- waiting for my heart to fail.
I’m sending my wife out for magnesium citrate and 5-HTP. She doesn’t know what any of this shit is or does, so I’m swiping through my phone and showing her pictures. “How do you know all this stuff,” she says, and I shrug and stare at the floor. I really just don’t want her to see me shake, so I mumble something about drugs and ask her to hurry and when she’s gone I turn Puscifer up loud enough to rattle the fillings in my teeth.
I repeat to myself my biggest fear is that one day I will find out I am a coward.
I try not to pray, remind myself I don’t believe in Jesus.
I drink kava tea and wait for the panic to pass.
After a while, it does, and I begin banging out these words on the keyboard. Sometimes I look over at one of the other monitors and watch the price of bitcoin rise and fall. When it goes up, I buy kratom. When it goes down, I buy more bitcoin. Welcome to the last fourteen weeks of our lives.
In the fall of 2016, I started having trouble with my heart. It was unexpected, abrupt, terror inducing. It dialed an already hard to manage anxiety issue up to 11 and then broke the knob off altogether. I started to live in perpetual fear that I was going to drop dead at any moment. I scared the shit out of my wife, myself, and nearly everyone we know. I found myself questioning my overwhelming absence of faith in god, and my pseudo-romantic abundance of faith in narcotics. I dug through a lifetime of bullshit and experience in an attempt to understand how we got here. And for me, as for us all, the story begins before I am ever even born.
- how to break a girl for good.
In the summer of 1973 my mother was fifteen years old. She would sit in her bedroom and brush her long dark hair and listen to records and dream of running away to Atlanta, to the beach, to Seattle. She would go to church with her mother and her brothers and fidget through Sunday School and hunt for eggs at Easter. She would sometimes smoke one of her father’s Winstons behind the garage, practicing for a future when she would do little else.
From time to time she would fall into a complex partial seizure. Occasionally she would have a grand mal at the grocery store. At a certain time of day in her aunt’s house, the light in the study would stream in through the blinds at just the right angle, and she would sneak in and stare at it until she fell convulsing on the floor.
Mom’s problem didn’t start here, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know where to look. When she was a toddler she came down with the measles, which settled into her bronchial tubes. She developed croup cough, which kept her from sleeping or playing or ever feeling well. The doctor prescribed a cough medicine to be taken orally, as well as another medication called Pneumol, to be inhaled from a vaporizer.
They were both red, both the same size bottle. They sat beside each other on the kitchen counter, and at some point the housekeeper got them mixed up. She gave my mother half of a milkshake spoon’s worth of the wrong one, and within minutes she was convulsing. A few seconds later she plunged into a coma. This was in 1961, and my mother was three years old.
My grandfather was home at the time, and he snatched his baby daughter up and hauled ass to the emergency room. The doctors there had no idea what the medication was, no idea how to treat it. My grandmother made frantic phone calls to the pharmacy, asking questions and waiting, asking and waiting again. They explained Pneumol has two ingredients. One of them sent my mother into convulsions. The other put her in a coma.[i]
Eventually she came out of it. She woke up and seemed to improve well enough. No one took any real blame, and no one got sued or lost their job. Well, no one except the housekeeper. She felt terrible indeed, as I imagine my grandparents did about having to let her go. In the end everyone went on with their lives, my mother included.
When she turned ten years old, something about hitting puberty set off something in her brain. She started having seizures, a few at first, then more and more, until she was having them on a weekly basis. Sometimes they would last all day. She would have five, eight, a dozen; it was impossible to keep track. After an episode it was not uncommon for her to sleep up to 24 hours in a stretch. Her neurologist at the time said there was no way the original event had anything to do with this sudden onset of epilepsy.
Many years later, when I was around the same age she had been when her nightmare was just getting started, she was sent to Vanderbilt to have yet another brain scan. This one took place in an enormous machine underground. My father was quick to tell everyone how many city blocks the machine took up. My mother was quiet, always quiet.
The doctors said it looked like there was an acid burn on her brain. Part of it was just eaten away.
- and the beast shall have seven heads.
Around the same time my mother was learning to smoke, with little fanfare and even less funding, one of Nixon’s few surviving monsters was birthed and flung out into the world, truly the first horseman of the apocalypse. And while my mother was experimenting with getting high on sunshine, learning about auras and what she should do when she suddenly smelled oranges or sawdust, the DEA was gearing up for war against us all.
