“It’s Friday. This is the last day.”
That’s the first thought I have when I open my eyes.
I am freezing. I’ve been sleeping–virtually comatose, I guess–scrunched up in the fetal position, unconsciously trying to keep my limbs warm. A cold breeze is fluttering the curtains. I forgot to close the window last night after I smoked my final cigarette of the day.Brilliant. Now I’m wasting heat and trying to give myself pneumonia. I decide that I will berate myself for my spacey druggie irresponsiblity later. First I need some water.
I have smoked so many cigarettes in the past few days, I cannot even begin to imagine the exact number. I am afraid to look in the trash can; I don’t want to be confronted by the shameful stack of empty Camel Lights boxes.
That’s just what I do when I’m high. I smoke and smoke and smoke. Listen to records. Sit on the sofa. Lie on the rug. And smoke some more.
So that might be the source of my respiratory distress.
Then again, it could be a more direct side effect of the all of the heroin that has passed through my nose before being trickling past my trachea.
Last summer I felt as if I was constantly on the verge of suffocation. Literally. I figured that my mind was playing tricks on me This inability to breathe was a manifestation of my feelings of repression/oppression. It only made sense.
Maybe this is the reverse of hypochondria? The patient is constantly convinced that all symptoms are merely imaginary. Professional attention is not sought for even the most threatening illnesses. And the patient is filled with poisonous self-loathing. “Why is my mind always tricking my body? I must be crazier than I would have ever imagined.”
In the hospital–after my overdose–a doctor held a stethoscope to my chest and grimaced. “Have you been feeling congested lately?”
I shook my head. Of course not. It was August. Not exactly cold season.
He looked at me skeptically. “I know that you said that you are not a regular user of heroin. But I have to tell you, your lungs are giving you away.”
I tried to mask my surprise with a blank expression of innocence. Would it be safer to admit that I was a heavy smoker? Surely even an individual with a three-pack-a-day habit could not be involuntarily committed to an inpatient treatment program.
Instead I took a different tactic. A sad, sympathetic soliloquy. “Yes, I’ve been having a little problem with drugs this summer, but it’s been a crazy time in my life and really this whole thing was the best thing that could have happened because now I know that I will never touch any drug every again.”
I swear I meant it. The doctor nodded kindly before prescribing some medication for my trouble respiratory tract. I silently thanked genetics for granting me a baby face that always allows me to successfully play the role of the ingenue.
Apparently, snorting heroin sort of anesthetizes one’s lungs. The bronchi forget to be irritated by dust, smoke, and whatnot. The body no longer coughs, even in situations that would usually necessitate a good hacking spell. LIke maybe when sitting on one’s bike behind a bus at a red light. Or when smoking countless cigarettes while lying on the bedroom floor. The lungs start to fill with fluid. And it is never coughed up. A slow state of suffocation begins to emerge.
The sensation of asphyxiation was not merely imaginary.
This was not the first time I incorrectly assumed that my mind was manufacturing faux physical symptoms. My second day in the mental hospital (years ago), the staff physician examined me. He asked me a barrage of questions. I assumed most of them were attempts at tricking me into a confession of insanity.
“Are you periods normal?”
Of course. How could they be abnormal?
“Do you ever have cravings for strange nonfoods?”
What? No, I’m not crazy.
“Are you excessively thirsty?”
Later I would realize that he was merely trying to find a chemical source of my mood issues. Perhaps it was a vitamin deficiency or a hormonal imbalance. A faulty thyroid or a poor diet.
And then the next question.
“Do you have headaches?:
“Is that a yes? Are they frequent?”
Well, actually I have been plagued by terrible, blinding headaches since I was in elementary school. I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t have regular excruciating pain in my right temple. I spent many afternoons stretched out on my grandma’s sofa with a cool washcloth over my eyes. My cousins were jealous of my frequent consumption of St. Joseph’s Children’s Aspirin. They considered it a treat. Meanwhile, even the slightest memory of its chemical “orange” flavor makes me sick.
He pressed me for more details.
I told him that I assumed that they were imaginary. This theory originated with my mom when she said to me, “it’s all in your head.” No pun was intended.
A few days and a CT scan later, I was diagnosed with migraines. The headaches were real, the result of scar tissue on the on the front side of my skull. The head injury was yet another thing my family never discussed. All part of the long list of secrets that had started me on the painful path to the mental hospital.
I have to admit: I was relieved to discover that maybe all of my misery wasn’t being created by my mind
Right now, I might be coming down with a cold. My lungs could be coated with tar and other scary carcinogens. Or possibly, my respiratory system is enjoying a return to the hijinks of last summer. None of this is acceptable. I have work on Monday. And everyone is returning to town today and tomorrow. I have to don my mask of Sociable Fun Amanda.
And really, I should probably spend the weekend tricking myself into happiness, instead of continuing to numb my aching heart. It sounds cliché, but I’ve enjoyed caring about nothing for the last few days. But I know it’s lazy.
It’s almost ironic, when I think about it. Junkies spend so much time and energy trying to procure drugs. Just financing a habit requires a lot of scheming and scamming. And then one has to track down a consistent dealer. It’s not as easy as it seems. The Yellow Pages and the Better Business Bureau offer no helpful listings. One has to wander around, sniffing out potential drug-addled compatriots. Connections! Networking! Face time!
And I can almost guarantee that almost every addict started off with the plan of just escaping something sad and painful. The loss of something seemingly large. It might have been minor in retrospect. But at that moment, the anguish seemed virtually deadly. “Just this once.” Mild anesthesia seems like a much easier option in the beginning. “I’ll deal with this later.” And then the process of recovery becomes a daunting task. Numbness seems like a simpler alternative.
But really, happiness is so easy. Misery requires effort. It’s not just because frowning uses more muscles than smiling. Maintaining a drug addiction is more exhausting than just getting over a break up. For the bigger issues, therapy is still more cost-effective than years of opiates. There’s no need to mention the figurative price of lost friends and missed opportunities. Or declining health and wasted time.
I pull the last two unopened packs of cigarettes from my messenger bag. I walk to the kitchen and dump the contents into the garbage disposal. Complete destruction will assuage any temptation.
Next, I return to the bedroom for the half-empty (of half-full) tiny plastic bag on my bed table. A swift trip to the bathroom ( and a simple toilet flushing) renders my apartment drug free.
I might hate myself for this in a few hours. But down the line, I will love myself.