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Local Man Shares Struggle with Addiction, Upcoming Conference to Tackle Opioid Epidemic

Emotionally, financially and mentally, Jason Abernathy was broken.

Alcohol and drugs consumed his life. Growing up in Piney Flats, Tennessee, Abernathy had a great childhood and a loving family. But when he was in high school, he said he just felt different.

“I started looking for something to help fill that gap,” Abernathy said. “I truly never felt like I fit in and when I found alcohol that kind of ended up feeling like everything was finally OK.”

I started looking for something to help fill that gap,” Abernathy said. “I truly never felt like I fit in and when I found alcohol that kind of ended up feeling like everything was finally OK.”

After graduating from high school in 1992, Abernathy joined the Marine Corps. He grew homesick, but didn’t want to let anyone know.

In 1998, following his service, Abernathy, now 44, got into law enforcement. He found himself at a turning point and said he saw and did some ugly things from which he needed an escape.

That escape was alcohol and eventually prescription painkillers.

While a police officer, Abernathy hurt his back and was prescribed prescription opioids. He started taking the pills as prescribed, but once again saw his life change in front of his eyes.

“For someone like me with a disease of addiction, alcohol or other drugs on top of already having an addiction set it off even more,” Abernathy said. “For me, it became a mental obsession that came with a craving. It was a deep and dark path for me.”

That is just part of Abernathy’s story and similar to ones that will be shared next month during the Holy Friendship Summit, a two-day conference centered on the ongoing opioid epidemic plaguing the Mountain Empire.

The May 18-19 conference will be held at Celebration Church in Blountville and organizers hope houses of worship and their congregations can play a powerful role in addressing the epidemic.

“Roger Leonard, [a former Wellmont Health System board chairman] and some others set up a meeting with community members and talked about the opioid epidemic,” said steering committee member Dr. Andi Clements, a psychology professor at East Tennessee State University. “We had another meeting and it was during that time we thought about bringing churches into the picture.”

The summit will bring together clinicians, educators, congregations and friends to share resources and guidance on how to respond, interact and care for people struggling with drug addiction, according to Clements.

Conference attendees will participate in multiple education tracts, including topics on pain management, depression, incarceration, prevention and recovery. Panel discussions with doctors and recovering addicts will also be held in addition to opening and closing services.

“We want this conference to be a source of practical steps that anyone can take,” Clements said. “It doesn’t have to be trained professionals — anybody can chip off a little piece of this. The real takeaway is there will be practical things that whole communities can do in the battle against the opioid epidemic.”

After getting the help he needed to fight his addiction and leaving law enforcement in 2013, Abernathy became a Lifeline peer project coordinator and state-certified recovery specialist through the Tennessee Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services.

He shares his own story of addiction with people across eight counties in East Tennessee and got involved as a way to give back and help others fighting addiction.

“I want to share my story because I’ve walked the same path and have struggled,” Abernathy said. “There are 10 recovery specialists across the state of Tennessee.”

Abernathy also recently won a full scholarship from King University through the school’s College Dream Scholarship. He will pursue a social work degree through King’s graduate and professional studies program.

Abernathy, who helped bring together several conference speakers, said he hopes the summit will break the stigma that comes with opioid addiction.

“I hope people who attend the conference realize there is hope out there,” Abernathy said. “As long as folks are above ground and breathing air — there is hope.”

Abernathy hopes that hurting people also realize that it’s OK to talk about the elephant in the room, known as the opioid epidemic and instead of pointing fingers — get people the help they need.

“During my time dealing with addiction, I realized that I was a sick man that needed to get well, I wasn’t a bad man trying to be good,” Abernathy said. “We all struggle with something in life and it’s time to stop putting labels and meet people where they are in life, love on them and get them the help they need. That’s my hope for the Holy Friendship Summit, that lives will be changed.”

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