North Alabama's Drug Addiction: Families fight to move on after drugs take their loved ones

In 2020, Madison County averaged 64 overdoses per month. This year to date, that average is up to 77.

Posted: Sep 16, 2021 6:03 PM
Updated: Sep 20, 2021 2:07 PM

"Loving, caring, he had a goofiness about him,” Denise Spiller said.

Denise Spiller is one proud mom.

"He played soccer from 5 years old to 15,” Spiller said.

He, is Austin, Denise’s son born in 1992 in Wisconsin. There, Denise raised Austin and her daughter before moving to North Alabama.

"He was a sweet kid,” Spiller said.

When Austin was 13, his sister had her wisdom teeth taken out. The two tried painkillers. That was Austin’s first exposure to drugs.

"Now he was very young at that time so I don't know that it began his addiction, but the taste for it started that young,” Spiller said.

A veteran, Denise would often have to leave her kids to serve overseas.

"I feel like my deployment to Iraq just before he turned 16 led him to start dealing with that,” Spiller said.

When Denise got back to the States in 2008, Austin admitted to trying morphine for the first time. Not long after, he was arrested, high on the drug.

"That's when I really started watching his actions,” Spiller said.

Austin’s addiction would only intensify. Denise brough him to rehab where he started Suboxone, a medication to help him manage his addiction. Something Denise though was the right move. But it turns out, he was using Suboxone to get to Morphine and Fentanyl patches.

"Again, as a mother at that time I'm thinking 'OK, he's going to be OK after a 15-day stay' and you're thinking it's over,” Spiller said. “Little did I know. And I started going to Alanon at that time that it's forever as an addict."

Not long after, Denise went on a trip with her national guard unit. IT was the week after Memorial Day 2013. The time she would say goodbye to her son, for the last time.

"Couldn't get in touch with him, kept calling him, calling him, called my daughter,” Spiller said. “Very common during that year to call my daughter and say ‘hey go check on him, I can't get in touch with him,’ we'd find him passed out or whatever. Well, that was the time she found him."

Austin died June 8, 2013, leaving behind a grieving family. Now, Denise uses Austin’s death to help others by volunteering at local organizations to try to keep other families from feeling the same pain.

"So now I'm that vessel, got to be that vessel to reach others,” Spiller said. "I've had a few of Austin's friends show up at the cemetery when I'm there and say his death saved them.”

Austin is not alone. Overdoses in Madison County soared in the past year, especially. In 2020, Madison County averaged 64 overdoses per month. This year to date, that average is up to 77.

"A patient one time that overdosed that morning. That patient was transported to the emergency department where they were treated and released and that same day, that evening the patient overdosed again,” Don Webster with HEMSI said.

Overdoses do not only increase in quantity but in intensity. Fentanyl is now to blame for three out of four overdose deaths.

"Fentanyl is about 100 times the strength of morphine alone. Just a couple grams is enough to kill the average adult," Madison County Coroner Tyler Berryhill said.

Denise’s daughter told her Austin bough two Fentanyl patches right before his death.

"He knew what he was dealing with it was a patch for cancer patients,” Spiller said. “He actually ingested it. He took a piece of that patch, chewed on it, and then went into cardiac arrest."

It has been eight years since Austin died. Denise now spends her free time advocating for addicts all across North Alabama.

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