Twice in my life I’ve had something called a transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE). Instead of jabbing a lube-smeared ultrasound transducer into your ribcage, doctors get a closer look at your heart by shoving a smaller transducer down your throat.
I didn’t know what to expect the first time I had it done. I was in the hospital for endocarditis, a bacterial infection of the inner heart. The doctor ordered the test and I was along for the ride.
If you’re a medical professional, you might assume I’m an IV drug user based on the fact that I got endocarditis as a young person. A logical guess, as that’s a common way for microbes to enter the bloodstream, but I’ve never taken IV drugs. The reason I’ve had endocarditis (twice) is because I have a prosthetic heart valve to correct a congenital defect.
I’m squeamish with needles, and not interested in injecting drugs anyway; however, my experience with the TEE helped me understand why an addict would rapidly overcome any aversion to self-administering an IV.
The doctor told me not to worry about the tube going down my throat. I’d be conscious the whole time, but they’d give me something good to take my mind off of what was happening.
I was given Fentanyl (a potent opioid), and Versed, AKA Midazolam (a benzodiazepine).
And god damn were they good.
I lay on my side, complying happily as they situated the awkward mouthguard and asked me to swallow the tube down my throat. Every muscle in my body was sinking into a bed of clouds. These people felt like my oldest friends and I was deeply at peace with them. I could feel the tube rubbing in and out of my throat, but so what? I could still breathe, and everything was fine — in fact, everything was sublime. I was sure I was in good hands. I couldn’t even remember what it meant to have problems.
In summary, several people shoved a plastic snake down my esophagus and I had a fantastic time. It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.
That’s saying a lot when you’re already in the hospital for a heart infection that could kill you; the baseline feeling in that circumstance is neither warm nor fuzzy. It’s amazing what a drug can do — it took me straight from existential crisis to complete inner peace.
Several years later when I needed to have the same test again, I was gleeful as I sat on the prep table and the nurse put in my IV. I asked what drugs I was getting and if they could be generous. They must have complied, because I drifted out of consciousness halfway through the test. I know I made contented sounds in response to their conversation but I don’t remember how I got from the imaging table back to the resting area.
I still grin when I think about how pleasant these experiences were.
This might sound weird, but I can tell you right now that I positively look forward to the next time I get an ultrasound rammed down my throat. They can do it all day long if they want, as long as they keep feeding me those drugs. The euphoria outweighs the discomfort 100 times over.
It scares me to think what would happen if I had access to a supply of these drugs in my normal life. I wanted more after the very first taste. I’m not sure if I could resist forming a habit, even with the awareness that it would be a terrible idea. The way these chemicals filled me with warmth and erased my worries was profound.
And you know what? I’m not a particularly anxious person. My life is good overall. I have strong connections with people and I’m living on my own terms. I’m happy to be alive, I’m not in any pain at all, and I have no major problems to run from.
How much harder would it be to resist these drugs if I was heartbroken? If my life was painful, insecure, lonely, and difficult? If all I had to do was put these molecules in my body to feel utterly transcendent for a while? It’s easy to understand why people get addicted.
Sometimes addicts do harmful things to maintain their habits, and I’m not condoning that. But I will never believe hard drug users are morally inferior people as a whole. They just wanted to feel OK for a minute and things got out of hand. Everyone’s vulnerable to that kind of chemical response to some extent.
We all have substances we rely on to get through the day. Those who depend on the more destructive drugs don’t need punishment and stigmatization, they need support and connection. They’re often coping with being dealt a harder hand in life in the first place, and it’s tragic when society makes it even worse by treating them like criminals.
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