The Monday before Thanksgiving, I met Andrew Hager in the parking lot of the Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, Police Department on Woodford Street. It was a little after noon —sunny, cold, and breezy. Chief Bryan Taylor welcomed us in and lead us to a bright, window-lit training room where we could talk in private.
The first thing Andrew told me was this: Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of his daughter’s death from an overdose. She was 27.
“I’d like to tell you I was a good father,” he said, looking away, out the windows. “I’d like to tell you I’m in the pictures, but I wasn’t. I got the call that said, ‘hey, you need to get to UK [hospital],’ and they took me into this little consolation room with just me and my daughter’s lifeless body. A lot of pain, shame, and guilt. You see, we suffer from an illness and it is so cunning.”
Andrew is 5’11’’, 50 years old, and you can feel the positive energy of his presence. Before he got clean in 2014, his drugs of choice were heroin, cocaine, crack, and Oxycontin. Today, Andrew is not only full of life, he is excited about life. He has been sober for eight years, he is on a mission to save lives, and sitting in the police station, he explained how he started working with Lawrenceburg’s Lieutenant Jeremy Cornish, around 2016.
Lieutenant Cornish calls Andrew anytime, day or night. He recently had a group of addicts who needed help and called Andrew from the Walmart parking lot. What did Andrew do? He brought a bus from a rehab center, and Lieutenant Cornish waited with them to the end to ensure they kept their end of the bargain.
This obviously takes more time and effort than jailing someone, but when I mentioned this later to Lieutenant Cornish he quickly waved it off.
“Anybody who needs help, who wants help, I call Andrew. Sure, it’s an extra step we don’t have to take, but if we can help people, that’s why we signed up for this job,” he said. “We can show people that we care. Even if someone doesn’t take our help [the first time] they’ve got my card, and I leave the option open for them.”
In the training room, Andrew explained how Lieutenant Cornish recently tried to get a man into rehab and was told, in so many words, to go to, well, you-know-where. But that man was shown compassion and an open hand, so maybe next time. “As long as there is a breath in your body, there is hope,” Andrew said. “It’s amazing what they’re doing over here, honestly. It’s opening up so many doors for addicts.”
Addiction is endemic, especially in rural areas like Anderson County, Kentucky, population 24,000. The county is sandwiched between the Louisville and Lexington metropolitan areas, giving it access to more urban amenities than some rural areas. The routes to Lexington are either the Blue Grass Parkway or a two-lane U.S. highway that spans the Kentucky River gorge on a 1,300-foot-long bridge. Lawrenceburg, the county seat, has a population of about 12,000.
Overdose numbers continue to rise due to opioid use and the introduction of fentanyl in the state. According to the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet and Office of Drug Control Policy (ODCP):
More than 1,964 Kentuckians died from drug overdoses in 2020, a 49% increase in drug overdose deaths compared with the year prior. The national number of overdose deaths for 2020—more than 93,000—is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.
And it is not just Kentucky. In November 2021, the CDC reported:
an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the United States during 12-month period ending in April 2021, an increase of 28.5% from the 78,056 deaths during the same period the year before.
Andrew’s story is, tragically, a familiar one. His mother got pregnant with him at age 15. His father was 21. They were/are both addicts. Andrew says his father died driving drunk: “He ran into a mailbox and was decapitated.” When I asked about his mother, he said, “My mom is 65 and in active addiction. My only memories are of us using together. She just called me yesterday while I was at church. She knows how to play me.” He added” “She always calls me on her birthday or Mother’s Day to see if I’m going to give her any money. This is a woman who has never bought my kids an outfit or a birthday card. It’s ugly, man.”
And yet, he speaks of his mother with love and understanding. Addiction in families is a cyclical, shame-spiral that feels impossible to get out of when you and your family are in so deep. It is all you know.
“I used to take my kids shoplifting when they were little. The insanity is that I was teaching them a trade, and my God the chaos I was causing. They don’t get to pick who their mommy or daddy is,” Andrew said, embarrassed. “A bird teaches a bird how to fly; a fish teaches a fish how to swim; a man is supposed to teach his son how to be a productive member of society, but I was teaching him how to go to Walmart and not get caught because that’s what I learned as a little boy. The vicious cycle.”
