Overdose Awareness Day

Our recovery meeting coffeemaker had some news today: He’d consumed a fifth of vodka this weekend. My friend and I provided the needed ears, and we spoke the words that maybe we needed to hear more than he is ready to hear: “You can do it, if you want it.” I added my own insistence on being positive in the face of just about anything; because he showed up and in fact kept his word and made the coffee, I said, “Obviously you’re hearing something you feel like you need in the meetings. You keep showing up, and that’s great.”

“I love being here,” he replied, and then departed before the meeting began.

The best and the worst decisions are those that do not feel like a decision; for instance, I asked Jen (my girlfriend) out because I had a thought float through my mind: “She is going to be important to me someday.” The moment she agreed to have coffee with me she fulfilled that minimal thought, and in the four-plus-years since she has re-broken her personal record every single moment and become more and more important to me. But no nervousness preceded my asking her, unlike every time I have been interested in a woman. My coffeemaker friend described something similar: He intended to ride his bike to Point A, with no intention of visiting Point Z, but Point Z somehow came first in the alphabet that day.

“It’s true for all of us,” I said to our coffeemaker. “It’s just an arm’s length away, and my arms have not grown in length with my time sober. We all of us have the same amount of time in here: Today.” He had an expression on his face that looked like he wanted to ask me why I had started speaking in Latin about my rabbits all of a sudden. (He looked confused.)

There is another expression common in recovery, from alcoholism and drug addiction both: We all have one more run in us, but there are no guarantees about one more recovery. Some people do not return. Some do not live.

Another friend said something about how he never wanted to get drunk, not even once in his drinking career. He wanted to “feel good” (in his telling, both words are three or more syllables long) and drunk simply kept happening to him. He spent his drinking career intending to “improve” and drink correctly. He has almost three decades sober now.

I get it, I understand this every time I hear him say it. Drunk was a weird side effect that I hoped to avoid every next time; hangovers were another. I wanted to float on a blissful buzz, but once there, I wanted to deepen or extend it, which led to more consumption and I was once again at Point Z without a thought. Worse, not once in my drinking life did I not have a hangover: a headache and a nausea that seemed to start on my skin and work inwards. Drinking never felt like a decision for me, from the first. Point Z always came before Point A in my personal alphabet. And yet I called it fun.

Hangovers are a symptom of an overdose, a small one but an overdose nonetheless. Alcohol, big brand liquor, is produced by companies that follow a recipe that is regulated. This is why, more often than not, a similar amount of booze consumed in a similar period of time produced in me a similar set of effects, night after night. (Eventually, tolerance builds up and more becomes needed.)

The manufacture of illegal drugs is, of course, not regulated, and possession is treated in most legal systems more harshly than the manufacture is. For the simple reason that one batch may be made differently than the next, one drug may not affect a user very deeply and the next, made by the same chemist-experimenter, may kill the same person. Whatever one’s opinion about the illegality of certain drugs or the legality of others may be, the stark facts about overdoses are these:

•There were up to 225,000 drug-related deaths around the globe in 2012.
•Drug overdose deaths have increased in the United States each year for the last decade and a half, with 41,000 drug-related deaths in the U.S. in 2011 alone.
•Fatal drug overdoses outnumber road fatalities in the United Kingdom each year.
(Source: Penington Institute, International Overdose Awareness Day fact sheet

These numbers do not include alcohol-related fatalities, which merit their own bullet-point list, but which can only be estimated, because many deaths—in car accidents, for example—are in truth “alcohol-related fatalities.”

Further, many overdoses are legal. People are given prescriptions that they mishandle or that are mishandled accidentally for them.

Overdoses are not a natural, logical outcome of either the sad fact of addiction or the fact of drug experimentation or the possibility of adverse reactions to prescription medications. If people know what to do, many deaths can be averted.

A death is a death, but somehow society sometimes makes it easier to publicly mourn the loss of a loved one in a car accident than to a drug overdose. A car accident claimed the lives of several local high school students near me this summer and the community has rallied in an admirable fashion and raised funds for the families; several young local people have died of drug overdoses recently and no such rallies have been announced on the front pages of the local newspapers.

The Penington Institute, an Australian organization that I had not heard of until today, is working to change the public perception that stigmatizes drug overdoses. It starts with awareness. Alcoholism and drug addiction are both forms of an illness called addiction, and this illness rather often extends from an individual’s personal health to become a public health matter. Many of us know how to administer CPR if we witness a person exhibiting signs of a heart attack, or we know how to use the first aid technique referred to as the Heimlich maneuver when we witness someone choking. Public health awareness campaigns have successfully armed the public with useful information, and many lives have been saved as a result. (Mine is one of them; I was given the Heimlich once in a restaurant.) Besides a memorable scene in “Pulp Fiction,” have any movies shown any techniques for dealing with an overdose? (I’m not certain the scene in “Pulp Fiction” can be applied in real life.) Have there been any campaigns educating the public on what to do if someone on your commuter train one morning falls over in an apparent overdose? No.

To the organization’s credit, they include alcohol overdoses (usually from the result of binge drinking) in its materials. Here is its information page: Overdose Basics.

According to the organization, in 2001, two Australians decided to start an Overdose Awareness Day, in which people who have lost loved ones to overdose could come together and commemorate the losses. They gave out ribbons to wear. More than 6000 people showed up to claim a ribbon. By the next year, it was international, and in 2012 the Penington Institute made the day a part of its awareness campaign.

August 31, today, is International Overdose Awareness Day.

And right on the Institute’s Facebook page, on the photo I have used at the top, is an example of the stigma society places on the fact of overdoses: One person wrote, “yeah so some people call it suicide //that really really gets me fckn angry.” (Direct quote.) A second person specifically replied to this comment earlier today: “It can be a form of suicide.” As if that correction, defending all of society from this one sad person’s confusion, was needed. Some overdoses are not accidents; many are. None are deserved.

I hope we have a good pot of coffee ready tomorrow.

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  1. OnChi · August 31, 2015

    Very informative post! Also, I’m glad someone saved you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. loisajay · August 31, 2015

    this breaks my heart but your comment about Point Z coming before Point A explains so much. Such a great post, Mark.

    Liked by 1 person

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