YA A to Z: Guilt, Shame and Blame – Heroin Overdose Deaths in Teen Fiction, a guest post by Kerry Sutherland
As I contemplate where to put this in YA A to Z, I realize there are far too many options. D for drugs, or death. E for epidemic, as our country is facing a devastating opioid epidemic. G for guilt. H for Heroine. S for shame. I wanted to put it up now as opposed to later, because it’s such an important topic facing our teens today. So D it is, for death by drug overdose. I am thankful to Kerry Sutherland for sharing this post, and sharing her own experiences within it.
As a young adult librarian, I meet many children and teens who have lost a loved one. Terminal illnesses, tragic accidents, suicide – I’ve heard about them all, and as an adult who still has the luxury of two living parents and a large group of friends I have known since kindergarten, I know how fortunate I am to have lost few of those close to me unexpectedly.
Unfortunately, some of those few have been young people in my family, and whether accepted or admitted as such or not, more than one of those deaths have been from a heroin overdose.
Wait – those don’t happen to middle class, white suburban families, do they?
My family would beg to differ, as shocked and pained as they were by each one. Did any of them struggle with addiction? Yes, but not all. Were there signs? Maybe, but maybe not. The big question is why. With family and friends who loved them, why? Was it accidental, or did they truly want to die? As those left behind, what have we as a family, and their friends, had to deal with, both within our own hearts and minds and those of others who are either quick to sympathize or to judge, or to act as if heroin played no role in the deaths at all because they are ashamed?
Plenty of teen fiction deals with death and loss, with grief and mourning, but when I looked into what novels I could offer teens in my area, which as a part of northeast Ohio has been hit hard by the opiate epidemic, I found very few that focus on heroin overdose deaths. What is different about those deaths, and why do teens need stories with that distinction, especially if they have either known someone who has overdosed or are vulnerable to becoming a user themselves?
A closer look at each of these titles makes the distinction and the need clear.
In Sarah Porter’s When I Cast Your Shadow, two months have passed since Ruby’s “young and talented and amazing” older brother Dash died from a heroin overdose, but she is still devastated, in spite of her father’s attempt to force her, as well as Ruby’s twin brother Everett, to move on. Dash’s room has been emptied, new furniture replacing the old, and Ruby is trapped in memories of her attempts to follow Dash into rough neighborhoods, of Dash’s anger that she was exposing herself to his new life and that she had found him “crazed, filthy, with a feverish stench”: “You do not have my permission to see me like this . . . you will keep your image of me as bright and clean and blazing as a supernova.” Unfortunately, as much as she fights to maintain the dignity of Dash’s memory, she can’t forget that she knew about his addiction but was unable to prevent his death. Her father looks the facts straight on as if it would help Ruby get past her grief, telling her that Dash was manipulative, destructive, and selfish, but Ruby feels like “the only one who will fight for Dash, now that he can’t defend himself.” She was the only one who had any hope that he would get clean, and while she didn’t see his body after he died, she “heard they found him, naked in his girlfriend’s bed . . . with his head hanging over the edge and the needle still in his arm. Eyes wide and gray in the silvery morning light.” She thought that he had kicked heroin six months before his death, making it more of a shock. “I’ll never love anybody that much again,” she asserts, coming to realize that her father’s hatred of Dash is his way of coping with the loss, but knowing that no matter what anyone thinks or does, Dash is gone forever. There is a supernatural horror aspect to this story, but the details of Dash’s addiction and how that along with the manner of his death affects Ruby and Everett are the powerful drive behind this tragedy.
