Erika Hurt has many images that haunt her mind from the time she spent in drug addiction.

But none more so than a photo that went viral in October 2016. It was an image of her overdosing on what she thought was heroin in her car at a Hope discount store parking lot. A syringe hanging off her left hand, her toddler son watched from the back seat.

She nearly died.

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Hurt was resuscitated after receiving two doses of naloxone from ambulance personnel who arrived seven minutes after she was spotted unresponsive and barely breathing in the driver’s seat.

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Instead of heroin, Hurt — a 26-year-old from Hope — now suspects the substance she injected was laced with fentanyl, although that’s not what she was told when she purchased it for $60 earlier in the day.

Her 10-month old son Parker was strapped into a car seat in the back seat of Hurt’s vehicle when she stopped at the parking lot to inject the drugs.

After being revived, Hurt was arrested on charges of neglect of a dependent and possession of paraphernalia.

Her mother had driven by the store parking lot minutes before being called back to the scene by police, where she saw her daughter unresponsive in the car.

“I was shaking her and trying to wake her up,” Hurt’s mother Jami Smith said of the moment. “I kept saying ‘Please, please, please wake up’ and I kept asking, ‘Don’t you guys have Narcan?’ “ she said. “It took seven minutes (for the ambulance) to get there, and they gave her the first dose. By the second dose we knew she was OK. And then the anger set in.”

Smith admits to screaming at her daughter, yelling, “How could you do this with a baby in the car? You need to go to jail.”

Hurt, who had been an on-and-off opioid user for some time, said at that point she didn’t think what had happened was a big deal.

“It was the first overdose in my whole addiction,” she said. “I didn’t really believe at that time that I had even OD’d.”

Since that incident, Hurt was jailed, detoxed and obtained therapy. She is now clean from the addictive cycle and back to raising her son with the help of her family.

Hurt’s drug abuse began in middle school in Columbus and escalated through high school, injecting heroin with needles, she said.

She made many attempts to get clean over the years, none of which stuck until — the photograph.

Hurt had been sober for more than 42 days and out of inpatient rehab for drugs for about two weeks when she decided to buy heroin that day. After injecting it, she stopped at the parking lot before dropping off her son at her mother’s house in Hope.

During her recovery, she said she always had in the back of her mind that she could use heroin again if she wanted to, and still be OK. On that day, not knowing what she thought was heroin was probably laced with fentanyl, she overdosed for the first time, something that she said she really didn’t think was possible.

Two days later, after being arrested for neglect of a dependent and possession of paraphernalia, Hurt saw the photo that Hope police had taken of the overdose, which had been released to the media and was being shared widely on social media.

She was angry.

“I was very blameful at the police,” she said when she first saw the photo, still incarcerated at the Bartholomew County Jail. “I was still not taking responsibility. I didn’t realize that there was a serious problem and I had put my son in danger,” she said. “Something needed to change.”

How addiction started

Hurt never intended to go down the road that led to stints in rehab, detoxing from heroin in the Bartholomew County Jail or overdosing in public.

She attributes the roots of her drug abuse problem to family dysfunction and her inability to express her emotions honestly.

“I was very spoiled,” she said, adding that her relationship with her father, who was estranged from her mother, as somewhat enabling.

He would provide her every wish as she was growing up, and she grew up entitled. She lived with her father for a time at his apartment when he became ill, caring for him before he died.

“I thought the whole world owed me something,” she said. “I had very large entitlement issues.”

When she was 15, a doctor prescribed hydrocodone for a staph infection on her face and Hurt was given a 30-day supply, along with antibiotics, she said.

It was enough to start a search to obtain more when the pills ran out, she said.

She found it fairly easy to obtain free drugs — by hanging around with what she referred to as “that crowd” at Central Middle School and later at Columbus East High School.

A couple of her friends’ parents were addicted to drugs themselves and became sources of drugs for her.

After graduation, she started on a series of factory jobs, timing her drug use to pass employment drug screens.

