I couldn't see straight. Everything started to feel strange. I thought it would pass.
That was more than two years ago
Christmas, 2020: The moment of revelation
This was it. It was the right time to get off a sleeping drug after an intense few months of pandemic isolation.I would head straight to my parents’ place in Ottawa, a 24-hour drive across the wilds of Ontario through the night, where I could detox from this nightmare in relative peace and comfort, with help and without judgement.
I’d tried to get off this drug before. Trips to doctors and hospitals. They were entirely distracted with COVID and simply kept sending me away. “Everyone’s struggling right now, James.” I couldn’t break through their plexiglass bubble.
I knew I needed support this time.
About 8 hours into the drive, I couldn’t see straight. Everything started to feel strange. “This will pass,” I reassured myself.
Every damn speck of light — especially streetlights and headlights — burst out like a thousand tiny suns. They whizzed past me like flies. Fucking irritating. And all the Christmas lights were invasive and nauseating.
I started to feel like they were reaching into me. Or somehow passing through me? Like I’d lost some kind of boundary for my soul.
Then came the ringing in my ears. The raging tinnitus was so loud I kept checking the radio to see whether or not it was actually coming from inside my head.
“This would pass in a few hours. Maybe a few days,” I thought. “Just keep your focus and relax.”
My body started to shake uncontrollably. It came from deep within me like a body-quake. And then, about halfway through the drive, I felt such an intense fear that I nearly passed out.
“Focus, James. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” It was just some oppressive somatic terror that I could, until that moment, barely have imagined.
I’d never been so scared, I thought, even as a child. I’d lived alone in giant cities like Seoul. Cycled across the Alps with nothing but a compass and a map (and a dear friend). What the hell was this?
I had my wits, but something was deeply wrong with my perception. I became a witnessing passenger in my own body.
As the horror and perceptual disturbances got worse, the drive finally came to an end. Maybe the feeling would abate with rest.
“I’ll let this pass,” I once again assured myself, “however long it takes, and get on with life.”
I opened my parents’ front door, but instead of feeling refreshed or relieved, I felt overwhelmingly disoriented. It was a funhouse and the walls were closing in.
I collapsed onto the floor seconds later and burst into tears. Another weird moment. I wasn’t prone to emotional outbursts like that. My parents rushed to my side.
“You’ve been through the war,” Mom said, referring to the months of isolation.
Sure, it was a hard time, but I didn’t think that was the root cause here. There were layers, now.
They’d never seen me in any kind of crisis before. Moments of teenage opposition, no doubt, but otherwise it was nearly 40 years of good physical and mental health, stubborn independence, peace, and relative ease. I had a good career and a pretty happy life. I liked my brain: I was a quick study, conscientious, and creative. It led me to opportunities over and over again.
“Let’s just sit down on the couch and watch something,” Dad said.
I tried to look at the TV, but it didn’t make any sense. The moving pictures were just a disturbing jumble of flashing light and colour. All I could hear was noise and ringing. I wanted to vomit again.
I went to bed, but sleeping was impossible.
I tried to breathe. Breathe in for four, hold, breathe out. Again and again, for hours. If I fell asleep, I’d jolt awake seconds later in a panic.
“Maybe it will take a few weeks?” I thought.
Weeks passed. I tried titrating the dose over a couple of weeks. It didn’t work.
There was nowhere to go, now. Nothing to do.
I was trapped inside this broken brain.
I was new at this pill thing
Throughout my life, I’d avoided all drugs, even prescriptions. I knew I was too damn sensitive to put much of anything in my body. I get drunk after two drinks.
In the year or so leading up to that moment of revelation, I was working through a rough patch in my personal life. I went through a divorce, tried to start a new relationship, and I had a high-stakes application to keep my academic job. They required the completion of a PhD at about a third of the income, and I needed to split my time between two cities. I needed my sleep and my body was too activated.
I used some chemicals temporarily and I was happy to retire them as quickly as they came.
COVID had other plans. A perfect storm to protract those isolating life circumstances, leading me into months — and then years — of unrelenting, almost incomprehensible isolation.
I was living alone in my cottage, and like earlier that year during the rough patch, my body was too activated… even though I’d previously had the best sleep of my life there, nestled deep in the boreal forest near big water on Lake Winnipeg. My little piece of heaven became a solitary confinement chamber.
So I returned to a pill that could anaesthetize me for as long as I needed.
Months went by. Summer break came and went at the university where I taught. No teaching for four months. For some of that time, nobody was allowed to come to the cottage community unless it was their primary home. There were no neighbours, no job activities, and few people to call. Nothing to say. No place to go. No invitations from loved ones. I hit wall after wall after wall.
“Just stay on the drug until this blows over,” I thought.
But as 2020 concluded, I was determined to get off that drug and change my circumstances.
I did exactly that, but recovery never came. Much of what unfolded after that is still too raw and, frankly, embarrassing to share. But I’ll fill in the blanks as I recount my steps.
This is the story of all the many things I’ve done, and am still doing, to rehabilitate my broken brain. My hellish, hopeful path back to human perception.
I don’t want to encourage/discourage the use of any particular drug, so I won’t name it. Not yet, anyway. The drug therapy train is a whole other chapter of this story.