Can shaming lead an addict into recovery? Can a drug-addled soul, confronted with graphic pictures of what depravities opiates led an addict to, be shocked or scared straight? Can images of a couple overdosed in the front seat of a car and a 4-year-old left helpless in the back awaken a community to the seriousness of an epidemic that crushes lives every day?
In my experience, sometimes. Yeah, enough so that it’s probably worth a try, though it would be best to do it without identifying the blameless child.
The City of East Liverpool, Ohio, posted a series of photos and a police report on its Facebook page that has taken the internet by storm. The photos show driver James Lee Acord and passenger Rhonda Pasek passed out in the front seat of an SUV, overdosed. Also in the photos is the unblurred face of a child, seated in the rear.
According to the police report, an officer followed the vehicle because it was being driven erratically. It skidded to a stop just short of a school bus discharging children, and when the officer approached it, he found passenger Pasek unconscious. Acord said he was taking Pasek to the hospital because she was overdosing, then he passed out as the officer talked to him.
The cop called for ambulance workers, they administered Narcan, the couple woke up and were taken to jail. The two were caring for the child. And in East Liverpool, as in much of this nation, increasingly besieged by opiate addiction, it would have been just one more kooky anecdote about dangerous druggies, except that the city and the cops, at their wits’ end, published the photos and the police report on East Liverpool’s Facebook page.
By Tuesday afternoon, the post had almost 40,000 shares and 10,000 comments. It has stirred up tremendous controversy. One concern is for the privacy of the child, but the hottest debate is over whether posting the pictures serves a purpose. If you spend much time listening to recovery stories, you know it very well might.
Many say addicts have to “be ready” to get better, that they must “want to change” before recovery can work. But it often isn’t true. It can be surprising what persuades people to claim sobriety.
I had absolutely no desire to quit drinking when I started recovery 13 years ago. I just wanted to get my boss and wife and everyone else in my life off my back, save my job and marriage, then go back to drinking. But somehow, I never have.
No one understands why some people recover and others don’t. No one understands why some fail 30 times, then make it and stay sober for 30 years.
One of my closest friends did 5 years in prison for a drug conviction, and it did not get him sober. What did, years later, was seeing his child’s eyes in a courtroom when his wife came to post bond for yet another drunken-driving charge. We see people court-ordered to attend recovery programs or forced there by family or work interventions. They hate everyone in the room for a year, but hear something that clicks and get sober forever.
There is an argument for not shaming addicts. Few people want to act like garbage. Most addicts would not behave so bad if they could help it. Dependence is a disease.
But it is not an untreatable disease. Millions of people are in recovery. Various tools are available. The emotions and experiences that persuade people to embrace and pursue those tools are endlessly varied.
In East Liverpool, the cops and officials didn’t know what else to do, so they tried this. An addict, seeing the pictures, might see an intolerable future and get help. Someone else might be so frightened that he or she never tries heroin.
Shame and disgust and judgment are not fashionable concepts, but they are powerful ones. And they’re worth a try.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.