So You Can Get Hooked on Cold Medicine
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So You Can Get Hooked on Cold Medicine


cold medicine addictive(This post was originally published in June 2014.)

Next week, I’ll hit my five-year anniversary of when I entered outpatient and gave up alcohol.

I think it’s normal for people to feel a myriad of emotions around their anniversary. I get nervous that I might relapse by accident, I become excited about what I’ve accomplished during my five years and I also have the terrifying feeling of “Oh my God!  This sober stuff is hard work.” I also reflect back on hitting my bottom and remember the feeling of it more prominently than at other times of the year. It’s like I’m looking back on someone who was a completely different and miserable person and I’m still in shock that I managed to turn things around.

Over the past year, I experienced a lot of success in my personal and professional life and with that came “good stress.” Then came some sad events—the death of a family member, getting dumped by a close friend, the loss of a longtime pet and a bunch of really (not so) awesome letters from the IRS. I’m still getting used to the odd normalcy of living sober. Every day, I’m aware of my surroundings and keep myself in check. It’s not always easy.

I Came Down with WalFlu-enza

I first took WalFlu, the generic version of the acetaminophen-fueled TheraFlu, when I was sick with a cold. It seemed like the best solution since it’s alcohol free. The first few times, I was impressed with how it eased my symptoms and knocked me out into dreamland. When my cold ended, I stopped taking it. Then I got another cold, and took some more. Then I took a long flight and thought I might get sick from germs on the plane and I was a little nervous about flying, so once again, WalFlu. Then I couldn’t sleep: WalFlu. Then I had a stressful day and wanted to take a nap. I’m sure you see where this is heading. I started taking WalFlu all the time, even when I wasn’t sick. I rationalized that although it maybe wasn’t a good idea that I was consuming so much acetaminophen, surely this was somehow better than the alcohol I used to guzzle. I wasn’t even getting a high from this over-the-counter drug because I had started taking it so frequently that I needed at least one box filled with six powder packets to put me to sleep at night.

Then one day while I was traveling, I ran out and didn’t think much about it. I was a little anxious, but figured I could surely survive one night without it. I had a hard time sleeping, but assumed I’d pick up a box the next day. Little had I realized how dependent my body had become on this seemingly harmless drug.

Then Things Got Weird

While having lunch in Griffith Park in LA, I became violently ill and had to lie down in the middle of a family picnic area. I was surrounded by questioning toddlers and scared parents and looked insane lying on a bail of hay in front of all of these people. But I didn’t care; I felt like crap and since I don’t live in LA, the likelihood of seeing those people ever again was slim. My confused sister and some friends eventually carried me back to the car and got me home. What was wrong with me? I hadn’t been eating very much. Maybe it was low blood sugar? When my sister asked me what I needed, I asked for my favorite cold medicine. I promptly resumed my regimen, not realizing that it wasn’t low blood sugar I was reacting to but the lack of acetaminophen. A few months later, back in New York, I found this out the hard way when my husband caught me drinking three packets at a time. I knew what I was doing wasn’t a good idea and swore to him and myself I would stop; I also denied that I had a problem, even though I knew sneaking this stuff was not okay.

The first day without my go-to cold medicine started off okay. I felt amazing when I woke up. I proceeded to drink a six shot latte and went to the gym on an empty stomach. Then I almost passed out on the subway, thankfully getting home in time to recognize the same symptoms I had when I was in Los Angeles.

For the next three days, my body detoxed, I threw up more often than not and I slept more soundly than I realized I could. I had lost so much weight during this time that my co-workers questioned my health and complimented my slender appearance at the same time. I couldn’t—and really didn’t want to—explain that O was sick from not taking what I now admit and realize was a pretty crazy high dosage of acetaminophen. I was embarrassed. I still am.

The Sneakiness of Addiction

I had essentially replaced alcohol with stupid nighttime cold medicine, convincing myself that anything was safe as long as it wasn’t a benzodepaphine, a narcotic or Ambien—a drug which I’ve heard horror stories about and that has always terrified me.

It turns out that what I experienced isn’t uncommon. In looking for advice, though, I found very few people who shared their stories about acetaminophen issues. There are some scattered out there but not many.

As my sobriety date approaches, I’ve been given several opinions about whether or not I’m “truly” sober since I had this acetaminophen issue. Someone even suggested that I shouldn’t bother to celebrate five years. Wha? Did this mean I had to start over my day count? Should I just throw it all away and head to the liquor store? No. I didn’t want to. What I’ve done while sober and the way I feel about myself and others has made me more determined than ever to stay on the path I’ve been on. And I know I could have decided to lean on something a lot worse.

So, despite what the critics will say, I will celebrate, learn from my mistakes and move ahead.

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About Author

Randi Newton lives between New York City and Martha's Vineyard. She is a regular contributor to The New York Observer. Her work has also appeared in Newsweek, LA Weekly, The Gloss and The Fix.