I’m going to let you in on a secret: Being physically dependent on heroin isn’t fun. When I needed a fix — and when I was using, I always needed a fix — I felt as if my skin was shot through with electricity. I used to scratch myself so violently that it looked as if my back had been raked by a tiger’s claw. When I scored some drugs, that didn’t mean I was going to go and party. Instead, it gave me a few hours reprieve from being bathed in anguish and anxiety.

Here’s another secret: Being dependent on heroin is isolating and lonely. When I was using, my family was scared of me, my friends didn’t trust me, and even casual acquaintances weren’t keen on spending time with a sweaty, anxious mess of a person with a potentially deadly and definitely illegal obsession.

Finally, on the off chance this isn’t blindingly obvious: Overcoming addiction is not easy.

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All of which makes me wonder who the police in East Liverpool, Ohio, were trying to reach by posting a salacious picture of two apparently overdosed adults in a car while a 4-year-old sat in the back. “We felt,” the department wrote on Facebook by way of explanation, “it necessary to show the other side of this horrible drug.”

Really? East Liverpool, which borders both Pennsylvania and West Virginia, is in a region decimated by heroin. It’s the precise part of the country Sam Quinones wrote about in “Dreamland,” his searing book on the opioid epidemic. Call me crazy, but I’m skeptical that anyone in the local population is thinking of starting to use opioids because of their fun and glamorous reputation.

It’s been 50 years since the American Medical Association classified alcohol abuse as a disease and more than 40 since they did the same with drugs. There’s been a lot of research since then devoted to effective methods for curtailing illegal drug use and treating drug abuse. Publicly shaming drug users or bullying those most in need of help isn’t one of them.

The actions of the East Liverpool Police Department were incredibly insensitive. They were also morally repugnant. In one of the pictures, the woman slumped over in the passenger seat, identified in the department’s Facebook post as the mother of the blond-haired boy sitting in a car seat directly behind her, is visibly turning blue. In both pictures, the boy is staring directly at the camera — which means that the officer who pulled the couple over decided it was more important to snap some money shots before he or she made sure the child didn’t witness his mother’s death. (Both adults were eventually administered first aid and survived.)

I’m guessing that the same calculus went into the decision not to obscure the child’s extremely identifiable face. Sure, having a photo out there could follow him around for the rest of his life — but it sure as hell is a striking image.

In our legal system, the police don’t get to decide guilt and innocence. The ability to convict someone on social media shouldn’t make that any less true.

Seth Mnookin is the director of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing and the author of several books, including “The Panic Virus” and “Feeding the Monster.”

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  • I don’t think it is morally repugnant for the police department to post those pictures on Facebook. I think it is morally repugnant that any one should try heroin or meth in the first place. You know why I feel this way? It is because I have been through the other side of heroin addiction, much like that poor little boy in the picture. I have been through the emotional, verbal and physical abuse while dealing with someone that was addicted. I dealt with having money and belongings stolen, being punched in the face which resulted in a broken nose which led to hospital bills. I dealt with being lied to and shamed because the addict didn’t think that that I was doing enough to help them or didn’t feel that I was being compassionate enough to their plight. I dealt with being frightened for my family’s lives because of the addict and because of the people that my family’s addict brought around. The worst thing is that the person still has the addict personality even though they have given up heroin. They will never be the same because they chose heroin. Heroin basically killed the person I knew and loved even though they survived heroin. So I’m sorry if I don’t feel much compassion for your plight because I have lived through it, been haunted by it, have paid too much money on it even though I didn’t pay for the stupid drug and have been hurt by it emotionally and physically. What makes me the most angry is that you blame it on a disease but you made a choice before it became a disease. My family’s heroin addict knew about the dangers of heroin before they made that choice. They could have saved my family a lot of heartache by saying no. It is not the addict that suffers sooo much. It is your parents, spouses, siblings and children that stick around you despite your addiction that really suffer. Th I don’t think people are thinking of family members when they try heroin. Nor are they thinking of the resources that are wasted on them because of heroin. (Think twice before you want to berate me for writing that resources are wasted.) If these pictures makes one person think twice about trying heroin because they can’t stand the idea of being publicly shamed then I think they have done their job!

