, they come back to the surface either by exploding outwardly with anger or we implode internally,” Tackett said in his article. “Either way, it can be devastating.”

He goes on to say that “Many in Appalachia react to depression by “self-medicating” with a variety of unhealthy behaviors, including drug abuse.

I can honestly say that I haven’t fallen that far down the ravine, but others aren’t so lucky.

The Appalachian Regional Commission report found that “prescription drug abuse is higher in Appalachia than other parts of the country. It’s particularly high in coal mining regions, where good-paying jobs have been lost. In fact, the report shows the poorer the region, the higher reported incidents of prescription drug abuse and poor mental health.” Can we say opioid addiction? That sure rings a bell and if not drugs, others turn to alcohol, shopping, sex and other “external” remedies.

Of the changes in my life, I’ve seen changes and swings in my weight like a pendulum on an old windup wall clock.  Sometimes, I’ll eat because it’s comfort but then swing to the other extreme, starving yourself to persecute yourself for how you have failed or fallen short.

I can say that I have trouble sleeping.  I will either not get enough sleep because of thinking too much, what I have to accomplish or sleep too much because I want to run away, hide and disappear from existence.

Tackett says that Appalachian residents have “this belief that we should always be happy and should never experience unpleasant emotions” but adds that the avoidance of these unpleasant emotions leads only to more problems.

“We look for things to bring us happiness when happiness is actually a journey of how we live our lives and not a destination we reach.”

It’s a Herculean task; bringing Appalachia and its people out of the valley of depression might sound biblical but Tackett said he believes it’s possible.

“There is always hope,” he said in his findings. “We are a strong people in this area. We just need to be willing to embrace change and diversity more and get outside of our comfort zones because that is where life begins.”

I’ve always clung to some form of hope but lately, hope resembles a raveling rope and I am beginning to have less hope than ever before. I always thought I could make a difference and do something that would not only benefit people but also satisfy that inner desire and goal.

I always believed in the strength that Appalachian people are adaptive.  They had to be to survive. But for some of us, our adaptive skills are starting to run thin and our adaptive ability is close to ceasing to exist. When we lack the ability to believe in ourselves to have hope, based on what the world thinks of us, we are doomed.

At times, it seems I have reached that juncture physically, mentally and emotionally. I’ve tried to live up to the Appalachian gold standard when it comes to my life knowing full well that the standard is worthless in this given age. I’ve also reached the point of having the door of opportunity slammed in my face more than once. You know that phrase, “When God closes one door, he opens another”. Well, my face has suffered greatly. Now I know why several of my media friends have told me, “You have a face for radio.”

I also can’t overcome the age factor in some aspects nor can I overcome the politics of life or the workplace. The gray hair shows more than it used too. Gray was a symbol of experience at one time, now it means you are washed up or have nothing to contribute, so go retire and let someone else do the job.

Yes, life and Appalachia has driven me to an emotional edge of a ravine. But I’m not about to jump off into that emotional ravine.

For now, I’ll take some therapy in the form of writing to get off my chest, what’s wrong with me. It sure beats keeping it all inside and drowning in the failure and disappointment. It’s a release.

And as for that photo of Brad’s featured on the page? Despite my writings here and soapbox moment expressing my feelings, I have hope.

It may not be as strong as it was thirty plus years ago but Brad’s photo gives me hope for Appalachia and my life.

I can still see the sunbeams of hope through a cloudy sky of uncertainty.