I wasn’t even born yet, so they got a pretty good head start.[ii]
Their tendrils and propaganda have crept into the heart of every community in America, and in my experience small towns get it the worst. Not the DEA specifically, but their militant way of thinking and their backward ass views on substance abuse. This is what leads to a flashbang grenade going off in a child’s crib in the middle of the night. (That was right here in Georgia, by the way. The dude they were looking for wasn’t even in the house.)
In large part, it is this angry beast and its forever war on its own people that has culminated in endless tension between police and the communities they are sworn and paid to protect. This ranges from small towns in Alabama where getting caught with a few seeds out of a bag of ditch weed twice in your entire life is grounds for a felony, to towns that make national news over traffic stops that escalate into tragedies.
But like all bureaucratic bullshit, the situation is much more complicated than that. Let’s talk about opiates for a minute.
- manifest destiny: ask not what your country can do for you.
Everything dries up pretty fast on 100 milligrams of methadone a day. The saliva in your mouth. Your personality and relationships. Your bank account. Your patience for pretty much everything. But the curtain doesn’t open here. You don’t start out sugared up on hopes and dreams and dive straight into nodding out with a mouthful of sour patch straws and cigarette burns in your jeans. Unless you grew up in a Gucci Mane record, you have never had daily access to this much dope in your entire life.
A lot of times it does start in a doctor’s office, though, so at least that much is pretty similar. Sometimes it starts with Tramadol. Maybe Lortabs from the dentist. It might even start with Oxycontin, if you hurt yourself bad enough, and the right pharmaceutical rep has been to see your general practitioner. Luck of the draw, really.
Or maybe you just do drugs, and when you go over to your dealer’s house to buy some pot, he asks if you’ve ever tried Dilaudid. Maybe he gives you a couple on your way out the door. Maybe your pot dealer is also a heroin dealer. Maybe you find some hydrocodone in your eternally sick mother’s medicine cabinet. Maybe you develop type 1 diabetes when you are 17 years old and have to start sticking yourself with needles several times a day at the height of the opioid epidemic.
There is no end to the myriad ways you can and will be exposed to opiates in your lifetime. Let me rephrase that. There is no end to the myriad ways your children can and will be exposed to opiates in your lifetime. And if they are still getting fed the same misinformation that weed is on par with methamphetamine and crack cocaine, then rest assured they are being set up for failure.
I have been profiteered and taken advantage of by every organization involved on each misshapen rung of this crooked ladder, up one side and down the other. You want to see a financial crisis? Go find a methadone clinic and tell a junkie that the price of his dose just went from 12 to 13 dollars a day. Tell him he’s got to come up with one more dollar every day for the rest of his life.
See, here’s the thing. . . . It’s not just me. My best friend died of a morphine overdose when we were twenty years old. That same week, another kid died, another went into a coma, and another killed himself in his truck. The war on drugs came down hard and sent the kid who sold everyone the pills to prison, and nobody learned a goddamn thing. We all named our children Spencer and went on with our fucked up lives.
One of my other best friends is that kid with diabetes, and the best man in my wedding was right beside me at the clinic. So who exactly is this war on drugs supposed to save? Because I can tell you one thing for goddamn certain: After everything I have personally been through, and what I have watched the people I have cared about most go through, when you can look me right in my face and tell me that you don’t care if I have a bottle of 80 milligram Oxycontin as long as some crooked-ass doctor gave them to me, then I know for a fucking fact that you don’t have my best interest at heart.
And as far as I’m concerned, you don’t get to tell me shit anymore, not what I can or can’t possess, not what is or isn’t good for me, and sure as hell not what it takes for me to get through the day. You have lost all credibility until the end of fucking time.
I want you to go watch some videos of CBD oil stopping grand mal seizures in little kids, and then I want you to come back here and tell my six year old ass that the shit doesn’t have any medical benefit, while I stand over my mother convulsing on the filthy floor of a grocery store and beg you not to call the ambulance. Watch her eyes roll back in her head as she bounces her legs and arms off the bottom of the pastry case while I tell you that if you’ll give us a just few more minutes, we’ll be out of here, we won’t bother you anymore.
I want you to watch her take fifteen and twenty pills at a time for years on end under doctor’s orders to try and control this shit. Watch her sleep all day and throw up all night and still have seizures anyway. And then I want you to tell me that this other shit should be illegal and she should never even have an opportunity to hear about it, let alone try it; tell me that in about ten years you are going to start throwing my ass in a cage for it. And that you’ll do it again, and again, and again, until I finally get the message.
