The Unfortunate Reality of Accidental Drug Overdose

You’re staying in your first sober living– the one you prayed would accept you, and took all the money you could scrape together for a deposit and rent. You’ve been there a week, working a get-well job you started as a cashier at a new restaurant, the type of job you had when you were 16 but you hope is going to get you back on your feet and prove to yourself and everyone else that you can make an honest living sober. You enter the house through the back door, exhausted but proud.

When you walk into the living room you see the blue and red lights flashing on the walls. Your heart sinks. The blood rushes down your body through your feet and disappears into the floor beneath you. You don’t have to walk out the front door to know that your roommate, the one you invited to go to a meeting with you who refused because her dad was sending her money and she wanted to go to a concert with her “sober” friends instead, slipped up bad.

Thinking back, you saw it coming. You noticed her retreating into herself. You saw her struggling with the pain of her depression and her past, her broken relationships and her deflated hopes. In your heart you knew she wasn’t okay, that’s why you reached out. As you walk to the ambulance to see her body on a stretcher, unconscious and unresponsive, you feel like you are in her place. You know exactly what it feels like to be where she is–lost and alone in her disease, indifferent to whether she lives or dies.

She was left there, in front of the neighbor’s house, half on the curb and half in the street, by her “friends.” Overdosed on a combination of heroin and Xanax, the half-empty bottle still in her purse. And you are left in a state of shock, vicariously experiencing the trauma of an accidental drug overdose.

The next day when you can’t stop crying at the cash register, your boss politely sends you home. When your housemates accuse you of being high because you suddenly can’t sleep or communicate, they vote you out of the house. You find yourself in the middle of the night with no money and nowhere to go but back to the streets, the drugs, the life that you know. You are collateral damage from the disease of addiction.

Drug Overdose: A National Crisis

The statistics are staggering in the epidemic of drug addiction. Overdose is the number one killer of Americans under 50 years old– 72,000 estimated deaths in 2017, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. As a parent, partner, or friend of someone suffering from addiction, though, statistics don’t begin to express what it’s like living every day in fear that today may be the day you find your loved one unconscious on the bathroom floor or that tonight you get that dreaded phone call from the hospital.

If you’re reading this, chances are you already know the deadly and dangerous impact drugs can have on your life or the life of people you know. Or perhaps the shocking and sudden death of a beloved celebrity has brought this national crisis to your attention, like the recent passing of Goldbergs and Modern Family actor Jackson Odell from an accidental drug overdose. Not to mention the death of rapper Mac Miller, pop icon Michael Jackson, actor Heath Ledger, or legendary singer and actress Whitney Houston.

Celebrity deaths from accidental drug overdoses shine a spotlight on the epidemic of drug use, drug abuse, and drug overdose. But it’s not just the rich and famous who are afflicted. Addiction doesn’t discriminate between ages, genders, races or income brackets. And neither does drug overdose.

Emotional Scars from Drug Overdose

A friend of mine, we’ll call him Jack, is now in recovery at age 21. He had a stable family upbringing but began using heroin, ecstasy, marijuana, alcohol, and meth in high school. Jack overdosed three times and was revived each time. The last time he overdosed was at a music festival. He entered into a drug psychosis. Doctors diagnosed him with schizoaffective disorder and told him he might never come back from it. After a year of rehabs and outpatient programs, he has been able to maintain his sobriety and recover from the state of psychosis, but he can’t explain why he was chosen to live when one of his friends from high school is serving a life sentence and another is dead from a drug overdose.

Jack’s story is not unique. This generation is all too familiar with mortality. I’ve heard stories of countless young adults being brought back numerous times from lethal amounts of drugs and yet being unable to stop using. I hear people recount how many friends they have lost to a drug overdose and how people they know keep dying. I have heard stories about girlfriends dying in their boyfriends’ arms from an accidental drug overdose, and the boyfriends burying themselves in their addiction, unable to cope with the trauma.

The emotional scars left from experiencing a drug overdose, either one’s self or vicariously, can have lasting damage. Many times drug overdose pushes people further into their own addiction to escape the feelings of guilt and loss. The constant feeling of rolling the dice with one’s life can spiral into a sense of morbid depression, further drug use and riskier behavior.

The Evolution of a Drug Epidemic

In my lifetime I have watched as new prescription drugs have come onto the market and seen their illicit counterpart explode in widespread use.

I was in high school in the mid-90s when I first became aware of Ritalin, mostly from the kids who were cutting class and asking to copy my homework. Then in college, I witnessed the widespread use of Adderall to cram for tests and pull all-nighters. I even read an article in 2009 in The New Yorker (a reputable publication if ever there was one) on Adderall as “cosmetic surgery” for the brain, a crutch used to augment people’s abilities to get ahead in their schools and careers. I kept waiting for the article to say how this was a bad thing for our society, but it didn’t. Fast-forward five years and this far more dangerous and damaging version, methamphetamine, is everywhere on the streets, in schools, in neighborhoods.

I watched the same thing happen with opiates. You used to have your wisdom teeth pulled or have surgery to get hydrocodone or sneak it from your grandparents’ medicine cabinet. My first experience with oxycontin was while working with the elderly in 2000-2001. A gentleman I cared for had chronic pain and was switched from hydrocodone to oxycodone to treat it. He went from an ambulatory and engaged member of the senior community I worked in to dead in a matter of months. I knew then that it was a drug to be feared.

