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Faces of Overdose

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade’s photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty, prostitution and urban anthropology in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.


Drug overdose death rates have increased steadily in the United States since 1979. In 2008, a total of 36,450 drug overdose deaths (i.e., unintentional, intentional [suicide or homicide], or undetermined intent) were reported, with prescription opioid analgesics (e.g., oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone), cocaine, and heroin the drugs most commonly involved (1). Since the mid-1990s, community-based programs have offered opioid overdose prevention services to persons who use drugs, their families and friends, and service providers. Since 1996, an increasing number of these programs have provided the opioid antagonist naloxone hydrochloride, the treatment of choice to reverse the potentially fatal respiratory depression caused by overdose of heroin and other opioids (2). Naloxone has no effect on non-opioid overdoses (e.g., cocaine, benzodiazepines, or alcohol) (3). In October 2010, the Harm Reduction Coalition, a national advocacy and capacity-building organization, surveyed 50 programs known to distribute naloxone in the United States, to collect data on local program locations, naloxone distribution, and overdose reversals. This report summarizes the findings for the 48 programs that completed the survey and the 188 local programs represented by the responses. Since the first opioid overdose prevention program began distributing naloxone in 1996, the respondent programs reported training and distributing naloxone to 53,032 persons and receiving reports of 10,171 overdose reversals. Providing opioid overdose education and naloxone to persons who use drugs and to persons who might be present at an opioid overdose can help reduce opioid overdose mortality, a rapidly growing public health concern.¹

Hell is busy at 1 am
Shelly: Hunts Point, Bronx. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Shelly’s overdosed five times, once in a Starbucks bathroom, once in a McDonalds. She was found both times against a toilet in a locked stall by EMS workers and panicked employees.

Pepsi and "Addict Elmo":  Hunts Point, Bronx
Pepsi: Hunts Point, Bronx. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Pepsi’s overdosed twice. Never in front of her kids, thank God. Sign of the cross, kiss to the sky.

Sonya: Hunts Point, Bronx
Sonya: Hunts Point, Bronx. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Sonya overdosed after leaving jail in New Orleans. She needed to feel everything, so she bought everything. First, she scrawled her father’s phone number in Sharpie across her stomach so that someone could call, so that she wouldn’t get sent to potter’s field upon death. Lucky or unlucky, the drugs were crap.

Erik: Hunts Point, Bronx
Eric: Hunts Point, Bronx. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Eric’s first girlfriend died of overdose. He’s married to Sonya now and is in Rikers Island jail awaiting sentence for direct heroin sale to a cop. He left a mandated inpatient rehab program because, he said, his roommate was smoking crack.

Neecy and relapse: Hunts Point, Bronx
Neecy: Hunts Point, Bronx. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Neecy ODed under the bridge, naked, unable to sit up. It was after a months-long stint of being clean when she just couldn’t take the pressure — the living of life — anymore. She left her family in New Jersey and hid in Hunts Point, a place beyond reach, ashamed.

Roland: Hunts Point, Bronx

Roland’s mom overdosed and died when he was a baby, so he was raised largely in a group home. Now at 21, he’s in Rikers Island jail for drug possession for the second time, re-arrested for heroin the day of his last release.

More Hunts Point Addiction Writing
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Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. PassingFancy 2:44 pm 09/6/2013

    Ah! More gripping white noise!

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  2. 2. Richard Henry 7:30 am 12/11/2013

    This is my book, which I have just self published in hopes of helping people learn from my mistakes, hopes and dreams that they too might overcome their substance abuse. My new book called Life in the game of Addictions is a testimony of my journey and indifference as to what I think society can do to make a differanse. Through the eyes of an addict is my story on the road to recovery, I have been to some very dark places, but today I live in the light of recovery.

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  3. 3. AddictionBlogLidija 12:07 pm 06/4/2014

    These are all alarming stories. A silent scream for help! While these people have survived overdose (some more than once), and they are still continuing to use drugs, we should continue to try to reach out to them. They are part of our society and require hope. Obviously, some addiction treatment facilities do not fulfill common standards. We would like to see watchdog organizations observe and penalize treatment facilities that do not offer best practices in addiction treatment: How can they still be in action when their intent is not to help?

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