How Do You Recover After Millions Have Watched You Overdose? - The New York Times
The first time Kelmae Hemphill watched herself overdose, she sobbed. There she was in a shaky video filmed by her own heroin dealer, sprawled out on a New Jersey road while a stranger pounded on her chest. “Come on, girl,” someone pleaded.
Ms. Hemphill’s 11-year drug addiction, her criminal record, her struggles as a mother — they were now everybody’s business, splashed across the news and social media with a new genre of American horror film: the overdose video.
As opioid deaths have soared in recent years, police departments and strangers with cameras have started posting raw, uncensored images of drug users passed out with needles in their arms and babies in the back seats of their cars. The videos rack up millions of views and unleash avalanches of outrage. Then some other viral moment comes along, and the country clicks away.
But life is never the same for the people whose bleakest, most humiliating moments now live online forever. In interviews with The New York Times, they talked — some for the very first time — about the versions of themselves captured in the videos.
“Why bother saving her?” asked one YouTube commenter. “I would’ve let her die,” said another. Angry Facebook messages arrived months, even years, later, when strangers stumbled across the videos.
Addiction experts say the videos are doing little else than publicly shaming drug users, and the blunt horror of the images may actually increase the stigma against them. Users themselves disagree on whether the humiliation helped them clean up their lives.
“We’re showing you this video of them at the worst, most humiliating moment of their life,” said Daniel Raymond, deputy director of policy and planning at the Harm Reduction Coalition, an advocacy group. “The intent is not to help these people. The intent is to use them as an object lesson by scapegoating them.”
Mandy McGowan, 38, knows that. She was the mother unconscious in that video, the woman who became known as the “Dollar Store Junkie.” But she said the video showed only a few terrible frames of a complicated life.
As a child, she said, she was sexually molested. She survived relationships with men who beat her. She barely graduated from high school.
She said her addiction to opioids began after she had neck surgery in 2006 for a condition that causes spasms and intense pain. Her neurologist prescribed a menu of strong painkillers including OxyContin, Percocet and fentanyl patches.
As a teenager, Ms. McGowan had smoked marijuana and taken mushrooms and ecstasy. But she always steered clear of heroin, she said, thinking it was for junkies, for people living in alleys. But her friends were using it, and over the last decade, she sometimes joined them.
She tried to break her habit by buying Suboxone — a medication used to treat addiction — on the street. But the Suboxone often ran out, and she turned to heroin to tide her over.
On Sept. 18, 2016, a friend came to Ms. McGowan’s house in Salem, N.H., and offered her a hit of fentanyl, a deadly synthetic painkiller 50 times more potent than heroin. They sniffed a line and drove to the Family Dollar across the state line in Lawrence, where Ms. McGowan collapsed with her daughter beside her. At least two people in the store recorded the scene on their cellphones.
Medics revived her and took her to the hospital, where child welfare officials took custody of her daughter, and the police charged Ms. McGowan with child neglect and endangerment. (She eventually pleaded guilty to both and was sentenced to probation.) Two days later, the video of her overdose was published by The Eagle-Tribune and was also released by the Lawrence police.
The video played in a loop on the local news, and vaulted onto CNN and Fox News, ricocheting across the web.
“For someone already dealing with her own demons, she now has to deal with public opinion, too,” said Matt Ganem, the executive director of the Banyan Treatment Center, about 15 miles north of Boston, which gave Ms. McGowan six months of free treatment after being contacted by intermediaries. “You’re a spectacle. Everyone is watching.”
Ms. McGowan had only seen snippets of the video on the news. But two months later, she watched the whole thing. She felt sick with regret.
“I see it, and I’m like, I was a piece of freaking [expletive],” she said. “That was me in active use. It’s not who I am today.”
But she also wondered: Why didn’t anyone help her daughter? She was furious that bystanders seemed to feel they had license to gawk and record instead of comforting her screaming child.
She writes letters to her two teenage sons, who live with her former husband in New Hampshire. Her daughter, now 4, lives with the girl’s uncle. Ms. McGowan knows she will probably not regain custody, but hopes to develop a relationship with her and supplant the image embedded in her own mind of the sobbing girl in the pink pajamas.
“I know if I do the right thing, I can be involved in her life,” Ms. McGowan said. “It’s going to be a long road for me. You don’t just get clean and your life is suddenly all put back together.”
Still, the video lives on, popping up online almost constantly.
Ms. McGowan is bracing herself for the day when her daughter sees it, when her daughter lashes out at her for it, when she throws it back in her mother’s face when Ms. McGowan tries to warn her not to use drugs.
“That video is PTSD for my children,” she said. “The questions are going to come as my daughter gets older. And I have to be prepared for it. I did this. And it cost me my children.”