The Stiff-Bristled Brush

So many memories that come into my head are vague. It takes concentration to bring them into sharper definition, and sometimes I don’t want to. A memory is most vivid when it includes several of the senses, and the senses beyond sight and sound are usually the ones that come when I concentrate.

Recently, I did a poetry exercise with the prompt “Skin.” What came out catapulted me into recalling a time when my skin was trying very hard to save my life.

When you think about the stereotypical picture of a drug addict, bad skin might be part of it. Some common drugs like meth produce a tendency to pick at skin, and injectable drugs can lead to abscesses. I didn’t have these particular skin issues: what I had was intense itching, which can be a side effect of opiates.

The stiff-bristled hairbrush was a part of my life more than four years ago, during the peak months of my using before my last trip to rehab. I had no idea, then, just how sick I was. The amount of pills I was taking must have had my metabolism struggling to maintain itself. My periods had gotten irregular, and my hair was beginning to come out. I had injuries from falling down while trying to get from my bed to the bathroom. I routinely threw up from drug-induced nausea, only to take more of the same drug.

Opiates and opioids depress the body’s reflexes, including the one that says the default action is to keep breathing. A respiratory arrest from overdose is the most common way for an addict to die.

It is said that the itching that often occurs with these drugs is an attempt by the body to arouse itself from the “everything is fine, no need to spend energy on this pesky breathing thing” state. I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know for sure whether this is true, but it makes sense to me.

What I know is sometimes that hairbrush was the only thing that got me moving. It was what I used to scrub my skin everywhere I could reach, leaving red and white lines and patches all over myself. Its bristles were black, and so hard they seemed more suitable for a horse than a human.

Yes, I thought about that brush the other day. I closed my eyes and let myself sink into the memory–the dusty nightstand it rested on; the bed beside it in the dim bedroom. Drawn drapes, always drawn. A huge heap of old paperback books (read while waiting for the latest dose to kick in) scattered on the floor beside the bed. Against the nearby wall, a larger pile of unwashed laundry. The dirty bathroom with its seldom-used shower and the bottles of pills hidden in the drawers.

There are obvious reasons it’s useful to remember this time in my life. When I’m overwhelmed with the desire to retreat or escape, I need to remember the price and the parts of the scenario that involve giving up huge chunks of my humanity, not to mention the parts about being on the edge of resigning from the breather’s club. It’s good to make a point, as I sit here writing this, of looking my sometimes-neglected but no longer actively abused skin.

But it’s not only that. I also want to keep the recall clear simply because it was an experience I had. I was there, and it happened; I don’t want it to be a diffuse blur or treat it as just a gap in my life’s resume.

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