First Near-Death Experience
from The Pot Plan: Louie B. Stumblin and the War on Drugs
(Chronic Discontent, Franklin, Tennessee, 2005)
takes it all away like a handful of diazepam. There is no relaxing
bubble bath or warm bed or plush carpet more comfortable, no soothing
gel more gratifying than the glow that comes surprisingly soon
after the pills go down as everything begins to grow fuzzy. A
Plains Indian of 1855 in a buffalo robe carefully cured and crafted
by his wife, a modern baby in a velvety blanket tucked safely
in his mothers arms, a friar in a frock: none is as comfortable
or safe-feeling as the diazepam user who is slipping into the
daze the little pills offer almost at once.
going out riding, I told my mother over my shoulder as I
swept out the back door of our warm ranch-style home. There had
been no time to run into a school bathroom and take the diazepam.
The teachers watched us with sullen questioning eyes. Every purse,
backpackperhaps every little coin pocket on every pair of
Levis blue jeanswas suspicious. It was all silence
and fear on the bus. Riders were missing from among us. I didnt
dare reach into my Levis for the pills.
At last I was home. There had been no phone call from the school,
I surmised with relief as my mother greeted me warmly. I began
to feel safe, like I had a little time. I thought I might seek
the counsel of Shane after all. He was my nearest high-school
friend. He might know something I didnt. He might want to
party with me. It seemed a good idea at least to go to his house
and take the pills there. Hunter had scared me, a little. This
was going to be a good show! Writing about it almost twenty years
later, thinking about it so clearly now, my blood has quickened
with the thought: diazepam! Hunter had really been flyingit
was plainly visible. I remembered Hunter looking at me and smiling
that beautiful smile as he came down the hall. This might be just
the thing for me, but I felt I needed someone standing by who
might help me through it the first time.
I met Shane, breathless from pumping my BMX bicycle down the street.
He met me at the door, giving me the usual wry grin he gave me
when we met like this. He asked me where the fire wasShane
was always asking wheres the fire or something
like that if you were in a hurry. Inside the door I dug the pills
out of my pocket and showed him. We admired the little blue pills
together. They seemed to glow in the palm of my hand. He told
the substitute to fk herself, I thought, remembering Hunters
delightful smile. Shane was excited too but didnt have any
more information than I had. I was disappointed but not entirely
surprised. Shane was in tenth grade. He had smoked more pot and
been drunk more times than mehis brother lacked Boss Mans
moderate tendencies. Shane had connections and had even landed
us some steroids one time. But my friend was hardly a pharmacist.
Shane wasnt taking any pills. I dont need to,
Im drinking, he said and led me into the kitchen,
where he had one of his mothers black-labeled bottles of
Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey out on the counter, along
with a decorative shot glass. This was a highly unusual situation.
Shane and I could usually cut loose at his dads house out
in the country, but never here, at his mothers house in
the suburbs. She was blonde and rather voluptuous in a sexless
way that spoke of old good times, and I suppose she drankShane
didnt buy that bottle of Jack. She once took one of Shanes
BB guns into the back yard and slammed it against a tree, breaking
the faux-wood handle and putting a pretty good dent in the stock.
We kids admired the smashed weapon after the fact. She was strong
and she drank and Shane and I did most of our playing in the woods.
He had shot someone with the BB gun before his mother broke it,
shot him on purpose with me as a witness, but still. The anger
she showed smashing that gun to bits spoke of a dangerous nature,
for a mother. And the expression seemed familiar to Shane. So
we didnt party much at his house, though we did try to smoke
crushed steroids in his back yard once. Shane brought them out
from a hiding place one afternoon and, smiling, suggested we take
them for kicks. As much as Shane seemed to know about drugs, his
tenth graders database of information did not include the
proper way to abuse steroids. We didnt seek to be buff specimens
whose bodies suggested deeds of valor and conquest along the lines
of the Roman legion. We wanted to get off.
Ordinarily with pills the way to make them kick is to take a whole
bunch of the subject pill at once. In other words, overdose. The
more the merrier. But the meager stash of steroids Shane fingered
in his dirty palm did not afford the quantity we thought we might
need to overdose. After putting our heads together we thought
we might be able to grind them up and snort or smoke them, insteadas
if the alternate mode of ingestion might be enough to turn a bodybuilders
drug into a powerhouse kick on an otherwise-quiet suburban afternoon.
We went beside Shanes storage bin and crushed the steroids
and rolled the powder in toilet paper and set the thing on fire
and smoked the awful-tasting yellow issue that resulted. The powder
flamed green and the yellow smoke left us gagging and we werent
even sure if we were smoking the steroids or just the toilet paper.
During the whole affair we crept around the place hiding ourselves
like there was a monster on the loose. But it was only Shanes
mother, who in reality hadnt been paying very close attention
to us. That was her routine. Id only been into her kitchen
briefly as we scampered in and out avoiding her. It felt surreal
now after all that sneaking around to see Shane pour himself a
shot of his mothers whiskey and drink it down at her kitchen
counter with just a touch of a grimace.
I asked for some whiskey and Shane came through with a glass for
meanother designer shot glass. After admiring the glass
I poured a shot, put the bottle down and drank the shot. I poured
and drank three more in rapid succession, gagging and breathing
fire but showing it nowhere except in my watery eyes.
