Understanding the unthinkable (death and rebirth)

Addiction to cough medicine. What a weird thing, right?

What? You mean everyone’s room doesn’t look like a hurricane met an earthquake met volcano met a Godzilla?

What on earth could possess someone to glug down endless gallons of a vile, utterly repugnant liquid like Robitussin?

The “high” must be pretty amazing for that to be worth it, right?

And then, when someone consumes a whole lot of dextromethorphan (the active ingredient of cough medicine), a hefty physical toll is taken. The body breaks down, coordination diminishes, self-expression becomes a nightmare.

In the midst of my own worst DXM binges I was stuck to the floor, as if the floor were a magnet and I nothing more than a lifeless hunk of metal. Skin raw and sensitive, tongue parched and cracked. In many ways, devolved to infancy. Devoid of pride, consumed by shame.

Then, why? Why keep doing it? Why?

Why would anyone? What is wrong with someone who would do this to themselves?

Well, I did it to myself for what seemed like a long time. From 2002 until 2009 (with a few gaps of sobriety in between), and then I picked up DXM again in September 2014. Graciously I only used twice in 2014 before I was blessed with a profound blast of self-realization that enabled me to live out the rest of my year clean, sober and vibrant.

Oops, I did it again

I fell back beneath the surface in January of 2015 though. Twice in January I downed so much DXM that I was brought to the point of near-total physical uselessness.

There is something bizarrely profound about being a generally able-bodied adult who temporarily cannot stand up straight or string together a coherent sentence.

Equally profound is the adventure that takes place as I moved from that infancy, back towards so-called normalcy.

It all certainly has given me access to a perspective I would otherwise not be privy to.

“Why can’t you understand?”

Up until very recently, I was compelled by a strange obsession to make others understand what it was like. I wanted people to know how much I suffered, how much I went through, how difficult the process of coming back into myself was.

This desire for understanding may be partially based on the fact that coming back into myself was indeed the hardest work I had ever done (at least in the time up until 2009), and doing so inevitably resulted in a deep personal sense of accomplishment, of overcoming a task. My version of scaling a mountain, swimming a channel. Beating Ivan Drago at the end of Rocky IV, or hot air ballooning around the world.

(Well, most people who knew me around 2008 knew I had the hot air part down to a science)

I found great personal pride in that accomplishment, so from an egocentric point of view, surely it would mean as much to others if only they could understand.

(Not the most sound logic, but it was mine)

Maybe people would finally see how strong how I can be, how much I can endure, how on some level I have what it takes to accomplish and see a task through to its end.

Which naturally means I fear the world sees me as weak, easy to give up, and that I don’t have what it takes to complete what I set out to do.

Because, yes. I fear being weak. Fear being stuck, and not following through. If people see me in those ways and tell me as much, then it goes without saying that I have no choice but to believe them. Right?

(Hint: no)

It remains true that one of the most provocative patterns of experience of my life to this point was found in pushing myself to the verge of total physical exhaustion, mental desolation and spiritual depletion and then slowly, layer by layer, rediscovering myself as my being gradually regenerated, eventually bringing me back to the person my friends and family knew. And yes, I pushed and pushed for the people in my life to understand my process of death and rebirth.

But no one ever understood, except the ones who have been there.

And how could they? How could someone that has not subjected the entirety of their being to such total abuse be expected to understand the supposed virtue of someone who crawls back to life from the edge of death? How could they even acknowledge the existence of such a virtue?

In my experience, in most, cases, they cannot.

And that is okay. I understand that now.

My need for people to understand was attached to my need for personal validation. If people understood, then people would value me for my strength.

This was unreasonable of me to expect because by all external appearances I was probably anything but strong.

The pain of alienation

Even so, it used to hurt so intensely and cut so deeply when loved ones and strangers alike seemed to perceive me as subhuman.

“You’re not you. I can’t even look at you. Those are not your eyes. Don’t call me again until you’re you. I want Andrew back.”

No one could have realized how much the words hurt me.

I felt like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Beast. A pariah.

But underneath it all, I was still me.

There is another reason I can think of that I was so desperate for the people closest to me to understand.

Imagine this

Imagine that you have found yourself in a very selfish chapter of your life (for me, 2002-2008).

