Megan Barry: Life after public office
Former Nashville Mayor Megan Barry works in her home office, in front of a photo montage of her late son, Max. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Megan Barry resigned as Nashville’s Mayor in March 2018 after an annus horribilis in which she lost her only son to a drug overdose and was embroiled in a public scandal involving a member of her security detail and charges of misusing public funds.
Since then, she’s spent much of the last three years out of the public eye but the city she once led has continued to plow forward.
Two mayors later and with her conditional guilty plea recently expunged, her media hibernation has many Nashvillians wondering: what is she up to? And perhaps more importantly, how is she doing?
Barry recently sat down with writer Rob Dobie for Tennessee Lookout to discuss her transition out of office into civilian life, her work in the field of opioid abuse, the loss of her son, and what the future may have in store.
We are just past March 6th, and three years since you left office. What have you been up to professionally? What does your day-to-day work life look like?
So I have a consulting business where I’ve cobbled together work and I’ve done a little bit, especially pre-pandemic, on economic development with some companies. But specifically my passion right now has been and continues to be talking about the opioid epidemic, and trying to find ways to talk about it in forums where I can reach people. I just did a thing last week on Zoom for about 35 people, again, trying to have a frank conversation about what it is and what we can do about it.
Is that work more about addressing widespread short-term and long-term policy solutions? Or is it focused on removing the stigmas around addiction?
It’s both. I’ve been part of a documentary that’s being filmed and that’s all about stigma and the shame and guilt that go with substance-use disorder. So there’s that piece. But then there’s also the practical piece of trying to educate people about what they can actually do in their lives today. And part of that is about policy—trying to explain that there are gaps in our state, federal, and local laws that can be addressed. And people have a voice in that, but there’s also other really basic things we can all do, such as, “Count it, lock it, drop it.” Where you go into your medicine cabinet, you count the drugs you’ve got. If you’re using them, you lock them up. And if you don’t use them, don’t throw them away, take them to—lots of pharmacies have drop boxes in Nashville. Or your local police departments. You can walk in and drop your drugs off. Don’t flush them down the toilet. Don’t do any of that. But don’t leave them in your medicine cabinet languishing for access for somebody who has a substance use disorder.
So especially with the opiate crisis, I think a lot of people understand it to be a problem, but we think about this stuff as going on in places outside of our own neighborhoods or outside of even Davidson County, right? We often think it’s worse in rural areas. How is Nashville doing right now as far as combating this opiate addiction crisis?
The numbers lag from the health department, but we have the numbers from January to September (2020). We had more opioid deaths—or overdose related deaths, because there are some people who overdose that have more than just opioids in their system—than we had in all of 2019 and we still don’t have the last three months of this year. So the COVID-19 pandemic has absolutely exacerbated the substance use disorder pandemic. And so in Nashville we’re not doing great. However, I think there is that perception that somehow urban centers maybe are not as impacted as your rural communities. But actually, this is happening across all age groups, across all types of communities. And what you’re really seeing now is 80% of the people who died from January to September had fentanyl in their system. And that’s a huge issue.
What can leaders in our local communities be doing?
Well, I think there’s a lot of state opportunities. And Tennessee is pretty draconian on a lot of its drug laws. But starting with the idea of decriminalization, and actually treating people with a substance use disorder as opposed to considering it a moral failing. We need to be trying to funnel them into treatment as opposed to funneling them into a prison system. I don’t know if you’re familiar with what Oregon just passed, but that’s progressive thinking. That’s looking at, how do we try to get our arms around this? It’ll probably be a long time before Tennessee embraces that, but at the same time, it just shows you that other cities and municipalities and states are trying new things because what we’re doing now doesn’t work. But I spend most of my time with community groups, trying to make connections into helping community advocates and community organizations talk about this in a frank way. And so I spend a lot of time on podcasts and again, just trying to use my voice to reach as many audiences as possible. It’s my passion right now.
I’m curious, you’ve transitioned into this more service oriented work, right? So moving out of the public eye, moving out of your role as mayor into a day-to-day lifestyle that is not so much concerned with the everyday goings on of our city, what was that transition like?
I think the work is not dissimilar. I think you used the right word and it’s about service. Being the mayor of Nashville was the greatest service opportunity I’ve ever had in my life, where every day I could get up and hopefully make a difference in people’s lives across Nashville. And what I’ve tried to do is take that same ethos and say, all right, I definitely have a narrower lane. And it’s something that I know a little bit about because of our own situation with Max. So, how can I use my voice in service of that, to be an advocate, to help other people.
