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A 2mg dose of fentanyl next to a penny to demonstrate its lethality
A two-milligram dose of fentanyl, as shown next to the U.S. penny, can be lethal for most people (Photo source: Drug Enforcement Administration)

I was gripped by indecision as I helplessly stared at my cellmate overdosing on fentanyl. 

I wanted to call out for help, but was scared of the repercussions if I brought the prison staff’s attention to what he did. And yet, this man I had grown to regard as a father figure was becoming bluer with each passing second.

I had begged him not to do it, but who was I to talk? At the time I was 26, just starting a life sentence and already strung out on heroin. The only things that linked us were the tragedies of our past and the fact that we lived together in prison. 

Early on, I told him that my father had fatally overdosed when I was 6 years old. My vulnerability caused him to take me under his wing. He was more of a father to me in our eight-month cellie-ship than my dad ever was. 

As I watched him, I felt paralyzed. I felt his skin; it was cold and pale. It transported me to the past. I was 6 years old again, staring into my father’s open casket. What was I doing in this place? 

A lifetime of addiction and criminal living once again brought me face-to-face with my greatest fear: a drug overdose. And once again, it was someone I looked up to, someone who tried to raise me in their own strange way.

I decided to perform CPR, and as I pressed on his chest I yelled at the porters to call for a man down.

When medical staff arrived, I was separated from my cellie and locked in the shower. In the mirror, I saw the reflection of a nurse slamming a pen into his chest — Narcan. 

He survived.

They slowly wheeled him away, and I caught the most peculiar look as he passed by. It was the look of 35 years of incarceration, 15 of them spent consecutively in the segregated housing unit. 

Through his pained expression, he said, “Thank you for saving my life.” 

Then I wondered whether that would be me in 30 years, hardened by the system and broken by overdose. 

One of the last things he told me was, “Clay, remember — a fool at 30 is a fool for life.” 

At the rate things were going back then, my life was sure to be short. I had no hope of a future without drugs. 

These kinds of experiences led me to write about past trauma in an effort to transform for the better. I wish I could say my transformation happened overnight, but that would be a lie. I can say, however, that I found victory through defeat. My rock bottom became my starting point.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

C.R. Addleman is a writer incarcerated at Centinela State Prison in California.