Erika Hurt had become the face of drug addiction.
The young mother was captured in a photograph by police, passed out in the driver’s seat of her car outside a Dollar General store in Hope, Ind. — an empty syringe still resting between the 25-year-old addict’s fingers. The snapshot captured yet another horrifying moment in the worsening U.S. opioid epidemic.
What was not seen that Saturday afternoon last October was her 10-month-old son, buckled into his car seat in the back.
When Hurt first saw the photo, she was embarrassed.
“I was angry and I wanted to blame the police for putting my business out there and showing the world my private addiction and everything like that,” she told NBC News, a year after the image went viral.
But the photo, she said, eventually had a sobering effect.
“I’m thankful now that the cop did take the picture,” she told NBC News. “The fact that I’m able to look back on that picture and see where the addiction had taken me, and I’m able to use that picture now to show others that addicts can recover.”
Hurt reposted the picture over on Facebook to celebrate one year of sobriety.
“I’ve decided to repost the picture simply because it displays exactly what heroin addiction is,” she wrote. “Also because I do not want to ever forget where the road of addiction has taken me.
“Little did I know that day, my life was about to change, drastically. Today, I am able to focus on the good that came from that picture. Today, I am a mother to my son, again. Today, I am able to be grateful to actually have solid proof where addiction will only lead you, and today I am able to say that I am ONE YEAR SOBER!”
Hurt said in a phone interview Friday afternoon with The Washington Post that the photo certainly helped her to stay sober because, until the moment she saw it, “I was never able to see myself in active addiction.”
But, she said, she was also shaken by being ripped away from her son for the months while she was behind bars, missing memories she wanted to have — his first Thanksgiving turkey, his first Christmas morning, his first birthday celebration. “That was very painful,” she said. “After that, I told myself I wasn’t going to miss any more of his life.”
On Thursday, President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, calling it the “worst drug crisis in American history” and vowing to focus the nation’s attention on resolving it.
“As Americans, we cannot allow this to continue,” he said. “It is time to liberate our communities from the scourge of drug addiction. We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic. We can do it.”
Despite Trump’s call to action, critics questioned the merits of his pronouncement, given that it did not include an immediate request to Congress for emergency funding.
“America is hemorrhaging lives by the day because of the opioid epidemic, but President Trump offered the country a Band-Aid when we need a tourniquet,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). Markey called the announcement “nothing more than a dog-and-pony show in an attempt to demonstrate the Trump administration is not ignoring this crisis.”
Since 2014, more than 28,000 people in the United States have overdosed on opioids and died, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Specifically, heroin overdose deaths have quadrupled since 2010, accounting for nearly 13,000 deaths in 2015, according to the data.
Behind the grim statistics are haunting scenes of overdosed victims — and the children affected by their parents’ addictions.
Disturbing photographs and videos depicting scenes such as the one in which Hurt was found unconscious have become common as the epidemic rages.
In September 2016, a chilling photograph distributed by authorities captured the innocence lost on a 4-year-old’s face in East Liverpool, Ohio, where a man and woman were seen slumped over after overdosing in a vehicle, the boy still strapped into his car seat in the back.
A week later and 600 miles away, at a Family Dollar store in Lawrence, Mass., a hysterical toddler was captured on a cellphone video as she tried to wake her mother after an apparent drug overdose.
Hope Town Marshal Matt Tallent, who originally released the photo of Hurt, could not immediately be reached for comment.
But he told NBC News he never intended to embarrass Hurt; he simply wanted to bring awareness to the public-health crisis.
“For this girl to have her life ripped up and then come back and be sober after everything that’s happened to her, that’s a story of success,” Tallent told NBC.
Hurt had tried to get sober before — she said she went through rehab only two weeks before her overdose photo spread across the Internet and then relapsed.
In October 2016, she recalled, she was “miserable.”
She said she had bought some heroin on a Friday and had been trying to convince herself not to use it. But she failed. She knew she needed to reach out for help but decided she did not want to be talked out of using it, she said, so while driving with her sleeping son in the back seat, she pulled over in the first safe place she could find — a Dollar General parking lot.
She said she thought she could get high in secrecy, and no one would ever know.
Her son was asleep, she remembered thinking, and if he woke up, he wouldn’t understand what she was doing anyway.
She said she does not remember the moment she overdosed; she only remembers paramedics putting her in an ambulance.
As The Washington Post’s Kristine Phillips reported, police believed Hurt had overdosed on heroin, and she was given two doses of Narcan, which reverses opioid overdoses in emergency situations.
Hurt said she was arrested later that day and was in jail when she first saw the photo, splashed across a TV screen.
“I didn’t even know the picture had been taken,” she told The Post. “I just remember being extremely shocked. I was at a loss for words. I was humiliated, and I was hurt, and I was very angry at the police.”
Hurt said she had been battling addiction since she was 15, when she was prescribed painkillers for a staph infection. By 19, she had started using heroin, she said, and by 21, she had moved to the needle.
She got sober in 2013 when she spent eight months in county jail, she said, and she maintained her sobriety through her pregnancy.
But she soon relapsed.
Being able to see what her addiction looked like — and understand how it would affect her son — enabled her to overcome it, she said.
“There’s been multiple times I’ve tried to get sober and failed because I didn’t have the true desire to get sober,” she said.
Now, she said, she does.