Last time I wrote, my editorial about how addiction is not a crime was coming out. (In case you want to read it: here it is.) After it ran, I got really sick. I was ill already, but my cough got worse, I could hardly talk without coughing, and I couldn’t sleep.
I tried everything—antibiotics, steroids, allergy medicine, expectorant, plain Robitussin. So my doctor gave me prescription cough syrup. Not codeine, as I expected, but my very favorite awesomest drug on the face of the planet: hydrocodone, in Hydromet syrup. “Take it for a little while,” she said, “and get some rest and your body will heal.”
I’ve known addicts who, before they got sober, used to carry bottles of hydrocodone syrup around in their purses and take a nip or a slug every so often. I knew one person who had trouble quitting his smoking habit in part because every so often the tar in the butts would give him bronchitis, and this would enable him to get Hycodan (same drug, different name).
I told everyone: sponsor, meetings, a bunch of people on Facebook, anyone who would listen, “I have to take hydrocodone for this cough.” Be careful, they said. The weird thing is, I was taking it when my op-ed ran. So people were writing in to thank me for speaking up for addicts, and there I was, on a drug.
The drug stopped my cough, but my body didn’t heal. The cough came back worse when the drug ran out. It was dry; it strained my back and sides and finally I had to go back to the doctor and tell them I wanted to know what the hell was going on with my lungs. My doctor was on vacation; I saw another doctor who conducted a more thorough history and ruled out a bunch of stuff and decided I had “atypical pneumonia.” Walking pneumonia, from some kind of extraordinary tiny little microbe that produces almost no phlegm. So she gave me a different antibiotic. And she refilled the Hydromet.
I didn’t tell as many people, because there’s only so much patience you can expect addicts to show about how you’re allowed to use your favorite drug. I mean, alcoholics never go to meetings and say, “I’m allowed to drink this week.” I didn’t want to sit in meetings and tell them, “I get to use my drug-of-choice AGAIN!—psych.” Still, I didn’t abuse the drugs, and I didn’t get obsessed with them.
Instead, I just got sad all over again.
The antibiotic and the cough syrup ran out four days ago. The cough mostly went away, and now it’s coming back again. I seem to be powerless over it.
Or am I?
People have volunteered a lot of explanations for why my lungs have been sick for six weeks.
“Are you barking at the world?” someone asked me. “Do you need to be heard? Are you trying to shut yourself up?”
“Lung illnesses are about grief,” another person said. “You must be experiencing delayed grief, or anticipatory grief, or fear of letting go of something.”
“Who’s choking you?” someone else demanded. “Who’s trying to gag you or shove something down your throat?”
One may well ask.
My friend P at first told me I have to “speak up” in situations where I feel silenced. (She consulted her amazing Dutch Medical Bible that gives insights into all human ailments—I love to hear her translations.) The morning after I got the pneumonia diagnosis, on the way to the dog park, I texted her to ask if she could look up “pneumonia” in her bible. I expected like two sentences, but she photocopied a whole page of the book and brought it to me. Under “Longontsteking” (pneumonia), it told me why, apparently, I’m sick (“You’ve ended up in a life which is not appropriate for your real, true nature: an unconscious choice. Thus you must liberate yourself…” it began). And here’s what it said I have to do to heal:
Let yourself not be determined by past roads, or by a partner, etc. Build a new life on a more stable basis than formerly: on your deep, powerful Self. Draw your roots up from the old ground and hurry them elsewhere. Realize your complete existence and its dignity. Become conscious in each cell of your body. Turning away from your own divine source doesn’t let that internal fire heat your body.
It just kept on hitting the nail on the head.
I’m sitting there in the dog park and P is reading this to me sentence by sentence, from Dutch to English. The dogs are chasing each other through the grass, dew is covering everything, including my back and my butt, because we’re sitting on a dew-covered bench (“I don’t care, I’m wet already,” P said), and I’m listening like Nic Cage hearing Cher “tell him his life” in Moonstruck. Except I don’t then jump up and upend the bench and kiss P. I sit there and try to hold back my tears, and I cough.
My Deep, Powerful Self.
Draw my roots up.
The internal fire heating my body.
And get this part:
Babies and children with pneumonia: the above causes are also sometimes the parent’s experience. So when you help yourself, you thus help your child.
Let me tell you a story: Baby G had pneumonia when she was two months old. Normal pneumonia, double-lung pneumonia. The phlegm consolidated under G’s fragile baby-kitten ribs and she couldn’t breathe. It was December 1964, Christmas week. G’s folks drove G back to Braddock General Hospital, where she’d been born, and Dr. Tomlin put tiny baby G (she had been born very small, 6 lbs. 2 oz.) into an oxygen tent. Back then they didn’t have ventilators or even isolettes—they’d make a little cloth tent, and they’d pump oxygen into it. If G’s mother had lit a cigarette (they used to let you smoke in hospitals; the way she told it, she smoked right up until she pushed in each of her pregnancies), she might have blown the whole place sky-high.
The nurses sent G’s folks home, and instead of going home they went to G’s father’s family church—the Croatian church where just a month before G had been baptized. They knelt and prayed in front of the manger (back then, the church doors were open day and night). The church was dark, and the pastor came out and saw that G’s mother was crying. They told the priest about the baby in the tent, and he patted G’s mother’s shoulder. “Go home and go to sleep,” he said in his Slavic accent, “I vill pray for baby. Baby vill be fine.” And G’s parents made their way back to their newlywed apartment, in the latticed shadow of the roller coasters of the old-style amusement park.
Meanwhile, back at Braddock General, Dr. Tomlin was working overtime, monitoring the baby, giving her minute doses of a relatively new drug called penicillin. She was so small and so sick and the drug was so new (less than 20 years old in clinical use at that point) that his pediatric training hadn’t yet taught him how much to give her.
In the morning G’s parents came back, and the baby’s fever had broken.
What saved G—was it “God” and/or G’s parents, and/or the priest, and/or the doctor, and/or the drug??
Who knows. But my mother blamed the pneumonia on my “immature lungs” and someone with a cold. She never took a look at her own contribution to the situation. It was a long time before I considered how dangerous for a baby it might have been to put her in a house full of smoke.
At any rate, I’m alive today. Even if I do have pneumonia.
My mother is not. And neither is my father.
Become conscious in each cell of my body.
Realize my complete existence and its dignity.
And to stay alive, my life has to keep changing. An amends to myself.