And the message isn’t, “Stop doing that.” The message is and always has been, “Get the fuck out of our town.”
Which brings us to kratom.
- you are what you eat.
I’m standing in a suite at the Embassy downtown, staring out the window and waiting for it to snow. I am watching the Ferris wheel turn for no one, watching people hurry in off the streets. I am not wearing a shirt, and the reflection of my shrunken frame hovers between the city and me. I am rubbing absently at a bump on my shoulder, and when it bursts, the shit that sprays out looks radioactive. It is neon green and against the lit up Ferris wheel it is glowing bright and sliding down the glass.
I immediately fly into another panic and run to the bathroom. I stare at myself in the mirror and try not to cry. I have lost fifteen pounds in four weeks. I didn’t weigh much to start with. I am completely exhausted, convinced that I am dying.
I am not dying.
What I am is a petri dish; the least scientific pseudo-scientist there ever was. I rub the bump again and verify that the stuff coming out is, in fact, neon green. I wonder if that’s just what I look like on the inside now. I wonder if my nuts are green. I wonder about my heart.
Kratom is a plant in the coffee family that has grown in Southeast Asia for hundreds of years. People there take it for all kinds of reasons, pain management and fatigue among them. It has been used to manage opioid dependence in Malaysia since 1836. Take a small dose, it works as a stimulant. Take a larger one, it works as an opiate.
Nobody in this country gave a shit about it until a few years ago. The DEA didn’t seem to give a shit until a few months ago, and I didn’t give a shit until the DEA did. Things escalated quickly from there.
At the end of August, the DEA announced their intention to declare an emergency scheduling of mitragyna speciosa, or kratom, placing it in the category of Schedule I drugs, alongside heroin, LSD, and marijuana. These are drugs they declare to have no medicinal value and a high potential for abuse. To put that in perspective, methamphetamine is Schedule II. Special K (ketamine) is Schedule III. Xanax and Tramadol are Schedule IV.
We’ll get to Xanax in a minute.
Like all things opiate, for me, what began as a passing interest soon became a full-blown obsession. I was sitting in a parking lot scrolling through articles on the internet, waiting for a show to start. I’d wanted to write a story on opiate addiction for several months. It wasn’t a well thought out plan, had no grand implications at the time. I landed on a kratom website that was offering samples for cheap, with a discount if you paid in bitcoin. I had tried kratom before, and the price of bitcoin was up. It was a snap decision all the way around.
I wondered if I would stop drinking. Would I feel better? Would it affect my anxiety?
The answer to all of those questions ended up being yes.
For several weeks, I was fine. I was more productive; I was working hard, not needing or getting much rest. I was eating less. I quit drinking altogether. I was in a better mood. I was getting shit done. At the same time, the opiate addict that hides inside me was quietly taking larger doses. Taking them more often, and for different reasons.
Before kratom, I had been out of the methadone clinic and more or less opiate-free for five years. In that time, the opioid crisis has been declared an epidemic by the CDC and the NHS. It is ripping apart communities nationwide. Police and EMTs in high risk areas are carrying Naloxone on patrol.
Be that as it may, having opiates without a prescription is not considered a sickness by authority figures. It’s considered a felony, and law enforcement budgets are booming everywhere. More cops, more guns, more pre-dawn swat raids, all of it to save us from . . . I’m not sure, exactly. Ourselves, I guess. You want drug related crime to disappear? Stop making drugs a crime. But that’s a little too Occam’s razor for the feds, and simplicity has never been their strong suit. End the drug war now and you’ve got so many people out of work you may as well close up shop altogether. And with privatized prisons being publicly traded, there remains plenty of incentive to keep things exactly as they are.
So here’s the problem with making kratom Schedule I: It immediately becomes a felony to possess. The dosage on this stuff ranges anywhere from 2-10 grams at a time. It’s pretty cheap, so people tend to buy it by the kilo. That’s 2.2 pounds. If this scheduling were to take effect, should you not destroy your stash, you would go to bed having broken no laws, and wake up the next morning to find that you had kilos of a Schedule I substance in your house. Imagine if you woke up one morning to some policemen at your door, a few kilos of cocaine in the kitchen, and a couple hundred grams of MDMA in the bedroom. You can see how you might get anxious.
In addition to making overnight felons out of thousands of formerly law-abiding American citizens, Schedule I also takes clinical trials off the table. No research allowed, no doctor’s input, no medical benefit, that’s it. No medicinal value on a substance that had no clinical trials in the first place. This is the bureaucratic nightmare marijuana has been floundering around in for decades.
