SUMITON – Sometime during the years that Everett Hoagland attended Sumiton School, his father Robert Hoagland Jr. hurt his knee. Doctors prescribed an opioid (Lortab) for the pain.
“It was all downhill from there,” Hoagland said. And from that moment, he watched his father die in slow motion.
Hoagland’s father would take 20 or 30 Lortabs in the morning and then go work in the sun all day, according to Hoagland.
At that point, Hoagland didn’t realize that so many people functioned that way, but he later learned they do.
After graduating from Dora High School and the University of Alabama, Hoagland went to law school. After the bar, he started a job as the assistant public defender in Tuscaloosa. That’s when his view of the opioid problem changed.
“I see it every day,” he said. Hoagland described a conversation with one of his clients who is currently in the Tuscaloosa jail. She told him she took 15 to 20 Lortab 10 tablets and then went to work. The woman told him that she became addicted at a pain clinic.
Hoagland explained that his father's addiction continued to worsen from being able to take opioids and function to not being able to function at all.
“It reached a fever pitch when I was in my first year of law school,” he said. “I think the pills dried up for him for whatever reason, and then he started drinking all the time.”
The drinking was a change for his dad. He never drank before his opioid addiction. “He wouldn’t even have a beer with dinner,” Hoagland said.
He feels that drinking on top of the damage to his liver from 20 years of opioid abuse is what took his life.
Hoagland was young when his father became addicted, so he didn’t recognize the warning signs.
After his parents divorced, he wasn’t around his father as much. When Hoagland was around, his father tried to hide the addiction. But even through his young eyes, Hoagland noticed the problem.
“As I got older, and things progressed, I knew what was happening,” Hoagland said.
The opioids changed his father's behavior and turned him into a different person. “The times he was without it (the opioids) were the worst,” he remembered. “The addiction was driving him to get more, and if he couldn’t, he could be mean...” It was these times that made it hard to deal with his father.
“Because of what I do, I now know that he was having withdrawals and needed to feed the addiction. When he couldn’t, he lashed out,” Hoagland said.
His father’s life spiraled downward to a degree that the relationship between father and son was “pretty terrible,” according to Hoagland.
“The older I got, the more fed up I got.” At one point, he decided that he was not going to deal with it anymore. “I think that’s how it is with a lot of folks,” he said. “People do and do until they can’t do anymore.”
It comes to a point to where family members of the addicts must protect themselves. “There is a freedom that comes with that, but there is also the guilt of wondering if you’re doing what’s right. Am I helping or hurting?” he said.
With his father, the disasters started piling up toward the end of his life. He would have a wreck, and he would get into trouble. These were things that had not happened in the 20 plus years of his addiction, according to Hoagland.
He finally confronted his father and told him that he could no longer contribute to this anymore. He distanced himself from his father until the summer between the first and second year of law school. Hoagland visited his father, and he seemed a little better. They managed to make amends. Not long afterward, his father died.
“The effect that it (the addiction) has on the individual is terrible, and it ruins their lives,” Hoagland said. But he thinks what goes undetected is the impact on the family of addicts. People don’t talk about the problem – especially in small southern towns. People try to deal with it quietly within the family.
As a result of this behavior, those impacted by addiction do not deal with the anger and grief. “Having to carry that burden affects people in such a negative way,” he said. “It’s watching a family member die in slow motion and not being able to do anything about it.”
Another problem is that people on social media often demonize addicts. They comment that the addicts chose to become addicted. “But many of these people did not make a choice. They chose to go to the doctor, they got prescribed something, and their choice was taken from them because of the addiction,” Hoagland said. “Then they no longer have a choice.”
He said that quitting an addiction is not easy. “If it were easy, there would be no addiction, and I wouldn’t have a job,” Hoagland said. Addiction is out there, and people don’t understand it until it comes home to them.
“I think if we talked about it more, it would be easier to help people and to get help,” he said.
Hoagland’s father went into rehab three or four times, but was never able to recover from his addiction.
The way these drugs are engineered, it is tough to stop taking them once someone starts. There is a lot of litigation out there now saying that these companies are peddling drugs that are addictive because they know it will turn a profit, according to Hoagland.
“We lived hundreds of years without having this super-strong synthetic stuff prescribed to people, and now it’s given out like candy,” he said.
When people are addicted and can no longer get refills on their opioids, they turn to meth, heroin, or other substance to fill the void, according to Hoagland.
It’s a downward spiral.