Introduction to heroin

When she was 20, she was searching for pain medication when her dealer said the pills weren’t available, but he had an equivalent — heroin.

“I knew nothing about heroin,” she said. “They called it ‘boy’ — that was the nickname for it,” she said. “I had used it for two weeks (snorting it) before I even knew what it was.”

When she found out what she was inhaling, she remembers thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is bad,’” she said.

But at that point, she said she was already addicted. Even though it was a bad decision, she knew heroin was cheaper and easier to get than pain pills.

“It never crossed my mind that I could overdose,” she said.

All this time she kept up a normal appearance, and kept up with her daily routine and job.

But she soon found out that her tolerance for the drug was increasing, and when she didn’t have enough of it she began to get “dope sick,” dealing with withdrawal.

She estimated she was spending as much as $300 a day, buying heroin from multiple people, to keep from getting sick, and soon didn’t have enough money to support her habit.

“I started stealing,” she said. “I would … steal stuff and trade it for drugs,” she said.

She also used money from her parents that she told them was for something else, but there was a lot of criminal activity to finance her drug habit, she said.

“It became a job to me — going around stealing to keep my drug habit,” she said.

Her mother said while it was difficult to pinpoint exactly what was going on, she knew her daughter was being deceitful and telling the family what they wanted to hear.

“Nobody in our family had ever had drug issues,” Smith said. “I’m her mom, I love her,” she said. “I will defend her until the end. I couldn’t accept that my daughter, my princess, my blessing (used drugs). There was no way she would do drugs.”

Stealing for drugs

By age 22, Hurt had met a young man who was a needle user who showed her how to inject heroin, which flabbergasted her friends.

“For the most part, a lot of my friends got word about me using heroin and they asked me, ‘What are you thinking?’ “ she said. “I was very much still in denial about it.”

By this time, her father had died and she had been arrested for shoplifting, and spent some time in the Bartholomew County Jail where she became very dope sick, something she described as painful and miserable.

Her mother refused to bail her out, saying she was done with Hurt’s behavior.

Her mother attempted to set rules, such as no drugs in the house and staying away from certain friends. Hurt began staying at friends’ houses rather than enduring her mother’s tough-love approach.

Eventually she spent eight months in the Bartholomew County Jail in 2014 awaiting disposition of various theft charges relating to the shoplifting in several counties, where she detoxed from the heroin and was determined to stay clean.

She planned to go to meetings and completed a program in a treatment center, along with complying with a Community Corrections probation plan which included house arrest.

But even with the tough love, her mother visited Hurt at the jail each chance she got, mainly for the chance to see her not on drugs.

“But the whole time I kept thinking I would be able to use again and keep everything up,” Hurt said. “It’s how addicts trick themselves.”

Hurt eventually stopped going to meetings, and started a relationship with the man who would father her child. She described the relationship as toxic, with verbal and mental abuse, and soon she relapsed while working at a local factory.

There were plenty of drugs to be found at the factory and she used suboxone, which is a substitute designed to wean people with addictions off heroin, before starting to seek out heroin again.

Depths of addiction

Starting off buying as much as $150 a day, she was soon up to a $350-a-day habit. When she became pregnant in 2015, she stopped using drugs and refused any painkillers during her son’s delivery, she said.

But she then quickly resumed the drug habit, although by that time Hurt’s mother was aware that Hurt had returned to drugs.

“She was hounding me about it, and she would ask straight up, ‘Are you using?’ And I would lie to her,” Hurt said.

Along with the lies, Hurt would take money from her family that was supposed to be for diapers and formula, and drive to Indianapolis to use it to buy heroin, she said.

She would then shoplift diapers and formula to make up for the missing items her family believed she was purchasing, she said. At one point in 2016, she took a $500 paycheck and spent it all on heroin rather than items for her son, she said.

The signs were there, Smith said.