Shane swore. While we had sipped a few secret beers together,
he hadnt seen me drink liquor. As a tenth grader Shane was
already drinking his whiskey like a man: in sips. He could drink
a six-pack over the course of an evening around a campfire and
never show any sign of being drunkuntil he suddenly grew
angry and pummeled one of the weaker campers or challenged someone
more powerful to square-off, on his terms. Shane could handle
his liquor and even plot and connive and attack and succeed drunk.
As an eighth-grader I knew I couldnt handle my liquorI
had never handled it beforeand I didnt care. I was
going for it. And I think I impressed Shane. He had always liked
me and had never been tough on me like he was on some of the other
kids and I think it was because we were a lot alike. I would try
anything and I could stand a lot of pain. Shane knew me. Still
he was surprised at my hardcore drinking. I shook the little blue
diazepams in the palm of my hand. They rolled around a little
but didnt offer any last-minute advice. I tossed them down
my throat as a group and swallowed. I chased the pills with one
more shotthat made five shots and seven diazepams. Shane
swore again, marveling at me. I was proud of myself.
Shane abruptly ended our little party, announcing his mothers
imminent arrival and ushering me toward the door. You need
to brush your teeth, he advised. There was no stalling.
If the old battle axe was coming home I wanted to get out of the
way. I wanted to find someplace to be alone for a while and finish
burping the awful taste of whiskey into my mouth before I had
to go home, but there was nowhere to go. It was clear I couldnt
make it far. I wrecked even as I rode out of Shanes driveway.
I mounted the bike deliberately, said goodbye to my friend with
a nod, pushed off and cranked the pedals a couple of times only
to find myself leaning too far and then sprawling out on the asphalt
drive amidst a tangle of bike. More carefully this time, I mounted
again and was off into our suburban neighborhood street. There
was no traffic so I had the whole street, and used it. I skidded
out in the gravel on both shoulders. I pulled myself from one
of these crashes half onto the asphalt, my bike and lower half
still in the gravel, and tried to pull my bike back into the street.
It was like trying to swim and pull a boat. I couldnt get
any traction. I kicked out from under the bike, which I had long
treasured, and left it there by the street and struggled homeward
in a fog. Shane lived six or seven houses down, and the houses
were on small lots, so it wasnt really far but it seemed
to take forever to get home. I was disheveled and bleeding, covered
in road gravel and asphalt scrapes when I got there. I struggled
into the little converted garage den that I had looked into after
my first drunk, surprised then and a little bit saddened at how
drunk Id gotten on Boss Mans Budweiser and worried
that he was going to be mad. This time I came in the other way,
from the back door by the fireplace, and I didnt care if
anyone was mad or not. My father and mother and nineteen-year-old
sister were sitting in the den watching television. I had done
a little bit of drinking with my sister. We were cool. But I didnt
say hello to her or my parents as I struggled to fight off the
cozy fuzz that was surrounding me. The whiskey taste in my mouth
no longer mattered. I didnt care that I was scraped up and
dirty. I just needed to get into bed. It took all my concentration
to walk across the room between my family and the television.
They watched my every move. I lunged in two or three hopeless
steps to the kitchen stairs and stumbled into the doorway, holding
the trim to break my fall. I melted up the two little steps into
the kitchen and lumbered down the hall using both walls to support
myself. It was hard to find a place to put my hands on the hallway
walls where they didnt push into or knock down one of my
mothers beautiful pictures of her smiling happy children.
I found one handhold on the wall and then another. I felt like
a crab crawling around inside a bucket. At last I was in my room
where I collapsed on the bed.
This was the little death I experienced on diazepam: Echoes of
voices, maybe in song or in prayer. People reaching out to me
that I couldnt touch. There was warmth, overall warmth that
enveloped me for hours and, happily, would not seem to end. I
felt contentmentfreedom from care. Fear was the farthest
thing from my mind. I knew only soothing blankness, foggy whiteness.
I felt enveloped in a protective cloud. I can feel it still.
I awoke to Becky talking sweetly into my ear. She was the sweetest
sister anyone could ever want. I had two cozy sisters, but Becky
was closest to me in age and during my teen-age years became a
reliable friend and companion. She was in tears when I looked
at her. I wanted to say something to calm her for a long time
before I could say it. I realized on some level that I was in
a state; I might die. Brutal honesty was called for. I told her,
I took seven Valium and drank a bunch of Jack Daniels,
with a mouth that felt stuffed with cotton and tasted of sweet
whiskey burps. Then the cloud closed in around me again. I flew
for a while. I dont remember what came nextwhen Becky
left my side or what my parents did or how we all got to the hospital.
I remember sitting up on an examining table in the emergency room
with a doctor and several nurses and my worried parents standing
around talking about me. Everyone looked at me when I sat up.
As I came to I heard the doctor say there was nothing much he
could do; the drug just had to run its course. I might die and
I might not, he told my parents, but hell have to
do it on his own. He looked surprised when I came to and
sat up. He was looking right at me and maybe he didnt think
to hide the surprise, didnt think I could see it, but I
could. He looked as though hed witnessed a miracle. After
a while he sent me home where my parents must have put me to bed.
I slept for a long time. I remember waking up one afternoon and
being told what day it was and wondering what had happened to
the day before, maybe a couple of days before. I missed a few
days of school and when I went back with my sick note from my
mother the diazepam bust had blown over. Several of my friends
had been sent to alternative school. I had somehow come through
Brent Andrews lives in Franklin, Tennessee, with his wife
Ginny and their two children.
Thomas Brent Andrews