When I opened up my social media yesterday, I received a flood of notifications. Having worked in a field related to addiction for nearly two decades. I knew it was one of two things: A friend had died, or a story related to overdose had hit the news. It turned out to be both.
In the 20 years since I last used heroin, my life has been dedicated to the prevention of accidental overdose deaths, through the distribution of the opioid overdose antidote naloxone. It is an easily administered medication that can very quickly reverse an opioid overdose in an emergency situation. According to reports, Demi Lovato received Narcan, a brand name for naloxone, before being taken to a hospital Tuesday morning after an apparent drug overdose. She survived. A friend of mine was alone when he overdosed and died.
I had read about Lovato ― her struggles with mental health issues, with body image and with relapse. These issues resonated with me because they are mine too. Lovato, who has lived her life in the spotlight since childhood, was seen as a good girl, the type who could never overdose. Yet I was also seen as that person. I was an honor student and a quiet kid, and I also am a survivor of an accidental heroin overdose.
I was nearly 18 years old when I began experimenting with drugs. My focus before that had been on school, the only thing that made me feel valuable. I sometimes joke that my first drug of choice was books. I spent hours and hours reading to help escape the crippling depression that has been a main part of my life since I was diagnosed at 12 years old.
At the time, help for children with depression was very limited. A few sessions with a school psychologist, and I was left to my own devices. But I had discovered another coping mechanism by this time: cycles of overeating. I would stuff my feelings with food. That led to my being 50 pounds overweight by the time I got to high school. During my teen years, I added rounds of starvation diets and cutting myself. By the time I started college, through the process of extreme dieting, I was closer to average weight, but I had developed a healthy appetite for self-destruction.
At first, the drugs and alcohol seemed to provide a solution to my problems. They offered relief from the noise in my head. My drugs of choice became opioids. I felt almost normal on them. These pills were everywhere ― easily obtainable through the magic of medicine cabinets. One friend or another had pills left over from surgery or getting teeth pulled or bottles left around by their parents. I was suddenly able to cope.
Binges escalated into daily use of one drug or another. As my old friends faded, my using buddies became my new friends. I was encouraged to try IV drug use because they said my current method was wasting it. I was getting hooked.
“I have been mailing naloxone to individuals I have met through social media for over five years. This tiny program has saved 329 lives.”
After a few months, I experienced my first overdose on heroin. I was 21 years old. There was no take-home Narcan available then to combat overdose, and no one called paramedics. My companion was too afraid to call 911 because there was a very real chance we would both go to jail. (Arrest after being revived from an overdose is still common in many parts of the United States where good Samaritan laws do not exist. Such laws allow people experiencing or witnessing an overdose to seek medical assistance without fear of drug-related arrest or prosecution.)
I awoke from a strange dream to question why he was crying and my face hurt from being slapped. I had no recollection of what had just occurred. I would love to say that this was the beginning of my recovery. It was not.
In my second overdose, emergency personnel revived me with Narcan after I passed out in my hotel room. Once again, I was disoriented when I came to, but this time I was strapped down to a gurney. I was intensely sick ― nauseated and overheated ― but alive. I was angry at myself, angry at the life I was living.
As the Narcan wore off an hour later, I slipped back into an opioid high as I was handed my hospital discharge papers and the clothing that had been cut from my body. I was turned back onto the streets, where I continued to struggle with addiction until I finally reached the doors of recovery in 1998.
While it is unfortunate that it takes the suffering of a celebrity to shine light on such a private issue, I hope this event can open a broader public conversation. In the time since I survived my overdose, I have been able to achieve a level of happiness I never knew was possible. I have a family, I work in public health, I work as an advocate, and I bring a voice and a face to people who have used drugs. I bring value to this world.
Overdose and opioids are now part of the national conservation. I would argue that conversation should be punctuated with access to Narcan.
Only 8 percent of counties in the U.S. had any access to naloxone for community members in 2014, despite the proven effectiveness of naloxone distribution programs in combating opioid deaths in a cost-effective manner. While there has been some expansion in communities since then, naloxone access for people who use drugs in most U.S. jurisdictions is still dangerously inadequate. Right now, access in large part revolves around being able to obtain and afford naloxone at pharmacies. While this is an effective solution for a subset of the population, having low- or no-cost naloxone in a community setting with low barriers to obtaining it is critical to saving lives.
I have been mailing naloxone to individuals I have met through social media for over five years. This tiny program has saved 329 lives. Imagine how much more could be done to stem the tide of overdose deaths if everyone who needed it had access.
I am grateful to be alive today. I can directly credit Narcan for my survival. I believe we are all worth saving, and I am a living example of that. My hope is that this public viewing of a private matter will humanize people who use drugs and expand understanding of the importance of Narcan.