Overdose Survivors Struggle After Their Trauma Goes Viral

By Paul Fuhr 12/26/18

Survivors of viral overdose videos recount the incidents and the aftermath of their trauma becoming a public spectacle.

overdose survivor who went viral puts hand up to block face from camera

It’s difficult, if not seemingly impossible, to rebuild your life once your drug addiction becomes public knowledge. That’s the message of an emotional feature by The Hamilton Spectator, which follows several overdose victims whose “bleakest moments now live online.” 

Kelmae Hemphill, for one, struggled for 11 years with drug addiction before her heroin overdose was uploaded to YouTube. Her addiction was “now everybody’s business, splashed across the news and social media with a new genre of American horror film: the overdose video.”

Hemphill overdosed on a New Jersey road while a stranger tried resuscitating her — all of which was filmed by her own drug dealer.

Even more unsettling than Hemphill’s video is the fact that overdose videos are becoming more common by the day. Thanks to the opioid epidemic, law enforcement agencies nationwide have equipped their officers with cameras. The result? “[R]aw, uncensored images of drug users passed out with needles in their arms and babies in the back seats of their cars,” the feature answered. “The videos rack up millions of views and unleash avalanches of outrage.” 

According to The Spectator, Hemphill’s video elicited such cold-hearted comments as “[w]hy bother saving her?” and “I would’ve let her die.” Now, Hemphill continues to struggle to emerge from the shadow of her overdose video: “When you type my name in [YouTube], that’s the first video that pops up — an overdose video,” she said. 

Mandy McGowan of Lawrence, Mass. has a similar story after the town’s police chief released a video of her collapsed in the toy aisle of a Family Dollar while her two-year-old daughter tugged at her arm. McGowan instantly became known as the “Dollar Store Junkie” after the video went viral and landed on news channels like CNN and Fox News.

“For someone already dealing with her own demons, she now has to deal with public opinion, too,” said Matt Ganem, who is the executive director of Banyan Treatment Center. “You're a spectacle. Everyone is watching.” Banyan provided McGowan with six months of free treatment.)

“I know what I did, and I can't change it,” McGowan said, lamenting that she’s since lost custody of her daughter. “I live with that guilt every single day. But it's also wrong to take video and not help.”

She’s since begun to rebuild her life through AA and NA meetings as well as counseling. “It's going to be a long road for me. You don't just get clean and your life is suddenly all put back together,” McGowan added. 

Similarly, when June Schweinhart and a friend snorted heroin and passed out with their infant children in the backseat, videos from police body cameras became public and went viral. “It looked like a whole different person," Schweinhart said. “It was a reality check ... It made me sick to my stomach. It still does.” And while Hemphill, McGowan and Schweinhart are all sober now, their overdose videos live online. In many ways, it calls into question whether it’s ever truly possible to survive addiction if your lowest point in life survives, too. 

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.