Tobacco & Firearms

The Varieties of Anaesthetic Experience

June 20, 2008

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It was a balmy New England dawn, in that brief slice of the year when our clime is as mild as Malibu’s and the pine trees bend in sweet obeisance to the breeze…. On such a day, a man of my years climbs from the coverlets and thinks: “All shall be well….The perfect day for a colonoscopy.”

Perhaps I view all these events through a rosy, narcotic haze. While I’m certainly the type to gaily undertake spontaneous adventures, this one might have required a bit of planning, even prodding. I vaguely recall that months ago a grumpy old Yankee doctor clawed at my belly with aged hands, and warned of internal subversives—muttering darkly that pockets of opposition, whom he named not dissidents but diverticuli, were conspiring against me. I could see those little, embittered policy wonks, tunneled into the K Street of my belly, fattening themselves on the lobster rolls and chowder that passed them by, dreaming up new conflicts to produce, issuing white papers warning of the need to invade and liberate Lower Intestinistan. But was it really prudent to free that rigidly autocratic realm, with no historic experience of Western democracy? Did I really want my very own visceral Green Zone? Preferring a policy of containment, I asked the experts to dig more deeply into the matter, to send their very own Joe Wilson upriver to find the heart of darkness.

All went well. The doctors found nothing—not a trace of American Enterprise or “national greatness” in my gut—and I went home to sleep it off. Valerie Plame was in no way injured by the procedure. What is more, the blessed haze which a friendly Ukrainian pumped into my mind through a vein in my arm made sure that I remembered nothing at all of the event—which I’d dreaded as my very own episode of “Oz.”

Instead, I lay on my side with the friendly IV pumping, and drifted off with the same sense of comfort that used to come when my mother would tuck me in at night, surrounded by my favorite stuffed animals, or that I feel even now on a cold night flanked on either side by snoring beagles. I awoke gently drunk, ready to toddle off home for a long sleep—as if I’d spent the afternoon drinking prosecco in the sun.

And for this I have to thank the good men who developed the anaesthetic Propofol. Just guessing from the lead inventor’s name, Dr. Sheldon Hendler, I suspect he’s a cousin of Christ. If so, I owe my ongoing sense of inviolate manhood to the Propofol of a Doctor of Zion. Shalom aleichem, Dr. Sheldon! In my personal rating system, I give Propofol a full five poppies.

Which reminds me just how many mind-altering experiences one has as one grows older, none of them to do with anything illicit. Indeed, you might be able to chart the aging process in strictly mathematical terms (where’s Russell Seitz when we need him?) in terms of the shifting ratio of illegal to legal drugs consumed.

Not that I was ever a stoner. It’s true that in my neighborhood, in the deep dark 1970s,  the “cool” kids starting smoking weed in 6th or 7th grade, then moved on to form heavy metal bands and try the hard stuff in high school. But nobody ever accused me of being cool. I spent my free periods at Mater Christi reading the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia, watching film strips about Baroque architecture, and playing war games from SPI that allowed me to win World War I for the Austrians. (You can’t imagine how much this impressed the girls.)

But I don’t think I’ll spoil my chances at the Republican nomination by admitting that on a few occasions I did inhale the bleary weed. And didn’t like it much. As Steve Sailer writes: “The problem with marijuana is not that it’s some wild and crazy thing, but that it’s middle-age-in-a-bong. Smoking dope saps the energy from youth, turning them into sedentary couch potatoes.”

Or, in my own case, renders them instantly, irretrievably paranoid. Now, I didn’t go through what a Southern acquaintance of mine used to feel when he took a toke—namely that every black person for miles around suddenly knew every racist thought he’d ever had, and was on the way to come get even. Instead, my delusions were theological; convinced I’d probably committed a mortal sin, and surrounded by stoners carelessly, carelessly, carelessly handling lit cigarettes near overstuffed basement furniture on top of shag rugs, I’d get obsessed with the fear that one of these dudes would set the place alight, that I would roast to death with them in the ensuing fire, and plunge headlong, forever, into flames.

