When a scruffy kid at the halfway house where I lived suggested we get high on Robitussin, I deadpanned and assured him that he was an idiot. I educated him that while it might be possible to get a little drunk from the cough syrup, it wasn’t really “getting high.” The kid’s name was Billy and he wasn’t convincing as he gushed about stories of hallucinogenic “trips” he had taken while on Robitussin.
But I knew Billy was full of crap because there was just no way that you could hallucinate from cough syrup. I was more than qualified to make this assessment; having lived on the streets since I was a young boy I had tried just about every drug out there and hallucinogens were my favorite. After all, they provided the most intense type of escape from reality, which is exactly what I wanted back in those days.
Billy and I were both 15 and had been living at the halfway house for a few months after getting out of juvenile hall; he for burglary and me because there was nowhere left to go. The halfway house was for teenage boys with alleged or actual drug problems, so the place was dry. No weed, no booze and random drug testing. So by that point I was willing to try Robotrippin‘, as Billy liked to call it; but I didn’t expect much.
We conned the staff of the halfway house, referred to simply as “The House,” to take us into town on the pretext of needing some toiletries. Billy stole a few bottles of Robitussin from Kmart while I kept watch.
When we got back to The House we stole away to a makeshift tree-house we had built. It was behind The House, and with 6 other boys to manage the staff were busy enough that we could take our time choking down the bottles of cough syrup safely in our hideout.
Billy gulped his down quickly, but I struggled with mine. It was only an 8 ounce bottle but it took me at least 20 minutes to force it down my throat. It was disgusting. Meanwhile the daylight was waning and a staff member came out and ordered us inside. Billy went to his room and I went to mine.
I began composing a letter to a friend, convinced that suffering through that bottle of cough syrup wasn’t worth it at all. I didn’t feel anything.
But after about 20 minutes I noticed I hadn’t written anything for a while even though I had been “writing” in my head. The notebook in front of me had one coherent paragraph followed by a long squiggly line that meandered down the page, scratched its way across my desk and landed on my right thigh where the ink pooled from the pen tip in an ugly stain.
I wasn’t sure how long I had been frozen in that position but it suddenly occurred to me that I was much too high. My room was directly across the hall from the staff office and I could hear voices of authority from under my door.
I decided the safest place was in bed with the lights out. I barely made it under the covers before I was sucked into a dark jungle where the plants in my room suddenly became menacing; they danced enticingly in the shadows cast by the streetlamp outside my window. A bass drum thundered erratically from somewhere inside of me while a tall man in a dark cloak whispered to me about secrets that I could not grasp…
Even though I was only 15 at the time, I was fairly experienced with drugs. I had done mushrooms too many times to recount, and considered myself a professional when it came to blotter acid. Throughout all of these hallucinogenic experiences I was always able to retain a part of my own identity and rationality.
Meaning, no matter how intense the trip became, I could always internally say to myself:
It’s okay; you’ve just taken some acid and in a few hours this will all be over. Everything will be normal in a few hours…
But as I twisted in my sheets and bickered with the shadowy man in my room, I didn’t realize that I had completely lost my grip on reality. The rationality I was accustomed to was gone; the trip was so powerful that I believed it was real. I had no recollection of where I was or even who I was; these thoughts were beyond my reach now.
The night wore on and I “came to” a few times and tried to focus my eyes on the room. Everything would swirl and invert, then drop out and away. When the world dropped out and away, I would fall along with it and slide back into a state of nothing.
Somehow I held on.
In the early morning hours I awoke, but I was still intensely hallucinating. There was so much space junk in front of my eyes that I could barely see. I sat up in bed and felt like I had been running all night; my muscles ached and my joints were all hard and tight. I was cold and wet, and my room reeked of some kind of sickly manure.
There was no way around it; I had to go to the bathroom and that meant venturing out into the hall and walking directly past the staff office. The door to the office would almost certainly be open and the night man would undoubtedly be sitting in his chair, coffee and newspaper in hand.
If he spoke to me, I’d be finished; he’d know I was completely out of my mind and they’d have me shipped back to juvenile detention.
I decided a better option would be to pee in a bottle. My bones protested as I got out of bed and my right hand slipped in some frigid stickiness. Suddenly, I realized that my entire bed was covered in the substance, and when I bent my head to smell I instantly gagged.
During the night I had apparently shit the bed.
But it wasn’t just regular shit; this was straight-up diarrhea and it had saturated every inch of my sheets. This realization was shocking but it did nothing to sober me up. I was still tripping. Hard.
Somehow I got my clothes off, stripped the bed and covered the bare mattress with a clean blanket. I gathered some stuff and headed for the door, my heart pounding. As I opened it I realized the shadowy figure I had been talking to all night was actually my jacket hanging on the back of the door, but there wasn’t any time to think about it; the staff office was miraculously empty so I quickly stumbled down the hall.
I made it through a shower but got lost while I was in there. I slipped down into some long dark void and awoke sitting down in the shower to one of the other guys pounding on the door.
I got out of there and feigned like I was sick all day. I stayed in my room and crawled the walls. By nightfall I was still hallucinating, but for the most part I knew what was going on. I figured it would all be over in the morning.
But I was bug-eyed and nervous when the sun came up the next day, and I was still extremely messed up. Fortunately I faked sobriety pretty well, and the other guys covered for me once I told them what was going on. I somehow made it through another day.
