Like most reasonable people at some point in their lives, the other day I wondered, “What would Carol Hathaway do?” What would the nurse played by Julianna Margulies on six seasons of the television drama ER do if she, in her pink scrubs, wound up where I was the other day? How would Carol handle a person dying from a drug overdose right next to her? Well, Carol is a nurse, granted a pretend nurse on a cancelled tv show but a nurse nonetheless which still makes her more of a medical professional than me. So Carol would do nursey things, things that were helpful and life saving. And the other day I couldn’t do those things. I still can’t do those things and what’s more I could barely figure out what to say when all of this was unfolding right before me at a crazy pace. I’m sure good old Carol would say something comforting as well. But the best I could come up with the other day as a man was overdosing right next to me was, “Call 911.”
When I think about moments like this potentially happening my obvious point of reference is television. It’ll be heroic and a moment of my own personal strength! It’ll be like that scene in season 4 of Grey’s Anatomy where Izzie as played by Katherine Heigl does mouth-to-mouth on a dying deer. Well, it was none of those things. I didn’t feel heroic, just scared and awful. Trust me, I would have rather been Katherine Heigl that day and I’m pretty sure I’m the only person ever to write those words. It all happened so terrifyingly fast, as things often do at my non-writer mental health and additions based day job. But this day, with someone’s life in peril, was a first.
Listen, I can’t tell all of his story due to the nature of my job and it’s actually not really about that. It’s about me. I mean, I’m an alcoholic. Of course I can make someone else’s overdose all about me! But I will say that this person, like me, has struggled his whole life with drugs and alcohol. Lots of times in my job I get to see people, who also like me, finally overcome these things and change their lives. But more often than not, I get to see the really hard stuff. Wednesday was one of those days.
After talking to him and trying to just keep him awake, the paramedics showed up. They arrived really quickly, and despite having to use Wikipedia(!!!!!!) to figure out what Suboxone was (in a state with a major heroin crisis, mind you) they were fantastic. They did all the nursey Carol Hathaway things I couldn’t do. Or maybe all the things an EMT character on that show would do. I stopped watching after Clooney left so I don’t know who that would be. Anyway, they wheeled him off on a stretcher, slid him into the ambulance and sped away. What they didn’t take with them was poor, shattered ill-equipped, non-nursey me.
With lump in throat and tears waiting in the wings to fall from my face, I decided that this was probably a good moment to call it a day. I needed to go collapse in privacy of my own home where my husband and cats could be on call to pick up the pieces. I think it affected me so deeply because for one, I am a human being. Sounds like a stupid thing to even type but as a drunken, drug taking robot on a suicide mission for 20 years, I need to write that from time to time. A human watching another human in peril SHOULD be upsetting and my response felt appropriate. Again, it sounds crazy to even justify that but as an addict who used to live in a constant state of “I’M FINE. I’M FINE. I’M FINE” just to admit a normal emotional response is still liberating. Now, at the workplace, I gotta keep it together. Nobody wants a mental health professional bursting into tears. What would Carol Hathaway think! But in the comfort of my own world, with the people I trust, it felt okay to not be fucking okay.
It also affected me because I am an addict and so of course for a moment I thought, “This could be me” followed by the guilt-induced but totally honest thought, “Thank god it isn’t.”The thing is every time someone relapses or overdoses or god forbid dies, we all think this. We all think that could be/should be me followed by I’m so glad that it isn’t. It’s the ghost of Alcoholic Christmas Future right in front of your face, telling you this is what waits for you if you decide to go back. The obtuse “What If?” worst case scenario became tangible in that moment as this guy, this usually funny, charming, energetic guy nearly slipped away right next to me. And, for lack of a more poetic turn of phrase, it sucked.
But what really hit me in those rushed few moments that felt like a shook up Coke bottle about to explode that this guy was a human too. Somebody’s son. Somebody’s friend. Somebody’s dad. He wasn’t HuffPo article or CNN statistic about the opioid epidemic. He was a living breathing example of what it looks like today all across the country. Luckily, I saw this human being yesterday at the hospital. He is doing okay. As I told him what happened the last time we saw each other, he looked shocked and apologized several times. I told him it was okay and then I did what Carol Hathaway couldn’t do: laugh with him as a fellow addict. I told him it was good thing we weren’t using at the same time otherwise we’d both be in the hospital. I told him to play nice with the other kids at rehab. I told him yes we still had all of his stuff and we’d hang onto it. But mainly, I tried to tell him, “I get it.” Because I honestly do and because over and over again in my recovery people have told me they get it too.