Some calls get under your skin and shake your soul to the very core. Children in distress are always a challenge to the caretaker emotionally, and facing death can take a toll on one as well. More often than I’d like to admit, the debilitating feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, and fury have overtaken me when I’ve encountered abuse, neglect, death, and other situations out of my control. Sometimes patients and their problems just hit too close to home and force you to face fears and issues you’ve spent your entire life burying.
I recently was dispatched to a cardiac arrest, in which my unit was the first to arrive. I drove to this call completely mentally prepared to face death and attempt to combat it on behalf of another human being. I walked into a middle class house to find a young woman unconscious and barely breathing. She’s not dead, but it is not surprising that her family thought she was. She is in her early 20s, Caucasian, thin, dressed in a tank top and jeans, with long hair and a pretty face. Her family tells us that she was just released the day prior from a rehabilitation facility, in which she was treated for heroin use.
I’ve never done serious drugs, which I completely accredit to the fact that I’ve spent the majority of my life terrified of them. My mother raised me as a single mom, and has dallied in drugs and a darker culture enough to know and recognize all the signs; simply put, I couldn’t get away with that kind of shit. My mother has seen firsthand the toll drugs can take on a person’s life and how much harder said person has to work to overcome even the most basic of life’s responsibilities and tasks. She refused to allow me to assume that disability. As a teenager at the height of my mischievousness, any time I tried to deceive or outsmart my mom, she quickly and efficiently put an end to it. I once came home with some friends stoned and honestly believed she didn’t know. The next day at a video store, I picked up a copy of Dazed and Confused, and asked my mom if she’d seen it. Her response: “Yeah, when you and your friends came in last night.” Following the realization that I was not savvy after all, my mother taught me all about drugs, making sure that I would be informed when I inevitably encountered them. She answered my inquiries with brute honesty, never omitting the good, bad, funny or sad. It was like having a personalized in-house D.A.R.E. program, but this one actually worked.
While my mother instilled truth and warnings about drug use in me, my father was a fine example of why. My father has always been involved in my life, despite his divorce from my mother when I was an infant. His poison of choice is cocaine, although he has experience in other endeavors. His demeanor has always been evasive, defensive, and cagey toward the topic until recently. Over the years, I watched him hurt himself and other people with his drug use, and I’ve had my heart broken a seemingly infinite number of times by my dad because of drugs. I distinctly remember being shocked that my dad was different that those of my friends, and even more shocked and hurt when I found out chiefly why. I found him impossible to understand, but I continuously tried because he was my father and a fundamentally good person despite it all. I listened to him tell me it wasn’t a problem and he could and would stop whenever he wanted. I learned to protect myself from pain and heartache when he didn’t show up, forgot about me, ignored me, or became angry at me for no reason. I learned to hope, but not believe him every time he told me he was quitting.
Recently, my dad has given up drugs. I have been struggling with wholeheartedly believing him as a result of the failed attempts in the past. In the past few years, he developed hallucinations that nearly drove him to insanity, lost his marriage, and lost his home. While he is not solely responsible for the misfortunes that have taken the limelight in his life, he appears to have come to terms with his role. He and I have had long conversations about things that actually matter for the first time in my life. He asked me, “How did I end up with a daughter who is so good, when other people that didn’t do the things I did have bad kids?” I have no answer, and I’m not totally convinced I’m all that good. I often view myself as damaged and weird. I think what he means is that I take care of myself, don’t get into trouble, and don’t do drugs. My mother played a huge role in that, but she’s fallible and so am I.
When I saw that unconscious girl who just relapsed, I saw myself. We’re around the same age, dress similarly, and both clearly are fighting our own demons. In some alternate universe, she and I would be in opposite positions. For reasons I can’t fully explain, I didn’t do drugs and she did. I assembled Narcan, the antidote for heroin and my partner administered it nasally. The girl began to wake up a long minute after we gave her the medication. We stopped breathing for her and took out the OPA, an instrument used to hold back the tongue during ventilation. She sat up and looked straight at me, doe eyed and terrified. I told her that she overdosed and almost died. She cried and told me that wasn’t possible. It seemed that most of the people in the room despised that girl. They saw her as a pathetic and weak drug addict who couldn’t hack it sober for a day, while I held her and told her it was going to be okay. Every molecule of my body ached for both her and me.
I know that it is virtually impossible to quit a drug without episodes of relapses that are sometimes more dangerous than using regularly. I have spent my entire life enclosed in a veil of humor, distrust, and doubt as a method of self preservation that has leaked into nearly all aspects of my life, and even now I can’t allow myself to be totally unprotected. I keep in the back of my mind that most addicts relapse at some point, and I try to prepare myself in the event it happens to my dad. That girl almost died as a result of a relapse, but didn’t because someone called 911 and we showed up. We were able to breathe for her and give her a medication that saved her life. She forced me to face a huge obstacle I’ve pushed into the deepest crevices of my subconscious and come to terms with the fact that there is no wonderdrug like Narcan to combat cocaine.