  • Has the namby-pamby approach to drug abuse is what has gotten us into this pandemic? Aww, ok, we just don’t understand them. You are right, we don’t. That’s because we are smarter than to walk down that heroin/ meth road, the poor choice they made. We all pay for this crap. [Not them, they are strung out.] With so many problems besetting our communities today, I am about out of sympathy for heroin junkies, meth- heads and dealers, and all for hard line approaches that include, yes, running pics of strung out morons who thoughtlessly had someone else’s kid strapped in the back seat after a junk binge as well as mandatory clean out in a state pen, under strict supervision… The new heroin has elephant tranq in it. People are dropping dead all over the Northeast. One approach is to let them all cash in the chips from overdosing. Another more humane way is to open clinics and devote $ to rehabbing some of these people. But that takes money. Some states, like Maine, ignore the problem. That state devotes little or nothing towards this issue. Look at the result of that approach. Calamity. A drug epidemic. Answers? I’m asking you. I have no answers. But I’m willing to listen.

    • Addiction is a disease that garners almost zero sympathy from most people. I’m sure most people wouldn’t appreciate it if we had zero sympathy for cancer patients or zero sympathy diabetics. The way to address this is to greatly increase access to rehabilitation centers and greatly increase public awareness to spur people to want to help addicts not shun them. At the same time the number of doctors who treat with buprenorphine needs to increase dramatically. Every addict who wants access should be able to get it, granted there is strict monitoring and therapy involved. Buprenorphine’s success is well documented. We need to remove the stigma involved with it’s use in responsible individuals. It will cost money, however the catastrophic results of doing nothing is going to ruin this nation. Scores and scores of young people are getting addicted every single day and it needs to stop now. What East Liverpool did is deplorable. All it succeeded in doing is causing hatred towards addicts. It was not proactiveasy in creating a solution whatsoever.

  • Maybe everything this person said is true…sure they’re correct. With that being said so is the officer. The officers are experiencing this epidemic as well as paramedics not just the addicts and their families. Does any addict ever consider what it must be like for a stranger to walk up on their stiff blue body while their child is in the back? Well this officer wanted to make sure you do think about that every time you use it could be you in this picture. So while u want to see this child as a victim of this officers choice to see these ppl chose to slowly kill themselves Everytime they chose drugs he wasn’t killing them. In fact he could have taken more photos got the child some lunch and said help is on the way and called as soon as he decided it was good to call. But instead their lives were spared for them to have the choice to possibly be doing the exact same thing later. Maybe a little public shame will show them what they are and give them the push they need to grow up take responsibility for their life and make a choice to go thru the hell of getting clean. Maybe they’ll choose to stop being cowards afraid of being sick cuz they don’t qualify for a treatment program that’s paid for cuz some how they can afford dope but not treatment. Maybe this child will see how his mother loved dope more than him and his safety. Understanding what the addict is suffering thru doesn’t mean they get pitty or that they’re a victim of anything more than their own dismantled coping skills and own poor choices. Regardless of anyone elses contribution to their experiences for example the doctors who over prescribe or childhood trauma setting the base for addictive behavior. When they want to be clean more than they want to be high there is no longer any excuse of their brain chemistry being changed due to drugs they choose to do and no longer have control over. Funny how quick u have control when u want to be clean more than wanna be high. Every addict is sitting in the passenger seat every addict is sitting in the driver seat and their children are that child in back watching their parent die. This is a monumental photo. Thank you Liverpool Police -the self recovering addict

    • WOW! Never heard SUCH ignorant comments from a SUPPOSED “recovering” addict! Quite sad & pathetic, in all honesty!! For someone who has supposedly experienced addiction, you should probably educate yourself on the DISEASE! It is NOT a “choice” when you’re addicted! The choice is TAKEN from you, more like ROBBED from you by a complete demon!! Stating the woman loved drugs more than her child is just DISGUSTING!! CLEARLY you have NO children, nor have you experienced the true demise of addiction!! If you had, I’m sure there could be a disgusting photo or 2, or 1,000, of YOUR worst day while addicted!! Would that “save” you??!! Bringing more shame to your disease??!!! As the first, clearly educated on the disease of addiction, writer stated.. most addicts are NOT out there partying it up, enjoying life in ANY way!! NOT even close!! It’s a constant fight to stay alive!! They HATE their lives, find NO purpose, & feel hopeless & helpless, often times like EVERYONE (including said child) is better off without them!! Bringing MORE shame to it is NOT the answer!!! It’s the exact opposite!! NO one can beat an addict up MORE than they already do themselves!! I’m speaking FIRST hand on this!! I AM a fan of tough love when dealing with an addict you love yet, NOT bashing them & identifying them as inferior!! That does NOT make ANYTHING better!! Maybe for someone judgmental & almighty, like you, it does though!! People who do that are just ATTEMPTING to feel better about themselves by putting others down so CLEARLY you still have QUITE a bit of work to do!! Being HUMBLE is key to recovery!! So HOP OFF your pedestal, trust me, you do NOT belong up there, & show some compassion & empathy!! I keep ALL in my prayers!! Despite my incredible/successful efforts to stay clean & how much I’ve accomplished in life since, I will NEVER be SO ignorant to speak like I’m ABOVE anyone! Seeing things like this just makes me grateful for my recovery THAT much more & I thank God each & EVERY day that I stay clean!! That beast is ALWAYS there though & I STAY aware of that!! I’ve just luckily been able to identify the core issues that lied beneath my addiction. I also have an INCREDIBLY loving family that has shown me unconditional/undying love & support! I’m also aware that NOT everyone has been SO lucky/blessed, so I’ll just continue to pray.. for them, for you, for EVERYONE who finds it appropriate to exploit others!! Those with NO sin shall cast the 1st stone!! I’ll wait…

