In my home there is a bottle of cough syrup from a leading brand. On one side of the box there is a warning: “PARENTS: Learn more about teen medicine abuse” with a website that teens can visit just in case they don’t know what they are missing.
When I was a kid my parents had to practically hypnotize me in order to get me to take cough syrup. To this day, the phrase “down the hatch” makes my stomach churn and heart beat faster. I could not stand the taste of cough syrup. It was like the folks at Tylenol or Robitussin went out of their way to make the taste as bad as possible. Living with a cough was a far, far better alternative than drinking that vile potion.
My father’s technique was to pour the medicine in a spoon without me knowing, and then approach me from the side, and say, “Open up Mark!” and the spoon would be in my mouth before I knew what was happening. It was a like a sucker punch, but with cough syrup. The stuff was still gross but I have to admit the technique worked a lot better than my mother’s, which was to try to persuade me about how much better I was going to feel after taking the medicine.
Never in a million years would I have thought that kids would one day be spending their allowances on cough syrup when they didn’t even have a cough. I lived through Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. I co-wrote and starred in an anti-drug video in the fifth grade that was filmed in the high school’s A/V room, for which I was awarded a Golden Globe and a bright green t-shirt with the famous slogan on the front. So I know all about drugs. At least, I thought I did.
How did they discover that drinking cough syrup got you high? Someone must have had one wicked cough. I can just see it now – a boy lays in bed, and coughs.
“Wow, honey,” his mother says from the next room, “it sounds like your cough is much better. None of that deep chunky coughing you had going on earlier. A shallow cough, almost as if you were coughing on purpose. Can you imag—”
“Hey lady, just get me more cough syrup quick! Gyah! Uh-huh uh-huh!”
But even if it got you high, the taste is still there. That horrible, horrible taste. I suppose you could mix it in with something sweet, like orange soda. Which was exactly what I did with some friends in college.
Yes, at some point a cappella groups and ultimate frisbee ran out of entertainment value, and we needed to intensify our liberal arts education. Someone had heard that if you drank a whole bottle of Robitussin, you would hallucinate. And somehow the promise of hallucinations motivated me as an adult in a way that the promise of no more coughing had failed to do as a child.
We bought our bottles at the local store, with cash, and retreated to the fraternity house, where there was an unlimited quantity of orange soda and an unlimited tolerance for stupidity. We each took four plastic cups of orange soda, and divided the bottle among those four cups, so that each cup was five parts orange soda and one part disgusting Robitussin cough syrup.
Still I was afraid to try it. I had caught a whiff of the syrup when making my concoction and my stomach put up its “no vacancy” sign, the product of years of conditioning. So one of my friends employed the basest kind of peer pressure there is: he picked up one of my cups, approached me from the side, said “Hey Mark open up!” and poured it down my throat before I knew what was happening.
For a second I thought I was going to make it. But the stomach wasn’t fooled by the orange soda, and I was running for the bathroom like it was a pre-requisite for my major. The throes of nausea came in waves, and the only hallucinating I did that night was in thinking that I was seeing the toilet for the last time before sunrise. From that moment on I swore off cough syrup for good; not for medicinal purposes, and not for recreational purposes. I have been clean ever since.
But apparently there are teenagers who have a greater tolerance for the flavor of cough syrup. I guess they want to hallucinate so badly that they can will their taste buds and stomachs to cooperate. No wonder it’s a national epidemic. With something as readily available and reasonably inexpensive as cough syrup, it’s easy to see how teenagers would be hallucinating a lot more.
On the other hand, I’m sure they cough a lot less.