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Experiences of Overdose

Experiences of Overdose

NOTE: Quotes are presented word for word apart from minor editing for readability and clarity. Identifying details have been removed. Square brackets show text that has been added or, where ellipses (three dots) appear, removed. For example, ‘Since I actually participated in this Narcan [training], I’ve administered it to two people and it’s brought them around […] I wouldn’t think twice about [doing] it. Saving someone’s life is the main thing.’

Many of the people we interviewed for this website describe different experiences with opioid overdose. They speak about their own overdoses and those they have witnessed. They recount many different overdose situations and describe a range of different issues that contributed to these overdoses. However, the experiences of the people we interviewed who primarily consumed prescribed opioids for chronic pain do not appear in this section as they reported no experience of overdose.

Participants with experience of overdose point to different combinations of licit and illicit drugs as the cause of overdose. Others refer to changed levels of tolerance as key to their overdose. Some focus on other issues such as the need for privacy, which reduces the chance of being found after an overdose has occurred, or concerns about the police affecting their actions.

Throughout this website, participants emphasise social relationships. Many describe the importance of friends in successfully reviving them from an overdose, or their own role in reviving friends, while others mention responding to overdoses of people they’ve never met.

The experiences reported here often highlight the role of social relationships in shaping overdose and its outcomes. While overdose wasn’t at the front of all our participants’ minds, their experiences indicate the importance of this issue.


Personal experiences of opioid overdose

About 10 years ago, Valentina (F, early 40s, NSW, non-prescribed opioids) was living in a share house with other young women. At the time, she was using naltrexone to reduce her heroin consumption. One day she decided to use heroin while no one was home. Valentina explains that she overdosed because her tolerance to heroin had dropped. (Read her personal story here)

So I went into this girl’s room and I had a shot of heroin, and because [I had been using] naltrexone [a prescription drug used to manage alcohol or opioid use], I hadn’t been using [heroin], so I was as good as clean. [I] then had a shot and [because] my tolerance was zero, I overdosed. No one was home [at the time]. [Eventually] one of the girls [I lived with] came home, saw me passed out on the floor, assumed correctly it was heroin, and called the ambulance. It was the same [paramedic who] had seen me, like, a couple of weeks ago [when I called them for someone else’s overdose] and recognised me. So, I don’t know, I just thought that was a bit kind of sad in hindsight [to have a paramedic recognise me for that reason].

Valentina was revived by the paramedics and describes the event as ‘the biggest shock in the world’.

Ghassan (M, mid 30s, NSW, non-prescribed opioids) also describes how reduced tolerance contributed to his first overdose. He had recently left a youth justice facility and, at the time, wasn’t aware that it could be dangerous to consume the amount of heroin he had previously taken. Ghassan was with a friend who quickly called an ambulance, and the paramedics injected him with naloxone. (Read his personal story here)

So, I was locked up for a period of time and then I got out, and I never knew about tolerance levels and stuff. So I went out and used the exact same amount [of heroin] that I was using prior to being locked up. Luckily I was at a friend’s place, and his sister was there and she was a [heroin user] too. So, I’ve [taken the heroin], and then the next thing I know, I’m waking up in […] hospital throwing up all over, like the instant withdrawal and all that kind of stuff. Just didn’t know how I got there. That was the first time [I overdosed].

The importance of friends is also emphasised by Zippy (M, late 50s, Vic, non-prescribed opioids), who almost overdosed while using heroin in a hotel room. Fortunately, he was with friends who looked after him. (Read his personal story here)

Once when I was in my 20s, I had too much to drink and I was with a friend who had some, you know, it wasn’t bad dope, and I had a taste […] We were in this hotel room and he was mucking around with his girlfriend, and I was just reading a magazine or something on the other side of the room. He noticed that I started to nod off and stopped breathing and he was saying to me, ‘[Zippy], [Zippy], wake up, you’re [starting to go] blue,’ and I go, ‘No, I’ll be all right mate,’ the usual response. […] But if he wasn’t there to [say], ‘Hey, hey, come on,’ and [if he hadn’t] walked me around, took me outside, got me some air and kept me walking around, I would have died for sure. I would have just gone to sleep and stopped breathing, and there would be another person on the statistics, because that’s how easy it is to OD.

Many participants described encounters with police. Skye-Lee (F, early 30s, NSW, non-prescribed opioids) recounts a time she was insulted by a police officer who arrived when she overdosed. (Read her personal story here)

They could be a bit nicer. It’s their job to save people, you know, and [drug use is] a part of life. I don’t like the way that people get looked at and treated by most paramedics and police officers, because they come a lot too and they’re nasty. You know, the last time [an overdose] happened to me, one of the police officers called me an oxygen thief. As he was walking out, he said to his partner, or whatever, something about an oxygen thief and it wasn’t very nice. And I was still out of it, but I knew it was being said. It wasn’t nice at all, and I don’t think people need to be treated that way. I think it’s really rude, you know.

