Published May 6, 2015 by the Asbury Park Press
William Akers longs to hold his son one last time.
He pulls his son’s soft red t-shirt close to his face and inhales deeply. The scent brings a torrent of memories. The father remembers the great times at Disney World. Bathing his son as he splashed as a baby.
And struggling to save his son from heroin.
Now the empty shirt is a reminder of his son’s life.
“So that’s what I got left,” the mayor lamented.
Akers didn’t want to talk about what happened. He believed his family’s love could break his son’s heroin addiction.
He told the story of a battle he never thought he’d lose in the hope it will help another family bury the needle, instead of their loved one.
His son started using when he was 15 years old. He was dead at 29.
“I don’t know how many I can reach,” Akers said. “I don’t know how many I can help.”
Akers’ son, William, was better known as “Bobber.” As a baby, he bobbed his head back and forth. The Akers named their restaurant Bobber’s.
His son worked there. Akers explained his son had a criminal record — buying heroin and possessing large quantities of it. His opportunities were limited and he was busing tables at 28 years old while his peers surpassed him. He knew he had hurt himself.
His son was 15 when he first used heroin, but Akers doesn’t know exactly how it all started.
“I honestly don’t — I know that sounds sad — but I don’t know. I mean, I know the age, and I know when we were dealing with him. But how it occurred, I don’t know. And it seems like a hundred years ago.”
His son’s laugh filled a room — he betrayed his own mischief by giggling before a prank even started.
His parents bought his pants at JC Penney’s husky department. He loved steak tips at Famous Dave’s and Cold Stone ice cream. He loved “Seinfeld,” horror movies, and watching “The Walking Dead” with his mom.
He loved photography. He played a little baseball and did a little boxing.
“He was a great starter, but he didn’t finish much,” Akers said.
Bobber was bipolar and had low self-esteem. He struggled in school. His dad told him he could just get a GED. But he stuck it out, earned his diploma and made his father proud.
Police arrested and charged the man they accuse of contributing to Bobber’s overdose — Jashon Brinson, 28, of Lakewood, was cuffed on March 6. He is being held on $250,000 bail in the Ocean County Jail on charges of manslaughter, drug possession and possession of drugs with the intent to distribute.
Akers, mayor since 2012 of this popular seaside resort town, said he is pleased with Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato’s efforts to go after dealers, but the arrest brings him no satisfaction.
Hundreds of people share the Akers’ pain. In 2014, about 100 people died of heroin overdoses in Ocean County, according to Coronato. So far in 2015, 19 people died after overdosing.
Coronato came into office in March 2013, aiming to tackle the county’s heroin problem.
“Clearly what we’ve done in the last 40 years hasn’t helped us solve the problem,” he said. Coronato increased use of a decades old law that allows the state to prosecute dealers for homicide when the person they sold drugs to dies of an overdose.
“I am shocked at the amount of volume, the amount of people that are caught up into this health concern,” he said. And it’s important for us, I think for law enforcement, to assist in breaking the cycle of addiction.”
“This is happening to society as a whole,” Akers said. “There’s so many wonderful people out there, that are going through the same thing we are.”
Bobber would go “doctor shopping” for prescriptions, in which a person obtains multiple narcotic pain prescriptions. Xanax was his favorite. Akers did his best to cut the supply line, but his son always seemed to find another source.
He would plead with the latest pharmacy, “Do not refill that prescription. My son’s a drug addict. He’s eating these things like Pez.”
And the pharmacy would call the doctor and cancel the prescription. “But this was a thing that I would have to do every day,” Akers said.
Prescription pill abusers may turn to heroin because, in New Jersey, it can be cheaper and easier to access.
Dr. Ramon Solhkhah, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Jersey Shore University Medical Center, explained Monmouth and Ocean are at a crossroads between major East Coast ports — an ideal entry point for high potency heroin.
Solhkhah said half the people who try heroin become addicted.
“The high is the greatest thing you can think of,” Solhkhah said.
