Journalists at an Intervention

This post was originally published on this site


My article called “1 Son, 4 Overdoses, 6 Hours” started out as one story but ended up as another.

I was originally planning to write about why New Hampshire has such a severe problem with heroin and fentanyl. I reached out to researchers at Dartmouth who were studying this question and asked them to put me in touch with one of the drug users whom they had interviewed so I could put a human face on this crisis.

They offered Patrick Griffin, the man who would become the central figure of my article. I met him in April at a Dunkin’ Donuts near his home in central New Hampshire. He was 34, affable, chatty and remarkably descriptive about his drug use, which had been going on for two decades. He was bummed about a breakup with his girlfriend, and while he didn’t seem high during the interview, he said he was an active user. We talked for more than an hour, then went our separate ways.

I was still working on the New Hampshire angle in May when I got an email from Patrick’s mother, Sandy, saying that Patrick had overdosed at least four times in one afternoon and had been involuntarily hospitalized.

Patrick “was/is suicidal,” she wrote, adding: “I am grateful that you are trying to expose this problem in these horrific times. We need not be anonymous.”

I had met Sandy only in passing at the Dunkin’ Donuts when she dropped off Patrick for our interview, but she was clearly at her wit’s end, having been enmeshed in his addiction for so long.

As a reporter, I was struck not only by her pain but also by her willingness to be identified. So often, people whose loved ones are addicted are ashamed and afraid of being stigmatized. When someone decides to go public, it is a godsend, as it helps combat accusations of “fake news” and shows that, as Sandy said in the article, “we are your neighbors.”

From there, the family drama of coping with addiction overtook the original story about New Hampshire. The Times assigned the photographer Todd Heisler to work with me, and the family allowed us to witness their grueling intervention with Patrick in July.

Several people have asked how that worked. Journalists often worry that their mere presence will change people’s behavior and render it inauthentic. In this case, the family members, all of whom were in extremis, were so focused on their own difficulties that they hardly noticed us. And we were discreet. No klieg lights. No microphones. We blended into the background and kept our mouths shut.

The reaction by readers has been overwhelmingly compassionate toward the Griffins. Many felt we had captured the tortured dynamics of their own families. In a shower of emails and postings on social media, they told their own stories of how continuing battles with addiction had destroyed the lives of loved ones.

“Overdoses and hospitals and rehabs and AA meetings and medications and arrests and pleading and interventions and court dates and driving to pick him up in the middle of the night from the most horrific holes,” a colleague wrote of a close friend, adding, “I finally had to cut him out of my life entirely two years ago.”

A tiny fraction of readers thought taxpayers should not spend a dime trying to help people like Patrick. “No one is forcing him to shoot up,” one wrote, asking whether the money spent to save him might “have been better spent on someone that actually CONTRIBUTES something to society?”

A handful complained that the media never lavished such attention on black families when they were the main ones caught up in drug scourges.

But the vast majority thanked the Griffins for their “bravery” in going public. Total strangers offered to help by paying for rehab for Patrick or offering him a free place in their treatment programs.

The Griffins were overwhelmed. Like many families in their circumstance, they had allowed their silence about Patrick’s addiction to isolate them. After the family told their story publicly, many people who had been close to them sought to reconnect. “I had no idea what you guys were going through until I read that article,” a long-estranged niece wrote to Sandy.

Another estranged niece also wrote a supportive note, concluding, “I love you all and so proud and grateful to call you my family.”

What kinds of stories on the opioid crisis would you like to see us cover? If you have ideas, please take a few moments to answer this confidential survey.

Keep up with Times Insider stories on Twitter, via the Reader Center: @ReaderCenter.