Feature - January 8, 2004
You don't have to be sick to indulge in cough syrup, but it helps.
Editor’s note: Salt Lake City Weekly does not recommend that anyone take cough syrup other than as recommended by the product label or a physician.
The voice of my editor speaking through the receiver reminded me of my friend, Ian, clucking like a chicken years ago.
“Do you know any people who use or abuse cough syrup on a recreational basis? Would you like to write a cover story on the topic?” he asked.
I recalled a dewy morning in 1990 when Ian, I and a couple other guys went AWOL from Granite High School in someone’s Chevelle. Cutting class was new to me, as I’d been scared straight before I was even crooked by the pint-size fury I called mom. Skipping school, I’d long believed, got your ass thrown in juvenile hall. Drinking, drugs or both in combination left you dead or insane. As the Chevelle docked in the lot at Albertson’s on 900 East and 3300 South, I wondered what abuse of cough syrup got you. An hour later, after Ian guzzled about half the bottle of Robitussin, I found out: It got you clucking like a chicken.
Ian called it “Robo-ing,” and acted like I was nuts not to know what it was. Being a rebel tenderfoot, I declined his offer to share. But I enjoyed the show, the memory of which was still being interrupted by the editor’s voice.
“I honestly don’t know if the scourge of cough syrup abuse has spiked or not,” Mr. Editor said. Neither did I. In fact, I had scarcely heard of it in the 13 years since Ian’s finger-lickin’ good time. But cough syrup, the editor continued, may be “the closest thing—after alcohol and nicotine—that we have to a legal drug.”
Mr. Editor was right. For an adventure in cough syrup, you don’t even need identification to score. I remembered Ian being inside Albertsons for no more than five minutes. Ten minutes later he was screaming, “buh-gawk!”
“Either way,” my editor continued, “this could be a fun, interesting story. It doesn’t have to be an exposé about an epidemic, especially if it was written from a sort of first-person, narrative account. And, possibly, you could even down a bottle or two in adulthood to tell our readers what it’s like to revisit the experience.”
Despite having revisited all I had to revisit, I took the assignment. It didn’t seem like such a big deal to drink cough syrup. In fact, I cared a great deal for the grape flavor as a kid. I still remember the taste, and how the cool, fruity anti-lava ran down my throat. It was the only pleasant sensation I could recall, since I was too young to understand the blessing of a good buzz, but just young enough for the recommended dose to deliver a knockout punch.
But the cough syrup underground itself seemed a sucker’s punch. For years, the “syrup experience” has been the low-rent buzz of choice for people without access to harder stuff. Usually that meant, like my friend, Ian, high school kids. But if downing the stuff resulted in death, insanity or birth defects, it seemed curious that someone in government or big media hadn’t made a story of it. Except for a few sundry Websites, message boards and exotic tales here and there, I discovered that the cough syrup underground was awfully hard to excavate, curate or even document. That doesn’t mean there aren’t hidden dangers, however.
Of course, at roughly $2 per ounce, the over-the-counter stuff no longer includes codeine in the mix. Cough syrup producers stopped that practice long ago. The active ingredient, the chicken-clucker-catalyst I needed, was “DXM”—dextromethorphan.
This, as I was about to learn, was a slippery ingredient indeed. Related to opiates but not exactly an opiate itself, it affects dopamine in the brain, in addition to other areas of the noggin called the “sigma receptor” and “NMDA channel.” Whatever. What really caught the eye were a few warnings: Don’t ingest DXM too soon before or after taking an antihistamine, never mix it with certain drugs for depression, don’t take it too often (usually more than once per week) and don’t take it if your liver or kidneys are out of whack, or if you experience seizures. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has even warned that DXM can cause brain damage and even death when mixed with other drugs. Oh yeah, it can also cause panic and screw up a drug test.
As a precursor to my research, I phoned my sister, who once worked for Valley Mental Health as a case manager for substance abusers. She knew a psychologist named Mike Sheffield, who treated patients who had abused syrup. Reached on his cell phone, Sheffield said he’d been out of the game a few years (he travels around doing “testing”), but he never really saw DXM abuse as a scourge, not the way the media might portray it, anyway.
