As a mother of a son who died from an accidental drug overdose, I was encouraged to see CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta's report of a real-life overdose reversal using the opioid-antidote naloxone. The report brought valuable information to people who may not have been aware of this underutilized, life -saving tool.
My only child, Jeff, died in 2008 at the age of 27 after a twelve-year struggle with substance use disorder. Our family fought hard, struggled alongside him, doing everything we possibly could to help him achieve remission. He died anyway. Naloxone could have saved him.
We now know that addiction recovery is a process, reflecting that people make healthy changes in stages, with starts and stops, ups and downs. Our family was keenly aware that Jeff was at a turning point in his recovery. On the day he died, despite being overwhelmed by all that was in front of him, he had registered for a court-ordered long-term treatment program that would address his ADD concurrently. This was the first of his nine previous treatment programs -- all entered voluntarily -- that were going to address his co-occurring condition.
This program told him he had to wait four weeks to start. He died later that day. The person with Jeff when he overdosed could have saved him had naloxone been available. Instead, Jeff, lay dying alone on the grass, in a middle-class suburban neighborhood for more than four hours.
In addition to being Jeff's mom, I'm also the Executive Director of GRASP: Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing and a founding member of Moms United to End the War on Drugs, a campaign of a New PATH. I have spoken to hundreds of moms, dads, and other loved ones who have suffered this horrible loss, and those who live every day in fear of it. "My two sons have addictive illness. My older son is in long term recovery, and is a survivor of accidental overdose. My younger son still struggles with heroin addiction. He has been in a position to save the lives of friends who have overdosed by administering naloxone," said Gretchen Burns Bergman, lead organizer of the Moms United to End the War on Drugs campaign. "My son is at risk every day, as are so many other young people. Every parent has the right and responsibility to protect their children, and therefore must have naloxone available."
Watching Dr. Gupta's report, I was reminded that there are millions of people in the United States fortunate enough to have not been touched by the consequences of addiction and are not aware of the stigma, judgment, blame and shame that surround people who use drugs and their families.
I know this because I had to eventually stop reading comments after an online overdose-related article or video because the ignorance of those to whom this issue is not personally relevant is very painful. The wall of stigma is reflected by comments like: "let the junkies die", "one less addict on the street", and "if you had been a good parent this wouldn't have happened."
What people do not realize is that this epidemic of drug overdose deaths does not discriminate. We lose at least one hundred people per day in the US to accidental drug overdoses. More people die this way than in car accidents. It does not matter if you are rich or poor, educated or not, have a loving family who raised you with respect or not. In fact, despite the stereotypical view many hold, white people are twice as likely to overdose as Blacks or Hispanics.
I believe the first step in reversing the direction of this devastating epidemic is to end the stigma and understand that no one chooses to become an "addict" or a problematic drug user.
I am also a clinical social worker and saw this same horror play out during the AIDS epidemic. Many people did not care about the incredible loss of life, love, talent and potential that occurred during those many years. Many people, and many leaders in our country believed and preached that people who contracted HIV/AIDS "deserved" it because of their immoral behavior. No one deserves HIV, or to die of an overdose. Every life is worth saving. What we are seeing is these same attitudes being repeated regarding drug use.
What we learned from the HIV/AIDS epidemic is that harm-reduction approaches -- compassionate, science-based ways of reducing harms associated with public health problems -- can be effective in saving lives and reducing societal costs.
Naloxone and 911 Good Samaritan Laws -- which give the person calling and the person overdosing immunity from prosecution -- are just two examples of harm reduction. It should not be a crime to call 911. And everyone should have access to naloxone.
Moms and loved ones are now gathering together in their living rooms, in churches, and harm reduction organizations across the country, learning how to recognize an overdose and to save someone's life. Moms like me have begun to come out from behind the wall of shame and denial in order to save lives, as seen by the recovering young woman in Dr. Gupta's report. All she wants is a normal life and naloxone has given her the opportunity to have one.
Naloxone should be in the medicine cabinet, first aid kit, glove box, purse and pocket of every person who is with someone who uses opiates, either prescribed legally by an MD or procured on the street. The training is simple, empowering to the loved ones and can be life changing for so many. When a person dies of an accidental (especially preventable) drug overdose, it doesn't simply affect that person, the grief and pain is immeasurable and there are far too many of us walking around right now with this pain.
A medical professional in the CNN report expressed concern about naloxone's efficacy across many situations, which may contribute to unnecessary uncertainty about the wide-spread use of naloxone. We know that the most common reason for it not working is because it has been given too late or the overdose is from drugs other than opiates. Naloxone is inexpensive, safe, and has no side effects, even if the person has taken other drugs.
Thank you Dr. Gupta for having this conversation with all of us, now, when it is desperately needed. Naloxone is our best tool for saving lives right now for those at high risk.
Denise Cullen and her husband Gary are founders of Broken No More (broken-no-more.org) an advocacy organization working to change failed drug policies. They live in Southern California.