How to Manage Traumatic Memories of a Loved One’s Overdose

By Dr. Sachi J. Ananda, PhD, LMHC, MCAP | SHE RECOVERS® Foundation

Traumatic memories can get compartmentalized and put away into boxes until they are ready to be opened. It can be helpful to start unpacking the boxes through exercises such as free writing in journaling. -Dr. Sachi J. Ananda, PhD, LMHC, MCAP

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August 31 marks International Overdose Awareness Day. It’s an opportunity to raise awareness about the overdose epidemic and to remember those who have died or nearly died from an overdose. But remembering is more complicated when you’re a close friend or family member who has experienced a loved one’s overdose. When you’re the mother, father, sibling, or partner who has experienced a loved one’s overdose, those memories can be painful and traumatic—how do you cope?

As a trauma therapist, I’ve counseled individuals and families asking similar questions in the aftermath of overdose. The goal is to help them learn how to manage and overcome their traumatic memories, so they can carry on with their lives in healthy ways. What follows are some tips for how to do that when you struggle with traumatic memories, starting with some basic facts about overdose.

Drugs That Commonly Occur with Overdose
An overdose can occur any time a person has taken more drugs than their body can handle. Prescription medications such as sedatives (Xanax, Valium, etc.) and opioids (Oxycontin, Vicodin, etc.) are frequently involved. So are depressants like alcohol. Illicit drugs, especially opioids like heroin and fentanyl, methamphetamine, and cocaine, pose very high risks of overdose and are often used intentionally to overdose.

The Effects of Fatal and Non-Fatal Overdoses
When a person overdoses, that can be devastating for those who love them. Survivors of overdoses may suffer from brain damage due to lack of oxygen resulting in short- and long-term impairments in movement, balance, and coordination. The senses may be impaired: Hearing and vision may suffer.

Survivors may also experience cognitive issues affecting spoken and written communication, thinking, concentration, and memory. They may suffer from mental health consequences like depression, anxiety, or chronic substance use disorders.

Meanwhile, depending on the degree of physical, mental, and/or emotional impairment, their loved ones may see their lives upended by sudden caregiving responsibilities. They may also be dealing with their own experience of the trauma and its mental, emotional, and physical effects.

When overdoses are fatal, the life-ending finality and permanence of the situation can magnify the trauma and traumatic memories. Families and loved ones of the victims of overdose are left to deal with the grief and loss. Traumatic memories associated with the overdose are haunting and may cause flashbacks. The damage is worse for those who may have been the first to find them. Maybe they were the first on the scene to find their loved one unresponsive. Maybe they helped to revive them by performing CPR, administered Narcan for opioid overdoses, or called 911.

6 Tips for Coping with Traumatic Memories
Without proper support to overcome the traumatic memories, loved ones of overdose victims may develop depression and anxiety. The stigma that is attached to overdose experiences can also trigger a sense of guilt and shame. Here are five tips for how to cope:

1. Address substance use disorders and addiction: Overdose deaths from opioids increased to 75,673 in the 12-month period ending in April 2021, up from 56,064 the year before, according to the CDC. Opioid use has a high risk of dependency and addiction, but treatment can stop the progression. Survivors should therefore be evaluated for potential substance use disorders and receive the appropriate treatment and support.

Continued drug use can fuel flashbacks from overdoses and the conditions surrounding the incident, such as waking up suddenly in a hospital bed. Loved ones can participate in mutual support groups such as Al-Anon or Nar-Anon where they can receive support from others with shared experience. They can also attend a professionally facilitated SHE RECOVERS Together Online Gathering where all experiences of recovery – such as grief and codependency – are welcomed. These support groups can help families and loved ones understand that they may need help themselves, including self-care work to resolve traumatic memories related to the overdose.

2. Do grief work: After a fatal overdose, find ways to honor and celebrate the life of your loved one, rather than focusing solely on the ways they died. Spend time creating collages of their life or memory books of positive events. Visit their grave sites on anniversaries, birthdays, and other memorable days. Let your body tell its story and move the traumatic memories through and out of your body through an embodiment practice.

Grief work can also be helpful in situations where conditions may have changed since the loss of a loved one and may need a letting go process of what used to be. Grief work helps to move attention away from the pain of the traumatic memories toward experiences of the love and joy of the relationship.

3. Journaling: Traumatic memories can get compartmentalized and put away into boxes until they are ready to be opened. It can be helpful to start unpacking the boxes through exercises such as free writing in journaling. Write down current thoughts and feelings. As the traumatic memories start to come up, keep writing to release them onto paper.

4. Seek help from a mental health professional: Mental health therapists trained in trauma interventions can help resolve these memories. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) has been shown to be highly effective in reducing the emotional disturbance of traumatic memories. It helps to remove the barriers that keep the mind from healing from past traumatic incidents. Other trauma interventions include breathwork, somatic therapy, and hypnosis.

5. Transform your pain into purpose: Traumatic memories of an overdose can overshadow mental and emotional wellness. Turn tragedy into advocacy and get involved in awareness campaigns to help prevent overdose everywhere.

6. Remember you’re not alone. As drug use and addiction increases in the United States, drug overdose is a growing national epidemic. The CDC reported that drug overdose deaths exceeded 100,000 in 2021, which roughly represented a 30 percent increase from the year before. (This statistic does not even include the number of non-fatal overdoses and suicide attempts by drug poisoning.)

Knowing you’re not alone and that many others have experienced the trauma of overdose can be consoling. Sometimes it is all a person may need to break through the stigma of overdose and get help. Together we can turn August 31 into a day of hope for the prevention of overdose.

Dr. Sachi J. Ananda, PhD, LMHC, MCAP, directs a treatment program for first responders at the national behavioral health provider FHE Health and is a resource for news outlets like USA Today on sex, relationship, trauma, and addiction issues.

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