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So I was in Atlanta. I checked into the hotel, a nice place, but my room, upon entering, was a dank meat locker. I looked around for the thermostat but I couldn’t find one, and I went to open the windows and they were sealed shut. So I asked the front desk how to make the room slightly less frozen and was told: “We keep all rooms at a consistent temperature. Guests seem to prefer it this way.” I figured, what can possibly go wrong sleeping a few nights in a room like this?
By my third morning I have a cough: hack-hack. The next morning, my last at the hotel, the hack-hack has turned into a deep cough-cough. As the week progressed elsewhere in Georgia, the cough turned into bronchitis, and I could feel foamy bubbles percolating in my lungs when I lay down to sleep. Yes, there’s nothing sexier than wheezing, a bodily function seemingly designed to remind us all that death lurks around every corner. Finally, I dragged myself to a local medical clinic, and this is when things got really American.
“Sounds like you’ve got bronchitis there.”
“Yes, I think so.”
“If you’d left it another day, it’d have turned into pneumonia.”
“Well, I’m glad we’re dealing with it now.”
“OK. Let me see what I can do.”
My doctor vanished for a few minutes and I looked around. The clinic was pleasant enough, as were both the staff and my doctor, who returned a few minutes later with some filled-out prescription forms. “I’m going to give you a course of antibiotics. Take one a day in the morning with food. Just one.”
“And here’s a prescription for oxycodone. Take two a day.”
“Oxycodone?” It felt weirdly glamorous to be getting some oxy for the first time.
“Yes. It’s a terrific cough suppressant.”
“OK.” In my head I was thinking, “Oxy — woohoo!” . . . but in my body I was thinking, “But I also really would like to stop coughing up jelly-like deep-sea creatures into my dinner napkins.” So I walked three minutes to the pharmacist and picked up my antibiotics, and then my oxy. My pharmacist looked at me gravely: “You know, you’re very lucky your doctor gave me this discount coupon on your oxycodone prescription.”
“Oh — why’s that?”
“This drug [use drug name; get sued] is $900 a pop.”
“Yes, but for you, with a coupon this first time, it’s $90.”
“For a cough suppressant?”
“Not just any cough suppressant. This is oxycodone.”
“I suppose so.”
“And there’s a bit of decongestant added to it as well.”
“Hard to argue with that.”
So I started taking the antibiotics and . . . nothing happened. The bronchitis remained and, if anything, got a bit worse. With the oxy, though, it was different: let it be said here that life is truly great when you’re taking oxycodone. It really is. Annoying people stop being annoying. Repetitive tasks become engrossing. Writing and creative work become euphoric.
And then it turns on you.
It turned on me around Day Six. I woke up and the back of my skull felt like it had a skeleton hand with long, pointy fingernails clasping on to it. Of course, the only way to unclasp it was . . . more oxy. You can see where this is going. Let it be said here that I have an addictive personality and oxycodone is, as hillbilly populations will attest, extremely addictive.
By Day Nine the bronchitis was morphing into pneumonia, and pretty much 50 per cent of my cognitive output was based around analysing my bodily sensations and trying to figure out if they were real or psychosomatic but, either way, the only way to unclasp The Hand at the back of my skull was to take another pill, except by then it wasn’t fun any more. Every moment of the day felt like I was about to step into a too-hot bathtub and, concomitantly, much of my cognitive function was by then being deployed to monitor my outward behaviour so as to not look like I was hiding The Hand on the back of my skull.
So I stopped. And I returned to Canada, where my doctor looked at my prescriptions, puzzled. First, my antibiotic: “Your Florida doctor prescribed you this? [Name drug; get lawsuit.] We used to give this to two-year-olds and, even then, for your body weight, this ought to have been at least three times a day at quadruple strength.”
“OK, but what about oxycodone? You have to admit, it did stop me from coughing.”
“Yes, but you also almost became addicted to a $900-a-pop drug.”
“And just to be clear, you were deliberately underprescribed antibiotics to keep you from getting well so as to ensure that you’d keep going back for more visits and repeat oxy prescriptions. And your doctor was obviously in on some kind of racket with the pharmacist — all that coupon nonsense.”
Within 48 hours, my pneumonia essentially vanished thanks to two azithromycin tablets. But it took almost a week for The Hand to permanently unclasp itself from my skull. Now that the experience is over, I feel as if I’d driven through a speed trap in a small Ozark town and had been at the mercy of the local Boss Hogg. All of this because of bronchitis. What if I’d had something bigger than mere bronchitis? What bigger and scarier speed traps would await me or you or anyone else down the US medical road?
Douglas Coupland’s most recent book is a non-fiction title, ‘Kitten Clone’, published by Visual Editions
Photograph: Ken Mayer Studios © Douglas Coupland