Kind of a Bummer

I’d been coughing for a week when I gave in and went to the doctor. As I opened the door to the office I began an operatic coughing fit. By the time I approached the reception desk, the doctor’s numerous assistants were peering curiously around the glass divider. Just as I stepped up to the window the grand finale welled up from the depths of my chest and I barked out a few more notes.

“Jesus Christ,” said the receptionist.

“I’m here to see the doctor,” I croaked.

I waited on an outdated gray leather sofa and averted my eyes from a truly hideous piece of art, inclining my head instead toward the flatscreen television, which was showing CNN. I probably haven’t seen CNN in eight years or so, not since my college housemates and I fell asleep waiting for the Bush-Gore election returns that never came. Horrible stuff, CNN. They were conveying so many kinds of horrifying information in so many ways at once that I could feel my will to live on this earth slipping away. The visuals were of some kind of natural disaster, the talking head kept repeating the word, “bomb,” and the ticker on the bottom was spinning a lurid tale of violent crimes perpetrated on the young and innocent. Into this evil world I spewed more evil, one viral gust at a time.

I sat, waiting and coughing, until an elderly woman came out of the exam room. She walked right up to me and watched me cough while she put on her turban, fur hat and sunglasses.

“Do you have bronchitis?” she asked slowly. “Because I do.”

“I-cough-think-cough-maybe I-cough cough do,” I said.

“Well, it’s just terrible, isn’t it?” said the old woman, drawing her fur tightly around her shoulders.

Just then, doctor called me in to his office to take all kinds of notes on me. In giving my medical history I realized I was actually an incredibly healthy person. Everything works just great except for my lungs, which have always been prone to lengthy bouts of coughing. I had to answer a lot of probing questions, though.

“Do you smoke?”

“Ah, no. But sometimes I am in smoky rooms.”

“I see. Do you drink?”



“Do I drink significantly?”

“Is your drinking significant?”

“Drinking is significant to me, yes.”

“Do you drink in a significant way?”

“No, I would say that I drink in an insignificant way.”

Satisfied, the doctor continued on. “Are you taking any drugs regularly?”

“What do mean by regularly?”

“Do you take any medications?”

“Do I take them?”

“Are you on any medications?”


The stress of having to answer all these questions brought on a coughing fit. The doctor looked at me kindly.

“That’s quite a cough you’ve got there,” he said.

“I know,” I said proudly. “I’d be awfully grateful if you could give me some powerful drugs that would get rid of it.”

“Well, we’ll see,” said the doctor. “Let’s poke you and stick you and take some pictures.”

He took me in the exam room and listened to my chest. “You’ve got a whole symphony in there,” he said cheerfully. “All kinds of noises.”

“Is that bad?”

“Let’s take a picture.”

The nurse took some x-rays and several vials of blood. I went back to the gray couch, then back into the office, where I was diagnosed with a combination of bronchitis, tracheitis and laryngitis and prescribed a narcotic cough syrup.

“You don’t drive, do you?”


“Good, ’cause this’ll knock you right out.”

“Sounds great,” I said. “Will it make it go away?”

The doctor frowned. “You should be feeling better in a few days, but I’ll give you two refills just in case.”

I took my prescription across the street to the pharmacy and collected a bottle marked “Hycodan/hydrocodone.”

“Hydrocodone,” I murmured. “I know that stuff.”

Wikipedia revealed that the good doctor had prescribed me liquid Vicodin. Sweet! I had been really depressed from being sick and coughing all the time, not to mention the dark days of winter and the pain of being alive. Now I had a bottle of liquid Vicodin to ease the pain. It was covered in stickers. “Intensifies the effects of alcohol,” they said. “May be habit-forming.” “Avoid heavy machinery.”

I looked it up on the internet. Side effects included: Blurred vision, constipation, dizziness, drowsiness, dry mouth, euphoria, excitement, nausea, vomiting. Most of those sounded unpleasant, but I’ll risk a lot for a little euphoria and excitement. There were was nothing to look forward to among the withdrawal symptoms of feeling unwell or unhappy, anxious or irritable, dizzy, confused, or agitated and suffering from nausea, unusual skin sensations, mood swings, headache, trouble sleeping, and sweating. How would I know if I was in withdrawal or I was just myself? Maybe the unusual skin sensations would sound the appropriate warning.

It seemed I was about to embark on my own little flirtation with opiate addiction. Never been much for that particular flavor of fucked-up myself–I very often do vomit or become drowsy, not my favorite sensations. I much prefer the delusion that I can see the essence of all things or I am a dictator to I am drowsy and will soon vomit. However, compared to round the clock convulsive coughing, euphoria followed by drowsiness followed by hopefully not vomiting sounded appealing.

