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One Officer's Fall: A Badge Was No Protection From Addiction

Like thousands of Americans, Mike Haugen got hooked on painkillers after a trip to the doctor. Unlike many, however, he was a police officer sworn to uphold the law.

FOREST CITY, Iowa — On the day he fell from grace, Mike Haugen was a newly minted sergeant in the Iowa State Patrol and two angels were arguing in his head over whether he should pocket the painkillers he'd just removed from an evidence bag.

"The good angel said, 'This is wrong, Mike,'" the 33-year-old recalled. "The other one said: 'It's just one time. The doctor will prescribe you more tomorrow.'"

It was 2015 and Haugen was between prescriptions while in the grips of an opioid habit that had him popping almost nine pills a day just to feel "normal," as he put it.

Too afraid and ashamed to ask anyone in the department for help, Haugen was trying to cut back on the pills — not realizing that by doing so he was setting himself up for a fall that would upend his life and make him a pariah in his profession.

Later, when Haugen was finally getting the help he needed, he was asked by doctors as part of his therapy to give a name to the urge that drove him to take 7,055 pills over a 27-month period — almost all of them legally prescribed.

Mike Haugen in his parents' home in Forest City, Iowa.Rebecca Davis / NBC News

"I chose Slick because he was a smooth talker," he said. "That day in the evidence storage room, Slick won the fight."

When Haugen returned from therapy, he was fired — although he was later allowed to officially resign and keep some of his pension.

“My record before this was top of the line,” Haugen said. “There was not a bad yearly review. I had a health issue, and that took me down a dark rabbit hole.”

Police at risk

Like millions of Americans caught up in an opioid epidemic that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says has killed more than 183,000 people since 1999, Haugen got hooked on prescription painkillers after a trip to his doctor. And experts say an untold number of those addicts are police officers like him who swore to uphold the law.

“Police officers are more vulnerable to this because they get hurt more than civilians,” said Sean Riley, founder of Safe Call Now, a crisis service for cops and other public service employees in Washington state.

“The doctors think, ‘Who am I going to trust more than a police officer' and don’t hesitate to prescribe them opiates or refill their prescriptions,” Riley said. “We’ve created this perfect storm nobody has really addressed.”

Related: Death Swept Through This City in a Yellow Pill

And what Haugen did happens a lot more than people realize — or police brass admit.

“When you’re addicted, you are going to do things you would never do just so you can feel normal,” Riley said. “Opportunity is just sitting there in the evidence room.”

In Haugen’s case, it was a recurrence of ulcerative colitis — an inflammation of the colon and rectum that resulted in almost constant diarrhea and excruciating abdominal pain — that sent him to the doctor in 2013.

He had come down with an infection called clostridium difficile, which added to his agony. The antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs weren't able to ease his suffering.

Desperate, Haugen went to a clinic in his hometown, Forest City. The doctor, Haugen said, prescribed hydrocodone — one of the most powerful pain medications available.

"It worked great at first," he said.

"I knew it was just a matter of time before somebody found out."

But soon he began needing more and would grow anxious if too much time passed between pills.

"I would get depressed too and I couldn't understand why," he said.

So he went back to the clinic, over and over and over again, amassing a massive record of prescriptions from Dec. 16, 2013, to March 18, 2016.

"The conversation would go like, 'This isn't working for me,'" he said. "The doctor would say: 'Let's try this. Let's try that'. There was one month I was prescribed oxycodone, tramadol and hydrocodone."

Not once, Haugen said, did doctors raise any concern about him getting hooked.

"I never brought it up," he said. "The whole time there was that voice in the back of my head saying, 'I need these pills to survive.'"

Because to not take the pills, Haugen said, meant pure agony.

Related: Born Addicted: Number of Opioid-Addicted Babies Is Soaring

"Horrible doesn't begin to describe it," he said. "It was the flu times ten. The nausea, the body pain — you just want to die."

Through it all, Haugen was able to keep his secret from his co-workers, even earning a promotion to sergeant in 2015. His illness became his camouflage.

"Everybody thought, 'Oh, he's got to go to the bathroom a lot,' which is what happens with ulcerative colitis," he said.

Haugen said he also kept his addiction secret from his wife, Amanda, and their two young children.

"I didn't let any of the pill bottles show up in the medicine cabinet," he said. "She suspected a couple times, but she was used to seeing me sick. I couldn't tell her what was really going on. I was afraid of losing her and the kids."