So the people fought. The American Kratom Association worked tirelessly. A petition circulated. Senators got involved. And in an unprecedented move, surprising absolutely everyone involved, the DEA backed off. They pulled their intent to schedule, and opened what they referred to as a comment period, to last until the end of December. The community released a collective sigh, daring to breathe easily again for the first time in months.
Meanwhile, quietly, I took more and more.
Convinced that we were all under the gun, that it would soon be declared illegal with hardly any record of firsthand use cases, I carried on with my experiment. The DEA may be right; the shit might be dangerous or even deadly. Maybe after all this time I’ve been doing something every morning that is actually fucking killing me. But it doesn’t matter, because they are so full of shit that I cannot believe them. They cannot protect me from myself, because they have never told me the truth to begin with, they have done nothing but lie and hurt and destroy, and I have no reason to believe they are behaving any differently now. [iii]
It takes weeks before I see the error in my reasoning. I am an opiate addict. It doesn’t matter if this stuff has all the medicinal benefit of penicillin, I will never be able to use it responsibly. In addition to that, there really is something wrong with my heart. This did not start with kratom.
The first pain comes during the second week in December but I don’t feel it again for a few days. By Christmas, it is constant. I start moving around like my crippled father. I grab my chest like Fred Sanford having the big one. I start taking aspirin to thin my blood. I stop because of the bruises. I am scared to death.
And there’s the rub. As horrifying as all of this may sound, my stance remains adamantly pro-kratom. I say this even though I never intend to take it again. I have been fighting this war my entire adult life. At this point, I can only harm the cause if I continue to ingest it. If I drop dead right now, it won’t matter that I smoked cigarettes for almost thirty years. It won’t matter that I’ve had a heart condition since childhood.
All that will matter is that I have mitragyna speciosa in my system. I will become a statistic on the wrong side of the war, and I will have failed completely. Like the curious Dr. Frankenstein, my experiment has taken a turn; my creation has gotten away from me. It’s time to shut it down. We have enough monsters roaming here. And so my kratom is in the trash, buried beneath used cat litter and coffee grounds. [iv]
- trading one fear for another.
The office reminds me more of the methadone clinic than a doctor I would go to for a non-drug related issue. It takes forever to get called back, even though we have an appointment. I have to fill out a bunch of shit, which my wife does for me. They want to take my picture. They want 125 dollars. There are forms full of questions for me to answer. They have print at the bottom saying things like, do not reproduce, 2003 DHS.
It is 2017.
One of these papers I refuse to fill out. There are signs everywhere saying NO FOOD OR DRINK and PAY THIS MUCH IF and NO CELL PHONES ALLOWED. The lobby is full of people on phones. The soap dispenser in the bathroom says Zoloft. There are advertisements in a brochure holder on the wall. I see ADHD on three of them. The other slots are empty. I read the word, in parenthesis, (amphetamine). It stares at me from the wall and I can feel my skin crawling and there are so many people on so many phones that I feel like I am going to freak out right there in the office. I start thinking about Drew Barrymore in Mad Love and everything gets worse.
I focus on not freaking out.
I go back to one of the pages and write ‘fatigue,’ I write ‘can’t complete projects.’ People come and go; my wife and I wait. I go to the truck and drink some water and come back in and finally we get called back. The doctor is nice enough but by this point I have been shutting down for half an hour. I try to sit on the couch but she calls me by my first name and tells me to sit in the chair. I feel like I am five years old. She keeps coming back to this paper full of questions I left blank, keeps saying the same thing every time.
“On this paper you forgot to fill out–” she says.
“I didn’t forget to fill it out.”
“So it doesn’t apply to you,” she says, looking down at the paper. She moves on to my scribbled in secondary problem, my afterthought (amphetamine) in the lobby. I don’t want any speed, I just want modafinil, so when she gives me the adult ADHD test I decide to flub the whole thing, answer the questions in two minutes flat. One the answers is already filled in; she scribbles it out when she hands the paper to me. I assume this is supposed to drive me crazy and it kind of does, but I now intend to fail this test so I ignore it. I ignore her dictation that is supposed to throw me off, I do not correct her when she is wrong.
She tells me I have mild ADHD, but nothing that can’t be managed through psychotherapy. She says something else and then goes back to it. “Like on this paper you forgot to fill out.”
“I didn’t forget to fill it out,” I say again as she hands it to me with a clipboard and a pen. I stare at the paper.
