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A Visit to Opioid Country

Getty Images / Illustration by Katie Kosma

Aaron Thier | Longreads | October 2018 | 8 minutes (1893 words)

 

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.

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