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Overdose Awareness Day! (August 31)

Updated: Sep 4, 2019

Happy Overdose Awareness Day! That’s right, I’m excited about it! Because I’m passionate about normalizing this conversation! Here’s a cute kitty to take the edge off for you!

I overdosed once when I was 16 years old. On Tylenol. That’s what I had on hand on that day when I locked myself in my room and never wanted to come out again. I had stayed home from school with a wicked headache, and my mother was being horrible. I felt like I could not physically take any more pain or any more of her. It wasn’t planned, but I had wanted to die for years at that point and had attempted before.

I wanted to post a picture of me at that age to show how normal and happy-looking teenagers might have more going on than it seems, but I’m in New Zealand and don’t have any childhood pictures over here yet. I found this one which was close to the anniversary this year, so 13 years after the event. This may have been the first year I didn’t think about it on the anniversary.

13 years of life that would have simply not existed, including raising and loving that beautiful kitty.

By 16 over the counter pain meds were a daily and intimate thing for me, because I had frequent and intense headaches since I was 12. I carried them everywhere, and I felt calmed by the sound of their rattle. By then I’d also developed a fondness for prescription painkillers, some of which came from doctors, some were my mom’s that she shared with me.

I panicked after I felt the effect starting, and in desperation I asked my mom to drive me to the hospital. She took convincing. I had to call my dad and he had to guilt her into taking me. I don’t know what was happening for her in that moment, maybe she was frozen, in denial, but she certainly wasn’t kind, and no maternal instinct kicked in to save me. That is perhaps another post for another time, but I mention it because—I think it’s safe to say—a lot of people don’t respond very effectively or helpfully to suicide, and that is why we need to talk about it more!

In 2013 I was teaching fourth grade math and one of my students, out of intense frustration one day, said he wanted to kill himself. I took it seriously because he was a kid who had shown a deep capacity for emotion and empathy, was often angry and self-hating, and refused to say a word about what was going on at home. I told my supervisor and his classroom teacher, we called in his mom.

He sat there and told us not to worry, he had been kidding. He hadn’t meant to say it.

The other adults were relieved and SO eager to stop talking about it. I was amazed. I was amazed they seemed to have no idea that kids totally know what adults WANT to hear, and they totally know when adults don’t actually want to deal with their problems.

But I only knew that because I had been that kid.

After my overdose, I told my parents, the doctors and nurses, and the social worker who was assigned to me that it was an accident.

I told them not to worry. I hadn’t meant to do it.

I don’t know what my parents thought but not a SINGLE professional believed me. They didn’t say it, which was kind I think, but I saw it on their faces, and I knew they knew I knew. But they can only work with the info they get, and they did their jobs as best they could with what I gave them. The nurses made me drink charcoal (neutralizes the drugs) and the social worker gave me the name of a counselor.

At the hospital my dad sat mortified, my mother chatted excitedly with all the nurses about my brother and his cool life (keeping them from being able to talk to me) and I called my brother on the phone and laughed the whole thing off.

I was at school the next day, pretending it didn’t happen. My principal was told; I have no idea if other teachers knew, but I have no memory of any of them talking to me about it. So my principal, a really awesome human, was the only adult (to my recollection) in my life besides my therapist who talked to me about it. That made it real, so I couldn’t ignore it, and it made me feel like somebody actually saw my pain, which again helped me believe it was real, and something to be cared about. And he told me I had to change my life or I would just end up at suicide again, and that was the first time in my life I felt like I had any power to improve any of the horrible shit in my life.

That conversation was absolutely life-changing, and I am pretty certain he was able to have it because he had personal experience. I think I remember he mentioned his son, but I can’t say for sure. But he wasn’t freaked out, and he treated me with respect, and he believed me. He didn’t act like I was crazy or broken or a problem.

Moral of the story, we—suicidal people—are literally dying for someone to talk to us about it, but at the same time it’s the last thing we want to do. We have no idea how to talk about it. We feel shame for experiencing something that is considered at best uncomfortable and at worst a sin. We don’t want to bother anyone, and we find it actually worse when people really freak out.

So if you want to help, educate and desensitize yourself, accept that YES it happens and yes someone you love might be experiencing it, and know that being able to speak to them calmly about it will do wonders. We have GOT to normalize talking about it.

Now, that’s more suicide. But today is about overdose in general, and so many overdoses are accidental. But there is the same problem of not talking about it enough.

My overdose was with something you can buy at a grocery store. Something in most medicine cabinets. My mom’s overdose (about six months after mine) was with her legal prescription meds. My friend’s was street-bought heroin. Whether they were all suicide attempts or not, they were all attempts at escaping pain, if only for a moment.

Which is the much greater issue. Most people suffer at home in silence. Because we’re taught to suck it up, that feelings make you weak, that crying—even frowning—is ugly.

And we’re taught to medicate blindly instead of addressing deeper issues. Headache? Pills. Sad? More pills. Tired? Coffee. Or pills! Anxious? Have a drink. Careful though if you go any further than that suddenly things are illegal. Why don’t you talk about it? Well if you do want to talk about it you need money, and time, and access.

There are so many layers of issues involved with overdose. Emotional, medical, societal, racial. Addiction, poverty, trauma, big pharma. Fancy marketing and bonuses—aka legal bribes—that influence doctors to overprescribe serious drugs. People like my mom got opioides from doctors with absurd ease; how could the nice affluent white lady who teaches English in town and volunteers with her kids’ swim team be a drug addict?

Meanwhile black men get thrown in prison—seriously fucking up their futures, families, and communities—for small bags of weed. Meanwhile girls are kidnapped, pimped, and fed heroine to literally survive, and people turn up their noses at safe injection sites, let alone the safety regulations that would come with legalization. Which could help keep the extra deadly shit like Fentanyl out of a much less dangerous batch of pure heroin. Meanwhile, economy and culture preach all day every day that alcohol (the real gateway drug and the one responsible for more deaths than opioids, more than all other drugs in fact) is awesome and sexy and normal and basically mandatory. Again, SO many layers and issues.

But here’s the kicker: overdose is 100% preventible.

Bottom line, give people a break. Support social services. Treat addicts like patients, not criminals. Actually just treat all drug users like humans. Embrace Narcan, testing kits, safe injection sites. Be cautious accepting prescriptions, and think twice before you share them with others. Make the world a safer place for people to talk about issues instead of stuffing it all down and medicating or partying it away. Most importantly do your own work and education so that if and when someone you know needs somebody to talk to, maybe you could be the one to change their life.

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