“So it doesn’t apply to you,” she starts to repeat, and then I’m talking over her.
“I didn’t say it doesn’t apply to me,” I say. I stare at the paper some more. “I just can’t answer these questions.” I look up and she is staring at me so I go back to staring at the paper. I read the first question six times, start tapping the pen against the page. “I just don’t understand how you could answer any of them ‘no,’” I say. I try to hand the paper back, but she has a different look on her face now and I know I shouldn’t have said that. I’ve been trying not to say it since we got here.
She writes two prescriptions; one of them straight out of Unedited Footage of a Bear, one of them what I came here to get. The first costs 124.69, and I have to buy it even though I intend to throw it in the fucking garbage. The second, the one I want, insurance refuses to pay for, so I have to pay full price.
It costs 17.89.
267.58 to get less than twenty dollars’ worth of benzos. The whole thing is not much different from what I do with drug dealers, except I could have gotten those same pills on the street for around 30 bucks, and the drug dealers don’t want to take my fucking picture or put me in a goddamn database for having panic attacks. The thing I do with the drug dealers feels much more honest.
- world war me.
So where does this leave us? I had a boss one time who said that you should never acknowledge a problem unless you are prepared to offer a solution. He was not a nice man, and he was yelling at his wife when he said it, but perhaps for that very reason, the lesson stuck.
These problems are complicated. The solutions do not have to be. First and foremost, we do not need moral policing. We need accurate information to make informed decisions. We don’t need to be told not to take something because it’s bad for us. We need to be told that what we expect the substance to be is all that’s in there, so that there are no unintended effects and needless medical consequences. We need packaging standards and quality control.
This is what you do with chicken soup. This is what you do with antifreeze.
See, in the end, it turns out that most of that anxiety was caused by simple uncertainty. Several of the deaths related to kratom were caused by an adulterant. They were lacing the shit to make sure people got high. Is there Fentanyl in here? Am I taking 600 milligrams of Tramadol? Are there parasites? The shit is just ground up leaves straight out of the Asian jungle. Sometimes it shows up in my mailbox in a ziplock bag shoved in a priority mail envelope.
And then there are others who are doing it right. Sometimes I get machine sealed bags stamped with lot numbers and dates and I feel better about the whole thing.
What would my solution be? Bring on the FDA, and tell the DEA to stay the fuck out of it. Let clinical trials begin under controlled circumstances by trained professionals. (You’re getting the clinical trials anyway, by the way. They’re just being done by junkies in hotel rooms.) While trials are being conducted, the FDA can focus on quality control and begin enforcing standards.
These are not lofty goals; they are our rights as consumers.
One thing is for certain. Kratom is getting people off provably more dangerous drugs.
They teach you in addiction treatment that the first step toward recovery is admitting there’s a problem. So I tell you what. I want you to go and buy your anxiety medication from a trap house off Candler Road. Stand there and make small talk through the burglar bars and try not to stare at the shotgun in the corner. Maybe then we can have an accurate conversation about the state of mental health care in America.
Sunlight is streaming through the blinds in my study. I stare into it and watch galaxies of dust swirl around, come together, burst apart again as I breathe. I close my eyes and watch my mother crumple to the floor. I watch her seize on the carpet and then lie there, still. I open my eyes and wish for oranges and sawdust.
Nothing ever comes.
[i] All I can find about Pneumol is this webpage, which is admittedly lacking on information. I have no way to verify if this is even the same drug. I can say that it exactly matches the description I was given by my grandmother, and seems to contain two ingredients, Sobrerol and Carbocisteine, which appear to be used for bronchial issues.
[ii] From their own website that looks like it was built with geocities and probably cost hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars: “At its outset, DEA had 1,470 special agents and a budget of less than $75 million. Today, the DEA has nearly 5,000 special agents and a budget of $2.03 billion.” Although in this case “today” means 2015. It was increased to $2.08 in 2016, and the budget for 2017 stands at $2.103 billion, up $23 million (1.1%) from the year before. That works out to about $6.48 for every person in the country.
[iii] That little victory, by the way, the temporary reversal of their stance on kratom? They followed it up by making CBD oil Schedule I a couple of weeks ago. A substance that you can’t get high on, which has nothing but medicinal value.
[iv] And for the record, the withdrawals I have been dreading end up being a joke. Runny nose, restless leg, and a minor backache. There are no chills, no sweats, no suicidal ideation, and no hallucinations. The symptoms last 36 hours and fade completely.