I think it’s safe to say October 3, 2016 was a crazy day for Ronald Heirs. The 60-year-old and his wife, Carla, both overdosed on heroin. Heirs passed out on a bus bench while his wife was facedown on the sidewalk, a few steps away. A crowd gathered around them, gawking at their lifeless forms. The pair was finally revived by first-responders, who administered Narcan, a drug that can reverse overdoses. Heirs has no memory of these events.
He only knows what happened because strangers posted pictures and broadcast videos of their unconscious bodies live on Facebook. After the video went viral, it was picked up by the local news and Heirs’ estranged daughter saw it. She reached out to Turning Point Recovery and the organization arranged scholarships for Heirs and his wife to attend residential treatment at two separate facilities. CNN caught up with him recently in rehab for an exclusive interview.
These posts were just the latest installment of the gruesome trend of broadcasting the suffering of drug addicts on social media. Last month, in the wake of several high-profile social media overdose posts, I wrote this rant about how disgusted I am by this movement of subjecting those who abuse substances to public ridicule simply because they’re addicts. We wouldn’t post videos of someone having a heart attack in real time so why is it okay to treat drug addicts like this?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of that little boy in these pictures who was sitting in the back of the SUV while his grandma was passed out from an overdose in the front. I even Googled around to try to find out what happened to him. According to one article, he went to live with his great aunt in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I hope he will be well cared-for and I hope his mom (who is an exotic dancer and a crack addict, according to the Internet) and grandmother will get some help. Because of my personal experience with addiction, I know plenty of families that have been shattered by this disease. Grandparents, parents and kids of people I love are on the streets, in prison or in the ground—it’s tragic. You never really get over losing somebody you love to drugs or alcohol. I don’t care how much “awareness” it supposedly raised; subjecting that innocent kid who has already lost so much to public ridicule and speculation will never make sense to me.
Ronald Heirs is a father, a grandfather and a husband. He’s a human being, not a gimmick to get more likes and followers. His sole purpose is not to serve unwittingly as some sort of high-profile social media overdose cautionary tale. In the CNN video, Heirs is shown watching the video of himself on TV and crying. He is in rehab, 60 days clean and surrounded by counselors—that’s the only way they would let him see it. That alone should serve to illustrate just how harmful this type of social media scrutiny can be to addicts. Gawkers ought to consider the fact that there are people who don’t have that type of support and have to relive the lowest point of their lives over and over just because some passer-by happened to capture it on a smartphone.
Animals at the Zoo
I’m glad Heirs decided to speak out for several reasons. First, it humanizes this devastating opioid epidemic we keep hearing about. This is a real guy—not just a scary statistic on the evening news. He’s a well-spoken, sincere-looking man and he’s been addicted to heroin for 24 years. In response to the video, he said, “It’s the most powerful thing I’ve ever seen.” But just because it’s powerful to him doesn’t make it right. It’s clear that he’s speaking from the vantage point of somebody who is really lucky to be alive and also somehow managed to turn a low point in into an amazing opportunity (addicts are good like that, aren’t we?). He went on to say that, while he has no animosity toward the man who took the video, he feels deep pain for the humiliation his family has suffered as a result. This dude is obviously getting some therapy because he was quick to point out nobody made him take the drugs and that he put himself in that situation.
As one of the commenters on the amateur videographer’s Facebook page pointed out, these are human beings—not animals in a zoo (actually, zoo animals are treated much better; trust me, I was just at the zoo this weekend). Filming these incidents for sport is beyond reprehensible. Personally, I see no reason to film or take pictures of this type of thing at all. Not even for the police (I’m looking at you East Liverpool, Ohio) who claim that posting this type of content was supposed to raise awareness and dissuade people from using drugs. In fact, these types of posts just give people who love drama something to gasp about and perpetuate stereotypes about addicts.
Faces of Recovery
For today, Heirs and his wife are extremely fortunate to be clean and in a facility that can accommodate both of them at different locations. This couple faces a long road back from active addiction and being together won’t necessarily be the best thing for them until they have both had extensive treatment individually. Heirs’ daughter also deserves a huge shout-out for helping her old man, who she severed ties with more than a decade ago. The fact that Ronald Heirs is speaking out about the video of him and sharing his recovery journey with the public is the best possible outcome. The people who took pictures of him unconscious are disgusting but the fact that you can tie this story up with a bow (at least for now—recovery can have fits and starts) shows that even the most despicable act can sometimes have unexpected benefits.