As recognition of the opioid epidemic hits large media outlets, the illustrations being used in framing its narrative have become increasingly vivid. A recent photo gone viral shows a small boy in the backseat of a car with his guardians slumped over and passed out directly in front of him.
Another instance is a video, putting front and center an even younger girl letting out gut wrenching screams, in the face of her mother’s grocery store collapse, as onlookers use their phones to record rather than offering any sort of comfort.
It’s true, the fact that America’s opioid problem is just now hitting the mainstream is bullshit. People have been suffering for decades, and it was not until whites began dying at a disproportionately high rate that it has become a major talking point. I, however, am not here to discuss the epidemic or the irresponsibility of these parents. I am here for the children, who almost certainly don’t understand the gravity of their respective situations, being used to construct a social narrative.
The first time I came across the photos showing a small boy buckled in the car seat of a parked SUV, his pale guardians nearly lifeless in the front seats, I felt myself slide out of the present and back into my frail 11-year-old frame.
I remembered what it was like to watch a parent die. I felt the same anger, confusion, and sick sadness, but it wasn’t until I pulled out of my former self, and back into my 24-year-old present that I felt empathy for the boy’s future. My own personal sorrow has always been with me and will certainly never leave, but it has always been just that – my own, and personal.
When the East Liverpool Police released this boy’s photo, they did not conduct a heroic act, breaking the story of our current opioid epidemic. This tragedy had already existed in the news, and was only getting an increasing amount of coverage. What they did was pull the curtain back on the boy’s personal tragedy, one that he will always carry, and one that is now permanently available for public viewing.
After stumbling across another published piece of voyeurism, a video of a scant 2-year-old girl tugging at her unconscious mother’s body while observers recorded, I experienced a similar transportation from reality. I felt the same weakness as when a 911 operator delicately asked my small arms to turn over my much larger mother. I smelt the vomit on my fingers as I tried to clear her airways.
But most of all, I remembered what it was like for no one to help. I remembered flashes of my dad running past me, when I didn’t know what he was doing or why. It took me years to understand why this was wrong, and why I should not have been the designated savior.
Now this girl will grow up and learn what the video means. She will learn that the preservation of this moment was more important than her welfare during the moment itself. That onlookers used a video to create a social construction of an epidemic rather than affecting it first hand by comforting one of its very victims. The moment can now be played, paused and rewound – all the while this child’s darkest moment will mature along with her, and never leave.
When I conjure up memories of what it is like to be raised by addicts, I get a sepia toned movie reel that contains both months of nothing but frozen meals as well as instances of laughter while being ticked by my mom. Being manipulated to hide the drug habit of two adults, but also being taken to a movie on my birthday. Hiding away drug paraphernalia in anger, and being made to retrieve it when I was caught. Being taken to wrestling tournaments on weekends and the doctor when I was sick.
These children may never get the chance to remember their childhood as a spectrum. Their primary forget-me-not is now a widely circulated piece of hell that will come to represent their entire childhood. A childhood that is likely much more complicated, but much happier than this one moment.
The decision of whether these children would like their personal experience to become a part of the larger dialogue has been taken away from them. They have been forced into a narrative by those with far superior age and power, becoming Shakespearean skulls in the hands of the media, simply there for dramatic effect.
The opioid epidemic needs to be addressed by those who have been affected. It needs spokespeople to lead the crusade. What it doesn’t need is a group of permanently hurt children who do not yet understand the position they are in. The children who will eventually grow up and understand that they will never escape the experience that is now not only in their head, but also scattered across the most heavily trafficked corners of the internet.