By the third day I was hallucinating intermittently and having trouble keeping my balance. I looked pale. I looked like I was on drugs.
But it was nearly time to go back to school after a short summer, so the staff piled us all into one of those monstrous 15 passenger vans and drove us to the local high school to get registered. I was tripping pretty heavily on the drive over and I knew I was in trouble when they called my name to meet with the principal and guidance counselor.
I had been to this school the year before for a short time and the teachers liked me. The principal surprised me and gave me a big hug when I shuffled in; it was an agonizingly awkward moment and it sent me into a spin. I remember the guidance counselor asking me if I was alright as I suddenly tried to lean nonchalantly against the wall for support.
I mumbled that I wasn’t feeling well and bolted. I made it down the hall and around the corner before collapsing onto the floor. I crawled on my hands and knees the last 50 feet to the bathroom and pulled myself into one of the stalls.
I don’t remember what happened after that. The next couple of days I was in and out of reality and at one point I remember telling Billy that if I didn’t snap out of it soon that he should help me commit suicide.
The Robitussin took a long time to work its way out of my body. The staff of the halfway house accused me of drug use and I emphatically denied it. They left me alone and didn’t ask for a drug test.
When I finally recovered I found myself with Billy and two other guys from The House back in the cold remedy section of Kmart. It had been such a powerful and unpleasant trip for me, but something beckoned me to do it again. And again. And again.
Two months later I was Robotrippin’ every day. Things progressed to the point where I could suck down an 8 ounce bottle without even a grimace. A few of us guys would chug cough syrup and then take hits of Glade potpourris spray. It got so bad that I remember pretending to go to the bathroom during an AA meeting and taking big hits of Glade before returning while still holding the last hit, blowing it out quietly as I sat back down among the group.
But it wasn’t long before 8 ounces wasn’t enough. We figured out that the capsule version of Robitussin worked just as well as the liquid. We’d hit every store in town and steal all of the Robitussin DM blister packs we could get our hands on, and then down the pills with a can of Coke or Pepsi before heading back to The House.
By early winter I had lost 30 pounds. I looked sick and frail. My girlfriend was worried about me but I assured her and everyone else that everything was fine. Other than the guys at The House, no one knew I was on drugs.
Eventually Billy began to believe that there was a “RoboGod” and that we should continue Robotrippin’ in order to appease this deity. It made sense but I didn’t care. At the time I was taking 38 pills in my hand and swallowing them all at once without a chaser, and then I’d suck down an entire can of Glade by myself. That was my life.
The staff at the halfway house must have known, but many of them were recovering addicts with their own problems and so they looked the other way.
Eventually I felt cold and empty inside all the time. Outwardly everything seemed fine; I performed well in school, I had a nice girlfriend, I was smart and stayed out of trouble. But inside I was losing my very identity. I hated Robitussin and didn’t want to do it anymore, but just the mere thought of stopping made me panic.
I knew I couldn’t quit on my own, and considering that all of the other guys at The House were smoking pot or drinking or doing Robo and Glade, it didn’t seem likely that I’d find any safe quarter there.
So I told on myself. I broke the cardinal rule of street kids, hustlers and drug addicts and “ratted myself out.”
I waited until my favorite staff member, Scott, was working and marched into the office, closed the door and told him everything. He assured me that things would be okay and that they would get me some help. I turned in all of the drugs I had and went to bed that night feeling like I might have another chance at life.
But the next day during school I was called down to the principal’s office. Sherriff’s deputies were waiting for me there, and I was immediately incarcerated back in the state youth detention center.
I trusted Scott and I thought by turning myself in that I’d be spared going back to juvenile hall, but locking me up may have been the best choice. I was on a dangerous path with only sickness and death waiting for me at the end.
I served my time and was released, and I wish I could tell you that I never did Robitussin again. But I did it a few more times over the years, even though it wasn’t fun and each time I was honestly scared to my very core.
I’ve done a lot of drugs in my time. A lot of drugs. I was huffing airplane glue and smoking pot while in line for the soup kitchen when I was a 12 year old street kid. I’d eat a 1/4 ounce of mushrooms or take a 5 spot of double-dipped white blotter acid and come out on the other side just fine.
But not with Robitussin. It took away the very essence of who I was and robbed me of my own sense of self. I hated it but I returned to it day after day until the person that I had once been was reduced to a shadowy waif; a soulless slave to a much-loathed hallucination. But more than that, it made it so that it didn’t matter who I was, and that is the most frightening thing I have ever experienced in my life.
Going back to jail almost certainly saved me from an early grave.
It’s been 18 years since the last time I tripped on Robitussin. But every once in a while I’ll have a can of Coke or Pepsi, and I can still taste those pills sliding down the back of my throat, and my entire body seizes as if in expectation of a dangerous poison. And ultimately, abusing Robitussin is exactly that – voluntary poisoning.
I know people get tired of hearing “don’t do drugs.” It’s said so much that many learn to just tune it out. But I’m telling you from experience; taking Robitussin for anything other than a legitimate cough is stupid. It’s not fun; it’s dark and lonely and you forget who you are – but not in a good way. Instead of letting you escape, it traps you and sucks you dry like a sickly, heaving, syrupy red spider.