Two of the issues that need to be discussed more but more so require sweeping action, are the ongoing drug epidemic and the mental health crisis in our communities and our state.

On Sunday, Toms River High School East Alumni ('04) as well as Georgian Court University Alumni, author and activist, Alicia Cook, was a guest on 'Shore Time with Vin and Dave', which airs from 6-8 am Sundays on 94.3 The Point and 105.7 The Hawk, and discussed these topics and more.

Cook always wanted to be a writer but focused in part on the drug epidemic and those battling the disease of addiction as well as the family members who have a loved one who is sick years after losing her cousin Jessica to a heroin overdose in 2006.

"My genesis story about writing about addiction is Jessica. We were very tight growing up, ten months apart...very similar interests, she was more outgoing than me, we were very close, we were friends and cousins, our families were very close and are very close still, and a very similar upbringing," Cook told Townsquare Media. "Jess was even more involved in academics and athletics than I was, and she was the very last person I would have ever guessed would become addicted to opiates, pills, and then heroin. This all started when we were teenagers. I was introduced to the reality that addiction doesn't discriminate, it will come into your home no matter how loving the home, no matter how together the home is and addiction entered my family and Jess quickly deteriorated."

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Over the course of 18-months, Alicia saw changes in her cousin, Jessica, describing the timeline of when the family learned of her battle to the time she passed as a "roller-coaster" that made things difficult for everyone.

"She very quickly became someone that was hard to be around at times, it was heartbreaking to be around to see her deteriorating so quickly, to see all the potential and all everything she had set up for her future just disappear," Cook said. "She passed away from an overdose after coming out of rehab -- she was 19-years old."

In the years that have followed and still very much so today, Cook has been able to help others watching a loved one battle an addiction through her words, writing, and by being a listening ear including on social media.

"I consider myself an introvert but because I know what it's like to feel like you're alone in a situation, I respond to everyone," Cook said. "People will message me, DM me, stop me on the street sometimes -- and I listen, and I talk to them, and if they have a question, I answer to the best of my ability. I try to push them in the direction or nudge them in the direction of professional help should they or someone need it, I give referrals, again to the best of my ability as a normal everyday person that has just gone through it."

The ongoing drug epidemic has wreaked havoc across Ocean and Monmouth Counties, as well as the state of New Jersey and the country drugs from heroin laced with fentanyl and crack cocaine to meth and LSD and others like marijuana, have led to so many becoming addicted to drugs, gateway and more lethal concoctions alike, spilling onto our streets.

Too many people have passed away from an overdose or due to other health-related matters brought on by drugs, and so many are continuing to grieve as a result.

It's, in part, up to all of us to help people find recovery and offer them compassion and love and on the other hand, take more action to clean the streets of drugs and prevent deals from occurring and the desire to take part in those actions.

As more drug concoctions have been put together over the years, especially the amount of heroin laced with fentanyl, there is a fear that drugs are more dangerous now than they have been.

Cook feels the timeline for someone becoming addicted to opiates and heroin, in particular, has shrunk over time.

"The heroin that killed my cousin in 2006 is not the heroin that is out there in the world today. Jess had 18-months and she, unfortunately, passed away, but 18-months now -- is a long time because of the introduction of fentanyl and things like that," Cook said. "A lot of people using drugs, they have a lot less time to find recovery and get clean or sober because fentanyl is lethal, and they don't even know what's in what they're using anymore. Time is a big factor and we have no control over time."

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Since 2020 and the beginning of the pandemic it can be discussed that more light has been shined on the need for addressing mental health and doing more to make sure we're okay and those around us are as well.

Cook has written on this topic prior to the pandemic, but her thoughts and words in those published works are still very much relevant here in 2022.

"One of the ironic positives to come out of the last two years is that there are definitely more people talking about mental health and mental wellness and keeping up with your mental health," Cook said. "Everyone is going through something, even before the pandemic, everyone's going through something, some have experienced traumatic events from natural disasters ruining their home to a terrible tragedy to something else traumatic that happened to them and your mental health is impacted."

The last couple of years have also shined a light on cynical and vindictive words being written by some people on social media by attacking others for their point of view or making fun of people they disagree with or don't respect.

It's put a wet blanket on some of the efforts to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health with the behavior of some people on social media who direct inflammatory comments at others while behind a computer screen.

A change to that behavior is needed.

For those of you on the receiving end of hateful, nasty comments, there are ways to cope without firing back.

"If you know who you are, and you know you're a good person and you're not vindictive and you're living an honest life, then just ignore it," Cook said. "A lot of it stems from jealously or just -- something I've accepted as the years have gone on in the public eye is that hurt people hurt people. Usually, the person that wants to be cruel on the internet is hurting in some way. That's not to say that what they're doing is okay, but I just try to see where other people are coming from."

You can listen to the entire conversation from 'Shore Time with Vin and Dave' as Dave Crossan and I spoke with Alicia Cook, here.

Alicia Cook. (Photo: READ Poetry)
Alicia Cook. (Photo: READ Poetry)

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