He even fooled the doctors in December 2015 when he underwent the first of three operations.

“They didn’t know,” he said. “But I knew it was just a matter of time before somebody found out.”

'I got it into my head, I wanted to be a trooper'

Forest City is a rural town of 4,000 surrounded by miles and miles of corn fields and prairie. It's 15 miles west of Interstate 35 and halfway between Minneapolis and Des Moines.

The tiny but pretty downtown is dominated by the Winnebago County Courthouse, which was completed in 1896 for the then-princely sum of $25,000.

Outside stands a Civil War statue that nobody is clamoring to remove — it's of a rifle-toting Union soldier dressed in uniform and painted a bright blue.

Mike Haugen is sworn in as an Iowa State Patrolman in 2006.State of Iowa

On a recent day, the Ay Jalisco Family Mexican Restaurant was doing a brisk lunchtime business and the Forest Cinema across the street was playing the horror movie "It." Next door, shoppers browsed at the Unique Boutique and Quilted Forest. Nearby, a new $10 million fine arts center was under construction.

Forest City is the headquarters of Winnebago Industries, maker of the famed motor homes that can be found on highways across America. It's also the biggest employer in this prosperous town.

Haugen’s family has lived for generations in this corner of northeast Iowa, and his parents run a successful construction company in Forest City. But for as long as he can remember, all he ever wanted was to be a state trooper.

Related: App Shows Opioid Overdoses Instantaneously

“I remember being in the car and seeing the troopers in their cars on the interstate,” he said. “I got it into my head I wanted to be a trooper so I could drive to Des Moines and back. I don’t know why.”

In high school, Haugen would hang out at the Forest City police station and sometimes ride along with the beat cops patrolling his hometown.

At 15, Haugen said he got a taste of undercover work when police did a sting on stores that were selling tobacco to minors.

"Honestly, I loved helping people. I love the team work, the brotherhood."

“They sent me in to buy cigarettes,” he said. “The first time I did it, I was nervous and I almost felt bad for the store owners.”

By 2006, Haugen was a state trooper and patrolling a wide swath of the northeast corner of Iowa, including his hometown. And he loved it.

“I loved that no day was the same,” he said. “There was the excitement of the unknown and the investigation part of it. I used to be pretty deep into drug interdiction until I started being tasked with other duties. One year, I had 113 narcotics arrests and seized around 90 grand in cash in a rural part of the state.”

Being a state trooper quickly became a core part of his identity.

“Honestly, I loved helping people,” he said. “I loved the team work, the brotherhood.”

But after just a year on the job, Haugen got an unwanted partner that shadowed him everywhere — ulcerative colitis.

Related: Addicts Using Their Pets to Get Their Fix

“It was a constant head game and occasionally I had to go home and change, subsequently having to clean the car as well,” he said.

Haugen said he sought treatment at the Mayo Clinic and “got it under remission" for five to six years.

When symptoms returned, Haugen said he was prescribed prednisone to deal with the inflammation.

“That went on for six, seven months and I was getting no results,” he said. “So I went to the local clinic, where they found an infection, and I started getting prescribed opiates.”

Mike Haugen's class of Iowa State Patrolmen in 2006.State of Iowa

Haugen said he didn’t have to doctor-shop and never resorted to illegal drugs like heroin.

“Ninety-nine percent of my prescriptions came from one clinic,” he said. “I’d call in when I ran out and they’d give me a script. One of the doctors would sign off on it.”

Then in 2015, Haugen got that sergeant's promotion, sending him out of a cruiser and into the Mason City headquarters. With his illness worsening, he was grateful to be near a bathroom. But the move also put him closer to temptation: One of his new responsibilities was logging evidence into the windowless, brick-walled evidence room.

“I don’t remember how many pills I took the first time,” Haugen said. “I don’t remember what I did or how I acted in front of my co-workers. I just know that when I got home, I felt like needed the pills really bad.”

Wrestling with Slick

Months later, an investigator from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation questioned Haugen after hearing he was taking lots of prescription painkillers.

Haugen, who was placed on administrative leave, declined to say how the investigator found out. But he did say that the investigator was not aware that he had been stealing pills from the evidence room.

Within days, Haugen had checked himself into the famed Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation clinic across the border in Center City, Minnesota, and was wrestling with Slick.

“We have that voice in our head, that dictates what has lead, and keeps this disease fed,” he wrote in a one of the several dozen poems he composed as part of his therapy. “Only addicts can hear his voice, one that leaves us with no choice.”