Hurt didn’t come home directly from work — and would pick up her purse and take it with her to her bedroom. Hurt was eating only one meal a day and family members noticed she tended to repeat herself when talking.

“I asked her if she was on drugs again and she told me ‘No,’ “ Smith said. “I told her, ‘I think you are lying.’ “

Her family sent her to a rehab facility in Florida. For a time, Hurt returned to being sober.

But after returning to Columbus, she began communicating with her drug sources, hoping they would offer her free drugs after she passed her pre-employment drug test and took another factory job in Columbus.

The viral photograph

The next week, she purchased about $60 worth of heroin — after being sober for more than 42 days and after weeks of rehab — and decided to inject it while transporting her 10-month-old son to her mother’s house.

She did not know that the heroin was laced with fentanyl, a strong opioid painkiller, and that even a small amount could result in an overdose death.

She was taken to the Bartholomew County Jail and stayed there for two months.

Two days after her overdose, she saw the picture, and after some contemplation felt guilty about what she had done.

“I couldn’t believe I had done this to my son,” she said. “It was a serious wake-up call.”

While in jail, she missed her son’s first birthday, his first Halloween and Thanksgiving, and his second Christmas. She enrolled in the Women Recovering with a Purpose program at the jail, designed for females to kick the drug habit and care for their families.

After the Department of Child Services closed the case, giving Hurt’s mother temporary custody of the young boy and agreeing to allow Erika to move back into the family home with him, her life began to change.

Hurt has Community Corrections staff as her safety net, monitoring her ongoing recovery, and now her checks from her factory job go to supporting her son and his needs, she said.

It’s impossible to avoid the social media reminders of the photo of her overdose. When you type Erika Hurt’s name into a search engine, the photo appears, along with some hateful comments from people all over the nation. She has since added a post about her sobriety, something she hopes people will notice too.

At first, she was scared that her son one day would see it.

“If he does see it, I want him to know that something good and positive came from it,” Hurt said.

Eventually, she wants to return to school to pursue a career in helping other addicts recover as she has, and she is focusing on attending Celebrate Recovery and AA meetings, along with 12-hour shifts at her factory job, and time with her son.

She’s thinking about looking for her own place to live, although her mother says she can stay as long as she wants at her Hope home.

“I just want to provide for my son,” she said.

Quote

“I was still not taking responsibility. I didn’t realize that there was a serious problem and I had put my son in danger. Something needed to change.”

— Erika Hurt, Hope mother, admitting an addiction problem after overdose

Quote

“It took seven minutes (for the ambulance) to get there, and they gave her the first dose. By the second dose we knew she was OK. And then the anger set in … How could you do this with a baby in the car? You need to go to jail.”

— Jami Smith, referring to daughter Erika Hurt

About this series

The United States is in the midst of the worst drug epidemic in history.

With alarming frequency, opioids — including prescription drugs, heroin and fentanyl — are killing Americans, including an increasing number in Bartholomew County.

The Republic is taking a yearlong look into the public health crisis that touches nearly every segment of our community and that crosses all socioeconomic lines.

Addicted & Dying, which began Sunday, will tell the harrowing stories of people with drug addictions and families who have lost loved ones. That includes the story of Hope mother Erika Hurt, who survived a drug overdose and has been reunited with her young son, in today’s installment.

We will talk to doctors, addiction specialists, law enforcement officers and others on the front lines battling a problem that is ruining lives and putting mounting pressures on social service agencies, hospitals, the judicial system and the economy.

Beyond that, Addicted & Dying will explore solutions and a path forward — what treatments and approaches work, what communities can do and how to help people in need.

COMING TUESDAY: Rachel McCue got caught up in drugs as a Columbus East freshman. A mother at age 20, the depth of her addiction wasn’t evident to her until three months after she moved in with her drug dealer boyfriend and suffered the loss of her 19-month-old son to abuse in the home.

Got an idea for our project? Contact us as editorial@therepublic.com or call 812-379-5665.

Author photo
Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.