Teen pregnancy, racism and prescription drugs: Under the surface of Bristol, VA/TN

An insider look at conservative small-town America

The Tri-Cities, an area so small that all three cities are lumped together, is typically seen as rich in morals, traditionalism, and conservatism, but is it really?

I’ve written before about the wonders of this area, but it’s certainly not all sunshine and rainbows.

Typically, when people talk about this area, they praise it for the family-minded aspects, the conservative values, the church on every corner, but what they conveniently sweep under the rug is the rampant drug-use, early sexualization, under-age drinking, molestation and abuse, racism, homophobia, the list goes on and on. The reality that a lot of middle-class families would prefer not face is that this area is a hotbed for crime.

Like many teens in the area, Mark Widener, a 25-year-old musician, started down his path to partying at 13 when he tried marijuana for the first time. “I partied the hardest when I was around 17 and 18. My friends and I would snort perks, tabs, eat morphine and triple C capsules…We were smoking weed and huffing air duster and the alcohol flowed like water.”

“The drug culture of this area has pushed me as an artist. My first time getting noticed for my music came from writing about the epidemic of meth in this region. When I released ‘Appalachian Roulette,’ I’d just heard of a friend who I’d known from high school who was facing multiple felonies. It made me realize I could use music to reach people and hopefully encourage a positive change in their lives.”

It’s sadly true. Far too many people from the high school Mark and I attended have died, faced prison sentences, or lost custody of their children due to drugs. Thankfully, several who have had the opportunity have since improved their lives.

One moment I will never forget from my first year at community college was when my best friend of five years asked me for pain killers. I had recently had some relatively serious dental work done, of which she was aware. She was about four or five months pregnant and had been known to snort pain killers previously. This moment ended our friendship.

Photo courtesy of Mark Widener of a time when he was on ecstasy

“I’ve known of two people who died tragically young: one from a self-inflicted wound and the other from molly. Both of these altered my mindset about doing hard drugs. Though I’ve tried many drugs with the exception of heroin or meth, it’s the harsh truth that drugs do kill.”

23-year-old journalist Brandon Paykamian weighed in on the drug issue: “I believe the economic conditions contribute to this [problem]. Poor material conditions lead to alienation which leads to things like drug abuse.” He said it was “way too easy” for people to access drugs and those who are underage to access alcohol; he was 14 when he started partying.

“Partying young, speaking for myself, can cause people to spiral into a black hole of alienation and despair. Luckily, I’m doing much better now. Sadly, I can’t say the same for most of my peers.”

Photo by Heath Owens

Though there are several people in this area that do uphold the aforementioned Christian and family values, you can’t deny that the other is also taking place. Furthermore, these values lead to appalling racism and homophobia, to the point that people are afraid to share their sexual orientation. Several of my friends from that area that are homosexuals are still not out to the general public, some not even to their families.

“When I was young, people used to call us ‘sand n***ers’ and ‘terrorists’ when they found out we weren’t ‘wetbacks.’ Living in a very conservative area, it is all too common. As mentioned, I’ve experienced lots of racism myself. As far as sexism and homophobia, I’ve witnessed it way too much. I wouldn’t know where to start with specific examples because there are just too many,” Brandon told us.

“My parents were steeped in deep southern beliefs and one of those was that whites didn’t mix with other races,” Mark added. “There was a great divide between my parents and myself for years because when I was 21, I proposed to a woman of mixed races. Even though this relationship didn’t last, it opened my eyes to things I’d not known true about this area.”

Photo from the music video for Appalachian Roulette

Teen pregnancy occurs frequently due to the lack of activity in this region and the teaching that abstinence is best. While it’s true that abstinence is the only 100 percent guaranteed way to not get pregnant, it’s important to teach about birth control in the event they choose not to be abstinent. Furthermore, birth control is used for far more than just pregnancy prevention and discouraging women from using it because they think it labels them as a slut is just wrong.

“Sexual repression due to Abrahamic traditions which keep people from talking to their children about sex in an honest and healthy way,” Brandon said he thought a direct cause for the increase in teenage pregnancies. “Though our area is moving closer to talking about sexual education, fundamentalist Christians still push the idea of abstinence in both the schools and homes. Again, the sexual repression comes to mind.” He added that he felt the strict adherence to religious principles a hindrance in the region, “particularly fundamentalist Christianity.”

“[The devotion to religion] makes people in general forget about improving their material conditions and treating people with respect because in their view, everything is about the afterlife. With this mentality, we don’t see much point in focusing on our lives here and being proactive about it. We should be taught that life is sacred because of how finite it is.”

The truth of the matter is that this is an examination of what’s hidden beneath the surface of this beautiful and “wholesome” region. It is not intended to deter you from visiting this region. However, it is intended to make you think before you idealize small town America.

James Madison University