No One Ever Says…

Blogger Here. This is a transcript of the reading I did at the DFW conference at ISU this past week:

John Lennon so eloquently sang, ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’ More often than not, ‘life happens’ despite all my plans and preparations. Such was the case here. I planned to present one paper, life happened, and now I am presenting this paper instead. Perhaps, barring any unusual circumstances, I’ll be able to present the original paper next year.

In a conversation transcribed in the NY Daily News on May 18, 2010, Dave Moore and Bill Manville discuss two reasons why so many artists are drawn into these addicting behaviors. First, art is borne out strong, often negative, emotions. Many artists find illicit substances to be a means of coping and dealing—or escaping from—with those deep-seeded emotions. Second, some artists use those substances as a means of deepening their experience of those strong emotions. Drugs and alcohol can be the catalyst for feeling more deeply and for creating their works of art.

The list of just authors who struggled with addictions is staggeringly long: Stephen King, F Scott Fitzgerald, even our own Saint Dave, to name only a few. But these afflictions are not limited to artistic types, nor are the addictive substances limited to hard drugs and hard drinks. Instances of many media-related addictions have risen in recent years. There are the obvious ones like pornography or online shopping, but there are also less obvious ones like online gaming or social media.

The tangible world, as well as the virtual world, is full of addictive stimuli. And like the artists discussed by Moore and Manville, we find ourselves in the grip of addiction because we are either seeking escape from our world, or a means of enhancing our experience of it.

But to paraphrase what John Lennon sang, ‘Addictions are what sometimes happen when you’re busy making other plans.’ No one drinks that beer or smokes that joint or logs onto the Internet with the intention of becoming addicted. We turn to these things looking for something else, only to find ourselves in the grip of addiction. And such was the case in my story…

I’m sure you remember them, all those “Partnership for a Drug-Free America” commercials from the mid-80s. They were a staple of the afterschool television diet of my entire generation. Who could ever forget those taglines?

“This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”

“I learned it by watching you!”

“No one ever says, ‘I want to be a junky when I grow up.’”

These words and images were burned into my consciousness at a pretty young age, and they have proven to be quite effective. This – in addition to my extreme fear of getting into trouble – kept me away from any sort of drug, illegal or otherwise. The closest I ever got to any illicit substance as a youngster was when the kid I hung out with in middle school showed me an unsmoked joint someone had given him. None of my childhood friends ever did drugs (at least not to my knowledge). Hell, I don’t think that I would’ve known where to find any drugs even if I wanted to try them.

I made it through my high school and college years unscathed, and continued on the straight and narrow into adulthood as well. And then, if this wasn’t enough, a few years ago I crossed paths with Ken Erdedy at the beginning of Infinite Jest (chapter 2; pages 17-26). Ten anxiety-filled pages of reading about Erdedy waiting for an unknown woman to show up with the marijuana for his one last binge weekend. Erdedy’s plan for quitting is to smoke so much pot that he makes himself so sick that he will never want to touch the stuff again.[1] I don’t know if this experience is what later lands him in rehab, but it certainly worked for me. If ever I had even an ounce of desire to try marijuana or any other illicit drug, those ten pages cured me for good. If that is what the “junky” life is like, then no thank you.

30 September 2009. As I got up from the lunch table in the teachers’ lounge, the room started spinning. It only lasted a fraction of a second, but what followed scared the bejesus out of me. Once back in my classroom for 5th Period, my heart rate quickly accelerated, my blood pressure shot up, and the room continued to spin while I tried to lead my sophomore English class in a discussion of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Harrison Bergeron.” I stumbled over my words and could barely put together a coherent sentence. In a matter of minutes, I went from standing at the whiteboard to sitting on my large wooden stool to sitting at my desk, trying to avoid actually falling over altogether. I was in the middle of what I would realize later was my first real panic attack.

I told my students that I was not feeling well, so they should find something to do quietly while I sat at my desk, freaking out over what was happening to me. When the bell ending the period finally came, I bee-lined it to the nurse’s office as students cleared out of my classroom. The school nurse checked my vitals, then told me to call my wife to pick me up and take me to the doctor, then sent me to lie down while I waited for her to arrive. My pulse and blood pressure were very high, but not high enough to warrant an ambulance ride to the nearest ER. About 40 minutes later, my wife showed up, I got in the passenger seat, and we were on our way home. We stopped at my doctor’s office, where he gave me a pretty thorough once-over. He couldn’t find anything really wrong, so he figured my symptoms were probably stress-related.[2] He said to go home and relax, take the next day off, and try some stress-management techniques to keep my stress levels down. 

16 October 2009. Some two weeks after this incident, as my AP English Language class began after lunch, I once again felt like I had been swept under by a wave of dizziness. I tried to take roll, but struggled to get each name out as my heart rate and blood pressure once again skyrocketed while the room seemed to spin out of control. I could hardly make it through roll call, let alone my scheduled lesson plans in this condition,[3]so I once again told my students to take out homework to work on while I sat at my desk counting the minutes until the bell rang.

