Confessions of an American Opium Eater: Or My Psychotic Break

Tony Hough
In late July, after months, years, of abusing a congenitally weak and overtaxed back, I had an acute attack, crippling, agonizing episode of sciatica. This caused me intense shame initially, denial even. I have had a bad back since I was a baby. Among my earliest memories are those of lying in my parents’ bed, a four-poster black wooden bed, and my mother rubbing my legs, singing to me and giving me grapefruit juice to ease the pain in my calves. Weirdly, given the tale I’m about to try to relate, at that same time, maybe even on those occasions, I had a recurrent hallucination. In my parents’ bedroom was a small oil painting (I have it now in my dining room) of a field of bluebonnets (this was from my earliest childhood in San Antonio, where I was born). It’s a simple painting of a field, rising up to a hill, with a wooden fence and trees on the crest of the hill. In my childhood waking dreams, I saw clearly and distinctly a group of horsemen ride to the top of that hill, rein in their mounts, look around and ride back down. This vision happened repeatedly, throughout the time I lived in San Antonio. We moved to Memphis when I was six years old and I have no memory of seeing the horsemen in the painting after we moved.

So this July, I made special efforts to destroy my back, standing up for two hours at a time once a week taking a stained glass class; trimming hedges in 100-degree heat; culminating in canoeing on the Caney Fork with the strong and energetic Jefe in the bow, ruddering relentlessly as he forged down the river. At the time, I thought, “this will kill me or cure me.” When we finally stopped, I sat in the icy river for half an hour and was quite complacent. “I’m icing!” I congratulated myself.

By Wednesday, I was yelping periodically. It subsided. But by the next Tuesday, my left leg felt as if a red-hot rod was embedded in it. On that day, I had an appointment to have my four front teeth capped and had to take my car to the dealer for service. I had to hold my left leg up to even sign the credit card at the car dealer. I was so happy to be lying down at the dentist I was grateful to have my teeth sawed on for hours. At least I was lying down

The next day, I found that I not only could not walk, I couldn’t even sit. I could only lie down in certain exquisitely calculated positions.

I called in sick and went to the doctor, who was filling in for my regular doctor, who was on vacation. This doctor threw the kitchen sink at me, scripts for acetominophen hydrocodone, 800 mm Ibuprophen, lidocaine patches, plus making me an appointment for an MRI on Monday and for PT on Tuesday.

This was the beginning of my psychotic break.

I started sucking down the hydrocodone and actually worked at home on Thursday and Friday, finishing a report that was due. The edits came back a few days ago and I had to laugh at all the vagueness and lassitude with fact and interpretation the editor noted.

By Saturday I’d say I was pretty much out of my mind. The hallucinations were broad and deep. Auditory: I would lie awake for hours every night hearing symphonies in the humming of the fan Jeff keeps on all night every night for white noise. In fact, one night I listened to hours of Bob Marley in the fan. Olfactory: I developed an aversion to a particular flavored coffee we had at the time, raspberry. Made me horribly sick, and even when I threw it out, I smelled it for weeks. Visual: This was the scariest part and probably the hardest to explain. When I closed my eyes, in a plane of sight I’ve been able to find since I was a little child, where I have always seen things, from blobs of grey and white flowing into and around each other shot with flecks of white or red light, to images of jungles and tigers slinking through high grass, in that plane, which is close, very close, I saw amazingly complex architectural structures, like the facades of cathedrals, with gargoyles and demons, their eyes glowing with red and white fire.

I was awake, and yet I couldn’t escape from this basement junkyard of Jungian, id-ian, De Quinseyian, imagery. If I watched, with my eyes closed, the bright spots morphed into tiny, detailed constructs, like music boxes, and then into jack-in-the-boxes with terrible clowns oozing out and then click, click, change, change. Demons. Clowns, Dogs, Alligators, Weasels, Dragons. Terrible. Terrifying.

And yet I was too fucked up to just sit up and open my eyes. Instead I tried to claw my way up, out of the junkyard, which was like the Room of Requirement in Harry Potter, filled with the detritus of centuries of magicians. Up, up.

Finally after I stopped taking the hydrocodone on Saturday, by Tuesday or Wednesday of the next week (I’m not making this up) I was able to get high enough to see behind my eyes, above me, a night sky, with cold white stars, and feel as if I could breathe again in my own mind.

Meanwhile, by Sunday after I stopped taking the hydrocodone on Saturday, I was puking. So sick I couldn’t even go to the airport to pick Gus up when he returned from two months in Peru.

On Monday, I made the MRI appointment but freaked out in the tube and had to push the button for the tech. She was annoyed, but I felt as if I had been in there for hours and hours and began to imagine that some assassin had come in and murdered everyone and that I would be trapped there forever, unable even to crawl out because my back was so fucked up.

So that was really the turning point. After the MRI, I called my doctor’s office and left this long, pathetic voice mail about how sick I was, and how sorry I felt for myself, and within minutes I got a call back, an order to come in, my regular doctor was back, she plucked me out of the flood like I was a drowned kitten, shook me out, fluffed me up, licked me dry and tucked me into a metaphorical warm bed. Most important she got those damned MRI results in half an hour rather than the 24-48 hours they’d estimated. Two herniated discs, so I had good reason to be in such pain. Very scary but I was almost relieved. I had a diagnosis!

So, from then on it was a slow road back to reality. My workplace, praise them with great praise, let me work at home for two weeks, then we went to North Carolina for a week, where I was able to just lie around and not even worry about the piles of dog hair in the corners. And since then it’s been better all the time.

But the thing is, during the psychotic break I stopped caring about a lot of things. Some of the things I jettisoned were sheer waste: twitter, facebook, majong tiles, hatchling (all my pets ran away and I didn’t give a rat’s ass). I can’t even imagine getting obsessed with that shit again.

Other things are more disturbing. This was the cold breath of mortality. This was “what are you going to do for the duration?” I am not quite where I was then, but even now I am really set on trying to achieve some level of grace and dignity for the duration. This is not easy against the forces of chaos. Especially when you don’t have enough money to just buy it. Buy the landscapers, the decorators, the stone masons, the painters, the … etc.

But the most disturbing is that even though I can still write, that psychotic break seems to have locked a door between me and the well of creativity that once I could tap. Even while it was going on, I sensed this, that there was some kind of scrim behind my eyes that had once been porous, moveable, maybe just not there, but was now there and completely inert.

And in my weepy moments with Jeff or doctor Sally or various friends I’d say that maybe I was so sensitive to the opiate because I’m a writer and I have deliberately opened the channel to my subconscious. But now it’s like that channel is polluted. It doesn’t flow true and clear. It’s laden with doubt and paranoia.

I don’t quite know how to end this, because it’s not ended. It just is for the time being. But when I write, I’m just writing. The spring is dry. I don’t know if or when it will flow again.

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