But what I've discovered is that there are other ways to serve, and at the moment (politics) that's not open to me, so that's not happening. So right now, my energy is to get up every day and try to find ways to serve now.
– Barry, on whether she will run for public office again
Do you think that transition was difficult?
I think anytime that you leave something that you love, and especially the way I left, it absolutely leaves a hole in your heart because I care about Nashville. I care deeply about our city and I cared about the work that we were doing and I cared about the people who were doing the work. And then I was so lucky that I had this amazing team across the Metro Government of people who woke up everyday dedicated to making sure that they were making a difference. And they’re still doing it. So the good news is that we have lots of people in Nashville who get up every day and do that. And I just get to watch now from the sidelines.
Well Nashville has just gone through this really rough year where we’ve had a bombing, a tornado, a coming to terms with issues of race, national democratic unrest, COVID-19—what’s it like, as you put it, to be on the sidelines watching our leaders try to deal with all of that?
I have great empathy and sympathy for what is on everybody’s plate. I think that you have a deeper appreciation for that if you’ve sat in that seat. And so I absolutely have a deeper appreciation for the trials and tribulations that our leaders are facing. You know, it’s not easy work and we’re lucky that we have people who step up to do it.
Are you satisfied with the way that our leaders have handled the past year?
I think everybody always has an opportunity to do better. I think if I would look back on the stuff that we did, we had gaps, and I think that there will always be gaps because we’re all human. So I think Nashville can always do better. I think that we always are trying to do better.
So your passion is service work oriented around drug addiction and the opioid crisis. How much do you feel like your role in the community these days has been developed out of losing your son Max?
Oh, I think it’s huge. It’s a huge part of that. Until Max’s death, I don’t think we understood or had a very deep knowledge of substance use disorder. I think after Max’s death and the time we spent processing the grief that comes along with losing a child really helped us understand more deeply what we were dealing with that we didn’t really even understand at the time. And that’s part of my goal. When Max died, I made a critical decision to talk about how he died. We had not talked about it publicly before that, that Max had gone to rehab. That wasn’t something that we had shared. And I think that has a lot to do with the stigma and the guilt that comes when you have a child or a family member or a loved one going through this horrible disease. If Max had been diagnosed with cancer the year before, I mean, oh my gosh, we would have talked about it. We would have absolutely found the best resources. And I think for Max, even that shame and guilt started right before he went to rehab. He didn’t want to tell us. But if the doctor had said, “you have cancer,” he would have been like, “get my mom in here right now, and we’re going to find a plan to fix this.” And I think what we’ve come to appreciate and understand is that this is so prevalent in so many families and that people don’t want to talk about it. So I want us to talk about it. I want us as a community to say, this is happening and how do we get our arms around it? It’s not a moral failing.
You know, I happened to be at a funeral probably a couple of years ago for a person who had died of an overdose. And at the funeral a family member stood up and said, “If they just tried harder. If they had just been better and they had just been stronger.” And I thought, that is exactly how we think about this disease. That somehow the person isn’t doing enough. But you’d never say that to somebody who had cancer. That you’re not trying hard enough. Or that if you wanted to beat cancer dammit, you could totally do it. And that means we have to think about it as the healthcare crisis that it is and consider the resources at our disposal. The figure I saw the other day is that it has cost us $700 billion in lost productivity, bogus healthcare responses, criminal justice—all these things we’re doing that aren’t solving the problem.
Do you think that being out of the public eye and having more time on your hands has provided you with the opportunity to better understand and better process what he was going through?
Absolutely. And I think it also enabled me to grieve. You know, I went back to work two weeks after Max died. And at that moment, the only thing I knew to do was to keep moving forward, and that meant not having to stand still and actually feel and grieve and understand. And so what a lot of this time has afforded me, which has been an incredible gift, is the ability to grieve.
How long do you feel like you really gave yourself to grieve? To step away from everything before you were ready to get back to work?
I think…you know, in grief circles they talk about that first year. And I think that first year didn’t really start for me until I left office. And then having that year to really grieve for Max—and I still grieve for Max. I grieve for him every day. I miss him, and I love it when somebody tells me a Max story and reminds me how special my child was. And that’s what every parent who has ever lost a child loves. To hear their child’s name out loud, because you don’t get that very often. So, I think that first year was all about just trying to process. And not just Max’s grief. I mean, the well of my grief was Max, but I was also grieving for losing these other opportunities. That was part of it too. But that was…you know I used to say, that wasn’t my worst day. I’d already had my worst day.
