People like to get high. Say the word “marijuana” and their eyes glaze with the memory of their last toke, and dopey, distant smiles light their faces with the promise of their next smoke-filled euphoria. I am perplexed by the reaction. I am afraid of drugs. Terrified.
When I was fifteen, to please my best friend, I agreed to smoke marijuana. The first time I smoked it, nothing happened. The second time I smoked it, I tornado-ed into a full-fledged panic attack. I lost time. I lost space. I blacked out. I found myself standing at Point B. I didn’t remember getting up from Point A. Terror invaded every muscle and bone in my body. I was hallucinating.
Maybe I experienced my narcotics trip differently than others do, because I can’t comprehend anyone enjoying such a disjointed and altered state of consciousness. I found nothing to giggle about. I did not get the munchies. I did not assume that glazed look in my eyes, or a dopey, happy smile.
I prayed to God to save my life.
It may have been the first time I prayed.
The truth: Getting high was the trigger event that set off my lifelong battle with panic disorder. I read a research note in a book when I was in my thirties stating that narcotics experiences are not an uncommon trigger for people with panic disorder. We can’t handle the drugs. At various times since age fifteen my panic attacks have been so severe as to disable me and render me housebound into a state of all-encompassing agoraphobia.
More than thirty years later, on Tuesday, September 28th, 2010, I had a colonoscopy because of symptoms I’d experienced in August. My in-charge nurse, Barbara, was a kind and loving woman in her sixties, quiet-spoken and calm. She talked to me for twenty minutes about the procedure, the drugs, with great sensitivity to my fears. She sat next to my gurney and held my hand as the IV nurse at the hospital took my vital signs and tried to hook me up to an intravenous line for a hydration pouch.
No offense to the homeless, but this IV nurse (whose name I can’t recall) looked more like a bag lady than a medical professional. I could imagine her on the streets of Boston with a shopping cart and a green garbage bag collecting cans and sleeping in a subway. Her hair was shoulder length, brown and gray, scattered as if she’d forgotten to brush it. Her eyes gleamed. Her wild smiling expression seemed just shy of a mental breakdown – the laughing hyena kind of breakdown of someone eternally mesmerized in the mirror. Hi there, the crazy person says, pointing and talking at the mirror, thrilled to have made a new friend. That kind of crazy. This is the woman who was trying to set me up with an IV and who was about to shove drugs into my body.
I was terrified.
As she attempted to hook up my left arm for the preliminary hydration, she said, “Consider this just the first engine, the freight cars will come booming in soon when the drugs arrive!”
Oh the smile of glee on her face!
My feet started to shake at the end of the bed.
“That’s part of the problem,” I said. I don’t think she heard as she continued with her freight car metaphor and how those drugs would send me somewhere to an unknown world down the tracks.
“You won’t even know what’s happening!”
I repeated, “That’s the problem.”
I know a lot of people would be thinking, “Bring it on!” when it comes to the drugs you get when having such a procedure at the hospital. My brother had a colonoscopy last week (never mind his joke about requesting a family discount) and he asked his nurse: Can I take the rest of those drugs home with me? Apparently, they hadn’t used the entire bag and he loved the altered state. He figured he’d paid for the entire bag of drugs, well, his insurance had, so….
It turns out that Nurse Mental-Case-Waiting-to-Happen couldn’t get the IV to thread in my veins, despite repeated stabs at it. She left me with bruises on my left arm where it bends and dread as I imagined freight cars of drugs soon to be injected into my body booming toward my brain to mottle my consciousness. Just like when I was fifteen.
As Nurse MC failed to get the intravenous line in correctly, Nurse Barbara looked up at her and down at me. She could see my fear rising, as my legs began to shake along with my feet. Barbara rescued me.
“I’ll have Roberta do the IV. Roberta’s been an IV nurse for twenty-five years.”
“Well, she must have tensed up on me,” said Nurse MC, “so I couldn’t get the line to thread.” Of course, her incompetence must be my fault.
Just wheel me away from her, my eyes pleaded with Barbara.
Barbara wheeled me to the exam room and Roberta had the IV in my arm and threaded correctly in two seconds. Barbara and I gave one another a knowing look, like, what was with that other chick? Not one bruise on the arm Roberta used, and although Roberta said nothing of freight cars, I still knew they were coming. Thank you Nurse MC.