For five weeks, Haugen dealt with his addiction while he was slowly weaned off the painkillers. He said he came to understand that he did what he did not because he was a bad person, but because he had an illness.

There may be thousands of other Mike Haugens out there who have been sucked into the opioid addiction epidemic and are still on the job, said Riley, the Safe Call Now founder who is a former detective in Kirkland, Washington, whose own career was derailed by drug and alcohol addiction.

Riley said he’s not aware of any studies that have quantified how many officers are struggling with opioid addiction, but says he hears from such officers “all the time.”

Once they’re hooked, many police officers feel trapped — even those who work for departments that give their employees access to psychiatrists and substance abuse professionals, Riley said. “You could potentially lose your job,” he said.

Also, many police chiefs still think of addiction as a moral failure.

“It’s a shame-based system,” he said. “It’s ingrained in the police academy that you are held to a higher standard. So if you’re hiding an addiction, you’re shaming yourself.”

Jeffrey Goldberg, a New York City lawyer who represents NYPD officers in battles with the department, said he has had several clients who became addicted to prescription painkillers but were reluctant to tell their supervisors.

“The fear factor is that if you admit this human frailty then you can compromise your career with the police department,” Goldberg said. “Police officers do not like to discuss this even amongst themselves, for fear of being turned in.”

When asked if troopers face punishment for disclosing addictions, Alex Dinkla, an Iowa State Patrol spokesman said in a statement, “The specific response will depend on the facts in an individual case.”

“There are legal and policy distinctions between addiction and criminal and other misconduct,” Dinkla said.

When asked if Haugen could ever get his job back, Dinkla said no, that Haugen had pleaded guilty to falsifying a public record and third-degree theft.

“These crimes are disqualifers for law enforcement officers," the spokesman said, citing the state’s administrative code.

Road to recovery

Haugen could have gotten up to two years in prison but was given a suspended sentence and ordered to pay a fine. He did not contest his firing.

In his resignation letter, Haugen wrote that his addiction had "negatively impacted by family, friends, co-workers and others and I’m taking responsibility for my actions."

Then he began rebuilding his life.

He went to work for his parents, excavating septic tanks and doing drilling for utility companies. He said that even though they were "devastated by this," they never wavered in their support for him.

And while Forest City is a small town where “everybody knows everybody’s business,” Haugen said he never considered leaving or felt shunned.

“As I walk around town, I’m sure there are some people who say, ‘That’s Mike, he did this,'” he said. “But I’ve also been approached by people who have questions and who have told me, ‘My mom went through this, my dad went through it.’”

A letter presented to Mike Haugen from a citizen thanking him for his assistance while he working as an Iowa State Patrolman.Mike Haugen

With a chuckle, Haugen recalled being stopped by a guy he once arrested “who told me I got screwed.”

While he’s still friends with some people “from the job,” he has not heard from his old boss since he was put on leave, and some other co-workers he once considered friends stopped returning his calls. He admits that hurts. A lot.

But he does not blame them. “It’s tough to know that I let them down,” he said.

That kind of talk makes Amanda, 33, angry.

“We need to start seeing this as a disease,” she said. “If you had diabetes you would not hold it against him.”

Six months ago, Haugen joined the Forest City Volunteer Fire Department and found the camaraderie and some of the purpose that he lost when he resigned as a trooper.

“To me it’s important as a community to stand behind him," the fire chief, Mark Johnson, said. "We believe he deserves a second chance.”

Driving through Forest City, Haugen pointed to the spot where he made his first arrest and talked about the days and nights he spent patrolling his beat, and about how much he misses being a state trooper.

“Quite often I dream of getting that second opportunity,” he said. “And every day it’s just further away.”

Haugen, who now takes a narcotic called Suboxone to keep the cravings at bay, said he’s living proof that anybody can get addicted to opiates.

“When you have an urge to use, it’s almost like you’re gasping for air,” he said. “I didn’t really understand that when I was arresting people for drugs. … I know when I say something like that there’s cops out there shaking their heads like I’m a fool. “

Haugen said he lives with the fear of relapsing but says what happened made his marriage stronger and made him appreciate his family — and the friends who stuck by him — all the more. He said that even after therapy, he is still working on forgiving himself.

“I still do feel shame,” he said. “What happened was not how I was brought up. I’ll be ashamed for the rest of my life.”