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Meet Erin L. Patterson: Author, Blogger, Counselor, Backpacker, Activist

By ERIC ENGLUND | May 17, 2017
Erin Lawler Patterson

On April 6, 1999, Erin Lawler Patterson’s life was forever changed. On that day, her younger sister Shana Lawler and three friends were killed when their car was struck by a drunken driver in Kill Devil Hills, N.C.

At that time, Patterson was a student at the University of North Carolina studying for a degree in English literature. But that tragedy motivated her to switch gears and become a clinical addiction specialist, hoping that she could dissuade people from falling victim to drugs and alcohol, and saving more lives in the process. She earned a master’s degree from East Carolina University in substance abuse and clinical counseling.

Currently, Patterson is a substance awareness coordinator at Seneca High School in Tabernacle. Those experiences in working with young people, as well as her love for backpacking, are highlighted in her recently self-published book, Peace Love & Goodness: Lessons from the Drug Lady.

She will sign copies of her book on Saturday, May 20, from 1 to 3 p.m. at The Local, 604 Central Ave. in Ship Bottom. Patterson moved to the borough last August.

At the onset of her 134-page book, available through Amazon.com, she discusses her purpose for writing.

Every morning I enter an emotional battlefield. It is with my heart that I strive to hear and with my eyes to reach out to the broken and unheard. There are moments in my day where hurt and sadness can feel all consuming. It is intense and crazy, but I consider myself blessed to have the privilege to work with the hearts of teenagers. I have the best job in the world. The truth is that there are thousands upon thousands of mental health professionals out there fighting the same battle every day hoping, striving to make a difference and comfort the broken and down trodden. I guess you could say we’re the emotional doctors suturing the mental fractures, brokenness and shattered hearts and spirits.

Her experiences have shown her that “so many of our kids are hurting.”

There are some who get a much worse hand in life than others, but our issues are our own no matter how big or small. The grass may or may not seem greener on the other side, but the plot of grass is your own and whatever the individual chooses to do with it is very often, but not always, up to them. If these issues are left alone to fester, they only manifest themselves into problems when the tweaks, bruises and bumps in the road aren’t addressed. It seems only natural to keep plugging away pretending or possibly going forward as a means of self-preservation. The problem only becomes more acute if there is no allocated time for trying to sort the fractured pieces out; it leads to a personal foundation that is fragmented making it all the more difficult for establishing a solid future. This doesn’t mean every little bump and challenge needs to be explored, but it is imperative to address issues throughout different stages in life. When we delay and avoid dealing with our “stuff” it festers, simmers and snowballs manifesting itself in negative ways.

The truth is that many of the lessons and themes of youth cross over into the genre of adulthood. Some of us are able to face our baggage and struggles head on while others are not. We have a funny way of rationalizing what we do and don’t need to deal with. We make excuses. No one particularly likes to jump into their personal gook and sort through the good, the bad and the in between. The cool thing is, when we take that first step in defining who we are and figuring out what does and doesn’t matter we actually begin to think a little clearer and the mind has a less overstuffed feel to it.

 

In talking with students, one of her messages is that “life is short and that every day is a gift.”

“Kids need to go beyond themselves and not succumb to peer pressure,” she said. “I know growing up is tough and can be filled with angst and uncertainty, but alcohol and drugs will not make it better, and it is not the solution.”

Patterson advises teens to “make good decisions, because your decisions can have a great impact on others.”

“Your decisions are powerful and have the ability to change the world in a positive or negative way,” she said. “You’ve got one shot. What are you going to do with it?”

Patterson said instead of relying on substances for pleasure, young people should seek to find “natural highs.” For her, she gets a great natural high through her love of backpacking. As a backpacker, Patterson said she has trekked through 43 countries, touching all continents except for Antarctica. Sometimes she combines her adventures with humanitarian efforts, such as working in a soup kitchen in Jerusalem, collecting flip flops for children in Colombia and supplying families in Haiti with baby formula.

 

“In back-packing, you’re not always hiking,” she said. “Sometimes I’d hitch a ride or take a train. But it is a beautiful way to see the world.”

Temperature-wise, she has experienced extreme heat in the Middle East to frigid climates in the glacial regions of New Zealand.

“Egypt was at times an uncomfortable place to travel in because you have to consider the cultural differences,” she said. “It was also the time of the uprising, and you could feel the hostility.”

Israel, she said, is a “very beautiful place because of its rich history.”

”It is a sacred land,” she said. “Ireland is spectacular with its green rolling hills and wonderful people.”

Patterson also runs a weekly blog, “Goodness Chick,” which is focused on relaying relevant issues that pertain to teens and family dynamics as well as addressing mental health issues.

For Mother’s Day, she posted, “Are you a mom and reading this? Or a pair of eyes thinking … crap, that’s this week! Yes, it’s this week and it’s time to get your stuff together. There are a heap of holidays on our calendars; some we scroll by and others we shouldn’t. When it comes to teachable moments within our family this packs a punch. Teaching our kids the value of their parent holds tremendous merit and it cannot be stressed enough.

“As parents, sometimes we can be buttheads. Yes, I just said butthead. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a mom utter the words, ‘they don’t really need to do anything for me’ orit’s not that big of a deal.’ This mindset is a disservice both to you and your kids. It’s allowing a teachable moment to slip through your fingertips. Don’t do it! You are important and hold a role that no one else ever will in that child’s life; how cool is that? If you do not view your role as one of value, how can your child?”

The crash that claimed the life of her sister and friends also motivated her and other loved ones of the victims to start “Precious Gems Memorial” in honor of the girls. They regularly work with communities to raise public awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving.

According to its website, preciousgemsmemorial.com, some of its activities include donating scholarships to high school members of Students Against Drunk Driving; attending drunken driving court cases with victims; giving presentations to Intoxicated Driver Resource Centers; providing local and state representatives with updated information on DUI laws; and organizing a “Safe Spring Break Rally” at the University of North Carolina.

Patterson said the driver, Melissa Marvin, who was 29 at the time of the accident, was sentenced to 15 years for each fatality, to be served consecutively. It brings home her message to teens about what the consequences can be for making bad decisions.

“Melissa Marvin made a decision to get behind the wheel under the influence of alcohol,” she said. “But there were also people who saw her intoxicated and didn’t speak up. If they had made a decision to intervene, four lives could have been saved.”

Patterson also made a decision – that her sister’s death would not send her on a downward spiral.

“I could have allowed this to consume me, but instead I let it fuel me and make something good out of something that was not so good,” she said.

ericenglund@thesandpaper.net

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