"Don't hide it": What the opioid crisis actually looks like
COLUMBIA - Kyle Hamilton was just 13 when his father died. His dad collapsed after the two went on a run.
"Kyle said that his dad turned around earlier than they usually do," said Sue Hamilton, Kyle's mother. "He had a heart attack."
Sue says Kyle grew distant, removed from the boisterous, vibrant young man he'd been.
"He was kind of happy go lucky," she said.
Several years later, Kyle would tell his mom he blamed himself for his dad's death. But for years, she and Kyle's sister, Whitney Schneider, were in the dark about why he seemed to be taking the loss differently than the rest of the family.
"He had been quite a talker and very descriptive in details when he's telling stories and very into his life, but he just wasn't anymore," Sue Hamilton said.
Three years after their dad's death, while visiting family in Ohio, Schneider found drugs in her brother's backpack.
"We had a little family intervention in my grandparents' basement on Thanksgiving," Schneider said. "And just said, you know, 'Dude, found drugs, like what is going on?'"
That didn't stop it. Kyle started using "anything he could get," according to his mom and sister.
The next several years was a dizzying lineage of rehab centers, both in and out of state. Kyle would get better, and go right back to using.
"We'd experience those really good times with him for a while," his mom said. "Didn't last long. Maybe a month, two, three at a time."
His family recalls him going to rehab about 15 times. The exact number and timelines are hard for them to recall. After enough times, they said, the experiences begin to blur together.
Finally, after a rehab stint in South Carolina, Kyle seemed to get better.
"He went to his grandparents in Ohio," Sue said. "He ended up getting a really good job working for Honda manufacturing in Marysville."
One day, he showed back up in Columbia. Sue says he'd met a girl and moved back to be with her.
But he'd started using again.
Once more, he went back to rehab, but when he got out this time, things took a horrible turn.
"I got a Facebook message from his messenger that said, 'What's your mom's phone number?'" Schneider said. "I asked, 'who is this?' and they replied. And they said, 'Kyle overdosed. He's breathing now, but he's on his way to the hospital.'"
"The first drug listed was fentanyl," Sue said. "There was also meth included."
That was Nov. 30, 2016. Kyle was in a coma for six weeks.
"He, um, doesn't talk" his mom said. "He doesn't move himself. He can move his arms a little bit, and he can maybe move his legs, if he would want to, a little bit. But he's been bed-bound or wheelchair-bound completely.
He received months of treatment, including learning a way to communicate.
"Then we had to consider what's next," Sue said. "I couldn't take care of him, very sadly, so, the last choice is, he went to a nursing home."
More than a year later, he still lives in a nursing home. Every so often, when he gets sick, he has to go back to the hospital. Sue and her daughter often find themselves having conversations with doctors about whether they want to continue care.
"We seen many miracles in our lives," Sue said. "We expect one for him."
Kyle Hamilton's story is not entirely unique. At Phoenix Health Programs, one of the places where Kyle received care before his overdose, Laura Cameron works to counsel patients suffering from addiction.
"I would say, at least, we see three to four hundred people a year," Cameron said.
Lately, about 75 percent of those people are using opioids, according to Cameron.
"We're on 70," she said. "If Kansas City and St. Louis are the hotspots, we're right in between."
Cameron said one of the most important ways to battle addiction, especially amid the opioid crisis, is to say something to people you love who you suspect are addicted. It's important, she said, to say it in the right way.
"Instead of saying, 'You need to quit using drugs,' saying, 'What can I do to help you stop?'" she said. "Things like that, it makes an entire difference."
"Don't hide it," Schneider echoed. "It's not something that you need to keep a family secret, tucked in a corner, away. So many people that we have run into over this last year, even at the hospital or the nursing homes, everyone has some kind of experience with someone with addiction."
"Our faith is what is our foundation and keeps us hopeful," Sue Hamilton said. "Without that, I don't know how we could get up in the morning."
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, there are places to help. Call the Missouri Recovery Network at (573) 634-1029 or Phoenix Health Programs at (573) 875-8880.
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