In early November, I got a mild cold. I felt bad for a day, then felt better, then started coughing and didn’t stop coughing for a whole month. As if by way of compensation, the doctor gave me an orange flask of codeine cough syrup. This was a problem for me because I’m a recovering addict. But I didn’t mention this, because I’m a recovering addict. I said to myself: Think of it as medicine.
I was supposed to take 5 mL every four hours, “as needed.” I knew 5 mL was either one teaspoon or one tablespoon, and this confusion was more or less genuine, but I strategically avoided looking up the answer and chose the larger dose. This led predictably to a drug experience. My eyes turned red, I felt a buzzing sensation, I stumbled and walked into walls, I couldn’t relax enough to pee, I couldn’t speak at the right volume, I craved sugar. I was aware that I was behaving more cheerfully than usual, but I did not experience a feeling of good cheer. My head hurt very much. After four hours, I drank what I judged to be a second tablespoon directly from the flask.
I’d been sober for almost eight years. I had not forgotten the danger that opioids represented for me, and I was mostly operating in good faith. I really was desperate to stop coughing. For the next two days, I took the cough syrup more or less as directed, the right dosage at the right intervals. During this time my wife and I had an unusual number of meetings and social obligations, and my own feeling was that I met these obligations with tremendous dignity and grace. True: My eyes were red, my head was buzzing, my equilibrium was disturbed, my voice was either too loud or too soft, sometimes I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and my behavior was manifestly the behavior of a person who was on drugs. But it was OK because I was following the doctor’s orders.
Four days after I filled the prescription we left our cosmopolitan New England town and traveled to the woodsy corner of opioid country where my wife grew up. The occasion was our niece and nephew’s birthday party, but because of the complexity of the interpersonal relationships in opioid country, where families get blown apart and then reconstitute themselves in surprising ways, there were many overlapping family units, and lots of people I’d never met. It was my first visit since the 2016 election. I had some feelings I wanted to express, and I knew I should try not to express them.
We parked outside the house. My wife went in with our son, and I lingered by the car, where I drank a dose of cough syrup from my flask. It had only been an hour since the last dose, but luckily I was coughing and coughing, and I could justify it on that basis. I also knew that the cough syrup would help me to behave well — another benefit. I went inside. My mouth tasted like despair.
I’d been sober for almost eight years. I had not forgotten the danger that opioids represented for me, and I was mostly operating in good faith. I really was desperate to stop coughing.
It wasn’t that I had no idea what to expect out there in rural Pennsylvania. The problem was that I knew exactly what to expect. In the kitchen, a man and a woman were discussing the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. They didn’t know that the repeal effort had failed in the Senate. They thought they were rid of that controversial law, and they were happy about it. But life was no better than it had been. They were both in bad health. The man, who was no older than 55, said he couldn’t walk up two sets of stairs without “huffin’ and puffin’.”