Transforming Overdose Into Recovery

Today is International Overdose Awareness Day. Experiencing overdose is a crisis. But crisis presents opportunity to change.

More people are dying from overdose than guns or car crashes. It’s hard to think about, if you’re using. Maybe survival isn’t at the top of the list right now – getting high is. But if you’re breathing, there’s a part of you that wants to stay alive, no matter how bad your addiction is. A near death experience can bring out that will to live.

When you're in it, addiction is an impossible world to imagine a way out of. It's your way of life. It's the air you breath. But you can recover. And as long as you survive it, you can especially recover after overdose. It can be a wake-up call to just how serious your addiction is. For some, it can be the big reveal in which friends and family finally realize you are very sick. It might be your own big reveal, in which you realize how sick you are. Maybe you wake up in the hospital, whereas before you've been able to sleep things off. Maybe you realize that there are people here that might lose you. 

We talked about naloxone (also called Narcan) yesterday, if you missed it. Narcan is the opiate antidote used during overdose. Today, let’s talk about what happens after Narcan or naloxone is used, or you’ve received other treatment for an overdose. It can feel like a time of crisis. And it is. But opiate addiction itself is a sort of crisis all the time, a mad hamster wheel of scoring, avoiding withdrawal, and trying to stay awake. Overdose shines a bright spotlight on addiction as unsustainable behavior. Something's gotta give. And it's got to be you, your life, or your addiction. This moment of crisis, this new lease on life, can be an opportunity to change. You can seize the tragedy as opportunity, embrace your fear, and transform it into motivation in your mind.

I got sober eight years ago, and the drugs were different then, but I still managed to overdose. My poor then-boyfriend once climbed up to my second story apartment, and in through my window, to see if I was okay when I wasn’t responding. Perhaps the most disorienting times for me were being released from the hospital or left by the ambulance or firefighters who had determined I was okay, with sore and sticky arms from IV’s and little direction on what to do next. I’d be left with nothing but a bruised sternum from where I was vigorously rubbed in the chest by whatever emergency personnel was trying to wake me up, and concerned parents in another state who weren’t sure if yet another crisis was worth driving out over, when there had been so many before. Medically, I was still there. My heart was pumping and I was breathing even if my nose was dry and sore from tubes. My body stood on the ground just like it had before I overdosed. Mentally, though, I was lost.

So what should you do after overdose? How can you hold onto the crisis, and seize it as a moment of transformation?

1. Seize the moment.

Mindfulness head

If overdose places you in the medical system, tell them you want help. Ask for resources. If you’re still going to use, ask for suggestions about safer use. If you’re ready to quit, ask for a referral. As the days pass and you gain distance from your overdose, you’ll struggle more with physical withdrawal. Using will sound better, and the unpleasant overdose itself will be a fading memory compared to your intense cravings. So take action while it’s all fresh in your mind and medical professionals are in front of you. They aren't going to expect you to want help. So speak up for yourself, and be your own advocate.

2. Talk to your loved ones.

If your friends and family didn’t know you had a problem, this is the time to have a conversation with them. If you don’t feel comfortable talking with certain members of your family, try reaching out to a trusted friend about what is going on. Overdose is physically and mentally exhausting, so you’ll need support. Please don't take an Uber or taxi home from the hospital. Call someone, even if it's just your local NA hotline. As addicts, it’s hard to ask for help. We live in a world of shame and secrets. A first step to getting better is letting people in. Sometimes, overdose forces you to do just that.

3. Be prepared for physical withdrawal.

Healing Workit

Naloxone itself isn’t a solution to overdose. It will wear off, which can create the risk of re-overdose. It will cause serious withdrawal, and make you want to use more. But if you do use, the naloxone in your system might prevent you from getting high. If you’ve been treated with Narcan (generic name naloxone) and haven’t received emergency care, get medical care and get advice on how to detox safely.

4. Check into medication-assisted treatment.

Pill bottle illustration

Studies show that medication-assisted intervention in the emergency room, like buprenorphine, improve treatment outcomes. Hopefully more ER’s take heed of this news. There’s an idea out there that you have to check in to an expensive 30-day treatment center and put your life on hold to get better, but there are other treatment options. Medication like Suboxone (generic name buprenorphine) can help you detox, and help your cravings, without inpatient care.

5. Celebrate the little joys of life.

Regardless of what you believe happens after death, surviving overdose allows you to experience every detail of this world. Cultivating that sort of gratitude is a big part of what recovery, and appreciating the world even when sober, is about. You wouldn’t see your kids, parents, or pets if you were dead. Forget about the next season of Game of Thrones. Your favorite ice cream. Jack in the Box tacos. Autumn leaves crunching under your feet. Cuddling. Your favorite song, played loud while you're driving on the freeway. Try to remember all the little delights of being alive, especially in the difficult times that lay ahead in early sobriety. You almost didn’t make it. But you did. So now is a perfect time to treasure the things in your life that bring you even the tiniest bit of joy.

6. Find a tribe to connect with, and share your story.

It doesn't matter what sort of group floats your boat. Many folks find their people in Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous. But if that isn't your thing, there are other support groups, or counselors. There is Yoga of 12 Step Recovery. Refuge Recovery is a buddhist-focused addiction group. If you're not ready to dive into the recovery world, but need to find some people whose idea of fun isn't shooting up, check out meetup.com. Connection is healing. But your old connections probably aren't. 

Finally, check out Revived & Renewed, 5 powerful stories of recovery after overdose:

 

Stop your overdose before it starts:

Signs & Symptoms of an Overdose (Project Lazarus):

  • Awake, but cannot speak.
  • Slow heartbeat and pulse.
  • Slow breathing or not breathing.
  • Blue lips and/or fingernails.
  • Gurgling, snoring, or raspy breathing.
  • Choking sounds.
  • Passing out.
  • Vomiting.
  • Pale face.

What puts you at greater risk for an overdose?

  • Using after a period of abstinence (such as during incarceration, hospitalization, or substance use disorder treatment); this can lower tolerance
  • Rotating between different types of opioids
  • Mixing opioids with alcohol or medications (such as benzodiazepines or anti-depressants)
  • Health-related problems: emphysema, asthma, sleep apnea, COPD, heavy smoking, kidney issues

If you ever suspect an overdose has occurred, the first thing you need to do is call 911. Then, use Narcan if available.


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Kali Lux is a writer and editor with a gift for breaking down big ideas into digestible bits. She loves to talk, write, and read recovery. Her short humor has been featured on McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and her BA in English is from ASU.