Remember When Cough Syrup Wasn’t a Controlled Substance?

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.

18 thoughts on “Remember When Cough Syrup Wasn’t a Controlled Substance?

  1. Even for someone in my twenties, I still remember a time before cough syrup was seen as anything more than pure torture for an already sore throat. Just recently I went to buy DayQuil and was asked at the cash register to show my license! Apparently there’s a limit on bottles you can purchase because it’s used to make Meth now. I felt really out of the loop and extremely “un-hip”, but if that means I don’t plan to make my own Meth as my side business, I’m fine with not knowing the current trends with over the counter meds these days.

    1. Well that makes two of us that feel out of the loop. And somewhere out there is a teenager with a sore throat who cannot buy medicine because of the age restriction. But they don’t card at the meth store. So he buys some meth and takes it home and extracts the cough medicine, which still has a horrible taste.

  2. Heck. I remember when cough syrup came in a Jack Daniels bottle. We even gave the stuff to our cattle, though I never saw my parents drink it. After that, it came packaged in the form of NyQuil.

    I like the sound of your dad’s method. Wish I’d tried that on my kids when it came Robitussin time. Instead, I tried my mom’s technique. She would mix it with sugar. Just like Mary Poppins. In fact, I’m suspecting that’s where she got the idea. Anyway, in our house, we still call it “Ick” after the sound my daughter used to make when I would give it to her.

    Personally, I think regulations have gone too far when education is the real answer. How about a big “Don’t Kill Your Kids” on the label. I don’t envy you new parents.

  3. A spoonful of Jack Daniels makes the medicine go down. Mary Poppins would have been a very different character if that had been her line. Thank you for the comment – I like your suggestion for a new warning label.

  4. I remember when I was in middle school, guys would do this thing where you make yourself hyperventilate then have someone basically punch you in the chest. It would make you pass out and give you a major rush, rumored to be a “high-like” feeling. Not smart.

    I must have grown up around some hard core kids, ’cause cough syrup was already being used inappropriately back then. Sigh.

    1. You should of yourself more like a pioneer, a brave sojourner at the dawn of a new era in teenage drug abuse. The hyperventilation/punch to the stomach technique probably cost a lot less than leading competitors, too.

  5. I think I equaled your hatred for cough syrup. That word syrup was all part of the lie you know. They’d give us maple syrup for pancakes and chocolate syrup for ice cream all in an attempt to persuade us that cough syrup would be delectable. But we knew. They thought I was kidding about how sick it made me. I think I learned to be assertive because of cough medicine.

  6. We had Dimeatapp but only IF we were congested without a cough. Otherwise it was Robitussin. I use to turn blue in the face trying not to cough just so I could have te Dimeatapp and not the Robit-ass-in.

    Hah I just made that up. Clever, right! You know, because Robitussin tastes like…nevermind, you get it.

    1. Very clever, Jess, very clever. But that’s what they really should call it.

      Funny you mention Dimetapp – I think I tried that once towards the end of my childhood, and found that I didn’t mind the taste. I thought it was a miracle.

  7. Too funny! I was about to mention the Dennis Leary bit about NyQuil. “Capital N, small Y, BIG F***G Q!!”

    I loved the cough syrup we got from the doctor when I was a kid. It had codeine in it. Knocked me right out, and not in a freaky “Am I actually dying?” sort of way. It was a nice cozy coma.

    I ran across the Robitussin drug subculture a few years ago when I got sick enough to consider medication (yes, I know it sounds like I’m a druggie, but I actually resist it as much as possible.) I used half a dose of Robitussin and Zycam, the homeopathic zinc stuff that was supposed to help colds go away faster (it doesn’t.) In the middle of the night, I woke up feeling really itchy under my skin but there was no rash or anything. The next day I looked up if there were any drug interactions and I found a blog post from some guy who complained that the “Robo-itch” was worse than usual the last time he got high. He thinks it was because he took too much Zycam with the syrup. Great. Just great. HALF a dose! No more Robo-tich for me. A little medicinal bourbon will do nicely, thank you!

  8. Mullein is also excellent for producing Cough Syrup, specifically for dry coughs. It possesses a soothing demulcent for the respiratory system. ‘Demulcent’ means a herb wealthy in mucilage that is soothing and in this situation is also delightful!.When you feel the leaves of Mullein they really feel wonderfully soft and silky which is a certain sign that the leaves have mucilage. Mucilage, although it sounds disgusting, is excellent stuff as it coats and protects mucous membranes lining the gut and respiratory system.”

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