November 30, 2011

Dextromethorphan & Other Thoughts

Years ago, a doctor prescribed me a high dosage of cough medicine at a L.A. walk-in clinic. I told him I was sensitive to medicine. He probably should have known that by just looking at me. (I am tiny.) The walls were cinder blocks painted a puke green. They listened better than he did. They reasoned better than I did. I took the full dosage later that evening. My days-long, high fever had broken, but a small cough remained. I just wanted to feel better. I swallowed the prescribed dosage and went to class.

We had class in a large conference room a few buildings down from our apartments. The complex held more people and buildings than our campus. The rug was a rich chocolate brown that matched the leather chairs. I learned about L.A. architecture and L.A. history. Until I realized I could not feel my legs. I found this hilarious.

We went out to L.A. as only a handful of students. I went to learn about grass-roots, urban policy campaigns until the lead professor switched the program around and then I went to learn about writing in the entertainment industry. I didn't learn a whole lot about that, or perhaps I did and didn't like what I learned, but either way, the semester wasn't anything like we thought it would be. We had a grad student teaching us about architecture, and pretty much everything else we learned that semester, and I didn't want to make him uncomfortable by laughing too hard at the fact that I could no longer feel my legs. I counted to thirty over and over again until class ended.

When it finally ended, I used both hands to move my legs from their cross-legged position onto the ground. I worried that I would not be able to walk - I worried more about how I would explain that I could not walk than I worried about not knowing why I could not walk - but found that my legs still moved my body forward easily. I found this hilarious and burst out laughing by the time I got to the back of the room. A few people shot me uncomfortable glances. My best friend asked, "What is wrong with you?" This was not the usual way she responded to my bouts of laughter.

I managed to somewhat hold it together until we got out of the building and onto the sidewalk. I laughed so hard I cried and she kept asking, "Are you OK?" "What is so funny?" I couldn't answer. I thought my abs were on fire. I could hardly walk; I doubled over with laughter. "You don't sound like yourself," she finally commented. This sombered me enough to tell her I could not feel my legs during class, which prompted a new round of laughter. She didn't join.

When we finally got back to our apartment, I knew I had to pull myself together. I went into the bathroom as a precautionary to avoid wetting my pants and to take a few deep breaths. It took about thirty seconds before I realized I could not stop laughing. Which finally scared me. I promptly burst into tears. Lots and lots of tears. Hot rivers flowing down my face and heaving sobs.

I emerged from the bathroom almost hysterically crying. "What is wrong?!?!" She flew to my side. "I.. I... can't stop... laughing." I choked the words out and upon hearing them - burst into laughter. Again. The tears still streaming.

The next hour went on exactly like this. She finally figured out it was the cough medication I took before class. I finally figured out that going through my cell phone contacts was a bad idea. But not before she took the phone away from me. I don't remember exactly who I talked to that evening. I do remember a hushed conversation in the other room with our other roommates on the merits of an ER trip. I remember the bread she tried to feed me and spitting it back into her hand. (She shall be deemed a Saint, yes.) The glass of water got more laughs than I usually offer to a stand-up comedian. She, the brilliant thinker she is, grabbed a photo album full of our college friends and sat down on the bed with me. She spent the next twenty minutes having me identify each face in every picture, which calmed me down, focused me, and eventually lulled me to sleep.

I didn't take another pill and, miraculously (note: sarcasm), I didn't cough again for the rest of my time in L.A.

A few years later, we identified the crazy in the cough medicine as dextromethorphan. A common active ingredient in cough suppressants.

My second year of law school, I ended up sick again. (Two, maybe three, significant illnesses in a four year time span isn't too bad, right? Go-go gadget immune system.) I had a cough this time. A real cough. That disrupted my real professors and my real learning. So, I bought a children's bottle of cough medicine and took a children's dose one evening - just to be on the safe side - and took a nap.

I woke up panicked. I knew Nicole wasn't home, but I wasn't sure where she was. It became imperative that I find out immediately. I grabbed my phone and called her. She answered, told me she was running errands, would be back in a couple of hours, how was I feeling? I burst into tears. I sobbed into the phone, "It isn't fair! I have been sick for days. I am never, ever getting better. What if something is really wrong with me?" The panic in my voice prompted her to turned around, drive home, and bring me to the prompt-care at the end of the street. The intern working at the clinic diagnosed me with a bad cold and I went home and swore off cold medicine for the rest of my life. A child's dose of a child's medicine should not result in tears. Even I knew that.

I recounted this tale to a friend recently, who happens to have some knowledge of medicine etc. Apparently a high dosage of dxm is similar to an acid trip - it bonds to the brain and creates a dissociative sensation. Not being able to feel my legs? Check. I more or less knew this. But he also said a bad experience with dxm is like a bad acid trip. The brain remembers dxm and each time it enters the body, the brain will flashback to the first initial experience.* 

Oh. So that is why I was a hot mess after just the small children's dosage.

The brain remembers and acts according to the past rather than the present.

A fascinating concept until I realized, even without dxm,

I do this all the time.

*Please don't quote me on this because I have no real knowledge on anything related to biology, chemistry, psychology, etc. at all. 


  1. oh my goodness- I remember that so well. You SO did not want to go to the doctors!!

  2. Oh my God. It's bad that I replaced "medicine" and "dxm" with 'Mike,' right? Or maybe it's perfect.