The scent of brimstone soon taught me to Just Say No. In college, I managed to fast forward through the whole cocaine craze. Remember when clouds of the stuff appeared in Woody Allen movies, when housewives in Albert Brooks flicks ingested it as casually as gossip or adultery? The myth back then was that cocaine wasn’t addictive—which is partly true. It doesn’t send you into physiological withdrawal, the way, say, heroin does. Not at all. Instead, by hypercharging your brain with entirely unearned pleasure, it makes you feel (as someone told me once) “as if you’d just beaten all your enemies to death with your newly-won Academy Award, then carried Christie Brinkley up Mt. Everest and nailed her.”

Inhale enough of this Bolivian Marching Powder, and your brain adjusts for the drug—and soon you need great big Scarface-sized piles of the stuff just to ward off the symptoms of clinical depression. I’d suspected that something of the sort must be true—and in any case, cocaine was really expensive. Not covered by my (admittedly overgenerous) financial aid package at Yale. For that kind of “need-based” aid, you need to enroll at Brown.

But lately, as mid-life health concerns have come to the fore, I’ve had the chance to sample, against my will, a variety of anaesthetic experiences, of which Propofol was only the most recent. Informed last year that my habit of grinding my teeth at night—inspired in part by current events, but also partly hereditary—had worn down my molars to resembles those of a 75-year-old covite, I undertook some $12,000 worth of dental work. Given that I’d be spending a series of 3-4 hour sessions getting molars ground down and replaced with shiny gold P-Diddy crowns, I sought out a dentist who offered something of a “spa” experience: Hot mittens and lotion for your hands, Sirius classical radio, goggles to block out the glare of the lights, and large, shiny tanks full of nitrous oxide.

Now nitrous is popularly known as “laughing gas,” but it never gave me the giggles. It did, however, lull me into a genial state of WTF, as the doctor poked my gums with great big needles, ground my poor old teeth to stumps, and lavered them with nasty-smelling chemicals. Besides quelling my anxieties and helping me sit still, the gas helped kill the boredom of lengthy dental sessions—mostly through hallucinations of varying sorts. The most benevolent was a conspiracy scenario whereby I was being held under gas by a scheming dentist who was using my mouth as a gateway through which to suck millions of dollars (somehow) out of my insurance company—who would, hence, hold me there forever. But the dreams got worse from there, culminating in what I call my Darkness at Noon scenario. I was not in a dentist office at all, but in one of Stalin’s prisons like Koestler’s Rubashov, undergoing hideous torture for information I did not have. I would rack my brain for the name of Old Bolsheviks whom I could turn in to save my skin—and which of us wouldn’t?—but never came up with any before I awoke to find that my hot mittens were now depressingly tepid. And Sirius was playing Benjamin Britten. Only two poppies for nitrous, I’m afraid.

I’ll offer a higher rating to Vicodin, which the dentist gave me to deal with the after-effects of all this social/dental engineering. When a dull pain would flare up in one of my stumps, warning that the nerve had been wounded, perhaps unto death, the pain was simply mind-bending—bad enough to make you want to slam your head through a wall, or smear it with raw meat in the hope that one of your beagles would mercifully chew it off. That’s the kind of pain it took to make me try Vicodin, which my sister, a nurse, cheerfully described as “highly effective, and more addictive than heroin.” So I used it gingerly, only when the dull ache turned sharp. Its effects are… interesting. First you get woozy and wooly. The pain doesn’t go away, but you cease to care about it, as if it were urban blight on the other side of the Interstate from your gated subdivision. As the drug really kicks in, it begins to have more pernicious sociopolitical effects. You start to entertain more benevolent thoughts about President Johnson’s Great Society. You wonder: Was John Lindsay really that bad a mayor? Maybe there’s something to “compassionate conservatism.” Wouldn’t America be better served by “faith-based initiatives?” Pretty soon, you’re ready to grant an amnesty.

Vicodin earns four poppies. Use only in dental emergencies.

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