Witnessing Someone Else's Overdose

By Amy Dresner 02/26/16

Watching a kid panic as his friend ODs on the train reminded me how terrifying my drug use must have been to the people who cared about me.

Witnessing Someone Else's OD

It’s February 12th, 6:49 EST. I am on a train from New York to New Jersey. Life is good. I am rocking out to tunes on Spotify, all bundled up in my vintage fur, excited to see my boyfriend in a play, and thrilled to be taking meetings with potential book publishers. Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and for the first time in years, I have somebody to give a goofy card to. And then I hear:

“What the fuck? Dog? Dog!” A young guy yells to his friend who has suddenly overdosed on the train to Jersey. Only a minute before, the kid was sitting up, looking like he was kind of dozing off, and then suddenly, he jerked slightly a few times and just keeled over. Now he’s totally unresponsive.

A pretty Asian, with her hair in a messy ballerina’s bun, comes over and quickly and coldly deems that he has “alcohol poisoning” and he “just needs to sleep it off.”

“How do you know?” I ask, suspicious.

“I’m an EMT,” she says snottily.

Just then, the guy begins choking on his own spit. His friend is freaking out. “His lips are blue. He’s choking! Dog! DOG!”  

“Sit him up,” the EMT quips casually and goes back to playing Candy Crush or whatever the fuck she’s doing.

“We need to stop the train and get the medics,” the conductor says.

I see the big black girlfriend of the kid whisper something to the friend, and when he nods, she frantically urges, “Well, get it off him!” She quickly reaches into the hoodie pocket of the overdosed kid and pulls out a substantial bag of pot and stuffs it into her jacket.

“What did you just take off of him?” the conductor says. “You need to stand back until the police come!”

“It was just pot,” she said. “Please. I don’t want him to get into trouble,” she pleads.

“Do not touch him anymore.”

The train comes to a stop and on pile a cop and two paramedics. Then the barrage of questions: “Does he do drugs? We need to know that right now. Heroin, anything like that?”

“Well, we weren’t with him all day but when we met him on the train he said he’d drank a whole bottle of E&J…” the friend says.

“What about drugs?” the medic presses.

“Well he used to take zannies but he stopped six months ago and he said he was clean.”

“Used to is good enough for me,” the cop says.

They strap him into a chair. It takes three people to move his dead weight. He looks cold, a blue hue over his face and hands. I see a big gold pinky ring on his lifeless hand. They wrap a sheet around him.

“Start the medic for an OD,” I hear one of them say into a CB radio as they wheel him off.

People are filming with their iPhones and suddenly the black girlfriend bellows, “Do not record this! Everybody mind their own fucking business!”

Slowly the train starts up again. The commotion dies down and everybody gets on with their lives and their mindless commute to Jersey. The Asian EMT gets off at the same stop as me, New Brunswick. As the icy air hits my face, I say to her, “Holy fuck, that was really upsetting.”  

“Yep,” she lies. 

It's 25 minutes later and I still feel like I'm on the verge of a panic attack. I want to cry but I’m blocked. Fuck my publishing meetings, my boyfriend, his play, my life. I’m numb. 

I didn’t really mess with junkies when I was using. Let me correct myself. Junkies weren’t really keen to hang out with coke/meth heads like me. We were a little “energized” for their tastes. The only overdose I’d seen or had was while shooting cocaine, but that’s a very different scene. Violent convulsions or a heart attack, anyone? And when I’d had alcohol poisoning, I had just puked my brains out until I passed out. And when I woke up, I puked some more.  

When you’re sober and you see something like this, it’s almost like having mild PTSD. You start shaking, sweating, hyperventilating. And then the flashbacks to your own using start—a gruesome montage of those dark moments, the sound of the butane lighter when you put it up to a glass pipe, the pungent taste of cocaine as it drips down the back of your throat, the smell of isopropyl alcohol as you wipe down the crook of your arm to shoot up. 

The only overdose I’d seen or had was while shooting cocaine and that’s a very different scene—violent convulsions or a heart attack, anyone?

One horrifying memory comes flooding back. I’m flying back to Santa Fe after having a minor surgery in Los Angeles. I’d had my cocaine dealer meet me outside Cedars with a bunch of blow because…why not, right? The rest of the blow is in a baggie wedged into my underwear as I board the plane. Halfway through the flight, I go into the bathroom and cut some lines on the toilet seat. I snort them up and bam! Everything goes black. I wake up a few minutes later on the floor, disoriented. I have that throbbing headache and chewed up tongue that are your souvenirs of a grand mal seizure. Fuck. I go back to my seat and pretend nothing happened. I didn’t get sober after that incident and I doubt this kid will either. I just thought, “Hey no more using on planes. The altitude fucks it all up.” 

It takes me at least an hour and a half to shake the train scene off. I must look completely freaked out, sitting in the theatre lobby in Jersey, all wide-eyed and pale, because strangers keep asking me if I'm alright. Oh yeah, I used to be a really bad drug addict and I just saw a kid overdose on the train…like riding the train to Jersey isn’t traumatizing enough! Haha. Yeah I’m cool. Thank you. Enjoy the show.

Sure, I was lucky to be alive and grateful to be sober and all that shit, but something else hit me. My drug use must have been TERRIFYING to other people. When we’re using, we’re all, “I’m not hurting anybody but myself. It’s my body, blah, blah, blah.” But that just isn’t true. We are fucking terrorizing other people: loved ones and strangers alike. 

And the demeanor of the police and medics left little to be desired. They weren’t outright derogatory or condescending about this kid’s possible overdose, but they certainly lacked the urgency and concern that they might have had if the kid had suffered something that didn’t fall into the “you’re doing it to yourself” category, especially of the illegal variety.  

I’m sure it’s difficult to have compassion as an EMT when this is a daily occurrence. And it’s easy to have a dismissive attitude of the addict as “the other” until it happens to you or somebody in your inner circle. From what I’ve read, actual doctors only get a few hours of training re: addiction during their entire four years of medical school, so I can only imagine what EMTs learn. These medical professionals are not malicious, just ignorant and misinformed. 

When I told my new primary care doctor that I was “in recovery,” I braced myself for her response. I was shocked and impressed when she said, “Congratulations. That’s a huge feat and something to be celebrated. It is not easy.”  

No, it’s not easy, but it is worth it. And that train ride, a snapshot of my before and after, was a spectacular reminder.

Amy Dresner has been a columnist at The Fix since 2012. Now she's on Twitter!

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