When Andria’s twin sister Iris overdoses on heroin in Robin Bridges’ Dreaming of Antigone, Andria can’t help but feel guilty. Born with a disorder that causes seizures, Andria had been faking one to distract her parents from Iris’s partying the night Iris died, and if they had been home instead of at the hospital with Andria, Iris might have been saved. Iris’s boyfriend Alex, who is “about as broken as they come,” is back from rehab, but Andria can’t forgive his role in encouraging Iris’s drug use, which was brought on by their stepfather’s abuse. Iris’s friends try to include Andria in their social activities, but Andria’s heart isn’t in it, and she can’t “fill the Iris-shaped hole” in their lives. Her nightmares about Iris revolve around guilt and blame, as Iris is angry with her but she can’t “hear her in my dreams because I never heard her crying out for help in real life” and she feels “like I never really knew my sister at all. And now that she’s gone, I won’t ever get the chance.” Her mother doesn’t think Andria needs counseling, however, fearing that it would be an admission of emotional weakness, but Andria knows she “can’t fix myself, not yet.” As Andria spends more time with Alex, “the boy who killed my sister,” she is forced to face her sister’s responsibility for her own behavior. “Your life was perfect before I came and turned your sister into a drug addict, right?” Alex sneers as he confronts her, and even when they discover Iris’s terrible reason for her drug use, they both know that the only thing they can do is honor her memory by keeping the girls’ stepfather from hurting more girls. Nothing will bring Iris back, but the pain of her loss and the preventability of her death continue to haunt them half a year after she is gone, as Andria tries to determine who is at fault: “Maybe we all failed her, because we didn’t know she needed help.”
The Unlikelies by Carrie Firestone has a cute cover and a jacket blurb that focuses on the standard ‘summer before their senior year of high school’ woes: boyfriend drama and popularity concerns. What it doesn’t detail is the heroin addiction that threatens to kill one of the secondary characers. Sadie reconnects with Alice after they’ve grown apart, but has fond memories of Girl Scouting adventures with Alice and another girl, Izzy. Alice reveals that after becoming addicted to Oxy following a riding accident, Izzy has “been doing heroin pretty much every day, and it’s getting worse.” Izzy disappears when Alice threatens to tell her parents, and Sadie is stunned: “I had a vivid memory of baby-faced Izzy playing tug-of-war in her riding boots and braids at one of our jamborees. I couldn’t believe she was doing heroin.” Alice’s texts to Sadie detail Alice’s fears as Izzy gets worse: “At the hospital. Izzy might be dead. Please come” and later, she asks, “Who overdoses on a Tuesday afternoon?” Alice feels guilty about “allowing” Izzy to disappear, about “letting go away with that hideous dealer,” and is understandably furious with Izzy’s parents, who are so disconnected from their daughter that they don’t realize that she is using until the overdose. “This is hell. Some guy she’s sleeping with called 911 when she turned gray and her lips went blue and she choked on her own vomit . . . I can’t even tell you what it has been like to deal with my best friend nodding off, trying to score smack all day, stealing money from my car, lying, smelling like shit because she never showers. It’s hell.” The group of friends make a dangerous visit to a trap house looking for Izzy, as Alice bluntly reveals that Izzy is probably having sex with whomever will give her heroin. The story concludes with Izzy in rehab in another state, with no clear hope that she will get better, especially since her parents are still in denial and are shamed by the gossip that Izzy’s sexual and addictive behaviors have garnered in the community. Sadie’s heart aches for Alice and Izzy, but how can Alice move on with her life knowing that Izzy is still at risk?