My first day on the stuff was great. I couldn’t tell if I was no longer coughing or was now too drugged to care, but it didn’t matter because I fell asleep before I could really think about it. The next day I had to work for many hours and hesitated to take the soporific narco-syrup lest it render me useless. But after coughing into the echochamber ceiling of the public library where I meet my first two students and drawing glares from all the geriatric library regulars, I ducked into the vestibule and swigged. I quieted down somewhat and went on with the day. I couldn’t help but notice that with my midday nip of narco-syrup came an instantaneous feeling of relief and a soothing–if somewhat artificial–sense that everything was just fine right now, and always would be.

Two hours later, it was raining. It was cold. I was coughing. I was sleepy. I was not so much euphoric, or even excited. Perhaps I was already developing a tolerance and no high would be like the first. I made it to the final townhouse of the evening and starting coughing in earnest. I had reserved the last dose for this very eventuality and down the hatch it went in a torrent of Red #3, deforming future babies, breeding future cancer, but hopefully suppressing, for the moment, my dreaded cough.

By some miracle, the last student of the day had improved her SAT scores by 100 points in each section, despite my cancelling our last two sessions due to convalescence. This demoralized me. They were better off without me. I wasn’t even good at my day job. But before I could get too upset, I felt the familiar tug of the opiates gently removing these worries from my mind, the way you would extract an object from a sleeping child’s fingers. That was the real trick of the whole hydrocodone family, I remembered. Not the brief euphoria but the slow, almost imperceptible removal of pain. Funny drug, those painkillers–more about what they absent rather than what they add.

“How’d you do it?” I smiled sweetly at my student.

“I just tried,” she scowled.

“Well, that’s good,” I said. “Try when you take the real test and you’ll really be on to something.”

I noticed that it was a lot easier to deal with moody teenagers from within a pleasant opiate haze, though it was harder to stay awake. I assigned the kid some problems to do and asked her mom for some green tea so I didn’t nod out on her dining room table. The hydrocodone was reaching some critical mass in my body. I was beginning to drift away on a syrupy red sea.

And then, just like that, the sea grew angry. My boat began listing, then tossing in the waves. I felt a familiar and telltale burning between my ribs, the stirrings of violent nausea.

Despite my demented escapades, I’ve never thrown up in a client’s house, and this is the shred of dignity I cling to when I’m looking for reassurance that I’m only a recreational moron. How ironic that the substance currently endangering my untarnished record was the one drug I’d ever actually been prescribed.

“I’m really sick.” I told the kid. “Tell your mom we’re done.” I quickly calculated a ten-minute refund and counted out the exact change. I called a taxi and waited by the door.

“I’m so sorry you’re not feeling well,” said the mom. “While I have you, do you think she should do a summer internship?”

The very words, “summer internship” almost yanked my stomach inside out. I’ve always found the custom of monied youth working for free while following around middle-aged people in suits in preparation for their own long slogs up the corporate ladder to be nauseating on many levels, but I took a deep breath and said, “A summer internship, yes, that could be good. A summer internship, yes. I highly recommend it.”

The cab arrived and I concentrated on not vomiting in it. This was difficult, as it was suffused with the scent of a thousand air fresheners. Coupled with the usual swerving and heavy braking, the sharp odor contributed to the delusion that I was starring in my own private reality show called, “Who Wants to Throw the Fuck Up Right Now?”

I called someone who could help with this terrible problem. I called my mommy. “Deep breaths,” she said. “Deep breaths.”

I got to my corner and paid the man whose addiction to air fresheners was far worse than my burgeoning dependence on narcotic cough syrup. I stepped out of the taxi and promptly projectile-vomited all over the tree outside my apartment building. It wasn’t the first time that had happened, but it was the first time it was neon yellow. Hydrocodone, I read online, metabolizes into morphine in the body. Apparently, Red #3 turns into Yellow #5.

I trudged inside and flung myself onto the couch, where Rebecca kindly brought me tea and toast.

“It turned on me!” I moaned. “My narco-syrup turned on me! It was prescription!”

“Did you take the amount you were supposed to?” Rebecca asked suspiciously.

“I did! I swear!”

“Well, you’re just going to have to take less of it.”

“But I want to take more of it!”

“I know you do, buddy,” said my kind friend. “I know you do.”

I went to bed that night without any liquid Vicodin syrup and coughed through the whole night. When I woke up I realized I’d pulled something in my neck, coughing in my sleep. A nice dose of painkilling hydrocodone would have helped with that, but I was too afraid to take it. New York has so comparatively few plants and trees and it wouldn’t be fair to cover them all with neon yellow vomit.

Soon, at least, there was a distraction. My personal physician called to announce that she’d gotten engaged. I screamed appropriately and then wept a little for good measure. It was nice to feel another emotion enter my world of uncontrollable coughing and self-sedation. Joy! Celebration! The embarking upon of a future by two young people in love! Most important, the chance to get wasted on a beach and make some bad decisions!

I called Rebecca to share the news that our personal physician was engaged. “She and I are really not having the same kind of week,” I remarked.

“No,” Rebecca agreed. “You’re not getting married. You threw up on the tree.”

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