A Bitter Pill Leads To A Better Way

Hanson Eskridge turned his cell phone off early one morning in October 2009. It had been ringing all day. He owed people money. A lot of money.

Later that evening, a car pulled into the driveway of his parents’ home unannounced. It was a drug dealer who had come to collect $300 Eskridge owed him for OxyContin.

“I had gone on a big bender, and had a lot of them fronted to me,” Eskridge said. “The end was there. I had been pawning things — my dad’s guns and anything I could get my hands on.”

His mother, Alice, called the police before stepping outside and exchanging words with the dealer, telling him her son wasn’t home and to vacate the property. After he left she came into her son’s room.

“All right, you have to go. You can’t live here,” Eskridge recalled his mother saying. “I started to cry. ‘One more chance. One more chance,’ I asked.”

One more chance meant it would be Eskridge’s third stint in rehab for opiates in the past three years. His mother granted him the request, and bought him a one-way ticket to Minnesota where he would enroll at The Retreat, a treatment facility in Wayzata.

“There are only three places people like me end up to get off of drugs,” he said. “Once I get going I can’t get off of drugs by myself — I have to go to rehab. I have to go to jail. Or I’m going to die.”

But “the end” Eskridge dreaded turned out to be the beginning of his road to recovery. It was in Minnesota that he got clean and found something he said gave him “a purpose” — roasting coffee.

The temperature inside Fairhope Roasting feels like 85 or 90 degrees. Beads of sweat gather on Eskridge’s forehead as he occasionally checks the color of the coffee beans whirling around inside the large Probat roaster. He’s working on a dark blend for Fable Brew, a local coffee shop that asked his roasting company to create it.

“I’m listening for the crack,” Eskridge explained. “The first crack lets me know the beans are getting there, and the second lets me know they are in the dark phase.”

The roaster is situated behind a large glass window inside Warehouse Bakery in Fairhope. About 50 or 60 spectators watch from outside as Eskridge pulls a lever and the dark beans shoot out of the machine into a perforated metal basket, where they are pushed around in order to cool.

Once the beans are in the tray, Eskridge gives a wave to the crowd, and asks his employee, Sierra, to empty the beans into a bucket once they reach the optimal temperature. Then he retreats to his office to perform other responsibilities that come with being the owner of his own business: answering emails, checking the delivery schedule, making phone calls and other mundane tasks.

When he reaches a stopping point, he leans back in his chair and laces his fingers together before placing them behind his head. He looks around the sparsely decorated room at pictures hanging on the walls: a few group photos of him with his fraternity brothers, one of Alabama coach Nick Saban and a detailed topographic map of the state with illustrations of waterways and terrain.

He takes a sip of water from his Styrofoam cup and then a deep breath. He is ready to begin.

The beginning of addiction (2004-2005)

It was Eskridge’s sophomore year at the University of Alabama when he first took pain pills. He was playing poker at a friend’s house in Tuscaloosa while Hurricane Ivan wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast in September 2004. The friend had a large quantity of Lortab and asked Eskridge if he wanted any, to which he replied, “Give me three.”

“Boom. Boom. Boom. Swallowed all three of them,” Eskridge said while motioning like he was tossing pills toward his mouth. “I can distinctly remember thinking, ‘This is the greatest feeling I’ve ever had. If I could get this feeling every day for the rest of my life, I’d be set.’”

The pills were 10 mg, or 10s as they are referred to in the street.

At the time, Eskridge was a Lortab novice, so he had a low tolerance. This meant he could take a small amount of pills to reach his desired high. Over time, he built up an immunity and began buying pills in quantity — legally.

At this juncture it wasn’t illegal for doctors to call in prescriptions for Schedule 2 narcotics and for the product to be mailed to a patient’s personal residence. Eskridge and his friends found websites — all of which he said were based in Florida — that had their own doctors and pharmacies. They would make an appointment online and then receive a confirmation.

“A doctor would call you. ‘Yessir, I got in a bad car wreck. My back is hurting,’” Eskridge said. Before the prescription for the ailment was called in, the patient had to pay. “You had to pay cash — COD. So, they were expensive, $200 to get 90 pills. But street value for 90 pills is $450, so everybody was doing it.”

Eskridge recalled RxCentury being a site he used frequently. He said crooked doctors saw an opportunity to get around the system and make quick cash. They were writing scripts for anyone.

At one point, Eskridge had four different prescriptions being sent to various locations around the state. His addiction to pills had progressed to the point where he would track the status of packages arriving at his Tuscaloosa locations, and find the driver ahead of the scheduled delivery time.

“I’m not kidding. We were flagging down UPS and FedEx drivers,” Eskridge said. “UPS would deliver the package to your front door, but we couldn’t wait that long. We wanted them right then.”

