Sunday, December 30, 2012

striking a drum

At the end of my second attempt at a junior year, I pulled, effectively, an "all-weeker" in order to complete a series of exams and the coding portion of a sizable independent research project (a distributed java-based webcrawler with a Swing-based GUI for network topology visualization, maybe a year and a half before such technology became part of standard open-source network analysis toolkits—yay me! I don't know where the code is, nowadays, though. Boo.) Near the very end of this period, during which I'd continued to medicate every four hours around the clock for about two and a half days, a well-meaning but misguided friend left a small bottle of "NoDoz" (like Vivarin™, a caffeine tablet) on my desk after seeing me in my groggy half-awake state.

Being a little short on lucidity, a couple hours later, I took one. Maybe 60 seconds after swallowing, the thought finished percolating-up that "oh, maybe I shouldn't take concentrated caffeine tablets with this much amphetamine already driving my CNS in high gear." This was, regrettably, followed by "Ugh … induce vomiting? No, I'm not in any mood for that! Guess I'll ride it out; it'll probably be no big deal."

My very own in vivo Kamikaze: No big deal.

Oh. Dear. God.

To those of you out there who've never experienced arrhythmias, palpitations, or any other pulse-related side-effects of dangerous overdoses of stimulant medication, I earnestly wish for your ignorance to continue indefinitely. You see, the circulatory system is a high-kinetic-energy organ group. The heart is an astonishingly powerful pump for being a soft, rubbery bulb of tissue. Every cycle it sends compression waves through the cardiovascular system—your pulse—whose intensity, even at the extremities, is not insignificant. We do not generally notice them with our haptic or tactile senses, as our nervous systems filter-out these repetitive, cyclic stimuli. In arrhythmia, however, this filter fails.

I have only my own subjective, anecdotal data, but for me the effect is not unlike the entire body suddenly becoming a soft percussion instrument. It is as if some awful, supernatural drum is beating in my flesh. And interspersed erraticly between the irregular, startling, soundless thuds are the uneasy beats of a hollow, silent non-sound. And with each hollow gap, each hole where a pulse should have been, my body fails a little. My strength ebbs, my balance vanishes; my muscles suddenly fail to support me. Stairwells become frightening obstacles. Breathing becomes an active labor. Mortality suddenly appears starkly-writ and immediate, heralded again and again by each unpredictable beat or skip in a rhythm I was not meant to feel. I grow ill, now, simply describing it.

My partner helped me down two flights of stairs and across a lawn to a large, shady archway. The mid-May sun in New Jersey was unforgiving, and the occasional pauses to regain strength seemed interminable. There, on the second step, half-sprawled on cool flagstones in the spring breeze, I rested for nearly an hour. Drinks were brought. My eyes were unmoored and floated between worlds; half their image was of a scattering of students abroad in the late morning light: seemingly-unreal, shadowless creatures of bright color, full of simple purpose, passing across the lawns, under the arch, up and down the broad steps. I may have spoken briefly with the image of a friend, once. The other half of my sight was filled with fog and memory. I relived taking each dose of stimulants, fifteen in all; I relived each struggle for focus, each piece of work done. All the while the death-drum stuttered itself out, receding, growing less frequent, and finally vanishing into a steady pulse. I slowly followed a path back to my tiny room and lay down by an open window, listening to birdsong and wind and the calls and laughter of those finished with their studies.

There is no moral, really. I never again chose to forego sleep a second night running, simply out of horror at the memory and recognition that it would do me no good. No happy ending, no tragedy, no further drama. I could not sleep until the night came, so full of stimulants as I was. My project was delivered. Emails were sent to various deans, acknowledging extensions, the everyday busywork of a struggling student. I may have been changed, suddenly and forevermore mortal, no longer an innocent. But I was still human, a student with disabilities and a great deal of hard work before her. I ate something. I slept. I finished the semester. I kept going.

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