Every morning, I wake up in withdrawal. It’s not something you think about. The psychiatrist doesn’t mention it. It’s not on the warning labels. But the chemical teaches you, day in and day out, just how it works:
Dex—dextroamphetamine, close cousin to meth—enters your bloodstream fast. You can feel your spine igniting by minute three. The back of your skull is engulfed in a blissful blaze by minute nine. By minute fifteen, color saturates. By minute twenty-five, you’re running on all cylinders.
After about three hours, you’ll start to feel it peeling out of you. Slowly at first, then all at once. The half-life is ten hours, but the active effects will wear off before then. Five hours in, your appetite returns with the thunderous hollow of a barrel drum, your body eases into an ache, your heart-beat escalates, and you know it’s time to take the second dose. Let’s call this early afternoon, at one. By the time the second dose wears off, you might as well shoulder the unpleasant symptoms until it’s time for sleep. It’s six, so just four hours until your day is done. If you took another dose at ten hours in, you wouldn’t get to sleep like normal. You’d lie awake in bed and stare at the ceiling, thinking very quickly about approximately nothing, wishing your brain would shut up and let you dream.
So you bear with the symptoms for the dwindling hours of your evening until you tuck yourself in. The problem is that the half-life keeps ticking away. By midnight it’s almost vanished from your system, and by the time you wake up the drug is in your bloodstream’s memory but not its membranes.
You do not return to “normal.” The point of dex is much the same as the point of meth, only Dex is more targeted and less socially disgraced. The idea is jacking up your brain’s levels of dopamine. People who have ADD, ADHD, narcolepsy, and certain types of depression have naturally lower dopamine production—though no one really knows why just yet. Dopamine makes us social, lets us resist pain, helps us focus, even helps us experience some of our most basic emotions. But when your body gets its extra dopamine from a drug, it starts to “down-regulate,” decreasing the amount of dopamine your brain produces on its own. You can call this building up a tolerance, but it also means a chain reaction. The drug exits your body: your body enters withdrawal.
Assuming your chemical shortfall was correctly diagnosed, the side effect of your cure is a new “base state” that’s even more dopamine deficient. Everything hurts more. It can feel impossible to move your body, just because of an overbearing sense of fatigue—pushing down on you, a new sort of gravity. Your heart-rate stays escalated. Life loses its sharp edges; the shutter speed on your brain just breaks. Motivation out of focus. Purpose blurred. Your body begs you to do the main thing it intuitively knows will increase dopamine levels: Sleep.
Every morning, getting up is a struggle. Your body feels thick, smudgeable as graphite, your heart-rate hammering, your only sense of hope coming from dreams, dreams, dreams. You push through it because you have to, because your rational mind knows you can take that little orange pill—that fire seedling—and feel better in just minutes.
When I talk to professors of my first classes, picking up homework for the days I didn’t show, I tell them, “I overslept.” My alarm went off but I didn’t wake up. I leave out the details.
Loneliness feels like Scotland, the same way heartbreak aches like England, betrayal tastes like France, denial drinks like Ireland, and no place feels quite like home.
I wonder, over and over, where I’d be now if I hadn’t tried to quit.
Maybe I would have followed the game plan. Gone from Dublin to England to Paris, then down into rural France until the French was thick with Spanish accents. Then across the border to Madrid, Barcelona, trailing down to Andalucia with its flowing white hills, its fifteen-course meals, its twelve-time reconstructed walls. From there to Portugal, with a ferry to Morocco, a train ride back to Lisbon, and a plane ride back home. Maybe I would have been back in Utah in July, back in her arms, back with the girl I called my Harte, my brilliant Harte.
Maybe the plan would have changed beautifully. Maybe I would have hopped trains and planes to other European highlights. Maybe I would have eaten pasta in Italy, seen the summer snow in Sweden, taken a tent to Germany’s Hurricane festival, gone on a pilgrimage to Napoleon’s birthplace in Corsica, or made my way to the ancient heart of Greece, returning only in the nick of time for my classes.
Maybe it all would have happened the same, only I would have felt sane through it all. Maybe I wouldn’t have broken down and felt the need to come flying home, just to be with someone, anyone who knew my name. Maybe I would still be on the other side of the ocean.
Maybe if I hadn’t tried to quit, the sense of disconnection, isolation, wouldn’t have grown to be so big. Maybe she wouldn’t have felt trapped by my emotional maelstrom. Maybe she wouldn’t have lied. Maybe she wouldn’t have felt the need to find comfort in someone else’s kiss. Maybe.
But whatever “may be” I spin, the reality the “must be,” is what I actually have. This “must be” was a breakdown followed by a break like a fracture in my psyche followed by a retreat back into these fire-seed pills. Post-relapse, the world was a swirl of color I couldn’t quite swallow. It was a happy like you think of happy in a memory, feeling, Yeah, I was smiling then, right? Only in the present tense.
