Thirsty in West Virginia

Living through the chemical spill and water crisis, I'm reminded how powerless we Appalachians so often feel

Published January 19, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

   (<a href=''>Sean Pavone</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Sean Pavone via Shutterstock)

This piece originally appeared on

It has been six days since I’ve made a concerted effort to exercise. When fresh water is a fantasy, you don’t do much to move. If you increase your heart rate, you sweat. And when you sweat – you stink. For someone who is living in a time of constantly reevaluating her smelliness threshold, praying her standards don’t sink too low, the prospect of precipitating that stink is too much. Plans are abandoned.

But today, even with clean water waiting on an unimaginable horizon, I started moving. Not because of a newfound Freedom, but out of a newborn desperation. You see, when you have no confidence in a drink from the tap and no chance of washing your hands to satisfaction and no control over when that situation will change, you create a sort of prison for yourself. A couch-shaped prison.

And so I moved, I danced for an hour or more, catharsis found in my not caring about precipitating that stink. But I made sure to stay close to my sponge bath opportunities, the time would inevitably come when I would need to “clean” myself. I say “clean” because, these days, “cleaning” involves a camping-inspired strategy for hygiene. I wiped down my face and body. I blow-dried my hair, hoping the salty sweat would soak up some of the oil building there. The movement stayed with me.

This Sunday, I sat with my mother watching the Golden Globes, listening to her describe washing her hair. It was an elaborate process involving shifting small amounts of store-bought water between a pot and a bowl, removing excess suds with a towel and, finally, pouring water from a bottle over her head to dilute any final traces of soap.

And I couldn’t help but laugh, not out of pity, but with empathy for our shared absurdities during this time of psychosocial trauma. 300,000 deep.

It has been seven years since I’ve been able to see my mother regularly. I moved back to West Virginia after living first in California, then in Washington, DC. Like many of our sons and daughters, I left as soon as I was able to find a viable out. My reasons for leaving were myriad: job prospects, hunger for something new, naiveté and various other 23-year-old's conjectures. But it’s in these last few days that I’m discovering one new, now conspicuous reason for leaving. A reason that was so ingrained in me that, even after a decade in and out of therapy, I was unable to wrap my mind around it until these moments. I suppose I had to leave and come back to really see it for what it is.

Some call it Appalachian Fatalism, some say it’s a state-wide inferiority complex. Some call it poverty, some call it lack of education. I know now, after facing these past few days of overwhelming anxious inside and outside forces, that I had to leave here because, living here, I faced a seemingly inescapable, never-ending understanding of powerlessness. A sense of powerlessness that is pervasive in our culture, and that I have internalized to believe is my own. A self-defeatist motivation that drives my decision making, no matter the years spent in an unconscious fight to overcome it. A Sisyphean stamp on my career, love life, family.

My powerlessness that is subject to the mercy of entities that have more money than a little girl from Appalachia with a public education and a bleeding heart could ever hope to obtain. Entities that don’t care whether you live or die – or you live with a malignant tumor or a rash or unstoppable diarrhea or a CPAP machine – as long as they benefit. Entities that manipulate the powerless using methods that are buried so deep in our shared history that those who actively question, who scrape fingernails across chalkboards, are admonished for turning their backs on their brothers and sisters.

And what those people preach, many folks don’t want to consider.

Because it’s too heartbreaking. To love a place and a people so much. To love a place so much that you never feel at ease unless you’re able to rest your eyes on that terrain. To love a place so much and to feel so absolutely powerless to protect that place and to uplift the people who live in it and, perhaps most importantly, to protect and uplift yourself in it. To know that the problems are too great, too pervasive, steeped in too much time.

That understanding of powerlessness gets inside of you, just like these mountains. And it colors all that you do. It keeps many of our sons and daughters from leaving, even when they should. When this powerlessness becomes toxic to their psyche, and they’re stuck in the tumble of it. When they could go, but lack the strength and resources to make it happen.

It makes us angry, so angry. But we don’t direct our anger in the right places. Because the right places are so mighty and everlasting that we feel defeated before we even start. And those right places capitalize on their ability to shape our minds with slippery, imperious moves that are only slightly more veiled than the company store. Embracing modern manipulation techniques in advertising and branding and marketing to convince us they’re an ally. And we believe it. Because there is too much at stake to not believe it. And because we’ve been taught to believe it, and we’ve been taught that not believing it makes us a traitor.

And so we take the frustration that comes, and we turn on one another, and we turn on ourselves. And we keep ourselves down, in small behaviors every day. Small behaviors that shape our lifetimes. With this knowledge of powerlessness that is so insidious, so deeply, collectively understood as “the way it is,” it becomes difficult to detect, and it becomes us.

And it keeps us right where we are, in the same pattern. But, in these days, now we have something new. The pattern is visible for all of us to see. It’s happening right in front of us, and it has become impossible to ignore. This is the time to wake up. Wake up.

By Emma Fisher

Emma Fisher is a writer and marketer living in Charleston, WV. She is a 7-year veteran of the nonprofit sector and is currently working as a consultant at a digital creative agency. She is on Twitter at @emmairenefisher.

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