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Mother's Powerful Tale: Despite My Son's Heroin Addiction, I Held Biases About Drug Addicts

A nurse shares her story about coming to grips with the realities of drug addiction.

Photo Credit: Antlio / Shutterstock.com


I recognized the number. My son was calling from the ER, barely coherent, having overdosed on heroin yet again. The paramedics had just happened upon him as they were resuscitating another overdose victim in the park. Apparently, the batch of heroin on the street was especially potent and a rash of overdose victims had arrived in the ER that day. My son had suffered an even closer brush with death than I had previously witnessed. This time he had slipped past respiratory arrest and into cardiovascular collapse. If it weren’t for the unfortunate happenstance of another person overdosing in the same park, he surely would have died this time.

When I arrived in the ER, he was still in and out of consciousness. His blood pressure was extremely low and I was concerned that no one was coming to check on him. I was relieved at first when a doctor stepped in. 

“Sir, sir!” he shouted as he shook my son’s shoulder. “Are you ready to leave? It’s time for you to go.”  

I protested that his blood pressure was only 73/32 and he was barely conscious. How could he possibly be stable enough for discharge?

“Look. We have people with  real problems, like chest pain, in the waiting room,” the doctor said as he turned to leave.

“You turn around this instant," I said, enraged. "You will put a human face to this! My son almost died. He deserves the same respect and dignity as anyone else who sets foot in this ER.”

I was appalled that a medical professional could treat another human being in such an inhumane and callous way. That fierce mother-rage was a blessing of sorts, as it held a pivotal moment for me. Even in the midst of my outrage at this physician, I understood his attitude a little too well and this left me with an annoying, nagging sense of guilt. I could no longer avoid the fact that I, too, despite having an addicted son, had some long-held biases against people who use drugs.

Rewind a few years: “Why is he here again? The dope supply on the street must be running dry or maybe it’s because it’s so cold outside tonight,” I thought. “Either which way, he’s just looking for 'three hots and a cot.' It’s his choice to be a junkie and live on the street. He did this to himself. He obviously enjoys living this way or he’d quit shooting up, so why should we have to waste time and resources on him?”  

We even had a name for it: malingering, the assumption being that homeless junkies showed up in the emergency room faking symptoms in order to find a place to sleep for the night. My thoughts were racing and I was stressed. It was a busy night in the psychiatric emergency department and our beds were quickly filling up with patients who had real problems such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder; problems that originated from organic brain disorders these patients did not bring upon themselves, unlike the junkies who enjoyed getting high and were unmotivated to exercise the willpower to simply quit. 

I tried to hide my indignation and remain professional as a nurse, yet there’s no doubt that this young man must have sensed the contentiousness in my curt manner toward him as I reserved my compassion and energy for the other, more deserving patients on the unit. My attitude was sadly understandable in some ways. When it comes to issues that have devastating effects, those issues we fear and can’t quite make sense of, our own defense mechanisms tend to kick in. Emotionally, it’s much easier to construct walls of contempt and blame than to face a brand of pain and suffering that we don’t know how to relate to and that we feel helpless to change.

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