Josh Ezell’s family and friends don’t remember him as an addict.
About 15 people reminisced about Ezell at a memorial service arranged by his mother, Angie Cheshire, Saturday evening at Wellborn Park. Ezell died at 33 years old on July 21, 2017, from a heroin overdose after nearly three years of sobriety, Cheshire said. He was born at Regional Medical Center in Anniston, and later died there; he lived in Anniston and Wadley. Not many of his friends could attend his Monday morning funeral in 2017, but beneath the park pavilion, while thunder in the distance grumbled threats of oncoming storms, those who survived him gathered around a picnic table to talk about his life.
They remembered Ezell aloud by talking about his loves: brownies, Coca-Cola and cigarettes. Chocolate was a food group in itself, several agreed. He made up songs as he sang them. He’d drive someone crazy one minute and make them laugh the next. He was proud of his son.
Several attendees were recovering from addiction themselves. Ezell would call and check on them and say how proud he was that they were getting sober.
That sobriety is hard-earned, explained Shane Mitchell, Ezell’s cousin, who has maintained sobriety since 2016, he said.
“They say it gets better with time, but it don’t,” Mitchell said. “All we can do is try to spread the word and hope for the best.”
Ezell died during what may prove to be the peak of an opioid epidemic that has been boiling in the United States since the early 2010s. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released preliminary numbers last week that show drug overdose deaths in the United States dropping for the first time in 2018, down to 67,744 reported overdose deaths from 70,699 in 2017.
Cheshire said Ezell had been clean since 2014 when he died. He was a straight-A student in school, she said, but he had obsessive compulsive disorder and panic attacks in his youth. He was given drugs like Prozac and Zoloft, anything that might level out his mood and halt the compulsive counting that made him good at math but obsessive over numbers. He didn’t find his way into illegal drugs until after school.
He started work for a retail hardware company and traveled the country setting up and rearranging stores. Cheshire thinks he picked up his addictions on the road.
“I think the substance abuse started when he got old enough to not have insurance to keep him on those medications,” Cheshire said. “I think he was trying to find something to take their place.”
In 2014 Ezell was charged with a DUI, after he drank and drove and wrecked a car. He told Cheshire he wanted to go to rehab, and she agreed to help him do so. When he left the rehab facility in Sylacauga that September, he told Cheshire that he wasn’t going to do heroin again, that she would never get a phone call about him and drugs. His last journal entry from the rehab center, dated Sept. 11, 2014, seemed hopeful:
“Leaving today is a bittersweet moment. Looking back I've acquired more knowledge than I ever thought I could. This place, the people & the fellowship we all had will be forever missed. Mama I'm coming home!”
People in recovery will often agree that getting clean doesn’t take away the urge to go back to using. Starting up again is called relapse, and sometimes it’s dangerous. The body can build a tolerance to many things, even hard drugs, but getting clean and staying sober can reset those tolerances. Sometimes a user will relapse and pick up where they left off, using as much as they might have to get high months or years beforehand. Cheshire thinks that’s what happened to Ezell.
He had been drinking beer with a friend on his aunt’s front porch in Anniston, she said, when he got up and walked to a vehicle that parked at the far end of the street. He came back and told his friend he was going to go take a shower. His aunt and cousin knocked on the shower door some time later, long enough to worry something was wrong.
“They found Josh in the bathroom and he was already blue,” Cheshire said.
Dena Boling, an outreach coordinator for Recovery Organization of Support Specialists, a Birmingham-based group that specializes in preventing relapse, said there are some signs that a former user might be nearing a relapse.
“Before they relapse, they may start talking about the drugs and may start romanticizing their past and talking about old friends,” Boling said.
The organization, funded by both the Alabama and federal departments of mental health, recently appointed Boling as its representative in Calhoun County. There are more than 30 counties with a representative in Alabama. Each rep helps former users connect with services that might help keep them from relapsing, which are generally free of charge, according to Boling.
Signs of possible relapse she mentioned include regular boredom, changes in routine, nervous tics like biting fingernails, shaking legs or other unusual behaviors.
She said that the best preventive strategy is to help people with addiction problems learn coping skills to handle having that addiction lurking in their life, even when they’re clean.
“Relapse starts in your mind, almost with daydreaming,” said Boling, who was herself an addict, like many of the organization’s outreach staff. “It may go on in your mind for three or four months, and the voice never shuts up, so you learn to deal with that in the support group.”
In the time since Ezell’s death, Cheshire has pushed for laws that could see people who sell or give drugs that lead to an overdose death be charged with manslaughter or murder.
“I’m pushing for an investigation,” she said. “I want somebody charged with his death.”
Cheshire said she wanted to share Ezell’s story because it might help someone else hurting with addiction find their way out, and help others understand that addicts aren’t necessarily morally corrupt, but often regular people in a difficult position.
“If it will help one person, then I won’t feel like he died in vain,” Cheshire said.