“At 14, I could’ve pointed out everybody who would be dead of overdose today, and I would’ve been right. If I can do that at 14, how are we letting them fall through the cracks?”— Nikki King
Nikki King was 17 years old when she left the mountain hollow where she was raised by her grandparents and sneaked off to the University of Kentucky under cover of darkness. It was 2009, and the advice of her late grandmother Sue King echoed in her head as she drove: Leave. Go to college. And do not let anybody from the bigger, wider world think they’re better than you.
Sue died of a heart attack in 2000, when Nikki was 9. The opioid epidemic had already begun to infiltrate eastern Kentucky by then, and in Nikki’s mind the drug problem turned into a drug crisis shortly after Sue’s death, when her family went from sleeping with the screen door unlocked to buying new doors—without glass panes, which could be knocked out by burglars. Around that time, Nikki went to a birthday party where her friend’s mom stumbled and smashed the cake into the kitchen counter. Nikki later found her passed out on the toilet, surrounded by vomit and pill bottles.