How can I talk about this story without talking about Harte? How can I talk about Harte without making this story about her?
She had been all my poetry since nearly the moment I met her. She entered my bloodstream fast. I could feel her igniting in my spine by week three, the back of my skull engulfed in a blissful blaze by week nine, my world’s colors taking on her hue, and she was running all my cylinders. Then peeling away, the hunger striking me with the thunderous hollow of barrel drums.
I drank her words. Her smile, her legs, her faery face, the trickle of her hands down the contours of my back—they would have been enough to hold me. But her words were poetry. Her words kept me there.
She was a blur, a high-gravity star spinning, a cosmic wind radiating through me. I kept trying to understand why I couldn’t seem to get over her, why I couldn’t return to “normal,” how she’d worked her way under my skin so quickly, so dangerously deeply.
When I first critiqued Harte’s poetry, I told her, “The things you say sound stunning, but some of these words feel like they’re only here because they’re beautiful. Really, do these words mean anything? Really, do these words mean anything at all?”
That, in a nutshell, was our love story.
I cut my pills into quarters, carefully dividing them, running the flat sharpness of the camping knife across them at a borrowed table in Scotland. Cold turkey hadn’t worked. Maybe if I lowered myself down slowly, my brain’s base-level could recover. In Galway, Ireland, it was a pill and a half. In Derry, Northern Ireland, a pill and a quarter. In Glasgow, Scotland, a single pill. Then to Edinburgh, where it was three-quarters of a pill, a half. Counting down, counting my quartered seedlings, honestly believing what I was experiencing was an extended flu—over weeks, months, the insistent ache against the craving for perpetual sleep or another god damned pill.
Edinburgh is a city that knows its own raw mystique but doesn’t brag about it. The magic is taken in stride: The gothic spire of the Sir Walter Scott Monument, the stark beauty of Edinburgh Castle looming on the cliffside, the sprawling rocky green of Arthur’s Seat, the mists that seep through everything in the early morning—these are the heart of Edinburgh, but thought of by locals as little as you think of your own pulse.
The hostel I was staying in was the best I’d found, the Caladonian. The beds were the same spring-jabbing sorts you always found, the dorms packed with the same eleven strangers (five drunk, two giggling, one who’s always there sleeping). But it was better. The breakfast was hearty (muesli, coffee, orange juice, toast, oranges, apples), the common areas expansive (a lounge, bean-bag cinema, bar, kitchen, reading room, pool hall), the staff friendly, and the WiFi stable.
I needed money. I was meant to have returned in July, but when my plane home took off I wasn’t on it. It was September, and I had run out—of everything, on everything, on everyone. Freelancing could pay the bills if only I could convince myself to do the work, but my focus was fractured, split between my numbed sense of isolation and the white-hot thoughts of the girl I had longed to come home to. Thoughts of a home I believed no longer existed.
It felt like melodrama from the inside too.
I was down to half a pill.
I sat in the corner of the kitchen typing away, trying to work, reminding myself to breathe, reminding myself that I had to do this work if I wanted to keep moving—keep wandering—keeping running away.
Doro saw me from across the room. “I was fascinated by you,” she would later say, words lathered in a combination of German and American accents. Everyone outside of England spoke American English; they’d learned it all from Hollywood.
Some girls are subtle about expressing an interest. Your eyes meet, they smile, their head lowers to the side—abashed, the play-act goes, by your willingness to look their way. Some are so subtle they nearly disappear.
Doro was not subtle.
It was hard not to notice her eyes resting on me from across the room. She approached me to ask if she could borrow a pen, which would have seemed more like a solid excuse if she hadn’t already been staring at me for the better part of half an hour. She returned the pen, made an attempt at a joke, but I pocketed my pen and didn’t laugh. “Thanks again,” she said, and skittered away.
Doro seemed oddly familiar. She looked like a girl I knew once, years ago. They had the same hair, the same faces somewhere between heart-shaped and round, the same jagged scars along their arms.
Later that night, I sat on a leather couch at the hostel bar next to Doro. She bought me a drink, a ginger beer with a Scottish thistle on its label. Doro and I talked about books and knives. We talked about the scars on our arms. We joked about patterns and pictures and how no one ever cuts themselves in clever ways. I pulled the camping knife from my pack and used the tip to lightly etch the picture of a squid into my forearm.
Why am I doing this? I looked at the light trails of blood lifting up from the barely-broken flesh. Who the hell am I?