It seems like everything you do just hurts other people, and you are not fond of this, but you cannot seem to stop making mistakes that just drive a wedge further and further between you and others.

Eventually, you resent the people you love because they cannot condone your behavior which you sometimes feel is fully justified and necessary, and other times you cannot stand what you do but seem helpless to change it.

Your resentment for your loved ones complicates everything, because they are after all, your loved ones. They are just about all you’ve got. You want peace and love but the enmity and chaos keep taking over.

This all results in even more self-destruction. Numb the pain! Turn off the noise! It is always temporary, but this is all you\’ve got.

You dose up again, dive down again, binge again.

You destroy yourself until there is nearly nothing left. You are just a speck, a mere flickering atom, your light is nearly out.

But you survive, and somehow your light brightens ever so slightly. Your cells begin to regenerate, synapses reconnect one by one. Your inner valves jerk and sputter, cool blood slowly warming. Information floods your atoms, telling you that you’re alive, that the trip is over, that it’s time to rise.

Opening your eyes, you try to stand, and then you immediately fall. If you’re lucky you catch yourself on a wall or bed. Or maybe you’ll be right back on the floor. When you do rise, your movements are stiff and robotic, your joints barren.

You are exhausted but cannot sleep. Your body relentlessly itches, you scratch your flesh until it breaks. Your eyes are sunken and shot.

You can barely speak, and when you do your words come out in a drooling lisp. Nearly every time you do talk, you forget what you’re saying almost right away.

Yet somehow, unspeakably, beneath all that suffering, there is a surreal peace.

Your mind flows with strange, awesome, profound thoughts and insights about yourself, about the world, about the universe. You seem to be developing a deeper understanding for yourself and your loved ones. You’re able to empathize with others more, perhaps because your own ego has not yet reawakened.

Yet from that more dynamic sense of empathy for others comes a heart-rending compassion, appreciation.

Since you have spent so long resenting the people you love, being able to appreciate and understand them again is like a divine gift.

Food and water have never, ever tasted so precious. It is almost like you are eating and drinking for the very first time. Every bite of food is a celebration and water is so much more than water. It is liquid life and you can feel its light recharging you all the way down to the protons and electrons and further yet inside.

As you experience this, you learn to wholly and absolutely appreciate life at its most fundamental level. The act of giving yourself life through nourishment is so basic and easy to take for granted that developing a love for it is the foundation for developing a love for everything.

The sky has never been bluer, the clouds never whiter or full of majesty.

Your mother, never more beautiful, your father never more handsome.

But in the most ironic, cruelest twist of fate, your loved ones have never been more afraid of you or afraid for you.

You take their fear as them being repulsed by you. It is not fair in the slightest that just when you reach your capacity to love and appreciate them again, they seem to reject you.

You try to tell them that on the inside you are alive and full of love, but they only see your vice and what it appears to be doing to you. They only see the wreckage. The beauty is lost to them, and you’re left to writhe inside the twisted cosmic joke, a devious paradox that leaves you disheartened and hopeless.

You love your vice for what it has done for you, and your family hates it for what it has done to you.

And then after a few days of learning to walk again, to think again, to exist again… the ego turns back on. The judgment returns. Suddenly, you detest your loved ones more than ever for their wicked lack of understanding and love. Your heart hardens until it turns to stone. You are bitter and resentful. You abhor yourself for not being able to live in a way that people can admire, a way that works in the mechanism of society.

There is only one thing left to do.

Turn off the lights. Turn to the vice. Die again, come back to life again.

Because that space between death and life is the only place in the universe where your heart softens to the warm embers of compassion and reprieve. That space between is the only true happiness you have anymore. You’ll live for it and die for it over and over and over again. You’ll swear by it and give yourself to it and you’ll admire it and love it and worship it.

And the more you love it, the more the world will think of you as sick and misguided.

And the entire ordeal makes you want to scream so loudly that you’ll be heard in the highest corners of heaven and the deepest gutters of hell.

You’ll want to die. You’ll beg to live. You’ll curse God, and maybe even eventually invite him in.


Writing that felt good.

I have been looking for those words for a decade. Here they are, finally. I wrote them at last.

But I did not do it with the need for you to understand.

I will never beg again, for anyone to understand what it’s like.

But if you want to know, there it is.

Also published on Medium.