The barista at Side Track Coffee tilts his flowing pot to a halt as he greets Michael with an easygoing smile on Saturday. They catch up on how they’re doing and talk about upcoming concerts, one of which Michael is seeing Sunday night in Atlanta. A leaf made from milk is splashed atop his espresso, and Michael thanks his friend, the owner of what Michael calls the best coffee shop in Opelika.
The leaf ripples across the brim of his cup as he sits on a bench. Around 4:30 p.m., under a warm blue sky, Michael sips his coffee and brushes his thick black beard, pondering recent memories. It was not long ago when such afternoons were impossible, and friendly conversations like the one with the barista were nonexistent. These simple beauties in life were plundered by needles he inserted into his veins — plundered by injections of heroin.
Michael’s story is similar to many Americans in recent years. In 2016, opioids killed more than 42,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control, with 30 states seeing a statistically significant increase in heroin and prescription opioid overdose deaths from 2015. The current drug epidemic is the deadliest in American history, accounting for 2 percent of deaths in 2015, or roughly 1 in 50.
The history of opioid use in the United States is a long one. Doctors prescribed soldiers morphine during the Civil War in the 1800s, and in 1898, Bayer began selling heroin commercially in the country as a pain reliever until Congress outlawed it in 1924. In less than 120 years time, the drug and its relatives would begin to plague the lives of millions and the life of Auburn University graduate Michael.
Michael, who requested his last name be kept confidential, traces his addiction back to age 11. He and his sixth-grade buddy snuck a bottle of Absolut Vodka into the friend’s house, where they gulped it down.
“It was forbidden, and I was a mischievous little kid, so at first it was fun,” Michael said.
“It was forbidden, and I was a mischievous little kid, so at first it was fun."
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Michael’s family growing up could be described as
Like many households in America, Michael’s family did not dispose of their pills after usage. Dr. Dave Brackett,
“Its important people don’t keep these drugs for rainy days because one: the products will go bad, two: kids will be tempted to try them and three: they’re all cheap, so there’s no reason to keep these drugs around,” Brackett said.
High-voltage lights beaming onto his team’s football field and cheering from friends comprised Michael’s Friday nights, but he really couldn’t care less about football, he said. Hanging out with his friends while drinking and taking Xanax was how he chose to have a little fun after the games.
His first semester of college at the University of Alabama was lackluster, so in spring 2007, he transferred to Auburn, where plenty of his friends went. By then, Michael said he’d discovered how to get Xanax from doctors.
“I’d go to the doctor and say, ‘Sometimes I can’t concentrate’ or any other buzzword I knew would get me a prescription,” Michael said. “I went with the full intention to get my fix.”
The Xanax rid him of nerves and veiled his underlying anxiety. Still, the college student needed something stronger, something to achieve a new high.
“Prescription pain medicine took off while I was at Auburn,” he said while gently placing his espresso beside him. “I started with Lortab, and then it quickly became OxyContin.”
He purchased pills through friends that acquired the drug easily, and by his last semester at Auburn, Michael had become one of the 2 million Americans dependent on opioids.
Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes has prosecuted numerous cases involving prescription opioids. He contends the stigma that pills are safer or less dangerous than other drugs resonates with people who abuse painkillers. Educating people on the dangers is crucial in stopping this notion and, more importantly, hindering the epidemic, he said. Hughes has seen that the county is not a sanctuary from the opioid epidemic.
“I would say most traffic stops here, there are pills involved,” Hughes said.
“Prescription pain medicine took off while I was at Auburn. I started with Lortab, and then it quickly became OxyContin.”
The surge of opioid use is not an entirely new phenomenon, however, and its usage historically treads between miraculous and deadly.
Opioids’ earliest reference in history, according to the National Academy of Science, comes from the ancient Sumerians referring to the opium poppy cultivated in Mesopotamia as a “joy plant,” and its usefulness has been well established since. In 1640, the father of English medicine, Thomas Sydenham, praised the pain reducer as “God’s own medicine.”
Today, physicians still prescribe opioids because of their ability to reduce severe pain for patients in need, but according to a report from the Institute for Human Data Science, total prescriptions filled in online and retail pharmacies fell nationally by 8.9 percent in 2017, the steepest drop in 25 years.
Physicians wrote 5.8 million opioid prescriptions for Alabamians in 2015 — a state in which the population is 4.8 million. The numbers reflect how opioid dependency is beginning to sprawl in the state as well.
Michael needed to take OxyContin every day during his last semester at Auburn in 2011. No longer was it a weekend rendezvous but part of a daily regimen. He got up, brushed his teeth, made breakfast and took his pill.
In his cap and gown and surrounded by his family, Michael at last saluted school goodbye with a degree in media studies. He got a job at a Montgomery television station as a photojournalist and moved back in with his mother. Toward the end of 2011, the drug Opana intruded Michael’s life.
Opana is a drug much more powerful than OxyContin used to treat severe pain continuously and was taken off the market in 2017 because of its potential for abuse. But in 2011, it was very much on the market, and one of Michael’s friends had a pill on a night out. His friend told him to try it, but Michael, carrying his standard OxyContin, was unsure of the new pill’s potency.
“He gave me a tiny little line of it, and I thought, ‘There’s no way this is going to do anything,’” Michael said. “And it did, it absolutely did.”