Throughout his sophomore year his addiction became more severe. He returned home in the summer and had his supply mailed to him. He was taking upward of 15-20 Lortab 10s per day while holding down a job in Gulf Shores. Eventually he began mixing other opiates into his diet, first OxyContin 80 mg and then methadone.

Although the OxyContin cost $80 a pill, it was less hassle and didn’t have the Tylenol ingredient, which irritated Eskridge’s stomach. He was receiving $100 a week from his parents to live on, so he supplemented the cost of his addiction by working, hustling and making small drug deals.

When he returned to Tuscaloosa in fall 2005, he knew he was in trouble.

“I figured I could just quit. Like I was going to snap my fingers and that was it. Like, snap my fingers, go to my [hunting] camp for a week, suffer and then I’ll be normal. I didn’t think about the whole mental side of it. I knew physically I was hooked.”

Exposure and introduction to rehab (2005-2006)
Eskridge loves sports. Thinking aloud, he used used Alabama’s 2005-2006 football season to pinpoint the first time his addiction was exposed and his first stint in rehab.

This was the year Alabama started 9-0 before losing to LSU in overtime, and later to Auburn before winning the Cotton Bowl. But he didn’t make it to several of those games because he couldn’t get dope. There were a lot of times he missed out on things he never would have missed normally.

The fall semester (2005) of Eskridge’s junior year was relatively quiet up until late November. No one knew he was addicted to pills, except those sharing the same struggle. After overdrawing his bank account by $500 during Thanksgiving break, he confessed to his parents, but downplayed the seriousness. His parents put money into his account, but were not sure what to do.

“They were looking all over, asking people [for suggestions],” Eskridge said. “But you have to watch who you ask. At that point they didn’t want to tell too many people because they were embarrassed.”

In early January 2006, his parents’ suspicion had grown, prompting them to show up at his house in Tuscaloosa with a drug test in hand. He failed, and his parents drove him to Bradford Health Services, an addiction treatment center in North Alabama, where he spent two weeks.

He told people he was going to rehab for weed.

This was the first time he had been off pills in a little over a year. Mentally it was tough. He knew he couldn’t go anywhere, but things got easier as time passed, and he admits to having learned a lot during his brief stay.

“The first time I went into rehab it blew my mind that people were talking the same way I felt,” Eskridge said. “They felt the same way I did. They had done some of the horrible things I had done; just horrible things you said you’d never do, like stealing from your parents.”

But Eskridge knew a relapse was imminent, though he told no one in rehab. Kicking pills wasn’t going to be an issue, but giving up drinking was out of the question.

“I just told my counselor what she wanted to hear, and she cosigned. I had a plan, but all plans went out the window.” Upon completing his 14 days, he was released on a Wednesday and drove straight from Bradford to Tuscaloosa.

He grabbed an old picture off the wall of his office and pointed to himself in the photo. It was taken at his fraternity’s largest party of the year.

“See how I’m in a suit — the only person not in a tux? That’s because I came straight from rehab and partied.” His partying consisted of drinking and cocaine, but not pills.

But no more than 24 hours later he found some pharmaceuticals. His tolerance was lower since he had been clean for two weeks, so it didn’t take much to get high.

“I told myself, ‘Oh, I can take two here and there and I’ll still get a buzz.’ So, I took two.”
His idea of moderation lasted less than a week before he was hooked again.

Eskridge told his parents he was working for UPS at the time, but he wasn’t. For the remainder of the spring semester he picked up work from a temp agency, hustled, hung around other addicts and continued to use.

His parents made him spend that summer at home, but he still made frequent trips to Tuscaloosa, and eventually returned in fall 2006 with earnest intentions of enrolling in school. But Eskridge would never attend the University of Alabama again.

Rehab round 2 (2006-2007)
“August rolls around and everyone is getting ready to start school except for Hanson,” Eskridge said in an almost apathetic tone. “I was lost. I was just going up there to get high, really.”

That fall (2006), Eskridge was arrested in Tuscaloosa. He and another addict had been lifting textbooks from a bookstore on campus and reselling them to another store. “It was an easy way to get cash. I’d steal the most expensive books I could find and then I’d go across town to another bookstore and sell it back to them. Well, they started to catch on.”

He was high at the time of his arrest, and had $1,800 worth of textbooks on him. He had been up for 24 hours, so he was delirious inside the Tuscaloosa jail. “My mom doesn’t know where I am. She probably thinks I’m dead on the side of the road,” he recalled.

He made several collect calls before getting in touch with Blake Barnes, an old childhood friend. Barnes alerted Eskridge’s parents to their son’s situation, after which they came to his aid.
Shaking his head, Eskridge said his parents’ response to his arrest came unexpectedly. He sighed before continuing.

“I get in the car [after being bailed out], and it’s not what it used to be. It’s not my dad yelling at me like when I was a kid — when I got arrested for sliding down the golf course. It was just disappointment this time. They didn’t know what to do. It was sad.”

