To the little girl on the train whose mother is on drugs

By Bill Williams

Recently I boarded the #1 IRT train at 14th Street for a short, two-stop trip to Houston Street. I checked the map posted in the center of the car to be sure of my upcoming stop and then sat down. A couple of seats down from me a little girl and her mother caught my eye. I’m guessing the child was about six. I watched as the girl looked contentedly at what seemed like a small picture book. With great deliberation she folded it up and put it back in a purple box with a transparent window. What had engaged her, I realized, were instructions to some sort of game, or perhaps a doll. Whatever it was, it seemed to be new and she seemed happy with it. Happy enough to be in her own world, and then to want to share her enthusiasm over it with her mother.

That’s when I realized her mother was slumped over in her seat. At first I thought the mother was looking for something in one of several plastic bags on the floor. It was quickly apparent she was immobilized, not even alert, unable to pay attention to her child. As someone who lost his 24-year-old son to an accidental heroin overdose several years ago, my vigilance was immediately aroused. I’m sadly too familiar with observing someone struggle to pretend to be alert while a drug shuts them down.

As we arrived at the next station, I moved to a seat directly across from the pair to gain a better vantage point to observe. The little girl continued to try to gain her mother’s attention, tapping her on the leg, trying to get her mother to look at the box, talking to her, all to no avail.

Unfortunately given my prior experience witnessing nodding off such as that in front of me, I knew what was happening. As my stop approached, my mind raced. Where was their stop? Had they missed it? Would they miss it? What would happen when they got off? Less immediate, but far more important, what was this child’s life like with this mother? How often had she had to fight for her uncomprehending mother’s attention?

As the train pulled into my stop, I weighed skipping my upcoming obligation to stay on the train and finding a way to intervene, even as I stood near the door of the car to exit. I’d been so preoccupied with the scene in front of me I’d failed to realize other passengers were also aware and concerned. I made eye contact with one man. He spoke up and urged me to tell the conductor as soon as the train stopped.

The doors opened and I sprinted from the very rear of the train toward the conductor’s car, waving and hollering for his attention. I reached him in time to spit out what was going on. Somehow he already knew; he told me the situation had been radioed ahead, and off the train went.

My hope was that police or other emergency personnel would meet the train at the next station. At the least there were concerned, caring people still in the car with mother and daughter.

My questions abound. Did someone with authority intervene? Did the pair wind up in an emergency room somewhere? How sensitive were the attending personnel to the child? To her mother? Are there other, responsible adults in the child’s life? Will she wind up in the custody of Child Services? How severely will her mother’s problem impact the child’s life? Enough to increase the child’s chances of developing a substance use disorder herself?

I’ll never know the outcome of the story. One hopes for a happy ending. Then again, will mother, or worse, mother and child wind up as yet more statistics?

As the opioid epidemic advances alarmingly, statistics startle. We know that there were 144 drug overdose deaths daily in 2015, enough in a year to overflow Yankee Stadium’s capacity. Statistics on drug deaths, like subways, can be slow to arrive. However, it is already clear the trend has continued upward, promising even more daily deaths needing a stadium with a capacity of over 62,000.

Numbers numb empathy. Perhaps perversely, the higher the death toll, the harder it becomes to grasp an emotional comprehension of the epidemic. On the other hand, as someone with a son dead due to heroin, I have to be mindful of not retreating to a personal shell where my grief blocks me from sensitivity toward the plight of so many others. Stories salve my grief far better than numbers. We must continue to connect with stories.

Bill Williams is a freelance writer and addiction advocate. He is also a theater teacher and acting coach.

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