These bits of overdose confetti are sprinkled about, mixing together. As I peer through the hole, rather than colorful designs shape shifting as I turn the knob, it’s a mosaic of flashing ambulance lights, 911 alerts on my phone, chest compressions, Narcan, nurses and doctors and IVs. If my daughter Nel were still alive, I’d ask her what she recalls. We never spoke of it during her addiction, me shaky with fear and then anger. Did she remember each overdose, did she know as it was happening? I’ll never know. Unlike a cat, she didn’t have nine lives, or perhaps she did. There are the overdoses I know about but that doesn’t mean that was all of them.
The first I learned of from my insurance statement, found she’d been dumped outside the ER, labeled as a Jane Doe for hours until she was able to identify herself. That her friends (please know I use that term quite loosely) even made the effort to drive her to the hospital gave me no comfort—it made me more anxious, because it made real the fear I’d had, that she would overdose. After the first time, it was no longer if, but when it would happen again. And when it did who’s to say anyone would drive her to the hospital? I couldn’t sleep at night, imagining her tossed in a ditch, everyone trying to save their own ass.
My ex-husband called to tell me she’d been folded into an Uber, sent home after she’d overdosed in a grocery store bathroom. I don’t know if it was a friend or stranger who procured the Uber, nor do I know what the Uber driver was aware of before heading off with Nel in the backseat. But I know she tumbled out of the car in the driveway, incoherent and nearly unconscious.
“Call 911,” I shouted at my ex-husband through the phone.
Jesus, I am not a first responder! I met up with her at the hospital where she lied, insisting she’d taken nothing, no idea what had happened. She was finally released, and I was given directions to monitor her all night, having to wake each hour to check that she was breathing as she slept comfortably. I didn’t have to set an alarm to wake hourly because sleep was out of the question, at least for me.
I found her OD’d twice myself and the second time is too painful to recall. But the first time, I’d arrived at her dad’s house to take her to a parole appointment, but she wasn’t answering calls or texts so I had no choice but to go inside. My fear for her safety was enough to overcome my fear of their dogs—even the playfulness of a golden retriever jumping, and barking is menacing to someone with a terror or dogs. Nel was lying on her bed, unresponsive. My heart felt bigger than my chest, my hands shaking as I raced outside and called 911.
“Is she breathing?” they asked.
“I don’t know, I DON’T KNOW,” I was nearly breathless myself.
“I need you to go back in the house and I’m going to walk you through what to do,” the 911 operator directed calmly.
I didn’t want to go back in the house. I didn’t want to see her. I didn’t want to find her dead. I very reluctantly re-entered and they instructed me to put my phone down, with the speaker on. They wanted me to get her off the bed and onto the floor and I told them I couldn’t. They told me to pull her onto the floor, they wanted her on a hard surface. My efforts to grab and move her didn’t cause any response, and I screamed to the operator that she was dead.
I could not imagine someone could be subjected to such touching and pushing and not open their eyes. I had to drag her by her feet onto the floor and she landed with a thud. A dull, hard thud that to me was the sound of a dead body. They instructed me in chest compressions, counting them out for me through the phone. I heard the sirens coming down the street and shouted, “They’re here!” and raced down the stairs and out the door, desperate for experts to take over what I’d thus far failed at.
This is not unusual, my lack of command in an emergency. I panic, my first instinct at the sight of blood to run. I do not keep a calm head; I do not shift into some numb auto-pilot logic mode. It’s fight or flight and I’m flight all day long. Which is why it amazes me that anyone would call me before 911 when such things happen.
The EMTs were able to revive her with Narcan before taking her in the ambulance. I followed along in my car, beginning to calm as I knew she wasn’t dead. I’d seen them carry her out, she was in a t-shirt and shorts, no bra, no shoes. When I arrived in the ER and was taken to her room, she was being yelled at by a nurse. Because the nurse had walked in on her WITH HER HEROIN OUT. Amid what was a shattering event to me, she apparently felt the need to grab her heroin and spoon and syringes. She had virtually nothing on and I don’t know where she’d hid her supplies since the nurse had taken everything from her and given it to security.
I would have cut my arm off for her to be arrested. She was not safe anywhere but jail or prison. I argued with the security guards, demanding they call the police about the heroin, but they refused. Their rationale is that it would be a HIPAA violation. When I’d initially approached them, their response was that they couldn’t give the drugs back to me. I’d been enraged, shouting that I didn’t want them. My God, do people actually attempt to collect their drugs from the lost and found desk? I spoke to her parole officer who agreed to arrest her, provided I could get Nel to her office before noon. I now had a clock ticking on top of everything else.
I collared the doctor; told him I needed her released no later than 11:30. He understood the urgency and I heard him direct the nurses to get Nel up and walking in the halls as soon as possible. If she could walk the length of the hallway, she’d be released. I called my sister Jessica, who raced to the hospital with some of her own clothes and shoes. Nel would be highly suspicious if I took her to the parole office wearing no clothes. It was December in Iowa, not barefoot weather.