A cycle of self-described insanity that continued into adulthood. One time he was in a trap house on Versailles Road in Lexington when his phone rang. He was getting high and only answered his phone for one reason: It might be his drug dealer. But it was his wife, hysterical and distraught, calling to tell him their house had just burned down. He told her he was busy and would have to call her back.
“I called her back 3 days later,” he said, “and only because I’d been locked up. Will you please come see me? I said.”
This, he explained, is the subconscious selfishness of addiction. When you’re using, all that matters is the drugs.
As shameful as these events are—and Andrew is the first to admit they are downright, horrifyingly, rock-bottom shameful—it is his fierce kindness, his honesty, and openness about his personal experience, that help him help others. “I am you, and you are me,” he tells them.
After Chief Taylor was sworn-in in January 2019, Lt. Cornish introduced him to Andrew, and in the last three years, Taylor has witnessed Andrew doing incredible, lifesaving work with his officers, work that not only helps the addict but their families and the broader community.
“If we can change one person’s life for the better and have them become a productive citizen, and get off dope, that’s huge,” Taylor said. “When you’re an addict, you’re not just chasing the dope, you’re chasing the money to get the dope. It’s an everyday, vicious circle, and somewhere along the line there is a criminal element involved, so there is another victim in addition to the addict themselves.”
All of this takes time, and time is money. But when I asked if it would be easier, faster, cheaper to process the person they’ve arrested and take them to jail, Taylor said absolutely not.
“Yes, it is a whole lot faster for us to process them, but it costs Anderson County,” he said. “If you look at the big picture, it is costing someone in the long run. So even though we may spend extra time working with Andrew to try and get them into a rehab facility, someone is paying, and I would rather them stay with us. I would rather try to get them the help they need.”
For his part, Andrew is continually amazed by the generosity and commitment of Chief Taylor, Lt. Cornish, and all of the officers he works with in the Lawrenceburg Police Department.
“A lot of this stuff, the police don’t have to do. This is above and beyond. They have authority, they’re in the uniform, right, they have power, but they’re just talking to the person they’ve brought in with genuine love and concern,” he said.
“They’re treating the person like a human being when they don’t feel like a human being. This is huge for someone trapped in their homemade hell. A lot of us grew up with ‘Oh the police, don’t talk to the police’ but these guys are hands-on, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Andrew has a 501(3)c corporation called Heart Ministries for The Blameless Children, and he serves as Director of Community Outreach for Vital Behavioral Health. He hosts regular, live Facebook events where he talks about addiction and recovery and posts almost-daily affirmations like, “When I look in the mirror, I am looking at the problem, but I must remember I am also looking at the solution,” and “You want to know a real high? When your loved ones’ eyes light up when they see you. Because it doesn’t hurt to love you anymore.”
When I asked how many lives he has saved, how many people he has gotten into rehab, he does not answer. All that matters is the next call, the next person he can help.
On our way out, we stopped by the Chief’s office to wish him a happy Thanksgiving and let him know we’re leaving. Lt. Cornish heard us and came in to give Andrew a hug.
In the parking lot, the sun was still shining and it was still cold, but the wind had let up. I hugged Andrew goodbye.
Andrew is both an optimist and a realist. He recognizes he cannot save everyone, even his own daughter. Because of his addiction, Andrew was an absent father. His daughter was raised by her maternal grandparents. But he remembers the day they brought her to a meeting, how hopeful he was, how proud to have his daughter there because it meant she had beaten her demons so much sooner than he had.
Andrew got his daughter into treatment. She refused to stay. She died of a heroin and fentanyl overdose. She was 27 years old.
More than 100,000 Americans died of an overdose last year. His work continues.
Teri Carter writes about rural Kentucky politics. You can find her work at the Lexington Herald-Leader, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. She has a BA in English from the University of Minnesota and an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from San Jose State University. She teaches at The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, Kentucky, and is working on a book about stepfamilies.