Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

My First Near-Death Experience

Thomas Brent Andrews

Excerpted from The Pot Plan: Louie B. Stumblin and the War on Drugs
(Chronic Discontent, Franklin, Tennessee, 2005)


Nothing 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 mother’s 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.

“I’m 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, backpack—perhaps every little coin pocket on every pair of Levi’s blue jeans—was suspicious. It was all silence and fear on the bus. Riders were missing from among us. I didn’t dare reach into my Levi’s 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 didn’t. 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 flying—it 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 was—Shane was always asking “where’s 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 f—k herself, I thought, remembering Hunter’s delightful smile. Shane was excited too but didn’t 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 me—his brother lacked Boss Man’s moderate tendencies. Shane had connections and had even landed us some steroids one time. But my friend was hardly a pharmacist.

Shane wasn’t taking any pills. “I don’t need to, I’m drinking,” he said and led me into the kitchen, where he had one of his mother’s black-labeled bottles of Jack Daniel’s 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 dad’s house out in the country, but never here, at his mother’s house in the suburbs. She was blonde and rather voluptuous in a sexless way that spoke of old good times, and I suppose she drank—Shane didn’t buy that bottle of Jack. She once took one of Shane’s 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 didn’t 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 grader’s database of information did not include the proper way to abuse steroids. We didn’t 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, instead—as if the alternate mode of ingestion might be enough to turn a bodybuilder’s drug into a powerhouse kick on an otherwise-quiet suburban afternoon. We went beside Shane’s 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 weren’t 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 Shane’s mother, who in reality hadn’t been paying very close attention to us. That was her routine. I’d 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 mother’s 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 me—another 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 hadn’t 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 drunk—until 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 couldn’t handle my liquor—I had never handled it before—and I didn’t 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 didn’t offer any last-minute advice. I tossed them down my throat as a group and swallowed. I chased the pills with one more shot—that 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 mother’s 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 couldn’t make it far. I wrecked even as I rode out of Shane’s 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 couldn’t 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 wasn’t 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 I’d gotten on Boss Man’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t push into or knock down one of my mother’s 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 couldn’t touch. There was warmth, overall warmth that enveloped me for hours and, happily, would not seem to end. I felt contentment—freedom 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 Daniel’s,” 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 don’t remember what came next—when 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 he’ll 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 didn’t think to hide the surprise, didn’t think I could see it, but I could. He looked as though he’d 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 all right.

***

Thomas Brent Andrews lives in Franklin, Tennessee, with his wife Ginny and their two children.

© Thomas Brent Andrews

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012