In the morning, Michael was experiencing withdrawals. He was taking OxyContin every day and budgeting one potent Opana pill a week, and by now, his habit was outgrowing his paycheck. Michael said at this point, he was spending close to $400 a week to retain his high.
Drugs were a necessity for sleep, or else he would suffer for hours in bed, and it was a necessity for waking, lest he
“He gave me a tiny little line of it, and I thought, ‘There’s no way this is going to do anything.' And it did, it absolutely did.”
“By that time in 2012, I was fully aware I was an addict because that was my mission in life — to find drugs,” Michael said.
While explaining the various substitutes and alternatives he pursued to quell his addiction, Michael paused and looked for a second at the sky.
“You know, I don’t think I was ever suicidal then,” Michael said. “Mostly because my best friend committed suicide. It was my senior year of high school. It
His friend’s initials are tattooed on Michael’s chest.
“Really, I used that as a rationale to do drugs,” he said. “I thought, ‘If you went through this, and you lost your best friend to suicide and felt the way I did, you’d do drugs too.’”
But that was a twisted rationalization because of its selfish outlook on death, he said.
Michael was crying himself to sleep at night after work. It didn’t matter if he had drugs or didn’t, he was exhausted, so he cried. He cried until his streaming tears dried and all that remained was a bottomless ditch for him to sink into and wander in a haze.
He cracked open the next pill, powder spreading across the table, and in order to escape that void, put his nose to the powder. At night he would repeat the process, and then the next morning and then again the next night — his mind lost and his senses twirling.
By this point, lawmakers had realized the country had a problem and worked to cut down on the prescription abuse, but it was too late for many. Millions of Americans were hooked on painkillers, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and their addictions had to be quenched, no matter the guaranteed damage.
Close to 500,000 of those Americans turned to heroin, and in spring 2013, so did the recent Auburn graduate and son from an upper-middle-class family.
“It was all I cared about,” Michael said. “Even if I was disgusted with myself and disgusted with the heroin, it had such a hold on me that it didn’t matter. I needed it.”
There was no rationing to his use, he said. At night, Michael would get hundreds of dollars from ATMs to pay his dealer.
His work as a photojournalist was getting in the way of his drug use. At one point, Michael snuck away from work to inject another dosage of the drug. He put in his two weeks notice, and it was at this point that any sense of normalcy vanished, and his parents became suspicious. The addiction was suffocating his life.
“A normal person’s brain would say, ‘You’re dying,’ but my brain just kept on screaming, ‘You need to get high, and then we’ll deal with you dying,’” Michael said.
His father managed to get him a job at his firm, and Michael hesitantly accepted. On Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, on his fifth day of work, Michael sat in his father’s office, injecting heroin. His father walked in and saw the jam-band loving boy he raised during his downward spiral. It marked the first time he’d ever seen his father cry.
Michael convinced his parents to wait until Monday until sending him to rehab. That Sunday, he managed to sneak in one last shot of OxyContin while on the back deck at his mom’s house. He tried fervently to get high, but nothing happened. All the euphoria he once felt was gone; the only thing left was profound numbness, and he understood that the end was near, that the void was closing.
“A normal person’s brain would say, ‘You’re dying,’ but my brain just kept on screaming, ‘You need to get high, and then we’ll deal with you dying."
“I don’t remember my first month in recovery honestly, my head was spinning,” Michael said. “After years of daily use, I was just hazy.”
But recovery was working. He dove into the recovery community in Opelika and met people that had similar stories. While his withdrawals were excruciating, he enjoyed the camaraderie, and he enjoyed the fruitful conversations about addiction with others who had gone through it. He got a job at an entertainment store and began working again in August 2014.
“I learned how to go to work, develop friendships, become a part of my family again,” he said. “I had to relearn how to live life without the use of drugs and alcohol.”
“I learned how to go to work, develop friendships, become a part of my family again. I had to relearn how to live life without the use of drugs and alcohol.”
One morning he woke up and realized the thought of doing drugs and alcohol wasn’t there for the first time in years. It forced a realization upon him: recovery might actually work.
He is now four years sober. Helping others battling addiction is his mission and obligation, he said.
“I imagine the feeling I get when helping someone is the same feeling a Catholic gets from Confession — just this overwhelming sense that everything is going to be all right,” Michael said.
According to Michael, an analogy that gets used often in the recovering community is if they’re stuck in a ditch and someone walks by and sees them, most people will throw a rope; a person addicted to drugs will jump in with you and say, “How are we getting out of this together?”
In the U.S., many are still stuck in this ditch. Alabama had 767 deaths from opioid overdoses in 2016, the CDC tallied. Michael’s addiction was one of many, but his survival is anomalous. He was not swept or ruined by the surging storm that is the country’s opioid epidemic, but it undoubtedly hurt his loved ones.
At the Opelika coffee shop, he rises from the stiff bench and stretches before returning the coffee mug back to his friend. It’s 6 p.m., and the sun hasn’t set yet. Walking across the concrete covered in yellow and red chalk, he resumes the musical conversation with the barista. Umphrey’s McGee is the band Michael’s seeing in Atlanta, a nod to his favorite genre of music.
Michael plans on getting a master’s soon and becoming a therapist, specializing in addiction.
That night, however, he said he will play with his dog, maybe catch dinner with a friend and simply enjoy life.
“All I ask is if you have a problem, and you think there’s no way out, start reaching out because it will get better,” Michael said. “You will be okay.”
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