Kayla is a popular and athletic honor student, so when her boyfriend and best friends find her dead of a heroin overdose days before their senior year begins in Cecily Wolfe’s That Night, they are stunned and heartbroken. Some of their classmates are kind, but others are judgmental, and as texts roll in on Cassidy and Sarah’s phones, they discover that not everyone is sympathetic to their loss. What about other teens who have died of drug overdoses, some texts ask. Why didn’t they get any attention? Cass and Sarah have never heard of anyone else dying in this way in their town, but soon they realize that Kayla’s status and background make her stand out as someone worthy of mourning, unlike teens in rougher neighborhoods where the community has come to accept the losses as part of life. Both girls feel guilty, believing that they could have prevented Kayla’s death, as Kayla’s failed attempts to get help from her parents and doctors after a sports injury left her in constant pain and open to self-medicating. A soccer teammate refers to Kayla as a “junkie” during calling hours at the funeral home, and a normally quiet Sarah attacks her, because “Kayla was gone and there was nothing else she could do for her but fight.” Adults tell them to “get on with your life” but their insensitivity reflects the way Kayla’s problems were treated as insignificant while she was alive. Cassidy and Sarah decide that in honor of Kayla, they can bring attention to the kids who are dying without being noticed, to “give them a voice” and start focusing on bringing a stop to heroin availability in their community: “Why the hell did she do it? What would make a girl like Kayla want to, even once? If someone like Kayla could do it, that meant a lot of kids could, kids no one would ever think would use.” Finding Kayla unresponsive at the party, holding her “limp hand between her two, as if she could warm Kayla’s heart through her fingers,” is a memory that Sarah, who had held Kayla while Paul tried to revive her and Cassidy called 911, and the others will carry with them the rest of their lives, but their guilt and questions can’t change the reality of her death.
Lo’s brother Oren has been her saving grace her whole life in Kate Ellison’s The Butterfly Clues, as the childhood onset of obsessive compulsive behaviors and constant moves because of their father’s job make it difficult to find friends. His death from a heroin overdose a year earlier exacerbated her behaviors, and her parents have abandoned her, her mother confined to sleeping in her room and her father to his work. She wears her brother’s shirt and dreams of Oren sitting on his grave, begging her to help him, asking her why she left him. Lo wonders if Oren “thought he was missed, as he eased down the gradual slop of his slipping away from us, from everything, into nothing” or did he think she didn’t care? Once Oren had saved her from drowning in a creek, but she couldn’t save him, and her guilt is crushing: “I wonder if Oren thought we didn’t care. It’s probably why he didn’t come back, why he ended up rotted away in some abandoned building somewhere.” If he was there with her now, she would never let him go again. Her dreams are full of Oren calling to her, her bright beautiful brother who had been “so close. Just a couple of miles away. And we sat, waiting, doing nothing, while he fell apart, disintegrated.” He wasn’t found until he had been dead a week, and the details of what remained are horrifying: “The only thing left after his skin melted off in that apartment where he died, all alone” were his teeth. Her own memories of him the last time she saw him are haunted by how skinny he was, how “his eyes were ringed with purplish disks, his hands shaking” and she wonders if he knew that he was leaving her forever. Her father hates her compulsive behaviors and just wants her to be “normal” but he eventually comes to realize how his expectations and the way he and Lo’s mother have been dealing with their own grief is hurting Lo. Whatever changes are on the horizon for her family, Lo holds “every single moment I ever had with him” close: “I have them all – folded into a million messy drawers in my brain; they belong to me, my dowry, my heritage.”
What do these novels have in common that make the stories stand out from others about death and mourning, speaking to the difference of experience these teen characters have by losing someone to a heroin overdose?
The details of the manner of death. The horror. It’s real, it’s honest, it’s heartbreaking.
The shame. The guilt. The questions. The big WHY? Why did he or she use? Why didn’t I know? Why couldn’t I stop it from happening?
The blame game. Was it he dealer? The loved one? The drug? Yourself?
The judgment. The shame. The defensiveness. The contradictory feelings that fight a weary, unwinnable battle in your heart.
As heroin continues to add to its death toll in my state and many others, those of us who serve and support young people will need more of these stories to help them cope with the realities they face, as well as to show them the devastating effects this drug has on users and those who love them.
Meet Our Guest Blogger
Kerry Sutherland is the young adult librarian at the Ellet branch of the Akron-Summit County Public Library in Akron, Ohio. She has a PhD in American literature from Kent State University, along with a MLIS from the same. She reviews middle grade and young adult fiction and nonfiction for School Library Journal, and is a published author of short fiction, novels, poetry, professional and academic work. She loves cats, Shadowhunters, Henry James, anime, and NASCAR.
Filed under: #YAAtoZ
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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