Alice doesn’t recall specific incidents occurring during her son’s struggles. Everything is a blur, and that is probably for the best, she said. Sometimes, even though it’s hard, she can remember how she felt.

“When you’re a mother, and you see this, it’s heartbreaking,” Alice said. “I woke up feeling helpless for him. You feel helpless every day with a child you love. You know that you can’t make him do anything.”

Unable to think of anywhere else to take their son, they drove him straight to Bradford, where he spent three weeks. This time was going to be different, though. Eskridge legitimately wanted to get clean. “I knew my life was a mess. I knew it was bad.”

During his previous stay at Bradford he heard about The Retreat in Minnesota. It wasn’t a detox facility like Bradford with doctors on hand, nor did it operate like other treatment centers, Eskridge explained.

A person must be clean prior to enrolling at The Retreat. Meetings are led by alumni — those who had gone through the program and gotten sober — instead of counselors. Once a person has completed the program, they are named an alumnus and are allowed to come back any time, whether it’s to eat a meal or lead a meeting.

The cost is $4,000 for one month, which Eskridge said is a hell of a deal for a rehab program.

Eskridge and four others made the trek up to Minnesota after finishing at Bradford to attend The Retreat. Neither Eskridge nor his mother could express how much The Retreat did for him. He became lucid and alive.

When his time at The Retreat was over, he moved into a sober house close to the establishment. He had been clean for 52 days and felt great. “I was starting to get my thoughts back and was like, ‘I can do this!’”

Eskridge stayed clean for six months while living in Minnesota. He made great relationships, and was “cleaning up” his side of the street, making amends for his wrongdoings in Tuscaloosa and also tending to the emotional damage he had inflicted on loved ones and friends.

At the beginning of March 2007 he returned to his hometown of Fairhope. Still, after being home just one month, his newfound sobriety slowly began to dissolve.

All roads lead to redemption (2007-2013)
It all started with a beer.

Eskridge arrived in Alabama just in time for Auburn University’s spring break in late March. Some friends invited him to the beach, and halfway through the week he couldn’t resist the urge to have a beer. He spent the next year drinking, and floating through life.

During this time, he was still grappling with the idea of sobriety. He was living alone in a garage apartment on Mobile Bay. The isolation most certainly did not help. In March 2008, he could no longer accept the terms binding him to leading a life of recovery.

“I still could not get over the fact that I couldn’t drink, or do anything for the rest of my life. I just got a sudden urge one day, and just found some. After that, it was on.”

For six months Eskridge took only Lortabs, but eventually began taking other opiates, too. His friend Barnes — the same person who had called his parents when he was arrested — got him a job early in 2009. Before vouching for his friend, Barnes asked if he was going to regret hiring him, to which Eskridge replied, “No man, I’m fine.”

Only a few months passed before Eskridge’s boss began to notice changes in his employee. In September 2009 he was let go without warning. “He said, ‘I just can’t have you driving my car, it’s too much of a liability.’ I don’t know how he knew, but he did.”

Without an income, Eskridge moved out of his apartment, neglecting to tell his landlord, and back in with his parents. His stay there was brief. After the drug dealer came to his parent’s residence that October, they told him he could no longer stay, but offered him one last opportunity to get clean by agreeing to send him to The Retreat again.

“At this point I knew this was it,” he said. “I was 25-ish, and I knew this was probably my last chance.”

This time Eskridge was excited to make a life for himself up north, away from Tuscaloosa and Fairhope. Upon arriving in Minnesota, Eskridge detoxed for four days by himself, without any medical attention, He detoxed at a facility in Minnesota before spending a month at The Retreat, after which he moved into a sober house. He was attending about three or four meetings a week. One night he saw his friend John, “The Pimp” Barker and asked if he could help him secure a job.

The Pimp came through, hiring his friend to work at Bull Run Coffee in Minneapolis. Looking back, Eskridge says it was fate.

He began working for Bull Run at the end of November 2009. The owner at the time was in Alcoholics Anonymous, so he understood the struggles of recovery. Early in his career Eskridge relapsed for one week, in April 2010, but continued to work without raising any flags.

“I had just lost track,” he said. “My sponsor made me call my parents, reminding me that they’re my support system. I called and they were devastated. ‘Here we go again,’ is what they’re thinking. They said, ‘Just do what you have to do. We can’t give you any more money.”

In just three years his parents had paid for 35 days at Bradford and two stays at The Retreat. To call this a financial strain would be an understatement.

Determined to persevere, Eskridge continued to work and stay clean. He continued to work for Bull Run, which was now owned by Wayne and Brent Ringate and apprenticed under Martino, a roaster who had been perfecting his craft for over a decade. Slowly, he absorbed everything coffee and developed a passion for it.

