By Aryan Rai
Boston University News Service
On a chilly November morning, in front of a coffee shop on Commonwealth Avenue, Frank Huntley introduced passers-by to a sculpture made entirely of opioid medication bottles.
To anyone who stopped and stared, he explained:
“That is Pill Man. That was me for 15 years. Every bottle has my name on it.”
I was among the onlookers. Standing by, he handed me a business card that had his email, social media handles, and the following:
“Pill Man. Enough is Enough. One man’s fight to stop opiate addiction.”
For Huntley, his addiction to opioids began in the late 1990s, following an accident that required neck surgery. According to him, the first surgery wasn’t a success; he needed a second.
The operation placed a metal plate in his neck along with four screws to hold it in place. The excruciating pain was only kept at bay by heavy doses of OxyContin.
“I started on five milligrams,” Huntley said. “With time you are on 10 milligrams or 15 milligrams. It starts with a low dosage, but then your tolerance grows. So, you increase the dosage, and it keeps going on.”
From that point on it was a sharp downward spiral, resulting in a hefty, 15-year-long addiction that decimated several aspects of Huntley’s life — from his physical and mental well-being to his personal relationships.
“The drug hijacked my mind and body,” Huntley said.
The road to recovery was riddled with several obstacles, according to Huntley, including another episode with a different form of opioids: methadone. Used as a medicine to treat drug addiction, methadone is what Huntley turned to.
“To get you off the meds, they give you more meds,” said Huntley. “Sometimes you end up being on methadone longer than you were on oxy. We have a problem.”
Slowly, but surely, Huntley said he started noticing the decrease in the effectiveness of the methadone. What also worried him was his increasing dependency. Every visit to the pharmacy would be accompanied by the worrying thought of the dosage not being enough; that the lack of potency of the drug could easily trigger withdrawals.
“When you take the medicine, it binds you but when you don’t, you lose control,” Huntley said. “You lose control of yourself and everything.”
Huntley’s path to recovery lacked what one might call an epiphany or a pivotal moment. He woke up and decided “enough is enough.” He quit the methadone “cold turkey” and entered a solitary phase of dealing with chronic pain and withdrawals for months, with some help from family.
“My son helped save my life,” Huntley noted. “He would bring me blocks of ice that I froze overnight, and I would use those to numb myself down.”
He said his son, Trevor, who suffers from cerebral palsy, witnessed his father’s recovery firsthand.
“When he was born, the doctors said he might not be able to walk,” said Huntley. “He is now a part of the Boy Scouts and takes care of himself on his own. Another example of why you should not give up on people.”
In a Zoom call with both Huntleys, when asked about what he remembers from that time, Trevor smiled, grabbed his phone, and typed out his answer for clarity. “I had one of the scout leaders help me deal with the addiction, and afterward, I learned to deal with it myself. But I am thankful.”
Frank, in response to Trevor’s answer, reflected on his struggles and how they affected both his son and his daughter.
“I should have been a better Dad,” he said.
It was also during this phase of seclusion, introspection and pain that birthed Pill Man; a physical metaphor of the tragedy that would have come to pass if Frank did not get past his addictions.
Pill Man was a “recovery project” but it ended up being much more. It gave Frank what he did know he needed: a purpose. As Trevor wrote of Pill Man: “We built him because if it wasn’t for that, my father would be gone.”
Post-recovery, Frank knew what he had to do. He would stand on the corners of busy streets with Pill Man beside him, trying to incite curiosity and then educate.
“They look at Pill Man, and they are looking at something that could be them,” Frank said. “They look at bottles from a period of 15 years, and they go ‘Wow, I do not want to live like that.’ Pill Man shares the hope that your husband can change, your mother can change, just do not give up on them.”
The two get around, with Frank making a long drive with Pill Man to Washington D.C. on Saturday, Dec. 4, all to take part in a rally against the Sackler family. The rally was in reaction to a recent legal result that saw the Sackler family, whose company Purdue Pharma was at the center of lawsuits over their distribution of OxyContin, agreeing to a deal to avoid further litigation.
(The same legal agreement would later be thrown out on Thursday, Dec. 16 by a New York federal judge).
Tracy Lynn, who suffered from opioid addiction for 20 years and now runs a podcast educating people about it, met Huntley at the rally.
“He was the first person I met in the lobby. His accent gave it away that he was from Massachusetts,” Lynn said, laughing. “He asked me my story and he was gentle and understanding and shared his story with me. And I was a stranger! That is how you heal, by sharing your shame.”
Frank now travels to different places with Pill Man trying “not to stop people from using medication, but to help educate them about it.” He said he has visited classrooms and events at various universities and continues to advocate for those still struggling with any kind of addiction, be it opioids or alcohol, or tobacco.
Now sober for eight years, Huntley campaigns against addiction more than anything. Having quit drugs, he also quit smoking cigarettes and overcame his lifelong obsession with Mountain Dew.
“I should be dead. I should not even be here, but I am,” he said. “And I believe it is for a bigger purpose, and that is to help save lives.”