A little foreknowledge, plus about $50, and my daughter would have lived to see 13. The amount keeps me awake. Many of us spend more each month at Starbucks. Not pocket change, it’s not enough to change your life. Or so I thought. Like every parent, I’d received a dumpster full of child-rearing warnings. The warnings started with pregnancy. They continue to the present day. Why then is my daughter not in her room texting friends, but in the cemetery? It was the warning never given.
To begin near the end, one morning last May while I was showering, my wife burst into the bathroom. Our daughter, then 12, wouldn’t wake up. I ran downstairs, naked and dripping, and found her on the floor, unresponsive. I pulled her into the middle of the floor, began pounding on her chest. Our other daughter dialed 911. The EMTs pulled me — still dripping, still naked — off her and rushed her to the hospital. The ER doctor, a soft-spoken woman who looked half my age, put her hand on my shoulder. My brilliant, bubbly daughter showed “no brain function.” Ever full of life, she was dead.
My wife and I pieced together the course of events from the autopsy report. A day earlier, sometime around 5 p.m., our daughter swallowed a palm full of my prescription anti-depressants, more than 10 times my daily dosage. Right after, she vomited. That evening, she told her friends and us about vomiting. Like any parent, we took her temperature (normal), got her some fluids (ginger ale), and put her to bed early. She never told us about the pills. Critically, this particular drug is time-release. Once capsules rupture, the medication cannot be purged. Vomiting does nothing to rid the body of the poison, a fact to which we are sure she was ignorant (since we were). The same pharmaceutical magic that allows for steady time release holds the black dog of my depression at bay — tiny particles of slow-dissolving medication designed to pass with ease and rapidity into the intestines — makes them unpurgeable. Irony, meet tragedy.
Our daughter plainly expected to wake up in the morning. Last texts with friends speak about weekend plans. She wrote with youthful excitement about an upcoming trip. My wife tucked her in, gave her a kiss. During the night, she slipped into a coma. A massive seizure. And she was dead. The crazy parental nightmare: tucking a child in bed, finding her dead come morning. So many questions.
We will never know what she was thinking. Why she took those drugs. Why she vomited. These unknowns haunt us. Her social media was unremarkable, rife with all the usual drama of adolescents. We will never know that “why.” The question haunts us, and still we have no idea.
Much of what we do know applies to every adolescent: Her brain was a teenager’s brain. Despite abundant cleverness, she lacked an adult’s grasp of consequences. Mature decision-making was still eight to 12 years away. Emotional tumult often rules teenagers’ lives. Things that, for an adult, might seem minor, even trivial, can provoke terrible actions. The possible act, not the incendiary, is the grave risk. That’s why many parents who don’t own guns choose not to, why gun-owning parents lock up weapons.
But few parents think about the pharmacy in the bathroom. Few are ever warned. The pediatricians tell everyone of dangers: grapes (halved!), electrical sockets (covered!), promiscuity (don’t!), screen time (not too much!). Sure, we read brochures about toddlers mistaking pills for candy, and kept caps well secured. That, however, was years ago. Yes, we knew of the danger of opioids (and therefore kept none in our house). No one mentioned securing other pharmaceuticals from adolescents and teens. Our medicine cabinet, the unlocked arsenal of our family tragedy. Now, at a friend’s house, spotting a vial of medicine for convenience sake left on a windowsill is enough to bring a panic attack. Medicine bottles on their bathroom counter look like shotguns.
Statistics quash any notion of this as hyperbole. Children suffer staggering death and injury rates from legal prescription medications. In 2013, according to the CDC, almost 60,000 children arrived at the ER due to overdoses. More than 1,700, in 2014, based on NIH research, died due to prescription drugs. These rates are all rising.
The issue isn’t good kids vs. bad kids. It isn’t whether your kid is smart. Or kind. Or behaves. The issue is young brains being undeveloped. A kid at home with an unsecured medication might just as well be left with a loaded gun. No child should be so vulnerable. Nor can you assume “I’d know if it were my child.” Research shows that, contrary to conventional wisdom, almost 25 percent of suicide victims go from decision to attempt in a mere five minutes, and 70 percent take less than an hour. One impulsive moment explodes into tragedy. We secure guns. Likewise, we should secure medication. Because it isn’t just opioids that can kill.
Two children now sleep in my house, where once slept three. A locked medicine chest now sits beneath my sink. The price online was $48.99. Not having it earlier — that was the real cost. It is a price no parent should pay.
Jordan Magill is a writer living in Silver Spring, Md.