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Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Kratom, PAWS, and learning to walk again

“Ah, another mistress.” - Dale Pendell on kratom, Pharmako/Gnosis

Are you: depressed? lonely? easily frustrated? anxious? Like, all the time? and sometimes you worry that nobody likes you? And that your fondest dreams are just ridiculous castles built on improbable clouds and that God thinks you’re kind of a joke for even wanting anything more than what you’ve got, and why aren’t you content with what you have anyway, huh? What’s wrong with you, for the love of Christ?

Well, have I got something for you.

My apartment in 2003 with my then-wife Stephanie was an old, poorly maintained, huge, and above all cheap apartment far out in Queens. We moved in together there out of economic necessity, and the sheer gravitational pull of our mutual sloth kept us there for almost 10 years. It was a pleasant apartment, in a beautiful neighborhood, and we kept a revolving door of roommates in the various extra bedrooms to keep the rent extra cheap, but the place was a bit of a death trap. Leaky ceilings in a third floor apartment (the floor above didn’t have leaks), plumbing put together by stoned day laborers (evidence of their recreational pharmaceuticals littered the bathroom after they were gone) and a general lackadaisical response time to any emergency from the management all detracted from the quality of life. The heat and hot water went out on a regular basis, but we heated water on the stove and wrapped our selves in layer upon layer of blanket and reminded each other of the ridiculously cheap rent. When Stephanie moved in in 1998, the rent was $1,000 for a three bedroom, two bath. By the time I left in 2008, it was all the way up to $1,500. Total. So we put up with a lot of crap, including a thick, black mold in the walls and ceiling of the bathroom that didn’t go away no matter how we scrubbed or disinfected.

After the unpleasantness downtown on 9/11, both Stephanie and I began to get sinus infections and bronchitis on a regular basis, about every three months or so. As we had both been in Manhattan on that fateful day in September, we chalked up our disease to all the dead people dust and chemical detritus in the air from two falling buildings, when really we probably should have looked a little closer to home. Like the aforementioned black mold.

After a particularly bad bout of sinusitis which morphed into bronchitis and left us up all night coughing and hacking and wheezing, the doctor prescribed Stephanie a bottle of Tylenol-3 with codeine. This stuff is over the counter in Canada, so benign do they believe it to be. But after miserable nights of no sleep, popping two of these and actually being able to sleep an entire night through felt miraculous. I remember thinking, as I lay there, blissfully suspended between consciousness and sleep, that this must be what it felt like to sleep like the elves do (nerd alert: condition red),

Only Legolas still stepped as lightly as ever, his feet hardly seeming to press the grass, leaving no footprints as he passed; but in the waybread of the elves he found all the sustenance that he needed, and he could sleep, if sleep it could be called by Men,resting his mind in the strange places of elvish dreams, even as he walked open-eyed in the light of this world.
It just felt so good. Like all of my cares were soothed, like all of my worries were gone. Like I’d been holding my breath my entire life, and only now was I able to, finally, let it go. I lay in bed, feeling actually content for the first time in ages.

That should have been my first sign. If you have to take a substance just to feel normal, that is a very bad sign indeed. You should probably run, not walk, away.

What followed was several months of taking all the codeine, then furtively stealing pain pills from Stephanie, and then drinking codeine cough syrup, finally portioning out my little stash until it was gone. It only takes a few months to really get a good jones going. By the time February of the following year rolled around, my stash was gone, I’d stolen and taken any painkillers Stephanie had, and the doctor was on to me, refusing (gently) to prescribe me any more. I had to, as the cool kids say, kick.

We spent some time up in New Hampshire at a friends house, my wife and my friend enjoying the snow, and me shaking and dealing with flu-like sypmtoms, all the while hating myself harder than I ever had before. And then, it was over. I felt if not awesome, at least no longer like death.

Understand, I wasn’t turned off to drugs. I didn’t think drugs were bad. I loved drugs, I just figured I’d done the wrong ones for me. So I got back on line and started exploring, as I still hoped to find God in a pill, and in the course of my research, came across a plant called kratom.

Kratom is a tree, mitragyna speciosa, that grows primarily in Indonesia. It’s pretty big, up to 30 feet tall and 15 feet wide, but the tree isn’t what we want, or rather, we only want part of the tree. Just the leaves. Descriptions of the plant’s effects sounded, shall we say, familiar.

“Kratom is one of the most effective and pleasurable psychoactive herbs available,” read the guide. “At strong doses (16-25 grams) the effects are profoundly euphoric and immensely pleasurable. Typically people describe the effects as dreamy, ecstatic, and blissful.”

Yep. Sign me up. Plus, it was natural! What could possibly go wrong! I got my batch of green, fuzzy, foul-smelling powder in the mail, mixed it up with soy milk and drank it down. It tasted terrible, possibly one of the worst things I’ve ever tasted. My gorge rises even to this day, two and a half years after taking my last kratom, thinking of the gag-inducing bitterness of the stuff. But once I’d choked it down, I sat back to wait for the effects.

