Public/Global Health

Johnny Isakson opens up about family’s tragic loss

Greg Nash

The opioid crisis is hitting families across the nation regardless of income, race or gender. Lawmakers are no exception. In the past few months, The Hill has talked to a number of House and Senate members who have a personal connection to addiction and the opioid epidemic. This is the third in a five-part series presented by Partnership for Safe Medicines.

During a Senate hearing last year, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) read out loud from a witness’s testimony about the difficulty of beating drug epidemics. Then he made a startling admission.

His grandson, Charley Joyner, had died of a drug overdose on Dec. 8, 2016.

The Georgia Republican learned the news when he woke to the sound of his phone ringing at 3 a.m. It was his son, John, on the line with an urgent message: Police had found John’s 25-year-old stepson dead from an opioid overdose right before he was set to graduate college with honors.

For nearly four years, Charley Joyner had been in recovery from a drug addiction.

“That one slip up, that one night before graduation, cost him his life,” Isakson said in an interview.

Across the country, parents and grandparents have similar stories of losing a child to addiction, even after doing everything they could to help. Opioid addiction is hitting men between the ages of 25 and 44 particularly hard. Between 2015 and 2016, that demographic group saw the largest increase in opioid-related overdose deaths.

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

After graduating high school in 2009, Charley Joyner went to the University of Georgia. But he withdrew from school in December 2010 to receive treatment.

Charley Joyner had relapses. His parents would know what happened when he didn’t come home at night or disappeared for several days, Isakson recalled. And his grandfather noticed shifts in his personality.

“He functioned pretty well, but because I knew he was having the problem he was having, I could also see the byproducts of the problem,” Isakson said. “He was more lethargic and less enthusiastic and kind of a shrinking inward of his personality.”

In 2012, Charley Joyner started a treatment program that seemed to turn his life around. He enrolled in Georgia Southern University and worked as a math tutor. He’d made friends in his treatment program, and there was strength in understanding in their shared struggles with addiction. His grades were good, and he had applied to graduate school.

“I had a lot of engagement and interaction with Charley, and he was really doing well until that fateful night when after three and a half years or so of being clean, he just got one hit too many,” Isakson said.

He’s looked for ways to try and honor a grandson whose sports games he watched and who helped him put up yard signs for his Senate campaign.

“You want to do something when there’s nothing left that you can do because a loved one has passed away,” he said. “You want something to feel like you’re doing something good in their memory or in their name.”

Isakson and his wife decided to set up a scholarship fund at Georgia Southern University in Charley Joyner’s name, and donations are still coming in.

As a senator, he wants Congress “to do everything and anything we can to support programs that show promise and progress.”

“Early intervention in cancer is the key; well, early intervention in drug abuse is the same way,” Isakson said. “The quicker you can bring that child who is starting to stray in and work with him, and do everything you can to support them and be a comfort station, but not a hideout, but a comfort station where you give them some support and some help is probably the most important thing.”

Tags Close to Home Johnny Isakson

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