A painful family tale: Johnny Isakson and the opioid epidemic

OxyContin, in 80 mg pills, in a 2013 file image. Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times/TNS



OxyContin, in 80 mg pills, in a 2013 file image. Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times/TNS

A very old joke in journalism revolves around the definition of news. It is, rookie reporters have been told for ages, whatever the editor sees on the way to the office.

Cynical, perhaps, but there’s more than a grain of truth in that barb. We all tend to attach greater importance to the forces that pierce our personal bubbles. Sometimes that can be a good thing.

In December 2016, the obituary for 25-year-old Charles Daniel “Charley” Joyner listed the young man’s love for wrestling and his 3.95 GPA in math at Georgia Southern, where he had been about to receive his diploma.

What wasn’t mentioned was the cause of death. That would remain an open family secret until the next November, when his grandfather spoke during a U.S. Senate committee hearing in Washington. The topic was the opioid epidemic.

“I lost my grandson Charley on Dec. 8 of last year to a drug overdose,” Johnny Isakson began. “I miss Charley to this day, and I’ve always sworn that I was going to use that loss when I can to help. Those tragedies don’t just happen to other people, they happen to us.”

The Georgia senator pointed his colleagues to the testimony of the witness in front of them, a physician who had lost his son to heroin. “I worry that we will not address the roots of the current opioid epidemic, which are addiction and mental illness, as the underlying reasons for all drug epidemics we have been through and will face in the future,” the father had testified.

To which Isakson gave an amen.

This week, Isakson brought his grandson into the picture for a second time, in an interview with The Hill, a D.C. newspaper that is attempting to show the ubiquitous nature of the opioid crisis through its impact on members of Congress and their families. Isakson’s story was No. 3 in a five-part series.

“He was a very talented athlete, he was a very smart kid — obviously being a math major and graduating summa cum laude,” Isakson told the newspaper on Wednesday. “He was just all those things that everybody would hope their kid would be. He just got mixed up with drugs.”

That same day, in a press release, Isakson outlined the legislation those Senate hearings had produced. The Opioid Crisis Response Act, a bipartisan effort authored by Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murphy, D-Wash., would offer incentives to drug companies to spur development of non-addictive painkillers. It would authorize the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to work with local and state governments to develop preventative strategies.

Injecting one’s family into a cause like this isn’t done lightly. I asked Isakson how he came to his decision.

“My being able to use that personal experience helped me to ask questions that needed to be asked, to get us in the way we need to be going — to really get to the opioid problem instead of mask over it,” the senator said. “When it looked like we were going to make a serious effort, I called my son and daughter-in-law and said, ‘Look, I don’t want to mention Charley’s situation or talk about it whatsoever without y’all’s permission.’”

They gave it. (The family also has established a scholarship at Georgia Southern University in Charley Joyner’s name.)

Isakson said he has taken personal lessons from his grandson’s death. Within months, he underwent two painful back surgeries. He stayed as far away from Oxycontin as he could. “Tylenol was my pain management medicine of choice. I would never have thought that going into the operation,” he said.

Many African-Americans, as well as other minorities, have looked on the opioid crisis as an epidemic highlighted by white middle-class privilege. Official machinery never moved so swiftly when crack cocaine was ravaging black communities, they point out. And there is truth in that.

On the other hand, personal experience can be enlightening. The Isaksons are a family of means. The senator’s grandson graduated from Woodward Academy, already addicted. Charley Joyner abandoned classes at the University of Georgia to fight his habit. His stint in Statesboro was part of a group therapy program that combined work, study and counseling.

He had all those advantages, and still was found dead two days before graduation. The opioid epidemic, like others before it, is not about poverty, class or race, though all that can figure in. At bottom, drug epidemics are about the biology of addiction.

“It can happen in any household, any place, to anybody,” Isakson said.

Isakson’s counterpart in Atlanta may be state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford. Early this year, she proposed drawing down more federal Medicaid dollars for the specific purpose of combatting the opioid epidemic.

Her bill went nowhere, but she was able to get $11 million, scattered throughout the state budget, to address the problem in a piece-meal approach. Unterman said she’ll push for a state drug czar next year to coordinate a greater effort.

Yet even she didn’t know about Isakson’s grandson — and expressed gratitude for the family’s decision to bring its bout with opioid addiction into the open. The current silence, Unterman said, has much in common with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

“No one wants to admit it, especially people who are addicted to prescriptions,” Unterman said. “When you start talking about going to a doctor, and a doctor gives you a legitimate prescription, and then you become addicted, that’s really where the stigma is.”

No one wants to admit that their 65-year-old mother is addicted to pain pills, Unterman said.

And that is an interesting class distinction. To follow all the rules and still find yourself hooked might indeed produce an embarrassing feeling of betrayal that would be absent in someone addicted to heroin.

But again, the distinction puts a clearer focus on the fundamentals. It’s like Isakson and his witness said: Address the biology of addiction, and you put a lid not just on this epidemic, but the next one, too.