A few years ago, Tye (M, mid 30s, NSW, non-prescribed opioids) was with a friend in a park. They had a ‘new batch’ of heroin that he hadn’t tried before. According to Tye, he passed out, fell over and hit his head on the edge of a garden bed. (Read his personal story here)

I was in, like, a sort of park and I [took some heroin] and stood up. I don’t know, it was weird – my friend said I just sort of went white, just really, really white and was staring into deep space, and I just fell back, just flat back, and hit my head on […] the [edge of a] garden bed. I hit my head on one of them and literally split my head open, and I think I woke up about 12 hours later in a hospital bed. I was informed that they did actually Narcan me two times […] and informed me that they were prepared to use the third one if that didn’t work.

This event ‘scared’ Tye, who remembers hearing about other overdoses on television.

I think that’s why my overdose has scared me that much, because it just wasn’t your average overdose of just dropping. Mine was more damage […] There was nothing different about that day. I […] actually, I think a new batch [of heroin] had hit the street, but nobody really knew about it. At the time that I overdosed […] there was just that epidemic […] I do remember sitting in that hospital bed and a warning coming over the TV on the news about heroin overdoses in the area.

Tye explains that the overdose had a big influence on him and that he became ‘a cautious user’ afterwards.

Some participants described overdoses that resulted from consuming different drugs together. Tony (M, mid 40s, NSW, non-prescribed opioids), for example, suggests some of his overdoses have been the result of mixing heroin with alcohol or ‘pills’. (Read his personal story here)

There’s a lot of other times where my overdoses have come through mixing alcohol and heroin or pills and heroin. That’s what’s got me in trouble, the combination, or the using by myself. When I was younger, I had more using partners, but I’ve had a lot of overdoses because there’s that fine line between getting stoned enough but not waking up, do you know what I mean?

Like other participants, Tony likes to have privacy when consuming drugs. However, as he explains, this privacy can decrease the chance of being found if an overdose does occur. (Read his personal story here)

I don’t use in a locked toilet any more. So I’ve learned, because I’ve overdosed in toilets before and I’ve woken up, luckily, and thought ‘Mate, I should maybe be dead.’ No one’s going to find you in there. They [would] just think [that] there’s someone in there going to the toilet.

Likewise, Lewis (M, mid 40s, Vic, non-prescribed opioids) recounts overdosing after consuming heroin and alcohol. In order to have some privacy, he too consumed heroin in a bathroom. (Read his personal story here)

This was actually at my parents’ house, which I stayed at occasionally. I can very vividly remember the bathroom, and I had a little ritual in terms of how I used [heroin] in that house. The bathroom had a lock on the door, so that’s good, I had privacy to use […] It’s sort of rare for me to have had heroin on me and, you know, buy more than what I was going to use at that exact moment, but at that time I did have more. I’d been drinking – I’d been at a pub and drunk quite a lot of alcohol – and a couple of the other times I’ve overdosed [it] has involved alcohol [too]. I’m not a big drinker, really. So I’d come home from the pub and remembered I still had heroin. I used to sit on the toilet and there was like a shower which had a little tub in it, so there was the edge of that, and you could sit on the toilet. It was a perfect little tray for spoon and everything. Yeah, I did that successfully many times, but, yeah, on this particular occasion I just remember there was very frantic sort of knocking on the door and screaming. My younger brother was there and obviously had become very worried and called my parents, and, you know, I sort of came to. In that situation I’d smashed the toilet seat somehow and I’d bashed my head and I was covered in blood, there was a bent fit in my arm and my mum and dad were hammering on the door.

Lewis tried tidying everything up before his family entered the room but wasn’t able to.

Lance (M, late 40s, NSW, non-prescribed opioids) describes how his sister helped him the first time he overdosed. (Note: strong language) (Read his personal story here)

I think the first time I overdosed, I was at home and I’d taken Mogadon and [then I had some heroin and] I just went down like a sack of shit. My sister came in and my friend was trying to breathe for me and freaking out, and then she called some friends. My parents were downstairs at the time. My sister called a couple of friends and I woke up a couple of hours later. It wasn’t a good experience for [my sister], she was going through her HSC [secondary school exams], you know, and it was pretty awful.