When they released her from the hospital, she was hungry and wanted Burger King. She also wanted cigarettes which I got, two packs even though I knew she wouldn’t need them. Better to make her think everything was fine. Nel was nodding off in the car and was full on dozing as we pulled into the parking lot. She likely had been released from the hospital sooner than was ideal but no matter, it was what was needed.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but after I texted and emailed her parole officer that we were there, I was shocked as my car was quickly surrounded by police cars. One behind and one on either side, fully pinning me in. They jerked my door open and told me to step out of the car, which I gladly did. Nel was so out of it, she was still slumped over in the passenger seat, unaware of what was happening until they opened her car door and began unbuckling her seatbelt.
We all slept better when Nel was in jail. I was to fly to New York the next morning and my boss told me to stay home, I didn’t need to come. She was worried about me, given all that had transpired. What she didn’t understand was everything was fine, Nel was where she needed to be, and she was alive. I could breathe easily. Traumatized and scarred probably, but always more relaxed when Nel was locked up.
Once, one week out of prison, Nel moved in with my sister Amy, who, unbeknownst to me, had developed an addiction of her own—bad place for Nel to be, but none of us knew. Amy woke up from a nap and called me.
“Ummm, Nel is laying in her bed with her mouth open and she’s not moving or doing anything. She won’t answer me.”
“Call 911, she’s overdosed,” I yelled.
Jesus, again, these people, calling me as if I have a magic wand to solve everything. Amy, my ex-husband. Take some initiative you twits! It occurs to me just now that perhaps this is partially why I felt so responsible for all Nel’s damages, a heavy guilt to repair all her wrongs. No matter what she did, or how old she was, I was the one getting a call of complaint:
She came home and vomited all over the bathroom, she snuck a man into my house, she stole my Keurig, her ex-boyfriend’s dog has torn up my couch!
Accusing tones, fingers pointing my direction, expecting me to buy a new Keurig, replace a couch, atone for Nel’s sins.
My ex-husband rushed over to Amy’s that night, as he was still friendly with my sister and only minutes away. My other sister Jessica and her husband Nate arrived as well. Amy kept calling me, asking if I was on my way. No, I was not.
“They’re going to give her Narcan, and if they revive her, they’ll take her to the ER. There is nothing that will change if I’m there or not, that’s how it goes,” was my position.
If she was not revived, of course I’d have been right there. But I knew the drill and maybe this was my self-preservation instinct kicking in. I dug in hard; I wouldn’t budge and no shaming in the world was going to move me. I refused to be there as it unfolded. I simply could not do it.
Nel didn’t die and everything happened exactly as I’d predicted.
I was taking her to a doctor’s appointment one day and my ex-husband called and said he’d been in the kitchen and heard a thud. He knew she’d fallen on the floor and when he found her, she was able to stand up, act as if nothing had happened. Time and again he’d threatened to remove the door from her bathroom. She could not be trusted in any bathroom. It’s very challenging when bathrooms are a drug addicts’ trigger because you can’t really maneuver through life without them.
She kept nodding off on the short drive to the doctor and I kept poking her.
“What’s wrong with you, what’s going on?”
“Nothing, I’m just tired, jeez, why are you making such a big deal,” she complained.
I poked her the entire way and as it continued in the exam room, although to a lesser extent, I said things to the nurse, the doctor but nobody did anything.
Not too long after that, my ex-husband called, and it was more than a thud. He was working from home and heard a pounding from her room—she was thumping her head against the wall repeatedly as she was fighting to breathe I imagine. The paramedics were already there by the time he called me. No need to come, he told me, you know how it goes.
I paced around, made myself a drink even though it wasn’t even noon. My hands, my heart, everything shaking. I called my sister Jessica as I paced about, smoking cigarette after cigarette.
That one was a long haul. I checked in with my ex-husband repeatedly, the time was outsized relative to prior overdoses. They’d given her multiple doses of Narcan, were struggling to get even a thready pulse. Finally, they were able to transport her to the hospital where she didn’t remain long. It wasn’t more than a few hours before I was summoned to pick her up and drive her home.
Nobody went and sat bedside with her that time. This sounds cruel. There is a level of exhaustion, heartbreak, a reckoning that not all things can be fixed with a smile and a hug. I picked her up outside the ER where she stood shoeless, bitching about the hospital staff the second she plopped into the car.
That brings us to six. Six bits of confetti swirling in this kaleidoscope of my memory. I know there was a seventh. I will never not know that and there is no rush to memorialize it, to document it lest I forget. I’ll never forget number seven but I’m not yet ready to recount it. I don’t know what I don’t know, however. And I never will. Maybe Nel did have nine lives and what I count as number seven was number nine – or perhaps ten. I’m not sure how that all works but I know that she’s gone and nothing I can do will ever bring her back.
Kim McVicker is a life-long resident of Iowa but has no cows, chickens nor any farming experience. She worked for decades in the financial services industry, which is as dull as it sounds. Mother of one, now gone, she finds solace in writing about her experiences with her daughter, even the ugly memories. When not reading, writing, or listening to NPR, she enjoys letting her granddaughters squish mud, fingerpaint and otherwise make whatever messes bring them joy. Her other pieces have been published in a folder labeled Writing on her desktop as well as in HerStry and BackChannels. She lives in Des Moines, IA with her delightful, patient and mess-hating husband David.