It’s certainly abused, he told me, but the people he treated who abused DXM almost always used other drugs, basically whatever they could get their hands on. He also explained, like any good doctor would, the myriad adverse effects. Then I posed the ultimate question.
“So, doc, say I got some,” I told him. “And I wanted to sip it until I felt something? How much would I have to take? How much can I take safely?”
“I don’t want to put myself in the position of advocating the use of it in any way,” he said firmly. “There are dangers.”
He did, however, throw me a bone.
“I know there are Websites where you can read about the highs,” he said.
No specifics, but I knew where to go, and I knew what they said. Now, more than ever, I didn’t want to try it. How in the world was I going to pull this off?
Lookin’ for some ’Tuss
The Wal-Mart cough syrup aisle was abandoned. People walked by at either end, but none entered. I could hear my wife and daughters debating dinner plans— “Carl’s Jr! Wienerschnitzel!”—two aisles over as I read labels.
Robitussin, if I remembered correctly, modified its formula at one point to make its syrup less recreationally appealing. The “DM” formula contained DXM, but also another active ingredient, an expectorant called guaifenesin. In fact, virtually every brand of cough syrup on the shelf had some other active ingredient, which made matters confusing. I remembered a Denis Leary stand-up show where he ranted of hallucinations brought on by the “green death fuckin’ flavor” formula of NyQuil. I headed home with a big bottle of that, some cheap DVDs I didn’t need, and an ugly stuffed bear won from the impulse predator crane machine.
Never Do Anything a Fat Rapper Would Do
My drug résumé is pretty pathetic, to be honest. I had sense enough not to smoke, but the fear of pushin’ up daisies or becoming a drooling mess ensured I didn’t drink until the age of 21. Beyond this, I quite enjoyed some post-vasectomy Percocet and Lortab received for back pain. And once, while I waited in a vacant apartment for a telephone technician, I tried inhaling the smoke from a blown-out match to see if the “match hits” my eighth-grade friends raved about were really all that. They weren’t. I passed, thanks to residue from the aforementioned irrational fear, on psychedelic mushrooms the one time they were offered. I only took one pain pill at a time and, against the recommendation of my friends, never mixed them with beer. I’ve never seen cocaine, acid, ecstasy, ketamine, meth or heroin. Of that list, I would only try acid. Maybe.
I never experimented heavily because of the fear my mother implanted in me, and because of a dogma I’m close to adopting: Never do anything a fat rapper would do. It doesn’t completely suit me, as I still hold no qualms about drinking 40-ounce beers. But it sounds good, so I’m trying to make it work. The point is that Biggie lived the thug life—“kapow!”—and I don’t even wanna talk about the Fat Boys.
So when I came across an April 2002 report from Fox 13 News in Tampa Bay about a syrup-happy rapper named Big Moe, the willies came fast and furious. Moe, according to the report, extolled the virtues of “sippin’ on the syrup” on his albums City of Syrup and Purple World, which contains his signature song “Purple Stuff.” The report went on to detail the death—death!—of another rap artist named DJ Screw, who met his end after drinking too much prescription-strength syrup. I consoled myself with the fact that Screw had imbibed $200-a-bottle codeine stuff. I, on the other hand, would be tipping an over-the-counter cocktail. The worst that could happen? I’d experience the sensation of a big blob of mercury rolling around in my breadbasket, followed by grape upchuck.
Then I ran across an article by William White titled “General Information About DXM” at Erowid.org, an online library of information about psychoactive plants and chemicals and related topics. In simplest terms, it’s a site for stoners by stoners, people who like to get good and baked, and legitimize their dragon-chasing by proclaiming a Timothy Learyesque pursuit of self-discovery. (Not to malign them. I’m all for people getting ripped if they’re truly not hurting anybody. But let’s call a stoner a stoner.) Erowid.org took great pains to intelligently delineate the good and bad of DXM use. Hence, this caveat:
“Remember that DXM is a powerful psychedelic which can be used safely, but must be used with care and respect for your own body and mind. DXM is not a safe drug, and it has not been well studied at recreational levels; whenever you use it you are taking a risk, possibly a big one. Not everyone likes DXM, and your experiences with it may be very unpleasant. DXM is not a quick and easy buzz, and getting good results with it can be hard, sometimes unpleasant work. ... Don’t rush into high doses.”