Long story short, a few hours later I found myself in urgent care in the midst of yet another panic attack, this one being far more severe than the one two weeks prior. While I was lying on the gurney, the doctor asked me a whole host of questions as the nurse hooked up the EKG and checked my other vitals. One question he asked me repeatedly – confidentially, of course – was whether I had used any drugs recently: cocaine, speed, anything. After his examination, he determined that either I was a closet cocaine user in the midst of an overdose or withdrawals or something, or else there was “something seriously wrong” with me.[4]

Once my vitals dropped down into the normal range, the doctor sent me to get a bunch of blood tests done; the results all came back normal that following Monday.[5] There was nothing physiologically wrong with me, so the doctor figured that my symptoms were most likely anxiety-induced. Despite the doctor’s optimistic prognosis, I still felt horrible most of the time over the next several weeks. Determined to get to the bottom of things, I had a long series of doctors’ appointments with a variety of specialists. The neurologist was the first to put a real label on my condition and diagnosed me with “vertiginous migraines”; and prescribed an anti-anxiety medication for me that is also supposed to help prevent migraines.[6] The drug was marginally successful at the beginning, but I saw very little real improvement over the next couple of years. For the most part, I suffered migraines almost once a week and lived in constant fear of another panic attack.

Fast-forward about three years. My employer switched insurance carriers, forcing me to once again switch doctors. As my new doctor reviewed medications during my initial consultation with him, he asked me about the anti-anxiety medication my previous doctor had prescribed. He said this medication was for symptomatic treatment, not for prevention. Basically, it would be like taking an aspirin for the pain of a broken arm without setting or casting the broken arm. And since this medication was essentially a sedative, he said it was likely interfering with my sleep and actually worsening my sleep apnea as a result; he said it was likely putting me into too deep of a sleep, so my body probably wasn’t waking itself up when I stopped breathing, so my brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen and my body wasn’t getting enough rest. And it was a highly addictive narcotic.[7] In other words, I’d been taking the wrong medication for three years. He then prescribed a new medication for me and told me to wean myself off the old one.

That weekend, I began the “detox” process, which would last almost a month. I tried to go off of it gradually at first, but then decided to just go cold turkey. I wanted to get it out of my system as quickly as possible rather than dragging out the process.

The first two weeks were filled of nausea, dizziness, insomnia, tremors… it was pure hell. I lost over ten pounds from not eating. I couldn’t focus on my work, or anything else happening around me. I missed roughly three days of work. I slept a lot. I was stuck in a fog, disconnected from reality around me.

These initial symptoms began to subside after about two weeks; then the insomnia took over. I guess this makes sense since I had been taking a sedative every night for over three years. I had no trouble falling asleep; it was staying asleep that was difficult. I’d wake up every morning at about 4:00am – sometimes even earlier than that – and just lie there tossing and turning, trying not to wake up my wife until it was time to get up for work. I averaged maybe four hours of sleep each night, not nearly enough to get me through a full day of teaching. And the worst part was spending those early morning hours tossing and turning with Taylor Swift songs playing over and over and over in my head.

After the fog lifted and I was able to rejoin the land of the living, I began to reflect on this experience. I was – I am – a recovering drug addict. Me, Mr. Vanilla.[8] I was one of those kids who never, ever said, “I want to be a junky when I grow up.” And yet, here I was on the tail end of my recovery from a three-year addiction to a prescription narcotic. I am a recovering junky. Sure, mine wasn’t your run-of-the-mill drug-addict story: I wasn’t offered pot in the locker room. I didn’t fall in with the wrong crowd in high school, nor was I pressured into trying some pills at a party. I didn’t lose my house and job and family to my drug addiction. I was simply a young man desperate for relief from nearly debilitating anxiety that manifested itself in excruciating migraine headaches. And because of that desperation, I took the first pills offered to me by a neurologist who seemed to have little regard for the long-term consequences.

I never thought this would be a chapter in my white-as-Wonder-Bread story. I never imagined when I was younger that I’d be missing days of work, curled up in bed in fetal position, trying to sleep off the withdrawal symptoms of a full-blown detox. Likewise, I’m sure that in his younger years Ken Erdedy never thought he would be paralyzed by the sounds of the phone and doorbell ringing at the same time, unable to decide which one to answer for fear that the one he doesn’t answer is going to be the woman bringing him his drugs. I’m sure Don Gately never thought he’d be reduced to burglary to support his drug habit, or that he’d end up the victim of a gun battle outside a halfway house. And Tiny Ewell and Kate Gompert and Randy Lenz and Poor Tony Krause. I imagine none of them planned to end up where they did. No one plans this sort of thing. No one thinks it will happen to them. No one ever says… well, you know the rest.

And yet, here they… here we are. Recovering addicts taking it one day at a time.

[1] David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, 22.

[2] Even though we were less than a month into the new school year, I was already having a tough time. My teaching load was very demanding, and on the home front, my family and I had been relocated to an extended-stay hotel for a couple of weeks. We had to have work done on the stairwell and landing to our second-floor condo, making our unit inaccessible. So, yeah, I was under a little more stress than normal at the time.

[3] In addition to a second round of these physical symptoms, I was scared out of my skull.

[4] Looking back, I’ve realized that that is the worst thing a doctor could tell someone in the middle of a panic attack.

[5] The doctor didn’t tell me all of what he was testing for, which in hindsight was probably for the best. They were testing for some pretty scary shit, and I was already scared out of my mind. So telling me about the potentially life-threatening conditions he was testing for probably would have sent me completely over the edge.

[6] The stuff he prescribed was the one medication that a relative with anxiety issues warned me not to let my doctor put me on. Against my better judgment, I accepted the prescription any way. I was desperate for some sort of relief and was willing to try just about anything.

[7] My wife pointed out the irony that at the start of this, the doctor thought I was a drug addict based on my symptoms. But then to treat my symptoms, the doctors turned me into a drug addict.

[8] I don’t smoke or drink or chew, and I don’t go with girls that do.