I Was a Cough Syrup Junkie
My struggles with perfectionism, alcoholism and addiction were fairly typical. But my drug-of-choice was not.
My friends in recovery and I can laugh over our similar past adventures and mishaps with weed and booze. Pissing the bed? Waking up next to strangers? We’ve all been there. But who chugs a bottle of Vicks Non-Drowsy cough syrup to get high minutes before ballet class?
I’m an alcoholic and an addict and I worshipped booze, weed and any painkillers or mushrooms I could get my hands on. But I loved cough syrup most of all.
I grew up in suburban Michigan in a traditional “all-American” nuclear family. My childhood was pretty privileged. We had a yard, a dog, a nice house. My parents applauded my earning almost all As and nabbing lead roles in community theater shows. As a young overachiever, I believed this was how to prove my worth. I thought I needed to be “perfect” to be loved.
My obsessive goal-setting mostly kept me clear of drugs and alcohol in high school. I knew I couldn’t nail my two arias for the choir festival, memorize lines for the school play and ace my AP US History test if I got stoned. I did drink too much at homecoming and pass out on my friend’s bathroom floor. But I just chalked it up to rum, and being 17.
I got into my dream college, one of the most prestigious acting schools in the country, and moved to NYC. A maelstrom of insecurity and self-perceived failure followed. “All of my classmates are so talented,” I thought. “I must be the worst.” I felt like a fraud.
My drinking and drug use really took off. Freshman year, I would often drink until I blacked out. The following summer I fell in with a gang of misfits who smoked and dealt weed around my suburban town in Metro-Detroit. Their lifestyle, which consisted mostly of working at Jet’s Pizza, smoking pot, and playing Halo, helped nurture my growing drug habit. By sophomore year, I was a full-on stoner. Plus, there were bars that didn’t card near my dorm.
But I still didn’t let go of my obsession with perfection. I still tried to get straight As while projecting an image that everything was fine—that I was a typical, overachieving theater major living it up in the Big Apple.
I would go to any lengths to get my fix. I knew which drug stores had my favorite brand, which would do in a pinch, and how to shoplift at all of them.
During second semester I got a nasty cold. I bought NyQuil and drank twice the recommended dosage before I went to bed. As I drifted off to sleep, I felt like I was tumbling down inside a warm, dark, quiet cave. When I woke up I realized cough medicine could get me high if I drank enough.
So I did it again. And again. And again.
Tripping on cough syrup was like being stoned, but I didn’t feel lethargic or have any food cravings. It was like being drunk, but without the room spinning or the urgent need to pee in inappropriate places. I didn’t reek of booze or weed, and I could get my fix—legally—on any block in New York City.
I’d found my perfect high.
I started planning my drug use around my school schedule: I’d duck into the bathroom in the middle of my last class, chug a bottle of Vick’s 44 Dry Cough, and know that by the time I left class, the high would set in. An hour later, I would smoke weed and listen to Nick Drake on my iPod. I had it down to a science.
The key to my high, I now know, is dextromethorphan (DXM). It’s a chemical that goes straight to the brain where it turns on some brain chemicals and turns off others. When taken in doses 10 to 50 times greater than the as-prescribed spoonful of syrup, DXM envelopes you in a velvety cocoon way beyond feeling-no-pain (one of DXM’s street names is “velvet”).
I would go to any lengths to get my fix. I knew which drug stores had my favorite brand, which would do in a pinch, and how to shoplift at all of them. My main spots were the CVS’s on Bleecker Street and Christopher Street. When I thought no one was watching, I’d peel off the label so as to not set off the security alarm, slip it into my jacket pocket or purse, and walk right out the door. I did this almost every day.
During the day, while sober, I was still working myself to the bone. But once I was done with the day’s responsibilities, I would head straight to oblivion. Like Glinda the Good Witch in her bright pink bubble, the drug took me away from reality, away from the expectations I placed on myself. It quieted that critical inner voice that told me I was a fraud and a failure.
Sometimes I got so high I could barely perform. Everything on stage would spin, I’d forget lines, and sometimes slur my speech to the point that I’m sure people thought I was having a stroke.
I was continuing to drink and party, and the alcohol and cough syrup combo led to almost-instant blackouts. This put me in a lot of unsafe situations I’ll never fully remember, often involving walking home with a stranger or stumbling around the city at night, alone. Sometimes I’d chug the wrong brand and get violently sick to my stomach. The habit fed my burgeoning eating disorder, since staying high for most of the day made it easier to starve myself.
I’m lucky I didn’t hurt myself. There are plenty of dangers in chugging cough syrup that have nothing to do with DXM, since most over-the-counter formulas contain antihistamines, expectorants, decongestants and a host of other chemicals that, when taken in “recreational” amounts, can cause who-knows-what negative effects. Adding booze to this toxic brew can wreak even more havoc on your system.
By the end of sophomore year, I was spiraling. I started chugging a bottle before some of my classes, just to get through the day. The professor’s voice would fade into the background as my mind floated on a soft pillow of bliss.
I was losing control.
The summer after my junior year of college, I was working in a New Hampshire-based Shakespeare company. I found decent cough medicine in the tiny town and would stow the empties in my desk, afraid to be caught by the other resident actors.
At night, I would often get so drunk I cried, alarming the other actors. Sometimes I got so high I could barely perform. Everything on stage would spin, I’d forget lines, and sometimes slur my speech to the point that I’m sure people thought I was having a stroke.
I made it almost to the end of the Shakespeare residency when I got fired. While tripping on cough medicine, I found out my family dog had died. I coped the only way I knew how, by getting wasted alone in my room. I don’t remember much after my third drink. But suddenly it was dark and my artistic director was shoving a bottle of water in my hand.
“We found all the cough medicine bottles in your desk,” she said, flatly. “Either you drink as much water as you can until you throw up, or I’ll be forced to take you to the hospital.”
Terrified of my secret getting more exposed, I opted for water. They fired me the next morning. I tried to explain that the empties weren’t all from one night. It didn’t help.
When I got back to New York, I spent my first night sober in my new Brooklyn apartment. I had no furniture yet, so I slept on the floor. After I told my mom what happened, she suggested I check out a 12-step program. The next day, I went to my first AA meeting.
I didn’t experience physical withdrawal symptoms–only emotional ones. I learned to deal with these through a combination of recovery and therapy. Thankfully, I haven’t a drink or drug ever since. Not even cough medicine.
Today, I still avoid the cough and cold aisles in drug stores if I can help it. But then agan, I don’t voluntarily meander through liquor stores, either. My boyfriend, who is not an alcoholic or addict, has kept NyQuil—and even sexy prescription cough medicine, which I never tried—in our apartment. But luckily, by that point I’d had enough recovery under my belt to not be tempted.
Some people in recovery from alcoholism or drug addiction can use cough medicine as prescribed without relapsing. But I know myself better. I don’t even have an excuse: I haven’t had a bad cough since I got sober.
Grace Kemeny is a pseudonym for an actress and writer based in New York City. She performs onstage regularly in the New York City area, and can also be seen on various cable TV shows. She lives with her boyfriend in Brooklyn and loves to eat dessert, lift weights and go to comic conventions.
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