Grayling family shares tragic story of loss on billboard in hopes of addressing substance abuse
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
On a football field playing as a junior for Grayling High School’s football team, the lives of Tim Hatley and his family would change forever.
The son of Jim and Karen Hatley, Tim sprained his ankle during a football game. His doctor prescribed him Norco, a narcotic containing acetaminophen and hydrocodone, which is used to treat moderate to severe pain.
Tim would continue to have issues with the nagging injury.
“If he would roll it or something, the doctor would give him a prescription for pain,” Karen said.
Tim had anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which runs in his family, but was not medicated for the disorders.
“He struggled in school,” Karen said. “I had to stay on top of him. He got bored easily.”
Tim had a passion for working on motor vehicles.
“He liked to work on cars, and he was always doing something with his hands,” Karen said.
Tim graduated from Grayling High School in 2007. He would build mud trucks as a hobby.
“He went through mud puddles instead of going to parties,” Karen said.
Tim continued working on cars, mostly getting them back on the road for friends. He gained certification to be a mechanic, but never had a job in the field.
“He could focus when he was working on cars, but he never had any opportunities that came his way,” Karen said.
Tim held a number of jobs over the years, but would end up losing them.
Karen helped Tim withdraw from taking the pills, and tried to get him into treatment. Eligibility restrictions, however, required him to have no insurance or to be on Medicaid.
Karen, who is an operations manager for children and family services for Northern Lakes Community Health, noticed Tim was caught in the web of the substance abuse when he moved out of the family home at the age of 19.
“He started stealing them and buying them off the street,” she said. “He did that for almost nine years. He struggled with that battle.”
Over the last year of his life, Tim combined non-prescription pain medications and opioids with heroin and methamphetamines when doctors started tightening down how many scripts they would write and under certain conditions.
“It was cheaper and easy to get,” Karen said.
After going on an eight-day binge on methamphetamines, a highly addictive stimulant, Tim suffered a psychotic breakdown because he could not sleep while on the drugs.
Tim took his own life on Dec. 30, 2017. He was 27.
“That wasn’t my son that killed himself,” Karen said. “That was the drugs.”
While there are many unanswered questions, Tim’s family understands that he could not carry on with life the way it was.
“My son is a proud kid, and I don’t think he wanted to live that way,” Karen said. “He didn’t know if it would ever change.”
After his death, Karen and her family decided that they could no longer sit on the sidelines when it came to addressing substance abuse in northern Michigan. She joined the Crawford Partnership for Substance Abuse Prevention, a coalition aimed to advance substance abuse prevention efforts in Crawford County. The organization is dedicated to increasing community perception, awareness, and education of substance abuse and misuse.
Karen brought up the possibility of using Tim’s story to try to make a positive change in the community on a billboard. But members of the coalition wanted to make sure her family was involved in that decision before moving forward.
His father and sister, Nickole Russo, urged the coalition to go forward with the initiative.
“My husband and my daughter agreed that if it helped one person and got the message to one person, it would be worth it,” Karen said.
As the family marked the one-year anniversary of Tim’s death this past weekend, Karen said Nickole has the most difficult time accepting he is gone.
“I think out of everyone, she struggles the hardest,” Karen said. “They were very close.”
The billboard, which is located on Old U.S. 27 just south of the Grayling High School, features a picture of Tim in his football uniform and his gear. On the other side of the billboard, there is a diamond plate steel tool box.
“He loved to work with diamond plate,” Karen said. “His ashes are in that box.”
So far, the billboard has resulted in a lot of positive feedback. Tim’s story has been shared with viewers through television news stations which cover the region.
“It’s making a statement,” Karen said. “We have a real problem in this community with drugs.”
People that know Jim Hatley show up at his workplace after seeing the billboard. The family has also been commended for their strength and courage to tell share their tragic story.
“It’s not about being strong,” Karen said. “It’s about helping someone.”
Karen said she believes that poverty in the region and the desperation of young people trying stay in the area are factors that fuel substance abuse.
Dealers from southeast Michigan and southwest Michigan also bring illicit drugs up I-75, getting youth hooked and stomping out the likelihood for a brighter future.
“The farther you go the north worse it gets,” Karen said. “Dealers, they figure out a way to get things up from Benton Harbor and Detroit, and it just works its way up here.”
Anyone who needs help with recovery is encouraged to call 1-800-834-3393.