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The Opioid Crisis Has Hit Williamson County. Why Aren't More People Talking About It?

Four days after Greg Witthauer went missing, his parents got a phone call from a Metro Nashville Police Department chaplain.

Witthauer's body had been found.

His father, Mark Witthauer, had planned his son's funeral dozens of times in his mind during his 10-year addiction that ended with heroin and prescription painkillers. But he still wasn't ready for that call.

Mark Witthauer and his wife, Karen, were grateful that, at the very least, they could identify their son by describing his tattoos over the phone without having to see his body, which was discovered in the passenger seat of his car parked near Percy Priest Lake. Police believe his body was moved from another location.

He was 23.

An only child, Greg Witthauer grew up in a quiet neighborhood in Franklin, playing soccer on a travel team and skateboarding in his spare time.

But Tennessee's wealthiest county isn't immune to the devastation of the ongoing opioid crisis. Twenty-seven people in Williamson County died in 2017 from overdoses, including from drugs such as fentanyl and heroin.

From 2012 to 2016, there have been 10.3 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 people in Williamson County, according to data from the Sycamore Institute, a nonpartisan public policy research center.

That's about one person every 17 days.

Greg Witthauer's addiction started when he was a teenager. And no matter where he went to school — he transferred from Centennial to Brentwood High to Middle College (now known as Renaissance High) — he could always find drugs, his parents said.

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Mark and Karen Witthauer pose for a portrait at their home Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Franklin. Their son, Greg, died of a drug overdose in April 2017 at the age of 23. (Photo: Jacob Wiegand / The Tennessean)

The Witthauers' story contains chapters relatable to many families with loved ones in active addiction: A home that feels more like a war zone. Valuables that go missing. Hidden syringes and needles.

In the 10 years Greg Witthauer used drugs, he went to rehab nine times, beginning at 15.

He started smoking marijuana as a high school freshman, then moved up to benzodiazepines, typically prescribed for anxiety, then to cocaine, then to prescription painkillers.

"He was always looking for something to make him feel normal," his mother said.

When compared to the rest of Tennessee, it can look like Williamson County hasn't been touched by the opioid epidemic.

Out of 1,186 opioid overdose deaths in Tennessee in 2016, Williamson County had 26. Davidson County had 248.

But families who have lost their children and loved ones in Williamson County tell a different story.

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Karen Witthauer speaks about her son at her home July 12, 2018, in Franklin. Greg Witthauer died of a drug overdose in April 2017 at the age of 23. (Photo: Jacob Wiegand / The Tennessean)

'They still don't think it's affecting them'

More than 200 people attended a forum at Our Savior Lutheran Church earlier this month organized by the Witthauers and Liz and Yarnell Beatty, a Brentwood couple who lost their son, Alex, to an overdose in 2016.

The forum, Breaking the Silence, featured addiction and recovery professionals, including Dr. Stephen Loyd, the former medical director for Tennessee's substance abuse services division. Loyd resigned from that position in February to accept the role of co-medical director at JourneyPure at the River, a private drug rehab center in Murfreesboro.

Loyd said the single largest problem with addressing addiction isn't a lack of money, resources or access to treatment.

It's the social stigma, he said, that keeps people from seeking treatment and families from getting the support they need when a loved one is struggling with addiction.

Loyd likens it to the stigma borne out of the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when that diagnosis was considered a death sentence.

"Addiction, particularly the opioid epidemic, is this generation's HIV and AIDS (epidemic)," Loyd said. "You can have all the resources in the world, but if you don't have people ready to step out and ask for help, it doesn't matter."

Tricia Benitez, a treatment specialist with Addiction Campuses, is often the first point of contact for people who decide to enter recovery.

She visits Williamson Medical Center regularly to touch base with staffers who treat overdose patients. But those employees say some patients deny having a problem even after an overdose, Benitez said.

"They say these people still don't think they have a problem. They still don't think it's affecting them because of their status quo location," Benitez said. "We're trying to make sure they understand the devastation of what's happening in our own backyard. If we continuously just brush it under the rug ... nothing's going to get done."

Williamson Medical Center declined to comment for this story.

'Things are getting deadlier quicker'

Dean Porterfield is the director of adolescent programs at Cumberland Heights in Nashville, a nonprofit alcohol and drug addiction recovery center. He also runs a counseling practice.

The main demographic Porterfield serves are young, white men, usually from affluent families.

