I Got High On Cough Syrup And I Tried To Write An Article About It

image - Flickr / burningmax
image – Flickr / burningmax

REALITY IS PROLOGUE

There were two things on my mind on Saturday night.

One was dextromethorphan, the active ingredient found in many over-the-counter cough suppressants. When taken in amounts between 10 to 50 times greater than the therapeutic dose, it acts as a powerful dissociative similar to ketamine. But while ketamine visits you like a floating Dr. Seuss character in a fluid dream, DXM is like having a commercial airliner filled with all your memories, dreams, angels and demons, spiral from 30,000 feet and crash inside your head. For about 8 hours, you have no other option than to explore the inner world created by the wreckage.

The other thing on my mind was a quiet but unfading desire to apologise to an ex who for fuck knows what reason, loved me. I’d done her wrong in a big bad way and for a long time, I tried to convince myself that the guilt I was feeling was my loneliness, crafting unnecessary remorse as an incentive to go back to her. But it was just plain old guilt. And I wanted her to know that I was truly and sincerely sorry. There was no intention to act on the desire however. Not until I found myself in Wonderland at around 2am.

Because the two topics; wasted love and DXM, were never intended to connect like they did. For months I’d planned on writing something about self-analysis whilst under the influence of psychoactive drugs. The reason I ended up changing it to the over-the-counter variety was that years ago, I’d vowed not to touch amphetamines ever again. And it just so happened to be the only thing that the guy dealing out of the laundromat down the street was selling.

So I settled on DXM and chose last weekend as the one that would be completely written off in service of the article. It was to be a three part process:

  1. I would be alone in my apartment with a list of hard questions that I had to answer in front of me: on life, death, love, time and everything in between.
  2. I would get absolutely munted and answer them into a voice recorder.
  3. I would wake up the next day and analyse whatever was there.

The only problem with this process was that it didn’t take into account the fact that when you’re on DXM, there is no understanding of the word ‘process’. That’s because the substance inhibits transmitters in the brain and shuts down neural pathways at random. This effectively prevents certain parts of the brain from communicating with each other. Here’s an analogy. Neural pathways are like the roads you take to get to work everyday. You know the route you always choose that you could navigate blindfolded?

Well your thoughts, beliefs and convictions also travel down a well-worn path. All those things that you ponder about yourself, others and the world take basically the same passages in your brain to arrive at the usual destination, every single day of your life.

Now here’s what DXM does. Imagine that you pulled out of your driveway one morning, and there were roadworks on the one that you’re habituated to taking. You’d have to take a known detour to continue onto your favourite road. But what if that route was also blocked? You’d have to find a detour to get to the detour. Well, that one will be obstructed too. All of this serves to take you to places that you’ve never been before. And we’re not really talking about roads here, but your mind.

The effects of DXM occur in levels or what users describe as ‘plateaus’. What this means is that depending on dosage and the length of time after ingestion, the experience not only becomes more pronounced, but changes entirely. There are four definable plateaus. The first and second are comparable to a more euphoric and warped version of being drunk, where reasonably normal functioning of the body and mind are still a possibility. But the third and fourth plateaus are where the dissociative effects take over. Sensory input becomes seriously impaired and external stimuli is rendered almost irrelevant by the intensity of your inner world. Hallucinations and closed-eye visuals occur at this point and even memories can be re-experienced in a manner that is physiologically speaking, real.

So when I stopped by a pharmacy on the way home from work, I got enough of it to get me to the high end of the 3rd plateau. My friend was playing a gig somewhere in Collingwood that night and I told him I’d be there. But an endeavour involving DXM allows no room for anything else. Especially things like leaving your apartment or socialising with other human beings.

1ST PLATEAU

I turned off my phone, turned on the voice recorder, and drank 400ml’s of Robitussin Dry Cough Forte at around midnight. For the first hour, I concentrated mostly on keeping it down. It’s not the DXM itself that causes sickness, but all the fillers in the syrup like glucose and preservative that make you want to purge and call the whole thing off. But by the time you feel the nausea, it’s already too late—because something else will soon take its place. It begins as a gradual paralysis of your central nervous system. Much like the feeling of falling asleep, except the comfort of a black nothingness is not what awaits you. But I was ready for it, whatever it would be. The questions I’d prepared were laid out on a notebook in front of me, but I wasn’t looking at those anymore. For some reason, I was holding my phone and turning it on.

