Preventing Death by Overdose: One of the Most Avoidable Tragedies on Earth

Today is International Overdose Awareness Day around the world. But for hundreds of thousands of Americans who have lost someone we love to a preventable death, every single moment of every day is Overdose Awareness Day. From mothers and fathers to spouses and children– nearly everyone in the country has been touched by the tragedy. I can assure you that no matter where you live or how insulated from drugs you may feel, your family is not immune. Heroin overdose is becoming ubiquitous and prescription drug overdose is a public health crisis.


Continually rising statistics do little to help us understand the horrifying pain of human loss.  


In the fall of 2007, three days past his 28th birthday my son Ian stopped by my office to say he was off for the day to Chicago. We stood outside in the sun saying goodbye and he was radiant and happy and the weather was fine. He pointed at his cycle and said, “Ain’t she beautiful, Mama – old Greased Lightning! It’s only a hundred miles – I’ll be back in the morning!” 

He threw his arms around me, "I love you, Mama! See ya tomorrow!" and off he roared out of my life. You can never know the moment when someone beautiful, bright, funny, loyal, addicted yet so full of promise will tell you that they love you and fall away like leaves in autumn.


What will it take for us to realize that the same funding dollars used to arrest, prosecute and imprison drug usage could be spent to help rather than punish people. Think of the lives that could be saved if we chose to fund harm reduction programs and to make the overdose antidote naloxone readily available. A dose of naloxone that costs approximately $10 could have saved my son.

Consider what common sense and good policy it is to pass Good Samaritan 911 laws that allow people to report an overdose without fearing arrest. It is a mystery why a society would rather make a drug bust than let a person with drugs call 911 to save a life. We are taught that nothing is as powerful as a good education – and I believe that – and yet we neglect to educate young people with a realistic drug education curriculum.   And, finally, we make noise about drug treatment programs and then do not support our elected representatives to pass legislation that provides adequate funding.


Part of the reason International Overdose Awareness Day was instituted was to give families like mine the opportunity to mourn without the shame and stigma that surrounds an overdose death. There are so many people working so hard to destroy the horrible stigma that attached itself to my son: groups like the Drug Policy Alliance, Harm Reduction Coalition and others, groups that will remember my son as a lovely and complex individual, not simply a walking cliché, not "just a junkie."

We are also reminded to value all people, including those who are mired in the complexity of addiction, and to stimulate conversation about drug policies and overdose prevention. There is no measuring the cost of drug overdose deaths – though you can imagine the cost if you watch the faces of those who have gotten the knock on the door that changes every cell in their body into “before” and “after.” Watch the eyes of those who walk through their days with a hurt so deep and a loss so profound nothing can touch it – a weight they will bear the rest of their lives.

For me it is the daily fact that Ian, who could light up a room, whose infectious laughter I loved, who was so talented, smart and observant, is simply gone. Ian, who was lost in a dark place but struggled so damned hard; who knew the streets but would come home and sleep with a teddy bear – a man who was a study in contradictions. He was amazing. He was supposed to come back to me the next day.


My son, my Ian, my heart and soul. Like a million mothers just like me, my heart is flooded with him every August 31, and every moment of every day.

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