And it was perfect. A warmth spread in my stomach and chest, and it was like being cradled in gentle arms. A loving hug from the inside. Music was wonderful, TV was interesting. Just sitting was fantastic. Reading became a little difficult, but who needed to imagine things anyway? This was what I had been looking for. Opiates like Percocet and codeine were only a few steps off of heroin, and everybody knew that shit was bad for you. But this, this was a terrible tasting, great feeling, all-natural high. I told everybody about it, I was so thrilled. It got rid of my colds, and it took care of my social anxiety. I took it in lieu of drinking and went to parties where I had meaningful, in-depth conversations with one or two people all night. I became such a convert, I even told my straight-laced folks about it, since my mom was on massive amounts of narcotics anyway due to an auto-immune condition. I figured she might as well get on the natural stuff. It was mellowing, but stimulating at the same time, like taking a handful of pills and chasing it with a redbull. It made me chatty, and relaxed, and warm, and calm. I loved it.

It was a strange thing to realize that, inside, as often as I’d felt loved, or helped by a benevolent universe, or blessed, or accomplished, or proud, or even satisfied and content, I had almost never felt warm. Or safe. Or secure. Can you imagine what it must have been like to finally feel like someone took that anxious ache that was so much a part of you that you barely even knew there was another way to feel, and just made it vanish? As Burroughs, the junkie par excellence was fond of saying, “Wouldn’t you?” Yes you would. Gladly.

It eased boredom, it chased away anxiety, it killed fear, it made the mundane interesting, the dull charming and all that day-to-day stuff ultimately not even important. Ignorable. My housekeeping skills decreased from low to none. Clean what? Why?

Since, apparently a couple of idiots in Bali or wherever had managed to get themselves addicted to the stuff (and apparently the guys over in Australia, Myanmar, and Singapore thought it was dangerous enough to warrant making it illegal) I decided to take some precautions. I made rules for myself. Never two days in a row, and never more than twice a week. I’m great at prescriptions like that. Rules that are hard and fast and require no thought I can do. It’s when I start trying to make decisions that I get into trouble. I figured this way, I’d be absolutely safe, no problem. If you’ve ever heard of “chipping” in the context of heroin, that’s basically what I did. I set up rules, and then stuck to them, and set up a nice tidy routine for myself.

I took it every week, twice a week, for five years.

In 2008 into 2009, things started to get a little choppy. I was having trouble concentrating at work. People began to comment that I was, maybe, possibly, using just a little too much of that stuff? You think maybe, Scott? and they worried a little. And I was having trouble being sociable, and I was having trouble concentrating at work (where I would periodically use kratom, not often, just to, you know, alleviate the boredom of an unchallenging job that might have been more challenging had I bothered to show up mentally at all), and maybe I was having problems concentrating on my art, and the anxiety came back, harder this time, social and otherwise, and then I was having trouble with my sex life, and then I realized, I was kinda messed up.

So I quit. What, like it was hard? Rules are easy. Do this, don’t do that. There were a couple of tough weeks where I felt pretty bad, physically. Tired, on edge, achey. No big deal.

It was when the physical symptoms dissipated that I realized that I was in a lot more trouble than I originally thought. All the problems that I’d been having before, concentration, mood swings, anxiety, all of that came back, and now there was no magic powder, no relief valve to turn to when I wanted to shut it all off. Not only that, but my former blissful apathy had become horrible, gut-churning, aching, despairing apathy. I had no enthusiasm for anything. Projects were impossible, problems were insurmountable, nothing made sense or seemed like any fun at all. I was a mess. And I was pretty sure that it was never, ever going to end. I had damaged myself permanently, and now it was merely a long haul to the grave.
About a year and a half into this, I was reading an interview with a formerly drug-addicted rock star, and he mentioned something called Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, or PAWS, which is kind of a cute name for something that makes you want to kill yourself really hard. I did a little research and found out that after you go through withdrawal, you start to manifest other symptoms. Like what? Oh, like:
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Tiredness
  • Variable energy
  • Low enthusiasm
  • Variable concentration
  • Disturbed sleep
Yeah, that was me. And the kicker? The research I read told me that all of this delicious horror would last about two years. Two years!

So here we are, 2011. And I’m starting, just, to feel like a human goddamn being again. I sometimes wonder if something has changed. If I permanently damaged myself in my little flirtation with darkness. I have to assume, since I’m writing again, since I feel slightly less crippled, since I feel like I can handle the problems life throws at me, that I’m getting better. It was a long, horrible road, but I’m still walking, and the scenery seems to be getting nicer. It’s not all uphill, anymore, and there sometimes feels like there’s a wind at my back, sun on my shoulders.

I still want to do drugs, of course. All the time. But not quite as much, and not quite as often. So maybe there’s some hope. I do yoga. I meditate. I go for walks. I write. I’m here. Things don’t feel empty and meaningless. I am learning how to have friends again. I can see beauty and not have it stab my heart. I can pray and not feel like I’m fighting for my life. I get up in the morning, go to work, write my words, love Katie, try to be a good person, fail sometimes, get up, try again.

Update: Please find a follow up post to this one here.

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