Opioid Czar: Former Pill Abuser Now Battles Drug Epidemic in Tennessee
He woke up hazy, face plastered against a long aluminum bench, looking up at two campus policemen staring back at him.
A hot sun beat down on Neyland Stadium, which had emptied out hours earlier afterthe Tennessee/Mississippi State game in 1986.
“Where’d everybody go?” Loyd slurred.
The officers laughed — until Loyd vomited, nearly hitting their shoes.
The policemen loaded him into the back of a golf cart, drove him to 1844 Fraternity Park Drive and asked loudly to the other students partying outside: “Does this belong to you?”
Everyone laughed, even Loyd, who 10 minutes later was drunkenly posing for pictures with the policemen.
Loyd knew he was different from most of the other students: When he started drinking, Loyd couldn’t stop until he ran out or passed out. He stopped drinking in medical school.
Today, Loyd is a physician, and Tennessee’s assistant commissioner overseeing the substance abuse services department. That makes him the state’s chief fighter in the war against opioids abuse.
ut the ironic twist — Loyd battled a 100-pain-pills-a-day habit after medical school.
“Half of the nights I went to bed I was afraid to close my eyes because I was afraid I would die in my sleep,”
he said. “The other half, I prayed I would die in my sleep so it would be over.”
College got him out of a chaotic home
Loyd grew up on a small farm in East Tennessee in a family of mechanics, but he couldn’t work a screwdriver or wrench. His family was riddled with mental illness, alcoholics and drug addicts.
Home was chaotic, so Loyd decided to be the first one in his family to graduate from college, where — despite drinking binges — he got good grades.
He went on to medical school at East Tennessee State University.
Becoming a doctor was his ticket out.
Loyd got intimidated by his classmates on the first day.
The students introduced themselves: One was a test pilot for a Stealth Bomber, another got a master’s degree from University of California, Berkeley.
“I’m sitting there going, ‘Oh my goodness.’ I decided I couldn’t let them see me drink.”
'Everything melted off me'
In that elite group, Loyd got elected class president, a role he had all four years.
Pressure started to build at the end of his residency. Married with two young children, Loyd felt anxiety about his first job.
Driving home after work, Loyd, stopped at a red light and flipped open his glove box. There they were, some old hydrocodone pain pills his dentist had given him weeks earlier for a procedure.
He broke one in half and popped it in his mouth. Within minutes, he had a solution to his problems.
“It really felt like everything melted off me,” Loyd said, closing his eyes. “I can feel it right now.”
Days later, when he visited his aunt, he rifled through her medicine cabinet. He took some of her Loritab pain pills prescribed for a cough.
“I’m thinking, I could take 10 or 11 and she’ll never miss them. There were probably 60 in there.”
Taking pain pills from his patients
Loyd took a pill a day. Each time he visited her, he'd take more pills.
Then he started taking them from patients who brought in prescriptions during appointments.
Oh, I see you’re on the 7.5 milligram pain pills. You probably need to be on 10 milligrams. I’ll write you a new prescription and you can leave that giant bottle of 7.5s with me, he would say.
Loyd also asked his doctor friends to write him prescriptions.
“I was buzzing, I was euphoric,” he said.
Before long, Loyd was ingesting about 100 pain pills a day, sometimes swallowing them by the handful, often grinding them up and snorting them.
One day, he dropped off his son, Heath, with his father so granddad and the boy could go hiking together.
Loyd, in his red Ford F150, reached into his cup holder and grabbed 15 Percocet pills and threw them into his mouth.
'Steve, you've got a drug problem'
He looked up, and his dad was a foot away, staring, brows creased, at Loyd through the truck’s window.
“Steve, did you just take a handful of pills?” his dad asked.
The next evening, his father’s pickup was in his driveway when Loyd got home.
“Get in the truck,” his father insisted.
The two drove to Loyd’s sister’s house, and on the way, his father asked:
“Do you have a drug problem?”
“No, Dad, I’m tired. Look how much I work.”
Five minutes passed, and father put his hand on his son’s knee.
“Steve, you’ve got a drug problem.”
“Dad, I do. And I can’t stop.”
Loyd began sobbing.
'I'm Steve Loyd, and I'm hurting'
“I’m gonna lose my wife, my family, my house and cars.”
“Steve,” his father said slowly, “none of that stuff’s gonna do you any good if you’re dead.”
Within days, Loyd went to Vanderbilt hospital to detox and to a 30-day rehab for professionals after that.
At one of his first 12-step meetings, Loyd opened his mouth.
“I’m Steve Loyd, and I’m hurting.”
That was enough to have men and women in recovery surround him and help him.
He has been without alcohol or pain pills for 13 years.
And Loyd brings all that experience to his job.
“I know what it’s like to want to stop and can’t. I know what it’s like to want to die. I know the shame and guilt,” he said.
“However, I’m driven every day by my own experience to know that people can and do recover when given the proper treatment and aftercare. We will save lives and we will win in the end.
“I can’t be convinced otherwise.”