He compared it to the pleasure of food or sex, multiplied by 10 or 100 times. That thrill is part of the reason it’s hard to convince an addict that normal leisure, like going to a movie with friends, is as satisfying as shooting up.
While the high is incredible, the withdrawals are crippling. Addicts suffer from agitation, irritability, nausea and joint and muscle ache.
“It’s basically like the worst flu ever,” Solhkah said.
That feeling is so unpleasant that people will dodge their basic responsibilities to use more heroin. Solkhah has seen people brought back from the brink of death who immediately want to use again. He’s been shocked to see kids who start using as young as 13 or 14 and become hardcore addicts by their late teens.
The Akers tried Methadone, a well-known drug treatment for heroin addiction. They also tried a newer drug treatment, Suboxone. They went to clinics in and around New Jersey.
“Every time we went, I would come out of the office going: Bob, this one, seems like the one,” Akers recounted.
“Dad, you say it every time,” his son would say.
“Yeah, but I’ve just got a feeling,” the mayor hoped.
There were good times, when they kept the drugs at bay. There were periods after he came out of a clinic, or his family could reach him, that he was clear. He had nice thoughts and good conversations with his father.
Their best times were at Disney World in Orlando.
“I guess when you have nothing but good things around you, it’s a little easier to be good,” Akers explained.
But Bobber’s addiction was always in the back of his mind.
“You never could fully relax, you always were waiting for the next thing that would come up.”
Akers recalled Bobber talked with his mother:
“Mom, you just don’t understand, you don’t know what’s inside my head. You would never want to know what’s inside my head, the thoughts, the racing, the never being able to relax.”
He wanted to get better for his parents, but he couldn’t say no to the drugs. “We always thought that his love for us would conquer,” Akers said.
Akers was upset with his son hours before he died.
He came home after a borough council meeting to his wife and daughter watching television. Bobber came into the room. His mom asked if he wanted to watch “The Walking Dead.”
Bobber looked at his dad.
“You know, I think I’ll go to my room,” Akers recalls him saying. “Dad’s mad at me, he doesn’t want to make small talk with me.”
Akers tried to explain that it was fine to join them for the show, but Bobber went to his room.
He never came out.
At 3:30 a.m. Akers’ wife noticed the light on in Bobber’s room. She went to check on him. She screamed.
Akers came in and did what he could.
Bobber died on Oct. 16.
“You don’t know what to do. You don’t know the right answer. And you go over it a thousand times in your head — from when he was a baby and you held him and you bathed him. And then you think about the decisions that you made and you question every one of them. And you think you made the best decisions, but you don’t know. I’m a bottom-line guy. The bottom line is: my son died. And I was involved in a lot of the decisions… I was in charge of fixing him and I didn’t fix him… I just don’t know if I can come to terms with that,” he explained. “Because my son’s not here. Because of something I didn’t think about or something I didn’t try or something we didn’t do.”
Akers said parents are supposed to give their children a better life than they had — and not outlive their children.
In the wake of his son’s death, Akers restlessness echoes his son’s battle to stay focused on the good things in life.
“You’re zapped of energy, you have no drive, your mind continually races, you never are completely relaxed.”
Akers spoke out in January, sharing some of his story at the Ocean County offices of the Mental Health Association in New Jersey. He wasn’t expecting to, but he was asked.
After media coverage of his comments, people he’d never met called to thank him.
There’s a proposed law that would track patients between doctors. Akers would like to see a loophole closed that would allow pharmacies to opt out for financial hardship.
He doesn’t want to see people struggling with heroin to end up in the position he’s in. He doesn’t want them to live like he is.
Here’s what Akers said he has left:
A wonderful wife and daughter. People who do care about him. And a 16-second phone message he plays almost daily.
On Oct. 10 at 4:45 p.m. his son called, six days before he died. At the end of the message, Bobber tells his father that he loves him.
Akers can hear his son.
But he can never tell Bobber he loves him too.