Madison, WI –– In the sordid, voyeuristic, details to emerge from the viral picture of the overdosed parents with the child in the back seat, I hear echoes from my own recent life, now marred by psychic wounds that have barely begun to heal.
Of the many terrible things my girlfriend, Sarah, and I witnessed while living in New Mexico, the icy blue color that washed over the faces of those overdosing on heroin jarred us the most. This ghoulish discoloration is caused by a sudden decrease in oxygen due to respiratory depression, preceded by a loss of consciousness. As far as dying goes, one could hardly ask for a more peaceful exit.
We moved to New Mexico, via Madison, in March 2012. There I wrote for a paper in the northern part of the state, while Sarah continued with college.
We were on Lower San Pedro Road, in Española, the first time we saw someone fall out, a euphemism for overdose. Española, population 12,000, is a small valley town about 30 miles north of Santa Fe. Of its many distinctions, the one most mentioned with no deficit of bravado by its largely Hispanic and Native residents is its standing as America’s per-capita opiate capital. For more than a decade, it’s heroin overdose death rate has hovered around six times the national average. In the Valley, the chiva is cheap, abundant, and deadly.
We were visiting Severo and Lupe that day when, shortly after we arrived, a young man named Ivan stopped by on his lunch break to fix in their kitchen. After getting well, Ivan went to untie the tourniquet when, without any warning, he dropped like a sack of potatoes to the floor, hitting the ground with a loud thud! A soft crush of blue supplanted his maple complexion.
Sarah burst into tears. As Lupe and I comforted her, Severo dashed to the other end of the trailer, returning with Narcan (naloxone), a nasal spray that flushes the brain of opiates, instantly reversing the overdose. Within seconds, the man opened his eyes, regained his color, and rose to his feet, unaware he had nearly crossed over. Watching someone nearly die rattled me and Sarah enough that we decided to quit using –– just as soon as we burned through our stash.
Days later, I picked up a few Narcans from the public health nurse. It is given freely in New Mexico following a brief training on how to assemble its three-piece delivery system. It was a strange, almost eerie, medicine to keep at the ready. We carried one each in our backpacks, with one at home. Completely inert, Narcan had but one drawback: someone other than the person overdosing had to administer it.
Sarah worried that Narcan would create a false sense of security around what we both knew were increasingly reckless and short-sighted decisions. Foremost, we had begun using when the other wasn’t present, something we said we wouldn’t do. Still, she brushed off my attempts to show her how to assemble the Narcan. It was her way of trying to frighten me, by raising the stakes, because I was hitting the needle a lot harder than she was.
Consequently, when I fell out, her only recourse was to slap and shake me and hope I came out of it without Narcan –– and without calling paramedics. She was good at towing the line, but heroin was tightening its grip on her, too, or else she may very well have left me behind.
She tried finding humor in the situation.
I like slapping you almost as much as I like rescuing you, she said once after I woke up to her tear-streaked face. We’ve got to stop. I’m not always going to be here to save you.
The overdoses cut both ways.
In August, not long before we decamped for North Dakota, Sarah fixed early one morning when her eyes dropped shut and she fell back onto the pillow. I thought she was just enjoying the rush of the black juice sieving through the blood-brain barrier, but then the transformation came. In an instant, her pale face had turned a ghostly blue, her breathing reduced to shallow gasps.
Because we had detoxed during a 30-day road trip we had returned from only three days earlier, our Narcan was packed away. I spent several painstaking minutes tearing through boxes in the dark, moonless night, but was unable to find it. Paramedics arrived 30 minutes later and administered the life saving antidote. Eight hours later we fixed as she got ready for work.
That night we resolved to quit using once and for all. Sarah was distraught after contemplating the devastation her death would bring to her younger brothers. I was still in shock from nearly losing someone I loved dearly. We took inventory of the dreams we shared and, as the night bled into morning, we held each other close, more determined than ever to not sabotage this beautiful thing we shared. Everything we wanted was still within reach, but unless we left, one, if not both of us, was going to die.
That truth was now inescapable.
It is strange that I would relapse after 13 years of abstaining from heroin. Strange because one of my responsibilities covering the crime desk for Española’s newspaper was to aggressively report on the Valley’s overdose epidemic. The position gave me front-row seats to the nation’s most vibrant theater of heroin addiction, overdose, and death.
One morning last year, I saw a ball of black tar in the police department’s evidence room. Police had seized it during the bust up of a fencing operation the night before. I caught a whiff of the vinegary odor and couldn’t stop thinking about how much I had enjoyed using the stuff years earlier.
By then we had been crushing painkillers on and off for several months. A couple Sarah met at work had turned us on to them and, before even realizing it, we would hurt for the candy, as it was called. It wasn’t long before the pills no longer hit like they used to, with the first casualty being Sarah’s grades. To save money, we switched to heroin, a bigger buzz at less than half the cost. For me, it was an old-times-sake kind of thing. Sarah just wanted to try it to say that she had. We pinky swore we would only use it a couple of times, after which we would get clean.
As our personal lives headed toward the abyss, I flourished professionally, producing work that later earned me two first place awards from the New Mexico Newspaper Association. Each week I filed several requests with the state’s Medical Investigator’s Office for various autopsy reports to keep tabs on the number of county residents who had fallen out from opiate toxicity.
I also kept a photographic record of many overdoses, rushing around town to wherever a body had been found. The officer manning the scene would tell me warm or cold, meaning whether the victim was dead or alive. The dead-on-arrivals were heart wrenching, as the deceased’s family began arriving at the scene, their anguish palpable enough to choke up the hardest of hearts.