Doro and I watched a movie in the bean-bag cinema. Her interest was obvious, but I kept my distance. I tried to understand why I stayed so far away. Doro said she was going to bed. I said okay, said I was going to watch another movie. She walked out then back in a minute later. “It’s four in the morning,” she said. “I’ve decided I may as well stay up until breakfast.”
Doro was not subtle.
During that second film, I invited her to cuddle in next to me. Sometimes she would pull in close, like she wanted to roll together across the bean-bag hills. Sometimes she would pull away like she wanted me to let go of her, like she wanted to run from the room.
Everything I felt was tepid, shallow, like a stream still learning how to be a stream. The movie couldn’t hold me. Doro’s tugs and pulls kept fragmenting the moments. I was paying attention; when is she holding in close like it means something? when is she moving like she wants to escape?
I wonder how her heart was playing in her chest just then. Days later she would approach me and take me by the wrist, sliding my fingers across her throat until they settled into her racing pulse. “Do you feel that?”
When she pulled in close, I rested my forehead into her temple. “Hey, could you tilt your head? I think I’d like to bite your neck for a while.”
Yeah. I wasn’t subtle either.
She was flustered for a moment, but then shifted her entire body position to give me access. My teeth searched for a place where they could really sink in, but I couldn’t find one. She would turn her head away to give me access to the soft skin of her neck, would turn toward me to fiercely snare my lips. The movements continued their rehearsals while I wished the kisses felt like something more than her lips pressing into my wax body.
I wanted to feel like it could feel good just to feel wanted.
That night, groping in the dark, my hands crawling across her skin, trying so hard to make contact—the projector-screen movie humming out electric sounds and muted lights—I felt like drowning.
Loneliness feels like Scotland to me.
There, in the dark, as the morning mists crawled in from the hills and valleys of Scotland—through the raw mystique of Edinburgh that people no longer saw—my lips and teeth and breath and hands tangled with this fascinated stranger, each stroke of my movement a muted scream.
Doro was there for a week. She handed me scribbled notes, wanted to read my stories, told me she wanted to nibble me. I told her I was busy, had to work, had to earn enough money to eat. She bought my time on lease by getting me treacle cookies from the co-op around the corner. We drank Hendrick’s gin together and replayed the same vacant love-scene in the cinema room. We’d learned it all from Hollywood.
She talked to me about flashbacks, about the parts of her past that came back to haunt her again and again—that escalated her heart-rate, set her mind to spinning. I told her she was going over the same story in the same way, over and over, and there had to be another way to tell it. That it didn’t have to be the story of how she was victimized but could become the story of all she survived; not the story of how she was thrown down but the story of how she stood back up again.
Doro started screaming, then cried and left. Through a stunted sense of empathy, I imagined she probably hoped I would give chase, tell her I believed everything would be okay. I didn’t. She came back hours later and asked to talk to me alone. We went into the unoccupied cinema room and she told me the things I’d said were out of line and that I owed her an apology.
“I meant what I said. I’m sorry if it hurt you, but no, I don’t think it was out of line.”
She stepped toward me with a fist balled, the side of her hand and forearm faced toward me. Then her hand dropped and she just cried. Cried in the way people do when it’s not a river-rush but a dam breaking after years of cracks and splinters.
I didn’t say anything. I put my arms around her, and my arms were something different then. We were there for minutes that sprawled out on those bean-bag hills. We didn’t kiss, didn’t touch except in the way I blanketed her.
Doro went back to Germany. I went into the highlands of Scotland—to Oban, Tobermory, Fort William, the Isle of Skye, Inverness—wanting to see the colder climbs before the true winter set in. I was convinced that by diving into winter I could eventually escape it. I watched the November snow fell in Inverness. I ached for the familiar snow of home. I was down to a quarter of a pill each day.
I broke south, to Cardiff, to London, to Portsmouth, and then I broke completely. I bought the ticket home on debt. Trying to brace myself against the reality of my shattered home, trying to find fire in my world without the daily withdrawal. When there were no pills left, I sat with the flat sharpness of the knife pressing into my skin, my shallow pulse pushing against the firm pressure of the blade. “Do you feel that?” I was trying so hard to cut away all that was absent from my veins, all that was in my bloodstream’s memories but not its membranes.
People look at the scars on my forearm sometimes. Every so often I catch someone staring. For a while I covered the scars with a bandage, but they itched constantly and I was afraid the covering might prevent the cuts from reaching the health of open air—prevent the injuries from mending. I’m not proud of the scars, but choose not to be ashamed. These injuries were the last attempt at life without relapse. The fire-seedling pills were not my friends, but it reached a point where they felt kinder than the alternatives.
I wake up every morning in withdrawal. If people ask where the scars on my arm are from, I tell them, “It’s a self-inflicted injury.” That they’re older wounds, but some scars just don’t heal right. I leave out the details.