PETERBOROUGH, N.H. – Wearing an all-black suit, Frank Huntley quietly wheeled a human-sized skeleton up to puzzled presidential candidate Andrew Yang following a recent campaign event in southern New Hampshire.
"How ya doin'?" Huntley asked of Yang, in a thick New England accent. "This is me on opiates for 15 years."
The 5-foot-10-inch skeleton, "Pill Man," as Huntley calls it, was adorned with Huntley's old pill bottles from when he was in the throes of his addiction. Now six years into his recovery, Huntley is on a mission with Pill Man.
"Anyone who wants to run for president, they're gonna end up meeting Pill Man," Huntley said with his hand resting on Pill Man's shoulder. He is poised to introduce Pill Man to every presidential candidate before the New Hampshire primaries next month, he said.
His success so far has been mixed. At a campaign event featuring Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Huntley said her staffers wouldn't allow him to take Pill Man in the venue.
"That's the big thing, trying to get him in front of people because he kind of takes attention off other people," Huntley said. "Once he comes into a room, everyone's staring at him."
Huntley, 52, said he was dependant on pills from 1998 to 2013. After losing both his mother and his sister to addiction, the Worcester, Mass., resident said he had to figure out a new way to get people's attention about addiction.
"For some powerful reason, I hoarded these [pill bottles] for 15 years. Addicts don't do that," Huntley said. "There was a much higher power that wanted me to do this."
And so Pill Man was born.
He recently launched a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, hoping to raise money to show Pill Man off to communities across the country as a grim reminder of the addiction crisis.
Overdose deaths in New Hampshire have been slowly declining since 2017, according to data released last year by the New Hampshire Drug Monitoring Initiative in addition to early 2019 projections. Addiction treatment counselor Peter Evers said that is due in part to a $58 million federal grant from the Trump administration awarded in September and Medicaid expansion and coding changes.
Still, he warned there's still a "constant procession" of overdoses coming into New Hampshire emergency rooms.
"This crisis is far from over," said Evers, CEO of Riverbend Community Mental Health in Concord, N.H. "Look at the numbers. We're still losing people at an alarming rate [...] People really want to know what these politicians want to do about this."
For Huntley, confronting presidential candidates with Pill Man isn't just to see what they say – but how they react.
"I want to see their reaction when they see Pill Man," Huntley said. "I'm showing them what I lived like, what my family lived like, and what thousands of other families have gone through."