From Harper's; June 1993: 24-27
Originally from Spring issue of Pills-a-go-go published by Hogshire in Seattle.
This issue's pill review is devoted to a chemical called Dextromethorphan Hydrobromide, the "DM" in DM cough syrups such as Robitussin Maximum Strength Cough. It's one of the most mystifying drugs in the pharmacopia. Even though it can be found in virtually every over-the-counter cold, flu, and cough remedy, most reference works hardly mention it; when they do, their information is sketchy and sometimes contradictory.
One reference book called it a "narcotic antagonist" with "very good analgesic" properties. Other descriptions say DM is cough suppressant only and does not kill pain. It is supposedly non-addicting. And it's not supposed to get you high -- though legions of high-school and college students have formed an entirely different opinion. DM produces "full warping of subspace," in the words of one experimenter, who took more than the recommended dosage. "Pin Head with expansive arms/legs. Incredible head size. Warping and folding of body. Incredible spatial distortions."
With this in mind, your faithful editor decided to carry out a Robitussin experiment of his own.
Last night I drank about eight ounces of DM cough syrup. I was feeling kind of achy and wanted to see if it would kill pain. After a couple of hours all my pain had gone away, and I went to bed. It was midnight, but I felt neither awake nor asleep. It was like a typical narcotic high -- mildly content, kind of nodding -- but not as pleasant.
At four o'clock in the morning I woke up suddenly and remembered that I had to go to Kinko's copy shop and that I had to shave off about a week's worth of stubble from my face. These ideas were very clear to me. That may seem normal, but the fact was that I had a reptilian brain. My whole way of thinking and perceiving had changed. I had full control over my motor functions, but I felt ungainly. I was detached from my body, as if I were on laughing gas.
So I got in the shower and shaved. While I was shaving I "thought" that for all I knew I was hacking my face to pieces. Since I didn't see any blood or feel any pain I didn't worry about it. Had I looked down and seen that I had grown another limb, I wouldn't have been surprised at all; I would have just used it. Looking back, I realize that I had already lost all sense of time.
The world became a binary place of dark and light, on and off, safety and danger. I felt a need, determined it was hunger, and ate almonds until I didn't feel the need anymore. Same thing with water. It was like playing a game. I sat at my desk and tried to write down how I felt so I could look at it later. I wrote down the word "Cro-Magnon." I was very aware that I as stupid. I think I probably seemed like Benny on L.A. Law.
I thought I would have trouble driving but I had none. I only felt "unsafe" in the dark street until I got into the "safe" car. Luckily there were only a couple of people in Kinko's and one of them was a friend. She confirmed that my pupils were of different sizes. One wasn't quite round. I was fucked up.
I knew there was no way I could know if I was correctly adhering to social customs. I didn't even know how to modulate my voice. Was I talking too loud? Did I look like a regular person? I understood that I was involved in a big contraption called civilization and that certain things were expected of me, but I could not comprehend what the hell those things might be.
All the words that came out of my mouth seemed equal. Instead of saying "reduce it about 90 percent" I could have said "two eggs and some toast, please." The whole world was broken down into elemental parts, each being of equal "value" to the whole -- which is to say, of no value at all.
I sat at a table and read a newspaper. It was the most absurd thing I had ever seen! Each story purported to be a description of a thing or an event, or was supposed to cover "news" of reality in another place. This seemed stupid. An article on the war in Burma was described as "the war the West forgot." It had an "at-a-glance" chart that said Burma was approximately three times the size of the state of Washington. This was meaningless and I knew it. The story did not even begin to describe the tiniest fragment of the reality of what was happening in that place. Since I hadn't always been a reptile, I knew things were what they call "complicated" and that the paper's pitiful attempt to categorize individuals as "rebels" or "insurgents" or to describe the reasons for the agony was ridiculous. I laughed out loud.
I found being a reptile kind of pleasant. I was content to sit there and monitor my surrounding. I was alert but not anxious. Every now and then I would do a "reality check" to make sure I wasn't masturbating or strangling someone, because of my vague awareness that more was expected of me than just being a reptile. At one point I ventured across the street to a hamburger place to get something to eat. It was closed and yet there were workers inside. This truly confused me, and I considered trying to find a way to simply run in, grab some food, and make off with it. Luckily, the store opened (it was now 6 A.M.) and I entered the front door like a normal customer.
It was difficult to remember how to perform a money-for-merchandise transaction and even more difficult to put it into words, but I was eventually successful. I ate the hamburger slowly and deliberately. If I had become full before I finished the hamburger, I think I would have simply let it fall from my hands.
The life of a reptile may seem boring to us, but I was never bored when I was a reptile. If something started to hurt me, I took steps to get away from it; if it felt better over there, that's were I stayed. Now twenty-four hours later, I'm beginning to get my neocortex back (I think). Soon, I hope to be human again.