In the back of his head he always wanted to move back south and open a roastery of his own. After spending almost four years in Minnesota he made the decision to come back to Fairhope in May 2013. He was physically and mentally fit.
He was ready to pursue his dream.

Getting down to business (2014-present)
The powerful rain coming down on the roof of Warehouse Bakery muted all conversations inside, including mine with Will Carlton. Carlton sipped his coffee until the rain subsided and the conversation resumed.

“I invest in people, and in the community,” Carlton, a local businessman and entrepreneur in Fairhope, said. “I invested in Hanson.”

When Eskridge returned to Alabama he took a job working construction, but only as a means to an end. In 2014, with over three years of sobriety under his belt, Eskridge decided to hang up his hard hat and tool belt and start his own roastery: Fairhope Roasting.

He was gifted a grinder from the Ringate brothers, and his dad helped him buy a bag sealer. He had arranged for Bull Run to roast coffee to his specifications and then mail the beans down south. He began grinding and packaging the coffee in his parents’ garage and used Facebook to aggregate clientele and sell his product.

This was all on Eskridge.

“My parents didn’t have any money to invest. Plus, why would they? They had just gone through that hell. They already spent a bunch of money on me,” he said. But the coffee was selling, and Carlton had heard about Eskridge’s endeavor through the grapevine. He was intrigued.

When Carlton was meeting with his Rotaract group one morning at the Windmill Market, Eskridge approached the table, explained his product, handed each member in attendance a card and told them to call if they wanted any coffee. On his way home from the market Eskridge received a call. It was Carlton asking if he’d like to set up a time to meet the following day.

“I showed up for the meeting, and Kelly [his assistant] was writing notes,” Eskridge said with a big grin on his face. “I was like, ‘Dude this is crazy. He’s serious. He wants to invest in me.’”

Carlton had heard a little about Eskridge’s past — he is friends with the Eskridge family — but knew he had been clean for a while. What sold him on Eskridge was his passion and knowledge of coffee. After their initial meeting, Carlton and Eskridge started talking regularly, hashing out everything needed to make this work on a large-scale operation.

They brought Mackenzie Chandler on board shortly after devising a plan. Chandler, now co-owner, created Fairhope Roasting’s label when Eskridge was still operating out of his parents’ garage. She is the brains behind the company’s marketing and social media presence.

On Jan. 5, 2015, Eskridge used the Probat roaster he and Carlton had bought from Wisconsin to roast the first batch of Fairhope Roasting coffee. Today its various blends are carried by more than 40 stores between Alabama and Florida, and shipped to other states, including Ohio, Colorado, North Carolina, New York and Oregon and the District of Columbia.

Carlton has since stepped away from the day-to-day operations for the most part. He allows Chandler and Eskridge to wade through the challenges of being new business owners. In the beginning there were times when Carlton would wonder if he was pushing Eskridge too hard, but those concerns slowly faded when he saw the coffee guru taking pride in running his own business, and the quality of the product he produced.

“He hasn’t let it go to his head,” Carlton said. “He still delivers coffee to some of his first clients. I don’t even think about his past anymore.”

This is where I leave you
It’s late in the afternoon when Eskridge finishes talking. He looks at his phone, first checking his ESPN updates and then the time. He’ll be at work late tonight working on a big order. There are lots of beans to roast.

He locks his office door, pulls out a pack of Marlboro Reds and sparks up a smoke.

“I’m not one who counts days. I can’t do that,” Eskridge said when referring to the length of time he’s been sober — his clean date is May 13, 2010. “If I look too far into the future, I’ll trick my brain into just thinking, ‘How can I do this for the rest of my life?’”

Eskridge meets with a men’s addiction group every Friday morning. He acknowledges he could wake up any day and get “that urge,” and if he doesn’t call someone and talk about it, he’ll get high. But he has a strong group of friends in the area who are always available.

“I can just call them up and they’ll zoom over to my house and just start talking about other things. And then it [the urge] will be over with.”

He has come so far. Never in his wildest dreams did he think he would start a roastery. The challenges and responsibilities that come along with owning his own business drive him, and remind him of all he has accomplished.

“[Life] picks up right where it left off. You know, [life] never left my body. That just proves to me how many chemicals were in my head. And just how strong and powerful this drug was.

“All I need to think about is today. Just staying sober today, staying sober tomorrow. And, just everyday. And one day turns into another, and before you know it you’re 50.”

Earlier, Eskridge said there are only three places people like him end up: rehab, jail or dead. For those who relate to his struggle, or have struggles of their own, look at the man on the cover. Now, add successful human being to that list.

The original title of this story, as published in Lagniappe: Serious Redemption: More than just a morning pick-me-up, coffee saved pill addict’s life. It originally appeared in the March 9, 2016, print edition.