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GUEST COLUMN: Only the name changes

A liar, a thief, and an addict. Those are some of the words I could use to describe my brother Matt. Sad, but true. He’s stolen and lied to me too many times for me to stay oblivious to those facts. But what I’ve finally figured out, is that he isn’t lying and stealing from me to hurt, or anger me — in fact he isn’t thinking of me at all. He’s only thinking of his addiction. I guess that means you can add selfish to that list of descriptors.

Opioids have dictated Matt’s life; they’ve made the decisions, and been the choice. But, I can also tell you my brother is one of the greatest friends, funniest guys, and sweetest hearts I know — when he’s sober. I’ve witnessed him give a ride to a homeless man needing to get to work on a blistering cold day. My parents once received a handwritten note from a lady thanking them for their kind son who stopped in the rain to change her flat tire on the shoulder of Interstate 75.

The point is, he isn’t the bad seed many have pegged him to be. He’s a modern day Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When he’s sober, he’s a charming sweetheart that will make you cry with laughter. But when he’s using, he’s somebody I don’t recognize.

I’ll never sway most of you. You have your beliefs, and I won’t change them. That’s okay, my own father, a self made man who grew up in the Anchor Rome mill village, once told me peanut allergies weren’t real. If a kid from his neighborhood didn’t eat peanut butter sandwiches, he’d starve. So, I know your type. The man who says, stop whining, stop ruining your life. Just stop. But I want to plant the seed, get the conversation started. Because, like it or not, just like the peanut allergy, the opioid epidemic is a real thing, and it’s running rampant, right here in Rome.

Okay, now I’ve lost another chunk of you. Your kids are student athletes, you volunteer, you go to church every Sunday, you buy over-priced Sally Foster wrapping paper to support local schools. You’re a good person. I can’t be talking to you.

But I am. You’re exactly who I’m addressing. You are the pillars of the community. Who better to initiate change? But on the darker side of that, you could be just like my very own parents, blissfully oblivious.

Now you’re pointing fingers at my parents. Someone has to be blamed, right? But, my parents also raised me, a graduate of the University of Georgia, and a successful son, a graduate of The University of Alabama. That’s two out of three. My middle brother, before making headlines for his wrong doings once graced the sports page of this same paper, which nicknamed him, the “Legend at Legion.”

Matt had good friends, he made decent grades, he stayed out of trouble, his teachers liked him, he was a hard worker, and was often complimented on his manners or good looks. What more could a parent want? He wasn’t the valedictorian, his baseball scholarship wasn’t to a Division 1 school. His story isn’t that ironic, or that extraordinary, but that’s the problem. It was ordinary. And a story that’s starting to be retold all too often, where only the name changes.

According to American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), each day, 2,500 adolescents in the United States abuse prescription opioids for the first time. That’s a statistic we cannot afford to ignore. This drug alters the chemistry of the brain. It actually eats holes through the hippocampus. These “holes” chant all day, every day, to be filled — with you guessed it — opioids. It takes approximately two sober years for these holes to close.

Which is why, oddly enough, my entire family wanted my brother to spend time in prison. Not the 40 year sentence he was sentenced, but multiple years. Rehab hasn’t worked, short stays in the big house haven’t worked. We’d much rather lose him for a few years to jail, than lose him to an overdose. I do fear we could lose him to a lack of hope.

I’m not sure how he’ll be able to serve his (forty with 18 to serve) sentence without being released a hardened person. If you’re now wondering what he did for such a severe sentence, he was involved in a theft ring — comprised of addicts. The sum of all items stolen — an estimated $30,000. All unarmed. You could say the proverbial book was thrown at his head. And it knocked us all out.

At $30-$60 for one illegally purchased pill, an opioid addiction quickly becomes a financial problem. This explains why an opioid addict will often turn to stealing. Usually, they take from family and friends first.

It’s easy to say he should rot in jail. But every month he spends in jail is approximately $1,000 in taxpayer money. Ridiculous. What could that money do for a true treatment plan? None of that fancy Betty Ford or Passages of Malibu stuff, but something like the Jericho Project? Make them pay the consequences of their actions behind bars, but let’s find a way to make sure they don’t come back, wash and repeat.

I once begged my brother to tell me why? Why he would do this to our parents, to me, to himself? His reply was simple, “I’ve done life with drugs, and without. Without is too hard.” It’s the biggest lie drugs tell their users.

And in the case of opioids, the drug companies themselves were the ones saying, “It’s okay, you can take this pill for chronic pain.” Now we know that’s simply not true. Unfortunately, we are left with the aftermath.

Perhaps you’re rolling your eyes, muttering to yourself that my brother is nothing more than a thug and an addict. But I’m asking you to be slow to judge, and fast with the help for a solution. I don’t have the answer. I’m simply asking for help finding it. This isn’t a “housewife drug” or a “teen drug,” this is an out-of-control, anyone drug, and it’s spreading like wildfire. I don’t know if my brother will ever recover, but I don’t want our city to become a collection bin of citizens who could have been.

Miranda McGill Bagley is a Rome native and a casualty of the opioid crisis.