  • I am also a heroin addict with two and a half years clean. Reading this gave me chills and i couldnt agree with you more. Thank you for sharing!

  • The herion epidemic needs to be in the forefront showing the effect on “normal” everyday families; especially the innoscent children. We unknowingly see people who are herion addicts as dirty, on the streets, unemployed, etc. I have one problem with the pictures; the faces should have been out of focus since a child is involed; for his privacy. I don’t excuse the police but I do also by walking in their shoes. To see the devastation heion has effected families day in and day out; I would come to a point with no thought to posting because I have it!!! Seeing normal everday working people overdosing on herion. In my county alone, there have been 12 plus deaths per month since 2016 began. My son in 2016; lost friend at 26 and saved a man’s life at work. I like the picture for the reality of herion and the family especially children but the faces needed to be out of focus.

  • I’m gonna guess none of your vividly-described junkie experiences, for which you solicit our empathy, transpired with one of *your* children in the backseat. No, the Mnookin children deserve better than that and you’d be the first to shame anyone who put *them* in such a situation. But this kid is different. He doesn’t deserve as much so your kids would deserve, does he? Shame on you.

    • Let’s say the next time around, the cops decide that they want to open the public’s eyes to the realities of rape. Would you be ok with the police posting a picture of a rape victim, fresh after their assault? Face not blurred out, their anguish made public. You know, to “show the other side” of the “horrible” action. In this hypothetical scenario and what happened to this child, both are entirely innocent victims. They didn’t ask for it to happen to them, it just happened.

      Is it just me, or does something about that sound morally repugnant to you? If not, you’re a lost cause, so I’ll leave it at that regardless.

    • This child has no reason to be ashamed. His parents do. It’s the “dignity” of the parents you and Mnookin are so concerned about. Mindblowing.

  • It is a real shame that people become so dependent on opios that they do things that they normally wouldn’t in the right state of mind and whoever took the picture and posted it should’ve thought about the child well being and humility. I’m sure the boy has friends and classmates who are going to make fun of him horribly and he doesn’t deserve it at all. He can’t help that his parents have a drug problem

  • I agree with you 100 percent. They made sure they captured money shots of this child with his mother (or grandmother, I’ve heard it both ways) so they could post it on Facebook and publicly shame those people, without any regard about taking the child out of the situation so he didn’t have to witness the two important people in his life dying of drugs. All in the name of “public awareness.” Well, I think the public is well enough aware of the heroin epidemic. The police victimized this boy all over again, and every news outlet that published the pictures did the same thing. No wonder everyone hates the media. I’m part of the media, and I hated us that day too. I had an editor once a long time ago who taught me to ask myself if what I was doing helped benefit the common good. I guess everyone has forgotten that lesson.

  • I totally agree. Being a recovering iv heroin user all I could think is that poor baby and how bad off you must be to take all that risk with your child in the car. They were probably dope sick. Did the shot in the car and realized it was too much all while her little boy in the back seat. People don’t intend on overdosing. And that little boy was probably scared and confused and instead of getting him out of the car and doing what the police get paid to do they took advantage of the situation to make a little name for themselves.

  • I have to respectfully disagree with your conclusion. Although I do agree that we should not be shaming anyone with any illness (mental or otherwise) I do think that there is value in a visual campaign that shows the country just how bad it is. Although you may have first-hand knowledge of what the horrors of opioids can do to the body, many don’t. I think a photo like this, when executed correctly (I am uncertain if this was a judicious use of the photo) can have an impact on a collective consciousness.

    • evan, I agree. In my narrow little world, I know heroin is awful. But I have never seen how awful. I don’t think I know a heroin user. This photo forced me to see the human toll this drug takes.

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