The risks were laid out in a bulleted, 20-item list that included warnings about bad trips, use of DXM by pregnant or nursing women, the mentally ill, epileptics, the hypertensive, heart patients and those with ulcers or liver or kidney problems. The drug interaction no-nos are as numerous. You shouldn’t use DXM if you take MAOI inhibitors, virtually any antidepressant, antihistamines, yohimbine, phen-fen and virtually any other active ingredient, like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), acetaminophen (aka Tylenol), or the expectorant guaifenesin. The consequences ranged from two-headed babies to liver damage to death.
The list contained another warning, too: Although not everyone seems susceptible, a very few daily high-dose users may have seriously and permanently fried their brains.
I had been planning to pound a whole bottle, just like Ian had many years ago. But now all my latent fear and paranoia erupted from me as if I’d ignored warnings about the drinking water in Mexico. I was back to square one, freaked out, suddenly sure that, should I use myself as a guinea pig for this story, I was going to die. Or fry. I consult my editor.
“I, uh, just read … don’t wanna try it … how can I write a story if I don’t … ?” I asked.
He reassured me. “You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to,” he said.
Ah, sweet reprieve!
“Perhaps you could just find some users to talk to?”
Uh-unh. I had already tried three people. They’d all decided they didn’t want to talk about it.
“Or maybe you could just sip it slowly, bit by bit, until you feel something?” he offered.
Get thee hence, Evil Editor!
Actually, that sounded pretty reasonable, almost like what I’d heard about S& . I could just yell “Mommy!” when I couldn’t take it anymore. But how much could I take? How much was enough? What if it was like certain strains of cannabis, where the effects sneak up so slowly that you don’t know it’s too late until you’re well on your way to death, insanity, or both?
Now, more than ever, I didn’t wanna try it. But before I had a chance to kneel in abject failure before Mr. Editor, I confided in a good friend.
“Man, there’s no way I’m gonna get a story out of this,” I boobed. “Not unless I drink some syrup, and I really don’t want to do that.”
“Brian,” as he shall be called, came to the rescue. His drug résumé was much more impressive than mine. He’d tried pot, acid, mushrooms, a veritable Captain’s Platter of substances compared to my meager menu. I’d seen him piss drunk, stoned immaculate, and I listened like a wide-eyed child to his party stories. Like the time he took five extra hits of acid because the first didn’t seem to do anything, consequently embarking on a really bad trip. Or how in 1995, he’d gone camping with some acid aficionados and blacked out, only to wake up feeling like he’d committed a social faux pas.
“I think I was taking my clothes off or something, because the girls I was hanging out with were acting strange toward me,” I remember him saying. He was also a drinker of heroic proportions.
Not to worry, he said, chuckling. “I’ll do it.”
I was to act as “Brian’s” trip-sitter that coming Sunday night, something I looked forward to with relief—and just a little shame at letting my friend take the risk.
The sooner this was over, the better. But along the way I managed to talk to another person with fond memories of his own over-the-counter encounter. Grant Sperry was more than happy to speak of his syrup experience, and it couldn’t hurt to have more stories.
The Rev. Sperry’s drug résumé was even better than “Brian’s.” In addition to cough syrup, he said, “I’ve tried peyote, LSD, pot, [smoked] toad secretions, nitrous—while having sex, mushrooms, synthetic mescaline. …”
He had a story for every drug, and almost all of them contained some element of self-discovery. His virgin—and only—syrup trip is the least remarkable, but still kinda interesting.
“I was in college, at the University of Utah,” he begins. He and a buddy were holed up in a room at a rented house. They’d each drained a 4-ounce bottle of Robitussin DM. “It was fucking awful tasting shit,” Sperry remembers. He recalls floating through space and seeing the cosmic egg [a chicken egg?], from which all life stemmed forth.
“I saw the yolk, which I realized was a folded piece of legal paper [that held the answer to the universe].” He reached for it, and it was pulled away from him. Tried again, denied again. Then it bloomed—only to reveal it was blank. “There was no answer,” Sperry said. “Or [the answer was that the universe] could be anything you wanted it to be.”
