A photo recently blazed across the Internet: an Ohio couple in a car, both passed out, having overdosed on opiates. The woman in the passenger’s seat is pale and ashen. Her head is lolled over to one side, her mouth agape. She looks dead. It’s a deeply disturbing image, even before you notice the child in a car seat behind her, looking right into the camera.
That little boy could have been me. My parents were heroin addicts when I was a child. After I read the caption and finally registered exactly what I was looking at - a picture of a custodial grandmother and her companion on the brink of death from overdose, her grandson helpless in the back seat, released by an Ohio city to illustrate its drug problem - I felt sick. I felt anger and disgust at the woman; I wished I could reach through my computer screen to comfort the little boy, who must have been terrified.
But also I wondered what would have happened if my parents had overdosed while I was with them, if I ever would have recovered from that. I felt grateful they never had and also furious at them for ever being in a position where they could have. The seasick feeling that came over me made me understand the calls for trigger warnings in a way I never had before. I wished I had never seen the picture, but I couldn’t look away from that little boy’s eyes, seeing all of my own hurt pouring out of them.
Then I realized, or more accurately, I remembered, that there’s no way that little boy had any idea what was going on. I was projecting my adult understanding of addiction, and the heartbreak and outrage that I feel about my childhood, only in retrospect.
When I bring myself back to age 4, the age of the boy in the photo, I remember that sometimes Papa fell asleep while he was reading to me, but I thought he was just tired. I didn’t know what “nodding out” was. I remember that we were always broke and that my parents fought about money, but I had no idea they were spending it on heroin; I thought we were just poor. I remember going to the methadone clinic with my mother when she was getting clean, but it didn’t register to me as any different from the dentist I also accompanied her to.
My father’s decades of drug abuse led to his death at 43, when I was 12. I understood much more by then, but I still hadn’t attached the adult moralizations to addiction. I’d been through D.A.R.E. and wondered why my parents hadn’t “just said no,” but I didn’t yet know that society in general views addiction as a moral failing, despite all the talk of disease and treatment.
Years after my father’s death, an old work friend of his told me, “I hope you have some positive memories of him.” It struck me as so strange, because I have only positive memories of him.
I have a shirt of his that still, 16 years later, smells like him. I know that he was filthy, that by all accounts he smelled as pungent as you imagine a junkie would smell, that people moved away from him on the bus, probably assuming he was homeless. But sometimes when I’m really missing him, I bury my face in that shirt and take a deep breath. It smells not like a junkie, but like my Papa. I’m flooded not with thoughts of what addiction is doing to this country, or even what it did to my family, but with memories of running to hug Papa at a bus stop after I hadn’t seen him in weeks, of sitting in his studio with him while he told me stories about his favorite painters and we giggled about puns.
The photo, originally shared by the police department of East Liverpool, Ohio, was republished numerous times. Some news outlets, including The Washington Post, took pains to blur the face of the little boy to protect his privacy. When asked about the decision not to initially conceal the child’s face, Police Chief John Lane told NPR, “within a month, no one’s even going to remember what he looked like, and in 10 years, no one’s even going to know that’s who that was.”
This rationalization shows the chief’s cluelessness as to how this experience, and its documentation, will all affect this child as he grows up: He may not understand what’s going on now, but he will someday. It’s unlikely that, years from now, the boy will be recognized on the street from this photograph, but it is likely that he will come upon the image of his family’s darkest moment and his helplessness at the center of it. His personal sadness, a sadness that will likely be with him for the rest of his life, that may be just now starting to take root, is recorded on the Internet forever. Writing this, I once again imagine myself in his shoes, and my breath quickens at the thought - not only of my parents overdosing with me in the car but also of a photograph of that moment being circulated for people to shake their heads at with “poor dear” eyes.
In addition to being tone-deaf, the chief’s explanation is suspect. It’s far more believable that they knew that the photo is exponentially more powerful when viewers can see the little boy’s face and project our feelings about addiction onto him.
That little boy in the photo was probably confused as to why Grandma and her friend were sleeping. Maybe the boy was scared by the police officers approaching the car or wondering why they were taking his picture. Maybe he understood that his grandma was sick and felt relief that help had arrived. But all of the anger and disgust the public has mustered over this photo, all of the worry about the opiate epidemic that’s sweeping this country and what it will do to “the children” - that’s all coming from us, the viewers. It’s important to recognize that when we look at the face of a woman on the verge of death and judge her choices as if we understand what was in her mind, as if the fact that she uses drugs can’t possibly mean that she cares about her grandson.
There’s no disputing that the boy needed help in that moment, that he was in a dangerous situation and needed to be removed from it. But let’s not make him the poster child for the opiate epidemic or reduce his family to this one low moment. Let’s not make him another casualty of our narrow understanding of addiction.
O’Donnell is deputy editor of the website Narratively, where she edits the Memoir section.