Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

January 21st, 2008:

Artificial Stupidity

Unambiguously better now. I'm no longer taking narcotic painkillers, and mirabile dictu! I can think again. The big battle now is not against pain so much as the swelling, and anti-inflammatories don't disrupt your higher brain functions. (They can mess bigtime with your stomach lining if you're not careful, though.) My mouth is still a little uncomfortable, especially after I eat something—even innocuous stuff like oatmeal and cottage cheese, which is most of what I've been eating for seven days now—but it's not like it was even two days ago. I've lost five pounds in seven days while getting no exercise at all. Try the Gingivectomy Diet—no, scratch that. Not worth it.

The swelling can and does cause some nagging discomfort, and while I'm not quite my usual ebullient self, I'm in the ballpark again. My experience this past week reminded me of the mystery that has tied our nation up in knots from time to time: Why “drugs” are an issue at all. We as a society spend an immense amount of money chasing people who make an immense amount of money selling chemicals for an immense amount of money to people who seem to think ingesting them is worth an immense amount of money—not to mention the risk of jail time . I've never been able to figure the payoff, however, and I'm gradually coming around to the realization that the mystery is really about me:

I don't get high. I've never gotten high. In truth, I'm not even sure what “high” means.

I smoked marijuana a couple of times in 1973, in part because everybody I knew was doing it, and in part because I was interested in whether drugs could enhance creativity. The answer to that was a resounding no; pot made me depressed and paranoid for days afterward. By that time I had already given up alcohol because there was no payoff apart from confusion and a tendency to talk too much—and when I drank more while looking for that elusive payoff I just threw up and felt wretched for the next several days. (It was ten years before I went back to good wine in small quantities.)

Here and there in the subsequent 35 years I've been given narcotics for pain. I vividly remember my first hernia surgery in 1978: I had eagerly packed a small bag of electronics theory books to study during what I was told would be four days of enforced bed rest. (They did not tell me who or what would enforce the bed rest, heh.) The memory of picking up an RF design text ten minutes after a shot of morphine is peculiar: Damn, I used to know what this stuff meant! After a few minutes of futile riffling, I grabbed the TV remote and happily watched “Green Acres” reruns until I fell asleep. A few years later I had my wisdom teeth pulled, and under the influence of some damned pill or another I felt stupid and took peculiar delight in watching “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

And that's been my pattern ever since, when medical issues arise and I get handed drugs: Instead of euphoria, I get artificial stupidity, memory lapses, and depression. The memory lapses I don't mind much; who wants vivid recall of a root canal or colonoscopy? (My last root canal I remember well because they tried to sedate me with nitrous oxide, and it didn't work. At all. Nada. I had to content myself with watching Raiders of the Lost Ark on a TV embedded in the ceiling while praying that the whole thing would be over soon.) But I dislike the feeling of my intelligence falling away from me as the drug takes hold; to me it's a metaphor of losing my soul and thus all that matters to me. (I drew on this feeling in describing the motivation of the Guardian in my 1980 story of the same name.)

I'm a naturally upbeat person, and perhaps that's the key: I may be immune to euphoria because I'm already there. A woman I knew in college said something once that startled me at the time: “The trouble with you, Jeff, is that you're too damned happy!” Looking back, however, she just may have been right. Having a naturally euphoric state could be like living at the South Pole: No matter which way you go from there it's toward gummy-headed depression.

It may be impossible for me to understand why people risk their lives for narcotics, just as it may be impossible to understand how people can enjoy nasty bitter wine like Chardonnay. Life's experience is not the same for all people. I taste bitter things with outrageous intensity, and for the most part I live my life in a state of nonmanic happiness. My brief spates of depression following the loss of Coriolis and several close relatives makes me wonder what life is like for people who are unhappy basically all the time. Perhaps Huxley's soma—or something similar but gentler—really is necessary for some people. (Perhaps we already have it, in the mind-changing antidepressants. See Listening to Prozac.) Mood seems to be inherited, not earned, and if it's inherited, do people have a right to tweak it? (See Stephen Braun's The Science of Happiness.) I don't claim to have the answers, but there's no better time to be haunted by unanswerable questions than when you're sitting still in a comfy chair, dosed to the eyebrows with something that doesn't permit your brain to do anything more than chase its own shadows.