4 Insane Details of Cough Syrup Addiction (An Inside Look)
"Hello. My name is Adam Tod Brown, and I'm addicted to cough syrup."
That's a sentence I've never actually had to say out loud to anyone, but only because I'm fundamentally opposed to meetings of any sort. I should have, though, because the sentence used to be true. I know it sounds absurd, but for a solid two years of my life, I was indeed addicted to cough syrup.
Even more baffling (or mind-blowing, if you will) is the fact that it didn't happen when I was in high school, which is generally the age at which we're expected to guzzle disgusting red slime for a cheap high. Maybe "expected" is too strong of a word there. The point is, it happened when I was in my early 30s, and it's really not as funny as it sounds. I'm going to do my best to make it seem like it was, though, because that's my job.
Here are four insane details of the weirdest drug problem ever.
It's Not Like Being Drunk
Aside from high school kids, who are obviously drawn to its ready availability at almost any store, the group most associated with abusing cough syrup would probably be alcoholics. A lot of cough syrup is riddled with alcohol, so the assumption most people have is that using it to get high is really just a less tasty way to drink at places you shouldn't be drinking, like at work, for example. If that's the assumption you're working under when you decide to throw that first entire bottle of cough syrup down your gullet, let me just say this: buckle up.
While there are probably some people who drink certain brands of cough syrup for the alcohol, when you hear stories of teens taking it at school, for example, the substance in question is actually something called dextromethorphan, and it will fuck you up proper. It's an antitussive, which is a fancy term for cough suppressant, and it's the active ingredient in products like Robitussin. At normal doses, it has little to no psychoactive effect. When taken in recreational doses, though, it produces a high that's more along the lines of PCP or ketamine than alcohol.
Side effects include terrifying hallucinations and escaping the Matrix.
Read that again slowly, party animals. Remember the scene in Training Day where Denzel Washington makes Ethan Hawke smoke a joint and doesn't tell him until it's too late that he'd actually been smoking PCP? Getting high on cough syrup and expecting it to be like getting drunk is basically that scene in a bottle, and you're Ethan Hawke. What happens next is going to be nothing short of terrifying if what you're expecting is a few hours of chillaxation.
Like I said, the psychological effects of dextromethorphan, or DXM, as I'll be calling it from now on, because that sounds way more hardcore than "cough syrup," is a lot like PCP. At low recreational doses, that means a euphoric effect. As the dose increases, things get exponentially more terrifying, with hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, and full-on psychosis reported at high levels. Remember that time you smoked marijuana and had hallucinations that eventually devolved into full-blown psychosis? Nope.
How Does a Full-Grown Adult Develop a Cough Syrup Habit?
Like everything else in life, I place the blame for me eventually developing a debilitating Robitussin habit squarely on the shoulders of my boss. Not my current boss, of course -- Jack O'Brien is a goddamn prince, and don't you forget it. I'm talking about my boss at one of the shitty insurance jobs I worked at for years before deciding that doing this would be slightly more enjoyable and fulfilling. I don't remember her name because I don't respect authority.
Anyway, I'd come down with a nasty case of the flu that brought with it a ridiculously disruptive cough that stayed around for weeks, well after the illness had otherwise passed. In what was likely an attempt to help me stop annoying the shit out of my co-workers with that incessant hacking, my supervisor came to my desk and asked if I'd looked into getting some cough syrup with codeine. I had not, but the borderline junkie that lives deep inside me was all goddamn ears. Codeine? Like what gave Lil' Wayne a seizure? There's no reason I shouldn't have some. Convulsions burn a shit-ton of calories.
"They don't just give you codeine for any cough though, right?" That was my question. It was answered when I called my doctor's office to inquire and was told to come pick up my prescription approximately eight seconds later. I didn't even have to go in and cough in a doctor's face or whatever. I just said my cough hadn't gone away and wanted cough syrup with codeine and they gave it to me no questions asked like I was shopping at a pharmacy in Tijuana or some shit.
Like this one that I've definitely never been to.
To be honest, I wasn't that impressed from a partying standpoint, likely because the fear of death prevented me from just downing the entire bottle the second it was in my hot little hand. It wasn't terrible, though, and worse, it gave me an even more terrible idea. Like anyone else, I'd heard stories about teens abusing cough syrup, or "robo-trippin" as it's often called. A couple days spent with codeine left me wondering what the over-the-counter stuff was like, so a few days later, I tried it. A couple weeks after that, if it even took that long, I was using it daily. Obviously, there's a bunch of other stuff on the bridge that gets a person from trying something once to immediately taking to it as a lifestyle. That's another article. Or hundreds, probably.