Dylan (M, early 30s, Vic, non-prescribed opioids) also speaks of overdosing after using a mix of drugs, on this occasion Xanax® and heroin. (Read his personal story here)

I have had an overdose experience that was caused by a mixture of opiates and Xanax that somebody put in my mouth. [They] told me it was a Valium and I didn’t know until after I had had a double-overdose experience. I call it a double-overdose experience – it was basically the same overdose but I dropped, was administered naloxone, came good, came clear, and an hour and a half later, I dropped again […] One minute I’m sitting there observing the environment and the next minute, I’m in a medical clinic room, lying on a table with an oxygen mask on. I don’t know whether the oxygen wasn’t flowing properly or if it’s just me, but I was struggling to breathe. I was trying to rip the oxygen mask off, and I’ve got a nurse and the doctor going, ‘No, no, keep the mask on, your oxygen level is really low. We need to get oxygen into you.’

After receiving care at the medical centre, Dylan thanked the workers for reviving him.

Witnessing opioid overdose

Many people we interviewed spoke about witnessing overdoses. These experiences, like the personal overdoses participants describe, highlight the many different forces that influence the occurrence and results of an overdose.

A number of our interviews point to the relationship between the criminal justice system and overdose. For example, Fraser (M, early 40s, NSW, non-prescribed opioids) recounts calling an ambulance to attend to the overdose of an acquaintance, and describes hiding in case police also attended. (Read his personal story here)

It wasn’t that recent, but there was this guy who told me he’d been using a lot [of heroin] and I believed him. He had a shot and dropped. [We were] sitting there with all these drugs and money and I’m like, the telephone box is over there, and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to get that phone, but I can’t leave him.’ I […] ran to the phone box and got an ambulance on the way, and ran back to him and made sure he was alive and partially breathing. Because I had [arrest] warrants at the time, I didn’t want to be around when the ambulance [and police] got there, so I had to sort of hide in the background.

Fraser waited for the paramedics to arrive and then left the area.

Shelley (F, late 30s, Vic, non-prescribed opioids) describes a different encounter with paramedics. She recounts first ‘panicking’ when her friend overdosed and then ringing an ambulance. (Read her personal story here)

I panicked, yeah. Straight-out panicked. She started turning blue and I just literally panicked […] As soon as she’s [injected the heroin…] she said to me […] ‘I shouldn’t have probably had those tablets this morning, because I can feel the tingly feeling going straight to my head’ and I went, ‘Are you serious? Why didn’t you tell me that? I would have told you [to] maybe have less.’ […] [So] I rang the ambulance and I just followed their directions. They were all very helpful. I was just straight-up honest with them. Well, you’ve got to [be] when it’s someone else’s life, or anybody’s life, I suppose. I just wanted them to make sure she wasn’t going to die on me.

After being treated at the scene, Shelley’s friend was taken to hospital for further care.

Our interviews often explored relationships and their importance for our participants. Many stories of overdose centre on family and friends looking after each other. Other descriptions of overdose emphasise the lengths many participants go to, to help people they knew very little or didn’t know at all.

For example, Adele (F, early 40s, Vic, non-prescribed opioids) describes the time she came across a man she suspected was having an overdose. (Read her personal story here)

So I was at a high-rise building, which is a government building [public housing] where lots of overdoses occur. This particular time there was a guy and he was lying on the floor in the stairwell, and I thought that he was asleep. I thought he was stoned, and I spoke to him and asked him, ‘Are you okay? Are you okay?’ And there was no response, and I’m not the sort of person that just walks off and leaves a person there, whether they’re stoned, or whether I think that they’re dead or half alive or whatever it is. It’s scary, it’s horrible, and it’s not nice to be around. Yeah, but I shook the person and I actually felt their pulse, and there wasn’t a pulse. I had water in my bag and I threw it over him, and I don’t know how, but one minute later that person came to.

Adele describes feeling ‘amazed’. As she explained: the man ‘couldn’t stop thanking me and hugging me’.

Describing a different setting, Mark (M, early 40s, Vic, non-prescribed opioids) reports a time when his friend overdosed at a party. While he wasn’t sure exactly what to do at the time, he describes sitting with his friend nudging him awake whenever he fell asleep. (Note: strong language) (Read his personal story here)

And I just sort of looked at him and thought ‘shit’, and I just pulled him into the stairwell, because he said, ‘Just get me away from these [other] people. I don’t want anyone to see me.’ I just said […] ‘What’s going on?’ And I pulled up his sleeve and it was like, ‘Aaaah, okay’. I just stayed with him all night, just kept trying to talk to him, because I was fairly young then, I was probably only 24, and I call that young in my drug-taking days. So I didn’t exactly know what to do. There certainly wasn’t any phones with internet on them or anything like that back then, and so if I thought he was sleeping too much, I would just nudge him and say ‘wake up’. He was nodding off, and he had his head in his hands, and stuff like that.

After sitting together all night, Mark’s friend was slowly improving by the early hours of the morning.