2ND PLATEAU

It was the first time I’d heard her voice in a while when she said, “Hello?”

For a moment I wondered if I’d sound coherent enough to be taken seriously. But there was no time to hesitate.

I said, “Hey.”

She was silent.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Um…” was all I heard before she became quiet again. I figured she just wanted me to talk.

I said, “I’m not asking you to forgive me, because I don’t deserve that. But I needed you to hear it. I should’ve said it a long time ago… And I just wanted you to know that you meant so much to me and you still do. Fucking this up was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. I know that now. I’m sorry.”

After the cringe-worthy monologue, I buried my face in my hand and waited for her response.

“Dude, you pressed the wrong number.”

I looked up at the ceiling to process this concept.

“What?”

“This is Danielle,” she said.

“Danielle.”

“Yeah.”

“Who the fuck are you?”

“I think I had a group assignment with you. At uni.”

I couldn’t remember who she was, but pretended to.

“Oh, shit, Danielle. How’s it going?”

“Good. I’d ask you the same thing but it’s a bit obvious… No offence.”

I tried to fake a laugh but I think I sounded the words “Ha, ha.” Phonetically.

She said, “So what did you do?”

It was her unique bluntness that made me recall who she was. I could see her face now.

I said, “Something I shouldn’t have done.”

“And drunk-dialling her is gonna make it better?”

“I’m not drunk.”

“Really?” she said, “You sound pretty fucked up.”

I said, “I drank cough syrup.”

She laughed.

“Why?”

“It was meant to be for an article.”

“Oh… I read a few of those.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, they’re pretty funny. And depressing.”

It took a bit of time for the meaning of her last word to come to me. But when it did, I didn’t feel too good about it.

“You think I’m depressing?”

She paused to think.

“Well yeah, like your perspective.”

I still didn’t feel right.

“In what way?”

“Like, right now.”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”
She said, “You just apologised to me on cough syrup because you couldn’t press the right name on your phone. That’s pretty fucking depressing man.”

And that’s when everything became clear in that not-so-profound, dextromethorphan kind of way.

“I am fucking depressing, aren’t I?”

Danielle laughed again.

“I don’t know,” she said.

We stopped talking for a while. I dry retched and produced the kind of sound I imagine a dugong would make when it’s mating season. I thought she’d hang up on me but she didn’t.

She said, “Don’t feel too bad about it though. I was on Zoloft for a while.”

“What for?” I asked, “Because no one loved you?”

Then there was silence, but not the good kind.

“You’re a fucking asshole.”

“Sorry, I wasn’t saying nobody loves you. I was just asking.”

“No, it was because I didn’t love anybody. There’s a difference.”

“I didn’t know there was.”

“Well the desire to love has to be mutual… Like, the willingness to open yourself up to it. Do you know how hard that is to find?”

“Yeah.”

We’d come to a point where neither of us knew where the conversation was going. That place where you run out of observational blather and you can only start talking about yourself and what’s real. But it’s never very safe there.

“You better make that call now,” she said. “To the right person this time.”

“Okay.”

“Good luck.”

“Yeah, you too,” I said.

“Uh… for what?”

“You know.”
I didn’t really know what I was talking about, but it sounded right to say it.

“Not really,” she said. “What do you think I want?”

That’s when a wave of confusion pulled me under and I couldn’t process all the words anymore. Each time I blinked, I could see the galaxy on the inside of my eyelids. Like a billion neon light bulbs floating in constellation, flailing and diving and breathing in and out into the centre of my retina.

“Danielle?”

“Yeah.”

“Winston Churchill was born in a ladies’ bathroom during a dance.”

“What?”

I dropped the phone.

3RD PLATEAU

It happened somewhere between 2am and 6am. I blacked out—then when I woke up, I was five years-old and sitting on the floor of a low-lit living room. It wasn’t a fictional place, because when I looked around I recognised objects that I hadn’t seen for nearly two decades. I saw my mum’s paintings on the walls and remembered how good they were, and for a moment I wondered why she ever stopped. In the corner of the room was my turtle aquarium, with the plastic palm tree that I placed in the middle for their viewing pleasure. I was amused by all the minute details which I never knew my memory had retained. But before I could touch anything, I heard the doorbell ring.