Shitty life choices spend just like money at Cracked.
Anyway, it was a habit that would accompany me not just through the next two years of my life, but also through three job changes, a breakup, and a brief reunion of that relationship before anyone even noticed that I was really fucked up for most of my waking hours, even when I was at work.
And that's always been kind of puzzling to me. Aside from the smell of marijuana, I don't know if I've ever encountered a more difficult-to-hide tip-off that a person is using drugs than the kind of slurred speech that being high on cough syrup causes. It's like something is reaching up from inside your throat and holding your tongue while you talk. During those years, I had a lot of really important conversations with people who probably didn't want me to be high at the time, and not a single person ever asked why I sounded like I was on the verge of being blackout drunk. I'm still not sure why no one ever questioned it. Because I'm super funny and charming, probably. I don't want to speculate. That's why, though.
Whatever the case, there was a much uglier side effect that I was better at hiding, but just barely.
The Projectile Vomit Problem
Fun fact: Getting high on dextromethorphan too soon after eating will cause the contents of your stomach to leave your mouth, literally, in the same way Paul Rudd puked all over Jon Favreau in I Love You, Man. If you've never seen that movie, just imagine how much vomit you would like to spew on Jon Favreau and how hard you would like it to hit him in the face. It was exactly like that. And it happened to me all the goddamn time.
See, one of the major challenges of being high all the time and keeping it a secret is that the people around you don't realize they should be tailoring their daily activities to fall in line with how you party. My downfall during those years, at least in that respect, was that I'd often have to couple running errands with getting high. You can't just keep a large stockpile of available cough syrup around the house without raising a few eyebrows. So that meant, damn near any time I left the house, I was also going to stop at Walgreens.
I'm open to talk endorsement deals, get at me.
I'd go to the same one every time because it was close to my apartment, and unlike some of the more level-headed substance abusers I know, I have absolutely no sense of shame when it comes to the cashiers of the world knowing I have a problem. They have a problem, too. Namely, they're cashiers. Unless you're still in school (in which case I care even less), that's not a path you head down because you have a formidable amount of solid life choices under your belt. Glass houses, motherfuckers.
Also, great album, motherfuckers.
Anyway, several of those trips would revolve around getting food for the household to enjoy. You can't just return home with a sack of tacos and not eat at least one. You eat at least one just to know if you're even hungry for tacos. Any deviation from that is a universally recognized sign that something is amiss. So, if my drug trips coincided with food trips, I'd have to eat and then wait for the ideal moment to sneak away and down two loud-as-shit-when-you-open-them bottles of gelcaps (I preferred those because they have no taste and taking pills is a way more adult way to get high). And by "ideal" I mean literally any moment. My only hope was that said moment did not happen too soon after I ate. On several occasions, that did not turn out to be the case.
What was I going to do, though? Just not get high? Certainly not back then, so more often than not I'd risk it and just hope I'd reach a bathroom in time to vomit, ideally without anyone hearing me. I often failed miserably. If anyone witnessed or heard me vomiting, I'd usually blame the food. People never questioned it, which blows my mind. Who gets food poisoning on a monthly basis, barring people who regularly eat at KFC? The odds of that have to be on par with getting struck by lightning.
Or finishing a Double Down chicken sandwich without having a stroke.
Still, I got off time and time again without having to give a better explanation.
In one particularly gruesome incident, as my girlfriend at the time sat about 10 feet away in the living room, I made it inside the bathroom and shut the door just in time to paint most of the toilet and the wall behind it with the barely digested remains of a McRib Extra Value Meal. Up until this point, I'd always made it at least mostly into the bowl. The lid wasn't even open this time. There was puke everywhere, and I'd blamed my mad dash to the restroom on ... something else. On the bright side, that process buys a person a good 10 minutes or so on anyone's clock before they go on Elvis alert. Effectively cleaning up that much puke was not easy, but I did a bang up job and got out of there without incident.
Well, almost without incident. As is custom, I made a quick "Don't go in there!" announcement to lighten the uniquely ugly mood that falls over us all when we're within earshot of someone taking a particularly rowdy dump.
Her reply? "Yeah, it smells like you puked." Indeed it did.