"The one thing these adolescents are searching for is purpose — a place to belong. A lot of times, with that lifestyle of comfort and ease, you've also taken away that young person's purpose to fit in," he said.

While dismissing teens' drug use as "just a phase" may have worked in the past, Porterfield said the emergence of deadly drugs such as fentanyl can be fatal for people experimenting with drugs.

"Some kids experiment, but I think now ... that's kind of gone away because things are getting deadlier quicker," he said.

While parents want the best for their children, Porterfield said raising kids in affluent homes with little responsibility can sometimes backfire, especially if they're not held accountable for their actions.

"These families have the means to kind of bail their kids out frequently. The more you bail them out, the more it reinforces their behavior because they don't suffer the consequences. That tends to escalate."

But treatment doesn't look the same for someone with a full-blown addiction as it does for someone dabbling with certain drugs, he said. Treatment can range from inpatient and sober living facilities to intensive outpatient care or counseling.

"It's hard to say what rock bottom is for a lot of these kids, because that could be death," he said. "All I ask kids to do is to admit they abuse substances — that's easier for them to wrap their head around. Not all these kids will go out and have a full-blown addiction."

Cumberland Heights has two outpatient centers in Williamson County — one that recently opened in Spring Hill that treats adults, and an adolescent outpatient program in Cool Springs.

"When looking at treating kids, it’s important that we treat the whole family and make them part of the process," Porterfield said.

Mark and Karen Witthauer lost their son, Greg, to a drug overdose in April 2017. They're working to keep his memory alive by raising awareness about addiction. (Photo: Submitted)

More resources needed

At one point, Greg Witthauer had 20 months of sobriety. He was on probation related to theft charges and was participating in the 21st District Recovery Court in Williamson County.

After injuring his back at work, Greg Witthauer saw a doctor in Nashville and told him he was an addict and in drug court.

The doctor prescribed him painkillers anyway, the Witthauers said. Then he relapsed.

"The doctor gave him 10 pills, and that was all it took," Karen Witthauer said through tears. "He would say, 'Mom, every day it just eats at me.' "

Jeff Long worked as an assistant district attorney in the 21st Judicial District before he was first elected as Williamson County sheriff in 2008. He's familiar with the migration of the state's opioid crisis, which started with prescription painkillers then heroin in East Tennessee and worked its way west.

The 21st Recovery Court is one option for some nonviolent offenders charged with a felony in Williamson County. The two-year court-supervised recovery program offers alternative sentencing for people whose offenses are a result of illegal drug use.

Mark and Karen Witthauer, of Franklin, lost their son Greg, center, to a drug overdose in April 2017. The Witthauers are working to keep his memory alive by raising awareness about addiction in their community. (Photo: Submitted)

Long said the Recovery Court is a valuable asset for Williamson County's court system, but added that treating underlying mental health issues in defendants is equally important.

"We're trying to develop a program where both the mental health aspects and drug addiction is treated at the same time," Long said. "You can't treat one without the other."

Recovery Court Director Connie Martin said the program has roughly 30 participants at any given time and about 20 more who may be in long-term inpatient treatment.

Participants must follow strict requirements, such as maintaining employment, attending monthly court dates and taking a drug test three times a week. About 50 percent don't complete the program, Martin said.

While the program accepts people from Williamson, Hickman, Lewis and Perry counties, roughly 70 percent of its participants are from Williamson County.

Recovery Court also helps participants find housing and food through partnerships with other local nonprofits, and provides medical and psychiatric care through third parties — all on an annual budget around $400,000, Martin said.

"You'd think from one of the most affluent counties in the state, resources would be plentiful here, but they're not," she said.

"Our dream is to one day have a residential facility like DC4," she said, referring to the Davidson County Drug Court Residential Program, which has its own inpatient treatment facility. Martin knows it's a lofty goal, but said she won't give up as long as she's the Recovery Court director.

Addiction in Williamson County: By the numbers

  • Williamson County had 26 drug overdose deaths in 2016.

  • In 2015, the county had 265 nonfatal overdose outpatient visits and 116 nonfatal overdose inpatient stays.

  • More than 42,500 people received opioids for pain in the county last year, down slightly from 44,800 people in 2016.

  • Nearly 121,000 opioid prescriptions were filled in the county last year.

  • The three opioids most commonly prescribed in the county last year were short-acting hydrocodone, short-acting oxycodone and short-acting Tramadol.

  • Between 2013 and 2017, the number of prescriptions filled in the county for short-acting Tramadol increased more than 15 percent.

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