Survivors made the most interesting photo subjects, as they were walked or wheeled from their residences, attached to IVs and sometimes other devices. Two years before we arrived, Lupe overdosed in the park behind Española City Hall. The paper’s then-crime reporter arrived moments after paramedics gave her Narcan, saving her life. She woke with first responders hovering over her like guardian angels and a man standing feet away snapping pictures.
You bet your ass that picture ran in the paper…, right there in the police blotter, she lamented to us. Everyone was calling me an’ shit. ‘Lupe! Lupe! You made the paper!’
That wasn’t the last time she turned blue. Severo, after waking from his own stupors, found her on multiple occasions since then, barely breathing. Narcan saved her each time.
Although survivors made a better photo, it’s the blue faces that continue to haunt me. In one photo, taken by my predecessor, a pair of legs dangled from the doorway of a shed behind the Baskin Robbins, a scoop of mint ice cream still melting beside the man’s body. At another angle, his eyes were open and a syringe lay nearby. His face was not only blue, but frozen in time, the muscles relaxed in such a way that there was no mistaking him as among the living.
The man turned out to be homeless, making him to just another dead blue overdosed face among many. Too many for anyone to really care.
North Dakota was the worst for her and it was the worst for me. What we had hoped would be a quiet few months running a 52-room motel in Dickinson, a city in the middle of fucking nowhere, turned into an even worse situation than the one we left behind in New Mexico.
As live-in motel managers, we were basically slaves to the owner and his guests, earning a biweekly pittance that, when broken down, averaged about 17-cents an hour. Life as we knew it was on indefinite hold, because one of us had to remain onsite at all times. We couldn’t even walk our dog together.
The first month was fresh and new, hopeful even, but as autumn descended on Dickinson, we both became terribly depressed with the situation. The guests –– many of them addicts and prostitutes lured to western North Dakota on a promise of above average hourly wages –– were like needy children calling at all hours of the night with problems that easily could have waited until morning. Boredom and cabin fever set in, then the cold came and we receded even further inward.
Initially we planned to stay a year, but by November we had decided to leave come spring, then bumped our departure even closer, to just before Christmas.
With a few short weeks between us and our return home, we became even more reckless, this time without any pretense of being responsible junkies. In September, our second month there, we were back at it, though our use was infrequent as heroin was difficult to find in Dickinson, not to mention very expensive. In time we met an actual trafficker who cut preferred-customer deals and it was on. With an eye toward sobriety, those final weeks became an occasion to slam as much as we could, our last hurrah.
But in late November, reality checked us once again when Lupe and Severo fixed after returning home following a visit with their children, nodding off next to each other. Lupe woke up; Severo did not.
That night I spent nearly two hours on the phone with Lupe as she wept inconsolably over Severo’s passing. I could feel the pain seething inside her. She begged us to come back to New Mexico, not only for his funeral, but so that together we could all get clean. She was afraid to do it alone.
Sarah and I stayed up late that night, fixing shots, and discussing how awful it would be for the other if one of us die. She had taken an interest in photography while in North Dakota and had begun photographing our lives as addicts. We grieved for Lupe, who relied on Severo for so much, the same way Sarah and I relied on each other for the things we did.
What would happen to me if you died? she asked that night while snapping pictures.
The ride would end and you would go home, I replied. But I’m not going to die.
The unthinkable happened less than three weeks later. Around 2 a.m. on Dec. 5, I woke up to Sarah sitting at the foot of our bed. She was folded over so that her head hung down above her lap, her arms hanging listlessly at her side. Her face and lips were blue. But this time it was too late. There was no gasping, no pulse, no life. All the Narcan in the world couldn’t bring her back.
After nearly four years together, in which we scarcely spent a moment apart, the ride had ended in the worst possible way. Every dream we shared was gone, over, dead. I had lost the best friend I ever had. She was 24.
I am still breathing, but barely feel alive. I relive that moment, and so many others, dozens of times each day, sometimes bargaining with fate, or whatever it is, for her return. My only consolation is that it’s unlikely she suffered and that is of little consolation at all.
Had I woken earlier I likely could have saved her with the Narcan we kept less than four feet from where she died. As with her first overdose in August, I mull over the countless what-ifs, only this time I go at it alone, without my friend.
I never asked her what I would do if she died, because I never thought she would. I don’t think she thought she would. She wasn’t reckless and excessive like I was reckless and excessive, insofar as one can use heroin safely and in healthy amounts.
Regardless, I now have an answer to that unfortunate question.
Today marks two months since she passed, and four days since Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his apartment with a needle in his arm. Much has been written about the latter, about his greatness as an actor and his kindness as a man. His immortalization in the canons of pop culture is assured.
Far fewer people are thinking of Sarah today, even though she too was a kind, warm, and wonderfully loving person. The world won’t anoint her as an artist or romanticize her death. It won’t even give a passing thought to the person she was and had yet to become. It won’t take stock of all that she gave.
But her legacy lives on in the hearts she touched and the smiles she gave, and that is not insignificant. Indeed, as I struggle to make sense of my own world upended, and grieve over the loss of someone I thought I would spend my life with, I can only hope that time tempers the ache that has been so loud and persistent since that dreadful morning.
What I do know is that now, two months on, I still love her deeply and miss her terribly.
I wish I could tell her that.
Written in February 2014
Clean in October 2016