Let's say you smoke weed, because you probably do and I'll like you more if I think you do anyway. If you smoke a joint and then smoke another one three hours later and then repeat that process throughout the day, the only thing that's going to happen is that you'll just sort of keep getting high again in the same way each time. It wears off, you smoke more.
I got to the point where, at least on especially celebratory days like holidays and such, I'd take cough syrup the same way. What I didn't realize at the time is that cough syrup doesn't work like that. At all. See, the different highs associated with DXM are broken into four different categories, or "plateaus," as people who drink too much cough syrup like to call them. For example, here's a rundown of the horrors that await a person who reaches the "fourth plateau" as listed on the entire damn Wikipedia page dedicated to the recreational use of cough syrup:
"At 15.0 mg/kg or more, an individual may experience a perceived loss of contact and control with their own body, changes in visual perception, out-of-body experiences, perceptions of contact with 'superior' beings, other miscellaneous delusions, lack of movement or desire to move, rapid heart rate, complete blindness, increased hearing, and intensification of third plateau effects."
Well hello, complete blindness, I'm glad I never met you when I was getting high!
This one gets it.
That's probably because, for a person of my size (at the time), it would have taken a minimum of 70 pills to reach that kind of high and, frankly, that's not the kind of high I want. Now read this:
"Plateau Sigma: 2.5-7.5 mg/kg every three hours for 9-12 hours; occurs by prolonging dosage. Plateau sigma is marked by the presence of psychosis with visual and auditory hallucinations. Users have reported that inclinations manifest as auditory hallucinations; rather than simply feeling tired and sitting down, a user might hear a voice saying, 'sit down now, you're tired,' and feel inclined to obey. White says that of all the reports of Plateau Sigma experiences he received, over half were described as unpleasant."
That's a description of the fifth terrifying plateau in the DXM experience. Check out that dosage. You'll note that it's far less than what a person would need to reach the already terrifying fourth plateau. In fact, all you need to do is the exact same thing I've done a whole bunch of fucking times, which is take a regular dose several times throughout the day at regular intervals. It will surprise no one to know that addicts don't always research their poisons with the proper level of vigor. I'm no different, and until I started researching this article, I had no idea what I was setting myself up for by taking that particular drug in that particular way.
You may recall that my first column for Cracked was this gem about the dangers of smoking synthetic weed. About a month after it was published, Demi Moore suffered a seizure from doing that exact thing. Let this be a cautionary tale to anyone who doesn't read my shit religiously.
Don't let this be you.
Anyway, in that article, I regaled you all with a tale of the time I got so high, I thought I'd died and gone to hell and, even worse, my cats were determined to keep me there. I blamed the fake weed mostly, and just casually mention as if it's not the fifth or sixth craziest single thing I've ever told a person that I also took 40 Robitussin pills. That was a modest estimate. Over the course of that day, I probably took 120 pills, minimum. The gas station weed didn't help, but it's pretty clear to me now that I was fucking around in a way that I really should not have been.
And it happened a lot. I'd just be sitting there watching television and suddenly, as if a switch had been flipped, I'd be overcome with a sense of outright doom. Not terror, fright, panic, or anything like that. Near the end of my run with cough syrup, I would routinely feel doomed. When was the last time you felt doom? It's not fun.
One incident that stands out in particular is when, after a solid day of taking the same drugs in that exact same super dangerous way, I was watching an episode of Parks and Recreation. One of the storylines involved a Native American curse that fell upon a harvest festival the town was throwing. I was so high when I watched this episode that, and I promise you this is not a lie, I was sure that curse was going to stay with me if they didn't get it resolved during that episode.
Just say Knope.
That kind of stuff sounds hilarious to the person reading about it, and even to me in retrospect. Television curses? Cats dooming you to hell? That's comedy that writes itself.
Here's the thing, though: Not everyone can handle being that high. And let me assure you, if you suddenly view your cats and the people on television as participants in a battle for your soul, you are exactly that high. I have enough experience with drugs and the mental wherewithal that, eventually, I realize I'm just high and need to relax. It's a dangerous head space to play around in, though. Replace me with someone who's already prone to violence or mental breaks in that situation and ask yourself how well, for example, the cats would fare in that first story. Put enough drugs in a crazy person, and they will act on the plans I believed my adorable little kitties had hatched on me that night. If you're ever wondering how people wig out on drugs and start biting faces or eating roommates, there you go. Fortunately, I'm enough notches above full-on mentally ill that I knew not to kill my cats. Not everyone gets off that easy.
I told you it wasn't funny.