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.
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.
Hemphill’s mother watched the 2016 video of her overdose. Her friends saw it. Even her daughter, now 11, watched the images of Hemphill passed out beside a guardrail in West Deptford, New Jersey, her stomach exposed as the medics rushed in. “Why bother saving her?” asked one YouTube commenter. “I would’ve let her die,” said another.
“When you type my name in, that’s the first video that pops up — an overdose video,” Hemphill said.
A public way to hit bottom
Before the videos, Hemphill and other users shuffled unnoticed from the streets to rehab to jail and back in a cycle of use and arrests. Their anonymity disappeared afterwards as news cameras showed up at their front doors and reporters attended their court dates on charges including drug possession and child endangerment.
Angry Facebook messages arrived months, even years, later, when strangers stumbled across the videos.
But for others, the viral attention also became their emergency flare. Rehab centres and drug counsellors reached out, waived fees and helped them bypass waiting lists to get into treatment.
“If that video never happened, I probably would have never went to treatment at all,” Hemphill, 28, said.
A Florida drug treatment centre offered to pay her fees, and Hemphill flew down and stayed for a month. But she felt as if she was just playing a part in a news media narrative about addiction and recovery. As soon as she returned home to New Jersey, she got high again.
“I didn’t want to be clean,” she said. “I was doing it for the news.”
She enrolled in a long-term treatment centre in Newark, New Jersey, and then moved to a halfway house, where people smoke crack and shoot up in a park across the street. She says she has no desire to join them and has not used in nearly a year.
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.”
‘You’re a spectacle’
In Lawrence, Massachusetts, a former mill town at the heart of New England’s opioid crisis, the police chief released a particularly gut-wrenching video. It showed a mother who had collapsed from a fentanyl overdose sprawled out in the toy aisle of a Family Dollar while her sobbing two-year-old daughter tugged at her arm.
“It’s heart-breaking,” James Fitzpatrick, who was the Lawrence police chief at the time, told reporters in September 2016. “This is definitely evidence that shows what addiction can do to someone.”
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, addictive painkillers including OxyContin, Percocet and fentanyl patches.
As a teenager, 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 18 September 2016, a friend came to McGowan’s house in Salem, New Hampshire, 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 McGowan collapsed with her daughter beside her. At least two people in the store recorded the scene on their mobile phones.
Medics revived her and took her to the hospital, where child welfare officials took custody of her daughter, and the police charged 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 Centre, about 15 miles north of Boston, which gave McGowan six months of free treatment after being contacted by intermediaries. “You’re a spectacle. Everyone is watching.”
Nobody recorded the chaos that unfolded next. After McGowan was released from treatment, the father of her daughter died of an overdose. Two months later, that man’s 19-year-old son also died of an overdose.
Reeling, McGowan had a night of relapse with alcohol. She checked herself into treatment the next day. But at the same time, she had stopped reporting to her probation officer, a violation of parole that led to 64 days in jail. She was kicked out of a halfway house and stayed briefly at a shelter. She said she was raped earlier this year. She checked herself into a hospital psychiatric ward for five weeks.
McGowan finally felt ready to start actively rebuilding her life. This spring, she moved to a halfway house in Boston, where her days were packed with appointments with counsellors and clinicians, and meetings of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. She had weighed just 90 pounds when she overdosed; now she was happily above 140.
She writes letters to her two teenage sons, who live with her former husband in New Hampshire. Her daughter, now four, lives with the girl’s uncle. 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 pyjamas.
“I know if I do the right thing, I can be involved in her life,” 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.
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 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.”
Overdosing on TV
In October 2017, June Schweinhart and a friend snorted lines of heroin in an SUV in Boynton Beach, Florida, and then began to pass out. Their infant children were strapped in the back seat when the police and paramedics showed up in a bank parking lot, body cameras rolling.
The women’s children were placed with relatives, and Schweinhart and her friend were each charged with child neglect. An officer told Schweinhart that the video of their overdoses would be on the news. She decided to watch.
“It looked like a whole different person,” Schweinhart said. “It was a reality check. Some people have different rock bottoms in their life and they get to the point where they just can’t do it anymore — that was it for me.”
She had been hiding her heroin use from her family and friends — even from people at her addiction-support group, who believed she was only abusing prescription painkillers.
Nobody had known. And suddenly, everybody knew.
People on Facebook sent her messages calling her an abusive mother for jeopardising the life of her month-old daughter. They told her to just die. They asked: How could you do something like that?
Remembering the video, recalling the babies’ cries and watching the responding officer slip a pacifier into one of their mouths, Schweinhart did not have an answer.
“It made me sick to my stomach,” she said. “It still does.”
She said every day was a battle with herself — the good June against the bad June — and she came to think of the video, with all its shame and humiliation, as a divine intervention to force her to get treatment and confront her addiction.
It did not proceed like a movie. She repeatedly struggled with the demands of drug court, failed a drug test and spent one night in jail. Last month, Schweinhart left the program.
She said she had been making progress and believed she could beat the child-neglect charge if she could tell a jury the story about what happened after the one that millions had already seen. Or she could plead out. Either way, she felt she had nothing left to hide.
A few days after she expressed confidence in her chances at trial, a judge scheduled a plea conference for December.
The New York Times
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