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By Melissa Dumont
I gripped the small amber bottle between icy fingers, willing myself to take another swig. The last one had not gone down easily, slipping sweetly, nauseatingly, forming a pool of bitter syrup within me. I shuddered, my face contorting like after a shot of hard liquor. After the initial burn, the last drops danced on my tongue, much softer than the first.
I lay back and felt a tug at the corners of my mind. The expansion had begun. The music in my headphones swelled and thickened, closing in around me, vibrating my skin and something deeper. Time and space, the stale air of the dorm room, all split wide open and I caught a glimpse of their layers. I moved fluidly, through heavy water, off the bed and out the door.
The sound of voices drifting from a neighbor's room reached my ears, but they were on the beach and I was out to sea. I couldn't concern myself with trivialities now, a party to which I wasn't invited was petty compared to the universe that was unfolding before me. I wanted to lie naked in the earth. I wanted the stones on the ground to whisper their secrets to me. I drifted down the dank staircase and out the main door. The stars rushed into my head. They threatened to break me.
When it was over, when I had shrunk back down to normal, I sat outside for hours, chain-smoking as the sky turned from black to grey. When students began to hurry past with their coffees, I went upstairs to bed.
* * * * * *
“I heard you heard you had weed?”
“Ya, for sure...hey do I know you?”
“I've, um, lived down the hall from you since September.”
“Oh. Ya. Right. How much do you need.” Succinct.
Flushing, I held out the last of my money. He counted it and snorted.
“Seven dollars? Are you for real?”
I mumbled something about a loan mix-up. I wished he would hurry up. I just needed something to lift me out of the gloom that had set down so firmly the day I arrived, wide-eyed and full of plans, at college. I watched through my hair as he measured it out on a small scale. I guess I cut a pretty pathetic figure because he gave me a whole gram.
I mumbled thanks and darted away.
Later, I stared at myself through dilated pupils and tried to recall the life I'd had before this. As least my blood was warmed for now, at least the walls weren't so tight.
* * * * * *
I discovered you could get high off cough syrup by accident. There was an article about these kids who had overdosed on it and ended up in hospital. Supposedly it was a legit legal high, comparable to acid.
The prospect tantalized me, as I had no money for alcohol or drugs, and was far too shy to ingratiate myself with my fellow students who seemed flush with both. Swiftly losing footing in the sweeping tide of aching loneliness, I purchased a bottle with my meal card and downed it. And thus my embarrassing addiction took hold.
For months my nights were filled with introspect, with something bigger than the tiny dorm room that, at the height of my depression, I seldom left. I'd read a book and graze the millions of untold worlds between the lines. I'd put in my headphones and my mind would fly through the roof, above the haze. I fell asleep at dawn. In those short winter days, I rarely saw sunlight.
* * * * *
After turning in a blank history midterm, I went straight to the campus store and bought three bottles. Tonight, I wanted to get as far away as possible. I took a sip. The floor swayed a little.
Another. A wave of warm. The room spun lazily.
Another. Flames licked at my lethargic limbs.
Sweet, cloying, dripping down.
As the last bottle fell, empty, to the ground, I stretched languidly in the chair. My body hummed with an intense awareness of itself. I waited for the opening.
And then the warmth abruptly departed. I heard a pierce ringing in my ears, I felt an icy grip around my heart. I got into bed, willing myself to sleep it off. Voices jabbered at me, the ringing increased.
Before my eyes everything went grey. The desk, the dresser, the chair, all began to crumble. I panicked, needing to leave the room before I, too, turned to ash. I stumbled out into the hallway, the walls melting as I passed by. The hammering in my chest threatened to shatter ribs.
I don't know how I made it to the front desk.
In the ambulance, a motherly paramedic held my head in her hands. She asked me why I did it. I told her I had a monster within me. I told her how deep the sharpest teeth could cut. I told her I was terrified I had swum out too deep.
Nothing could exceed the shame I felt when I told the doctor what I had ingested. He didn't seem fazed.
“Be careful, enough of that stuff can kill you.” I would hear that exact same phrase three years later when I next ended up in an emergency room, chock full of vodka and cocaine.
I was released at dawn, once my blood pressure dropped down to normal.
There was no one to drive me back to campus. I walked through the empty streets, shoes crunching on frozen ground, breath visible against the palest pink of the sky. I lit a cigarette and fought back against the bleakness invading from all sides. I willed myself to take one step, then another.
Though cough syrup-free for a decade now, I often think back to that solitary walk and the lonely girl who, ultimately, chose to fight.