I went back to work two weeks after Max died. And at that moment, the only thing I knew to do was to keep moving forward, and that meant not having to stand still and actually feel and grieve and understand.
– Megan Barry, on grieving her son, Max
So you were grieving these two losses, but what’s interesting is that one of those is permanent, but one of them is theoretically impermanent. Right? Do you feel like there is an opportunity to re-enter public office?
I don’t know. I mean, I think it’s an interesting thought. Because I really did feel like I was able to bring a lot to it. But what I’ve discovered is that there are other ways to serve, and at the moment that’s not open to me, so that’s not happening. So right now my energy is to get up every day and try to find ways to serve now.
I hear you’re writing a little bit?
Yes! So that was the other kind of weird gift of COVID-19, which was to finally say, let’s write all this down and try to process it. And so, like a lot of things, whenever I have decided to do something new, I took a class. Because it’s best to learn from other people. Don’t need to reinvent the wheel. So I started taking a class in the summertime, and I was lucky because I had that space to do it and wasn’t worried about having to put food on the table. So I took this class on how to write a memoir, and I’ve spent the last six, well no, seven or eight months. And it’s almost…it’s good. It’s really nice. Well, I don’t know if it’s good. But it’s written!
Well, I think writing can be a pretty grueling process, especially when you’re reflecting on your own life. I think it’s frustrating enough to just get words on the page to meet a deadline. I think it’s something totally different when you’re trying to write down your own story in a way that you feel is compelling to others. That’s a totally different responsibility. What have you learned through that process? Has it been enlightening or has it been grueling?
I think it’s all of the above. But I will tell you that what I have learned is that if you share something with another person, say your mother, she’ll say, “I don’t think it happened that way!” So everybody has their own truth. The beauty of memoir is that it’s your truth. And so I get to write what I remember and I get to remind my mom that when she wants to write her memoir, she can remember it anyway she wants.
Well what’s interesting is that you’re writing a memoir, you know, your story. And yet I feel like—and as you’ve talked about, you still feel like you have so much more to give. Your story is only halfway done, right?
I hope so. Right? I mean, my memoir is not an autobiography. But the beauty of this is—and again, I hope it will be interesting to people who someday maybe get a chance to read it—is that it’s a confined amount of time. It starts about when I got elected and then for a year or so after I left office. So it’s truncated. It’s not like, “I was born and…” It’s a moment in time. And my hope is that it’ll be interesting, but also funny, sad, an insight into what it’s like to be an elected official, what it’s like to lose a child, what it’s like to have your marriage ripped apart and put back together. All the things that I’ve experienced and experienced with my family over the last five years. Four years? Five years. Wow. Five years. Yeah. Five years.
Thinking about your story and hearing you talk about it almost reminds me of—you know you hear about Olympic athletes who have worked so hard for so long, and they’ve made it to the mountain top. They have this experience at the top of their sport. They succeed at the highest level. And then almost at a moment’s notice, the games are over and you come home and you’re left to figure out, what do I do? What do I do with these talents that I’ve worked so hard to develop? Do you think you’ve figured that out? Are you satisfied with the ways in which you’ve been able to keep yourself occupied and put your talents to use?
I’m a work in progress. I like to think that life will continue to give me a long runway to do a lot more stuff and to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives. And so I hope my story’s not written. I hope it’s not done.
I keep coming back to this idea that both you and Nashville experienced a tremendous amount of disruption in a very short amount of time. Do you think there is something that this city can learn about how to grieve and how to move through adversity from your story?
I hope so. Because part of this is about resiliency and Nashville is nothing if not resilient. We have faced all kinds of things throughout our history and we always come out better. And my hope is that somehow the adversity and the things that I’ve faced have made me a better person. I’m definitely a kinder person, I hope. And more sympathetic and more empathetic. Before COVID-19 when I would go to my favorite Kroger, oftentimes I would run into folks who were so kind to me and just always had a nice thing to say. And I think my hope is that’s who I am too. That lesson for me has been, as Lady Gaga used to say, it doesn’t cost a dollar. And she’s right.
Last thing. Is there anything you want to say now, if you were given a forum to speak to your former constituents, to Nashville in this moment?
Continue to be the Nashville that I’ve always known and loved. The people who make up Nashville are strong, they’re resilient. They are kind. I used to say, and it’s still so true, what makes us special is that Nashvillians always say, what can I do for you? Not, what can you do for me? And as long as we continue to do that, that essence of community, we’re going to be okay.
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