By Aryana Noroozi
In 2020, a pandemic consumed the world. I wondered about its impact on another health crisis that our nation was already facing: addiction. My relationship to the topic remains committed and complex as an issue I am personally familiar with. Living in Chicago in 2021, I looked to document a Midwestern family’s experience with such with my Pulitzer Center Post-Graduate Crisis Reporting grant. Through the internet, I found Jenny Justice, thirty-eight, of Pekin, Illinois. In November 2020, her daughter, Annabelle Rodgers, eighteen, died of an overdose. I reached out to her via Facebook and within hours she responded. She was eager to share her story, “If it could help just one person, I would die a happy girl,” Justice told me.
In December 2021, the CDC reported more than one hundred thousand overdose deaths between April 2020 and April 2021. Fentanyl caused sixty-four percent of these deaths, a forty-nine percent increase from the prior year. 2020 was the largest single year of overdoses ever recorded, up thirty percent from 2019. Rodgers’s death was one of more than 3,573 in Illinois alone, with the highest number of deaths from opioids, methamphetamines and fentanyl, all of which were found in Rodgers’s system that night in November 2020. Justice was left to raise Rodgers’s three-year old son, Aaron (a pseudonym to protect his identity).
Justice first encountered addiction at age eleven, as her mother was terminally ill with cancer. Every night at the hospital, she watched her stepfather drink at her dying mother’s bedside. After her mother’s death, Justice moved into her father’s home, where she lived not only with his alcoholism, but with her stepmother’s meth addiction. Justice, who raised her four daughters as a single mother, promised drugs would never enter her home. “I thought I was doing everything right,” she says. “‘I don’t have drugs in the home. I’m good.’ Naive. Hopeful, I guess. But it entered my home anyway.”
Through my documentation of and collaboration with Justice on this project, I was compelled by the story of her commitment to defying the odds of addiction, a reality she has been surrounded by for a majority of her life.