Sometime in the late 1980s, Jack Easterday went in for a dental procedure and emerged with an addiction to pain pills.
While the doctors would soon stop filling out prescriptions for him — in a small moment of prescience against the crisis to come — it wouldn’t be until 2005 that he would finally kick that addiction, he said.
“I was basically able to get and then stay clean,” he said. “But I had reached a bottom that I see others die before they have a chance to get to.”
Easterday now works as a Texas Targeted Opioid Response peer recovery coach with the Gulf Coast Center, helping what he says is a growing number of county addicts.
Opioids include heroin and prescription drugs such as oxycodone and fentanyl, among others.
For Easterday, the decisive moment in his battle with opioid addiction came when he realized where it might go, he said.
“No one ever says they want to stick a needle in their arm,” he said. “But I’ve seen some people get clean of heroin and still use the needle because of the habit. For me, the needle is what scared me out.”
After the prescriptions ran out, Easterday began buying different opioids off the street, he said. Eventually, he saw the supply slowly start to evaporate and go through lulls, and knew that eventually heroin would start calling to him.
“I know now that I was a junkie then, but at the time, I didn’t want to consider myself one,” he said. “And I knew if I started using heroin, I would be.”
That, combined with a fear of all the other possible health risks associated with syringe use — from HIV to hepatitis B and C — were enough to put Easterday on the straight and narrow, he said.
Easterday’s case is actually not atypical of an opioid addict, said Tim Hartwig, a former addict himself and now the owner and executive director of Pathway to Recovery, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.
After a shoulder surgery in 1999, Hartwig started selling opioids because people would buy them for $10 per pill, and eventually became a full-blown addict taking up to 120 pills per day, he said.
“At a certain point, they don’t want to be high,” he said. “They just don’t want to be sick. They are so obsessed knowing what is to come and the sickness of opioid withdrawal — it’s so terrible they’d do anything in this world to keep it at bay. It’s very, very scary for anyone who’s been through it.”
But that was then, and this is now.
Health experts for years argued the opioid crisis wasn’t as dire in Galveston County as elsewhere in the country, but the thinking has changed recently.
Draw a line generally along the coast, starting in Galveston and moving up through Texas City, San Leon and Kemah, and you’ll find a growing community of opioid users in each of those places, Easterday said.
“Think about it, you’ve got a lot of oil and gas facilities in Galveston County,” he said. “That’s a lot of sore backs — it’s easy to get sucked in.”
Drug overdose deaths from opioids in the United States have been on a dramatic rise since 1999. Opioids were involved in more than 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017 alone, about 67.8 percent of the country’s total 70,237 overdose deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The opioids are out there and as available as they have ever been,” said Billy Smith, a program director at Bay Area Recovery Center, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program with locations throughout the area.
Increasingly, Galveston County residents, along with the rest of the country, are turning to fentanyl because of its easy availability, Smith said.
When Easterday ventures through the county to coach addicts, he brings with him a wide variety of tools aimed, not always at cures, but at risk reduction, he said.
Someone might get a package of syringe cleaning supplies and Narcan nasal spray meant to reverse opioid overdoses, Easterday said.
“Heroin is so potent, and they’ve started putting fentanyl in everything, even marijuana,” Easterday said. “I’ve seen people die after their first use. They never become that level of desperate that I reached.”
Easterday estimates he’s given out more than 100 care packages in Galveston County to opioid addicts, he said.
At this point, Easterday would settle for treatment over true detox for Galveston County’s opioid addicts, he said.
Easterday has recently become a supporter of medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, for those who suffer from opioid addiction, he said. That might include methadone treatment or some other medication along with behavioral therapy to treat substance abuse.
A major issue to this point is the relative lack of resources in the area, Easterday said.
“The nearest halfway house is in Pearland, but it charges more than $1,300 per month,” he said.
Many local doctors aren’t trained to help those with opioid addiction, and those who are don’t want to dedicate resources to help, Easterday said.
Combine that with a relative lack of solid statistics about the opioid crisis locally and Galveston County still has a long way to go before the situation starts to improve, Easterday said.