I met “Brian” in the Wal-Mart cough syrup aisle Sunday afternoon to select a brand. It took about three minutes to settle on a 4-ounce bottle of Vicks 44, which contained 33 percent to 50 percent more DXM than other leading brands and had no other active ingredients. “Brian” was hesitant. Vicks 44 contained alcohol, and “that will just make me tired.” I bought it anyway, but we agreed to adjourn until 9 p.m., at which point we’d peruse the syrup selection at Smith’s, which “Brian” insisted was more expansive. There, we were confronted with the same selection. Fearless “Brian” said he had to work overtime the next day and didn’t want a hangover from the alcohol. Thankfully, “Brian” reconsidered, offering a sip-and-see compromise. It was better than nothing.
Twenty minutes later, “Brian” began sipping. The abridged version of the night’s events: He sipped. He got mellow. He sipped. His linear logic went out the window. He got surly. When trying to tell me a story, and realizing I didn’t follow, he said, “Fuck! Are you paying attention?”
He sipped for the last time, and the bottle appeared half-empty. Then he talked. And talked. I got a headache. I fell asleep. I got up and went to bed. My last thought as I hit the pillow was that it would have to be me. “Brian” may have been marginally interesting on syrup. But there was really no way to describe his own vivid experience without getting into his head. I would have to attempt my own vivid experience.
I considered, through morning fog, the bottle on the kitchen counter. It was only one-third empty now that some of the syrup coating the upper part of the bottle had sunk to the main reservoir. The couch was 30 minutes free of “Brian,” who had gone off to work. I was pissed, until I realized he at least tried. I lingered on the periphery of his experience, waiting to leech whatever details I could from a guy who would ingest DXM to help me out with a story. Shame on me.
That didn’t change the fact that I didn’t want to down syrup. But I had an obligation. Deadline was three days away, and the last time I asked for an extension, my editor was amenable, but firm: “Okay, but don’t push it.”
I revisited the Internet, searching for some positive information, anything to sway me toward thinking positively about the experience. Dextroverse.org, run by a 20-year-old calling himself “Void,” was an oasis. It was, as far as I could tell, the definitive source of info on DXM use, with articles, a comprehensive advocate-and-educate FAQ, downloadable “trip toys,” information for spiritual use, source information (including how to extract DXM from syrup with other active ingredients), a forum and chat room. It had the same warnings as Erowid.org, but put them gently. The links to “trippy sites” appealed to my stoner side, and there were links to a site dedicated to helping people use DXM safely. How had I missed it during the past weeks? Perhaps by irrational fear or neglectful intent.
Didn’t someone once say that, if you looked hard enough for permission to do something, or tried hard enough to rationalize an act, you’d eventually succeed? Maybe all this time, I’d just been looking for a way to conquer the fear I blamed on my mother’s drug diatribes, when, in fact, said fear was my own creation.
If it’s marginally possible my plane will crash, I’ll fret until I’m in the terminal. And I’m scared as hell to not take every single assignment that comes my way because, if I don’t, someone else will. And if I stop working, I can’t support my family or myself.
Ian clucked like a chicken. I was being a chickenshit. And I was three days from deadline with nothing to give Mr. Editor.
I e-mailed Void. He replied hours later, happy to help. He told me how he started “dosing” at 16, while attending boarding school. Although a DXM proponent, Void was passionate about the risks involved with DXM. A new one he laid on me, called Olney’s Lesions, is said to cause microscopic holes in your brain over extended use. The theory has its detractors, but it is nonetheless scary. He made it clear that there is a method of use that must be followed. Safety is paramount. And, he said, if you’re unsure about trying it, don’t. There are four plateaus to the DXM high, Void said, something Dr. Sheffield had also mentioned.
“They’re not concrete,” he said, “basically just four levels of intensity.” He charted them thusly:
“1st Plateau: 1.5-2.5 mg/kg. This is the weakest level. This feels slightly intoxicating, a little lightheaded. Some music euphoria is noticeable.
“2nd Plateau: 2.5-7.5 mg/kg. This level is often compared to being stoned and drunk at the same time. While this might seem to be true, there is also a noticeably strong “mental” high as well. You can have trouble talking without slurring, and can have a hard time carrying on an in-depth conversation, because your short-term memory can be temporarily impaired. And, occasionally, you can have mild hallucinations.