I turned toward the sound and saw my mum, looking about as young as I am now, running to the front door with a smile on her face. I already knew who it would be, because it was evening and there was only one person who she ran to the door like that for. When she opened it, I saw my dad. He was in a suit as usual and dropped his briefcase on the floor as they put their arms around each other and kissed. Then, as they did every night when he got home from work, they slow danced in the living room to nothing but conversation. I used to sit there and watch them swaying from side to side with a big goofy grin on my face. It always made me chuckle to see the same display of affection every night, and to notice how much they enjoyed it despite the fact that they’d done the exact same thing the night before, and the night before that.

It was also just before bedtime that I got to see my dad at all. He was an investment banker riding a wave of success at Citigroup, which had put him at the top of a division in charge of asset management for clients in the energy industry. He was what you could call a self-made man, who grew up without a mother in a poverty-stricken household and learned to trust nothing in this world but persuasion and dominance. On the odd Sundays when I did get to spend time with him, he’d let me tag along to the driving range or car wash and talked to me about things like power. He used to say that most men were born weak, and that even if they didn’t know it, they were just waiting for someone to show them what to do. He told me I was one of the weak ones, and that I had to stop being so inward and emotional if I wanted good things in life. It didn’t strike me as odd that my dad was talking to a pre-schooler this way. He never once spoke to me like a child and I remember being really proud of that. Most other kids seemed to be babied and adored by their fathers. But I believed I had a special connection with mine.

I think that’s why it never struck me as odd that he never attended any of my graduations either. It didn’t matter that he didn’t know anything about my life. I always assumed that expecting such concern from him would be unreasonable or juvenile. Because just as he once did, I learned to feel secure in the knowledge that I didn’t expect anything from people. And even as I write about him, I don’t feel the slightest bit of disappointment or bitterness. Maybe it would hurt too much to give a shit, I don’t know.

But that slow dance, the one that I was watching, was actually the last time they did that. I think that’s why it was still sitting there in the archives of my mind, and why the DXM had forced it into view. Because I’m pretty sure it was the last instance that I saw my parents in love. I remembered that something happened around that time, and they never danced or kissed or talked very much again. She stopped looking at him the way she used to, and she didn’t treat him like a man anymore. For me, that was the most affecting part. I saw that it didn’t matter who he was outside the house. My mother still had the power to minimise his role into nothing more than a mild acquaintance who lived under the same roof. All that influence in the CBD couldn’t help him get his manhood back. And I always feared this ability to emasculate that only women seemed to possess. I never found out what my dad did and I don’t think I want to. Although I do still think about why he never just apologised.

They say that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. But wouldn’t that be a bullshit excuse. I woke up with a headache at around midday.

MORE LIKE A BEGINNING

So we come to the point where I’m supposed to wrap this up. I could encapsulate and summarise, and hope to offer some kind of sublime reflection on our nature that might connect with you in your own, private way. But I don’t think I can do that. Because in case you haven’t noticed already, I have no idea where the fuck I’m going.

And all of this might just be an attempt at getting her back; a love letter encryption carefully weaved together by the bottomless and conniving entity known as a writer. But I know that it’s a feeling you only get in a handful of moments in a lifetime. The one that you keep coming back to, because nothing else feels as real. It wants to rip you apart but promises to make you sane at the very same time. And I think I’ll keep it. Like a girl named Danielle once said, it’s a thing that’s hard to find.

An English teacher told me in high school that a good conclusion should feel more like a beginning. And that always stuck with me. So I’ll begin by saying that we shouldn’t take 20 years or 400mls of Robitussin to say the things we really mean. Because it’s not just time that is limited, but our honesty with the direction of our own hearts. All the days have a way of turning clarity on its side and all too soon, the things that we were once so sure about become greyscale facsimiles of the truth. So I think I’ll wait for her to see me in colour, and I’ll apologise to her face. And I won’t need any fucking cough syrup to do it. Because I swear now. I won’t be one of the weak ones. TC mark

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