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What it’s like to witness an overdose

Wednesday 31st August 2016

Today is International Overdose Awareness Day. Nearly every week in New Zealand a person dies from an overdose.

Overdose deaths are completely preventable but people need access to Naloxone – a drug used to prevent fatalities – which hasn’t been readily available.

The good news is, the Government has recently decided to change the classification of Naloxone so that people can get overdose kits without a perscription at places like pharmacies and Needle Exchange sites.

Kate Kerrisk is avid campaigner for Naloxone and reducing harm to drug users. She's also a board member with Drugs and Health Development Project which has five Needle Exchanges around the North Island.

After her own struggle with addiction, she’s ecstatic about the change to the overdose drug classification. It’s something that many around her needed.


‘What it’s like’ is a weekly Wireless series. For more, click here.

As told to Mava Moayyed.

I started using when I was around 16. I didn’t like school and I left home pretty early, too. I was quite stubborn and headstrong so I just took off and tried to make my own mark on the world. I failed miserably, really.

It started with pot and drinking and then progressed into other things. I was a pretty regular user of Benzos and, for a time there, a pretty regular user of opiates. And then a heck of a lot of amphetamines. I’d use anything I got my hands on.

It was all about knowing the right people. Now I’d find it pretty hard to lay my hands on a lot of things but back then, with the circles I moved in, every man and his dog had some.

Even though my physical opiate addiction was pretty short-lived, it was very gruelling. I was craving it and needing it to feel well. I’d be shivering and shaking. You put so much energy into chasing it just because you feel so sick and flu-like without it.

I had a boyfriend who was using at the time so we definitely encouraged each other a bit. I remember we ate a lot of toast and porridge – we didn’t eat well at all. We didn’t live in very highbrow digs, often damp horrible homes, but that’s how we afforded the habit.

Most of your opiate class of drugs are going to need needles and there wasn’t a needle exchange in the Wairarapa at the time. There were two pharmacies where you could get needles from but it was a small town and often people who worked there were going to know your parents. Or you may have been picking up pain medication or sleeping pills so you couldn’t show your face in there or they’d put two and two together. It was quite awkward.

You’d often have to get your friends to go in or go across town to get to the other one. Because it so hard to get them, it was really common for people to reuse them. They’ve come a long way now that they’ve had the Masterton Needle Exchange there for about 8 years.

It had quite a profound effect on me. I was shocked at how easily it can become life or death

That whole period of my life was very up and down. They were some of the best time of my life but also some of the worst. I don’t want to glorify drugs and of course there were times when we were partying hard but there were times when you’d be miserable, crying because you couldn’t get your taste in your vein. You’re trying to get a hit away, but it’s congealing in the syringe and you turn into a f***ing wuss and start weeping.

You’re really not the best version of yourself when you’re in that kind of crap.

One morning, my boyfriend at the time took off to get our dose of methadone and was due back pretty promptly. He didn’t show for ages and I started getting angsty because I wanted my dose. He wasn’t answering his phone or texting back and eventually I get this call from the woman whose home he has ended up at saying, ‘he’s carked out on my couch barely breathing. Get your ass over here. I don’t want him dying on my couch’.  

I jumped in a taxi with my last twenty bucks and hightailed it over there. He’s looking deathly grey. We had to do all sorts of things to try and wake him – hit him, pour water on him, pull his nose hairs out, even burn him – we were being quite violent to him just to get him to come around.

Eventually, he coughed and spurted and was just alert enough to throw him in the car. We had to deal with it the best we could – we couldn’t call the ambulance or the cops because the woman didn’t want them showing up at her house. We didn’t have a Naloxone kit and so at the time, we were really blessed he didn’t go all the way over. It was damn close.

It had quite a profound effect on me. I was shocked at how easily it can become life or death. It’s not like he’d done a huge amount; he’d taken his dose and thought it was rather nice so he thought he might just have my dose as well.

Sometimes people forget that it’s not necessarily hardened addicts who overdose. Sometimes it can be people who just dabble or are going through a rough patch in their lives. They might be naïve users who aren’t quite sure about dosages.

Like myself, it was just a blip in my earlier years where I was a bit of a party animal but I moved past that and it would’ve been a real shame if an early mistake had cost me my life.

It’s not really okay that, in age of modern medicine, people are dying when the antidote exists. The antidote just needs to be in the right hands and in the right settings to be used. I'm rapt that the changes are coming in New Zealand and rapt to be part of it, too.

To talk to someone about your or someone else’s drug use, call the Alcohol Drug Helpline 0800 787 797 or visit

For more information on reducing drug harm, visit the NZ Drug Foundation website.

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