“3rd Plateau: This level has strong intoxications and hallucinations. Things can become very confusing as your thinking processes are disturbed. You can sometimes daze off into your own world, and get lost in your own mind. Trips in this plateau can sometimes be unpleasant for the inexperienced.
“4th Plateau: This is the strongest level. This is a subanesthetic dose and can be compared to a high dose of ketamine. Your mind and body become separated at this level, and it can become dangerous psychologically and physically. Personally, I say that you should never have to go this high, it can be very dangerous. But whatever you do, never go past 20 mg/kg (about 2,000 mg for a 220-pound person), this can kill you.”
This Time, It’s for Real
“Brian” drank straight from the bottle. What if he backwashed from the bottle I was about to pour myself? “Great,” I thought as I reached into the cupboard for a Dixie cup, “I’m still looking for excuses.”
I took it as a good omen that, of all the Disney characters I could have drawn, I got Goofy. What a nice, soothing image. Goofy never hurt anyone on purpose. I sat at my computer and poured goop up to Goofy’s eyeballs, then set the cup down on my Ouija-board mouse pad. Anxiety dripped from me like juice from a Thanksgiving turkey. I was done.
But there was no going back. I felt I would be more comfortable on our big black couch. I gave my wife a notebook and a pen, asked her to write down everything I told her, then dosed.
Although I drank roughly three times the recommended dose, I didn’t expect to feel anything right away. And yet, I was instantly calm, two-shots-of-whiskey-mellow, and content. All apprehension had vanished. It was strangely calm in the house. The television, almost always on, was muted. I melted into the couch and stared not at the screen, but down and to the right. I wasn’t tense, but I think I believed that, if I looked directly at the swarm of black-and-white bees onscreen, they would attack. I decided to have another dose.
As I licked my lips of syrup, my wife returned from the kitchen with a clear plastic cup of Sprite. I asked her to write about the bees, and note the time that I’d had another dose. She did so, then tilted the cup to her lips. Just as the television bees caught my attention, so did the clear, agitated liquid in my wife’s cup. It looked alive, and impossibly clear against everything else in the room, which looked dull and listless. By this time, I had melted further into the couch and could not be troubled to even draw a breath and dictate. But when she put down the cup and placed it out of my view, I crankily asked her to bring it back. She asked why, and I told her.
I remembered “Brian” discussing how DXM gave him an “insect brain,” causing him to focus intently on something, but at the same time be easily distracted once that something had fulfilled its purpose. That was true with the television, but my wife’s Sprite was everlasting bliss—until it was gone. Then I asked her, who had agreed to be my trip-sitter, to play a DVD I had selected for the occasion: Roger Corman’s 1967 film The Trip. Jack Nicholson wrote the screenplay, so it had to be good.
I finished the bottle—total dose: about 2.5 ounces—as my wife turned out the lights. Parts of the movie were beginning to annoy. My head started to hurt. And the mercury sensation I predicted visited my stomach. The calm evaporated as the realization that I was getting a mild hangover rose. I went to bed.
I worried some that an ill effect would materialize in the night but woke up rather refreshed.
It all seemed rather anticlimactic, but for the fact that I actually did it. Like when I finally got drunk and didn’t go insane—or die. The worst part had been the sick stomach and headache, neither of which kept me awake or remained in the morning. I realized I was intrigued, and I considered dosing again sometime in the future. I hadn’t clucked like a chicken nor had any psyche-shattering revelations. I felt a little gypped.
For me, drinking cough syrup for story fodder became putting my life on the line, perhaps because it was unknown territory. Or maybe because it seemed like something only someone desperate for escape would do, like the homeless guys who drink cheap mouthwash. I’m not a risk taker, and certainly not the type to go on a self-discovery jaunt. I was afraid that if I tried the syrup and didn’t die or freak out, I might like it and become a miserable dragon-chasing bum.
Really, there was nothing to fear. I knew the dangers of DXM, and what was considered a safe dose. I came away with a modicum of self-knowledge: Sometimes fear is more powerful than the object, experience or person you feared in the first place.
It never seemed like platitudes such as “don’t sweat the small stuff” or “just do it” could apply to real life, but they do. A lot better, to be sure, than “never do anything a fat rapper would do.”