The drugs in the intravenous consisted of Versed, a benzodiazepine that I tolerate well. It’s the same medicine used for Xanax or Klonopin, which I take for panic disorder, just quicker acting and used intravenously for sedation. Mixed with that was Fentanyl, a narcotic (most feared), and Benadryl, the same stuff we use for allergies. Barbara said the Benadryl would help the other two medications work better. Barbara told me she would slowly release the drug mixture into my body, going more heavy on the Versed to help me with the Fentanyl reaction (panic.) As expected, I experienced absolute panic as the drugs began entering my being. I was consciously aware of my changing consciousness. Such a state is one of my deepest fears. I am phobic about altered states of consciousness. I fear it more than pain.
I recall body spasms as I clutched to the gurney railing with both hands. I thought my body was rising and falling with spasms of fear every few seconds. I tried to control the spasms so the doctor could do the procedure, but I could not control them — small drugged out fits of panic. But I didn’t hear anyone say, “Stop moving around so we can do this procedure.” So did I really spasm every few seconds? I don’t know.
I felt the doctor’s scope. Sometimes I felt pain. I heard voices. Barbara took my glasses which I had taken off my face. She said, “Let me take those for you.” I said, “Barbara, are you there?” and I heard nothing. I was surprised she did not answer back. It seemed everyone had left the room: doctor, nurse, technician.
Pain seared my body as the doctor continued the exam and (I would learn) removed something unwanted from my colon. I felt myself ball up and away from the pain. I swore I moved two feet. But there was nowhere to move. Again I didn’t hear anyone say, “You need to keep still so I can do this procedure.” So did I ball up?
Where did everyone go? I tried to open my eyes, but I couldn’t keep them open. When I tried to open them, the world around me was not accessible. How do I put it? I could see and had awareness that I was in the room having a colonoscopy, but I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing in the murky haze or where I was. These contradictory states of consciousness co-existed, like a divorced couple still co-habiting. I was dizzy and I wasn’t dizzy. I was unable to open my eyes and stare at the altered reality. I opened my eyes several times, but the lids kept dropping. I tried to open them, for control, but I could not keep them open, and I could not bear to see what I was seeing – and not really seeing. I heard nothing. Where had everyone gone?
JABS OF PAIN! I screamed, “OOOWWWWWWW!!!!!” I thought loudly. I thought I jumped. But now I don’t know if I said anything because I heard no reaction. I don’t know if I moved because there I was, still lying on my side.
(And the memory of the pain does not bother me, it would not stop me form having this procedure again. For those of you afraid of the pain of this procedure, please keep in mind that most people fall completely asleep and don’t even know they are having a colonoscopy. Barbara had explained to me earlier that because I am on benzodiazopene drugs daily, I would probably not be completely asleep, as I have a certain tolerance level most others don’t have. So, have a colonoscopy and don’t worry about pain.)
I thought I heard Barbara say, “You’re doing great,” but then I heard nothing. I opened my eyes to look at her, but they closed again. I could not locate her. I began to spasm again. I thought I had spasms again. My hands continued to clutch the gurney railing. I think I made myself breathe deeply a few times to relax my muscles. Yet my body and memory fought with all its strength to reject the narcotic in my body.
My body and brain remembered more than thirty years ago when pot smoking in the woods changed my life forever. So Tuesday I fought against the drugs. I fought and I fought. I put up the good fight. But in the end, I lost it, I gave in, I closed my eyes. I let go, I let “God,” as some like to say. I may have fallen asleep. I don’t remember.
“You’re almost done,” Barbara said. Moments later, “You’re done. The procedure is over.”
It seemed as though only five minutes had passed, but I know the procedure takes longer than that.
“Can I have my glasses?” I said, not fully back to reality but halfway there. The IV was still in my arm but the drugs were no longer pumping in, just the hydration.
“Your glasses are right next to you,” Barbara said. I reached and there they were. Hadn’t she take them away from me, across the room? When did she put them back? Did she ever take them away?
Barbara wheeled me to Recovery, in a room of post-colonoscopy patients. I could take you through my steps back to consciousness in Recovery, perhaps the most humorous moment was my waving to Nurse Barbara as she wheeled in a drugged out old man who waved back to me. By now you get the picture, in terms of my struggle with mind altering drugs. I came out of them in Recovery, phase by phase, both aware and unaware as I began to find reality again. When I sat upright and ate cookies and drank cranberry juice, I was so happy. It would be twenty four hours before I had my full conscious awareness, but I had survived the colonoscopy, and for me, more important, I’d survived the drug experience.
A friend asked: Were you out or were you awake during the procedure?
My answer: I have no idea.
So it’s onto October and the euphoric high of being alive.