A few years later, I saw oxycodone being used by college students to get high while partying. I knew three people personally who died from oxycontin overdose. A few years after that and almost out of nowhere it seems this heroin epidemic is everywhere. I remember watching Trainspotting as a teen and heroin being the ultimate taboo. Back then it was never something you accidentally ran into. Heroin addicts were an isolated bunch, not the teenage neighbor in the gated community like it is now.

These are only my observations and my experiences. But when I look back over the evolution of drugs being used in my lifetime, my younger self could never have imagined what my older self sees on a daily basis. When I hear high school kids making casual reference to a once most ostracized drug, or hear them talk about how many friends they have seen overdose and die, I have to ask myself, what happened? Where did this come from?

Why Do So Many People Overdose on Drugs?

Drug overdose happens most often when people consume drugs in amounts or of a purity too great for their bodies to metabolize. This can happen for a number of reasons. Increased tolerance, periods of abstinence, unknown ingredients or purity and polydrug use (using more than one type of drug at a time) can all be the cause of an accidental drug overdose.

Sometimes an overdose occurs simply with the thought that if this much worked last time, maybe a little more will work better. Or there’s the gambling mentality: Let’s see how much I can take before I cross the line. Sometimes users recklessly put their lives in other people’s hands and take drugs prepared by someone else, trusting that it won’t be too much. Women are especially susceptible to this, allowing a friend or boyfriend to prepare their dose not realizing that women are more sensitive to drugs.

You may be asking yourself, why? Why, knowing the risk they’re taking with their lives, do they continue to use drugs? You would think the risk of death or drug overdose would be enough to scare them straight, but it isn’t. It doesn’t work like that. The desire to use whatever drug a person is addicted to is stronger than their ability to say no. I would argue that most people would stop using if they could, but they are helpless and hopeless in the face of their disease.

With this disease, a person’s addiction becomes their primary survival instinct. Whereas humans have instinctive drives to find food, shelter, a suitable mate and so on, in the addicted mind, getting and using drugs comes before all other drives. The addicted brain says “I need to get high then I can find food. I need to get high then I can find shelter, talk to people, go to work…then I can live!” It’s such a tricky disease in that it is killing the person while also telling them it’s what they need to survive. One’s own survival instinct is out to kill them.  

What Does an Overdose Look Like?

Not all overdoses are accidental, and not all overdoses look the same or end in death. Yet all overdoses, whether witnessed or experienced, accidental or intentional, are traumatic. It is almost inevitable in this new age of drug abuse and addiction to face a drug overdose in some form.

The most obvious sign of an overdose is a loss of consciousness. Whether over-amped on amphetamines or slowed down on depressants, the body can simply shut down and pass out.

  • Opioids: The first most obvious sign is that the lips and fingernails will turn blue or purple. The body will seize up rigidly or have uncontrollable muscle spasms. All vital signs will drop, including blood pressure and pulse. Pupils size will shrink to pinpoints and not respond to light. There may be choking, vomiting or gurgling sounds and the person may be delirious or unresponsive even if awake.
  • Amphetamines: Overdoses on uppers are characterized by blue skin, dilated pupils, rapid and irregular heartbeat and breathing, excessive sweating, increased body temperature, chest pain, paranoia, psychosis, confusion, loss of bladder control and a spike in blood pressure. This can lead to a heart attack, seizure or coma.
  • Pharmaceuticals: Different pills or combinations of pills will result in different reactions. Universal signs of overdose will include nausea and vomiting, stomach pain, delusions or hallucinations, dizziness, drowsiness, trouble breathing and loss of consciousness.

What To Do After an Accidental Overdose

It is important to seek help for a person who has overdosed as soon as possible and to provide as much information as you can about what substance was used, how much and at what time. Not all overdoses result in death. There is also the risk of damage to the heart, liver, kidney, and brain. Here are some actions to take when you see that a drug overdose has occurred:

  • Call 9-1-1
  • Call Poison Control (800)222-2222
  • Administer naloxone (Narcan) if available and appropriate
  • Rush to the nearest ER
  • Seek aftercare and treatment

Many states have “Good Samaritan” laws in effect that protect people who report or assist a person who has overdosed on drugs. Fear of getting in trouble keeps many people from helping when they witness an overdose, but the first priority should be saving a life.

Counselors, treatment programs and support groups can help people who suffer from addiction learn to heal, to rebuild their lives and use their experience to help others. With the millions of people affected by drugs and their wrath, no one need suffer alone or in silence.

In Case of Emergencies: Naloxone (Narcan)

The most common treatment for opioid overdoses is the administration of naloxone (Narcan). It comes in the form of a nasal spray and can temporarily reverse the effects of opiate overdoses, including fentanyl, heroin, and prescription pain medications. It is estimated to prevent 10,000 opioid-related deaths each year. Many police and emergency responders are now equipped with naloxone when they are notified of an overdose situation. It can also be obtained in most states without a prescription and can be kept at home in case of an emergency. There are community resources available for people who cannot afford it, too.

Take Precautions: Drug Testing Kits

There are drug identification and drug purity testing kits that you can order online for around $25 that can help reduce the chances of overdosing. Of course, the safest way to avoid an overdose is to abstain from using drugs and to seek help to overcome addiction. Recovery is possible and there are many resources available today to help. If you feel a need, call our Addiction Helpline

Recovery Is Possible

It is important to remember that people who suffer from addiction are suffering from a disease beyond their control. The disease is treatable and there is help available. Sometimes the best thing a person can do is treat people struggling with drug addiction with compassion and encourage them to seek help. This can be a very emotionally difficult thing to do when it is a person you care about and you see them killing themselves. You may have to love them from a distance, but the power of one person’s belief in them can be all they need to seek recovery when they have lost all faith in themselves.