On Nyquil Delirium
I met a lovely man in the parking lot of the public library. He told me that he was the husband of an Episcopalian priest called to our local church and that we had a friend in common. The man was handsome and very fine-grained: he was made of many densely packed pixels and looked the way that I imagine clerical characters in John Updike novels to be. If I am not mistaken, this gentleman wore a scarf wrapped around his precisely groomed throat.
For a moment, the priest’s husband and I talked about our common friend who had been quite ill recently and, indeed, hospitalized. I said that I had not seen my friend for a week because I had a bad cold and was fearful of infecting him with my sickness. The priest’s husband cleared his throat contemplatively and said that he had “contracted a cold” a couple weeks earlier and had also desisted from visiting our fragile friend. I very much admired this locution: “contracted a cold.” This fellow was very well-spoken and I liked the idea of being under contract to a virus. Like other kinds of agreements, being in covenant with a cold imposes certain expectations, obligations, a kind of quid pro pro. The consideration for my contract with this cold, I thought, was the night that I had spent bareheaded in the cold and wind, my face nudged by smoke, standing next to a bonfire on St. Patrick’s Day – I recognize that viruses aren’t implicit in cold and moist conditions, but, perhaps, the stress on my system, the ubiquitous ice and mud in the dank and chilly darkness, the unfamiliar whiskies and beers, the fear of encountering certain age-old enemies that I see only once a year on St. Patrick’s Day, in the tattered, wind-disheveled orchard next to the old farmhouse on the edge of town, perhaps, all these circumstances had reduced my resistence to the virus and brought on the cold. But, once established, a cold is like any other contract: it has a definite term or duration, eleven to 14 days in my experience, requires certain onerous tasks, and consists of generally well-defined miseries, minor enough mostly, but irritating – in short a kind of tedious employment in which the supervisor is the virus, and your labor, principally contending aches and clogged sinuses, is copiously remunerated in mucous and coughing and low-level respiratory distress.
During the peak days of this cold, each night, before going to bed, I filled up the little plastic measuring cup that the Nyquil wore like a dapper fedora, pouring out a dose of the viscous, purple-red fluid from the bottle. I drank this down and, then, swallowed a couple of tylenol and crept into my bed. For several nights, I followed this practice and, also, ate a couple of Nyquil gel-tabs in the wee hours of the morning when I typically awake to go to the bathroom. I stayed home from work for a day and a half and to aid recuperative sleep during the day, when ordinarily I am awake of course, I also took a few more of the gel-tabs, noticing that there is a significant delay in their effectiveness – about ninety minutes to two hours I reckoned.
On two occasions, this Nyquil regimen resulted in a curious delirium. Beginning as series of repetitive and disturbing dreams, this delirium persisted after I was conscious of being awake – the delirium cast a long and intense shadow over my mind, posing my stupefied imagination questionst that it could not answer, febrile thoughts asserting the dull throbbing conviction that there was a riddle to be guessed or a puzzle of some mystifying kind to be solved, but which resisted exact definition, let alone, solution. The delirium was intellectual, it suggested an argument of some kind with only one side of the dialogue audible. This mental haze was not easy to shake. Perhaps, I am still under its influence as I write these words, my humble contribution to the theory of delirium, hallucination, and phantasmagoria. I have not yet worked-out the identity of my shadow interlocutor, the person or entity with whom this argument was conducted. Perhaps, I will never succeed in this endeavor.
In the first instance of Nyquil-induced delirium, I emerged from stupor into an atrocity exhibit. I found myself in a small chamber that seemed to have no egress. The room had some number of corners but I was never able to count them and they seemed to arise at irregular intervals governed by the displays on the walls – I don’t know if the space was pentagonal or hexagonal or had some other more exotic, and many-sided geometry. The walls were covered with a filigree of small images, all labeled with lengthy paragraphs of prose that I couldn’t exactly read. The images were grey and very intricate; I had to strain my eyes to make sense of them and, at first, I couldn’t determine what the pictures represented – they were like murky black and white pictures, all monochrome and filled with many small figures. With a shudder of horror, I determined that the pictures showed horrendous mutilations inflicting on wincing or shrieking victims – the mutilations were deliberate, intentional, indeed, carefully premeditated, on the order of hideous medical experiments. This was a vast torture gallery, a thousand or more pictures demonstrating the most sadistic atrocities imaginable. Of course, I was fascinated and so I carefully inspected the grainy photographs, some of them showing things so awful that initially I had no idea what I was seeing, what end was up and what down, although, suddenly, I might glimpse an eye open in shock visible at the corner of an image or peering out of mass of festering sores. Wounds and burns have no directionality – there is no up and down in trauma. Amputations, by contrast, are directional, they have a distinct distal and proximal aspect. The various suppurating amputations portrayed in the exhibit provided a direction to read the display – I recall that I moved from left to right, the way that I am writing these lines, making a transit clockwise around the claustrophobic prison chamber, a place to which I was the only witness. The more that I observed these pictures, the more Gothic they became – that is, the more pointed and involuted; the images reminded me of ivory caskets made around the time of the Crusades, intricately carved minute scenes with a three-dimensional aspect, all of them showing horrific martyrdoms, unknown saints expiring in black pools of blood. As I circled the room, it seemed to me that the pictures proliferated – I came back again and again to images that I recognized but these were now wreathed in dense displays of other photographs that I hadn’t seen before. At chest level, the walls opened into glass cases in which there were tongs and pincers and thousands of scalpels, retractors, various kinds of surgical instruments. It seemed to me that if you brushed against the wall, the photographs and the displays of razor-edged rasps and awls and knives would cut you open.
When I opened my eyes, the display was still present. I couldn’t see it exactly against the curtains, the wall, the heaps of books, the pillows piled on the floor, the window clogged with the industrial-size air-conditioner looking out over the alleyway, and the birds in their little nest in the eaves, shuddering against the pre-dawn cold – the torture pictures and the surgical tools were not exactly in the room with me, but they were still present in an imaginary sense, and, indeed, all the more present in that I now was fully conscious of them and could think about what I had seen. Two things occurred to me. The first was a sense of the most abject shame: the source of all this endlessly proliferating filth was within me. I was the architect of this display and its sole proprietor: all of this imagery had originated within me and was the consequence of my depraved fantasies. The second thought was more analytical and it is the basis for this essay: in dreams and delirium, we are often afflicted by repetitive thoughts. Some idea or notion becomes embedded in the fabric of our imagination and we keep returning to that concept and worrying it again and again the way that a dog chews on bone. It’s my belief that dreams expand repetition into space. In a delirium, a repetitive thought presents itself as a place, a fixture in a display to which all paths keep leading us. In my Nyquil delirium, some kind of awful image of crucifixion, some sort of fantastically elaborate mutilation, occurred to me, became present in my imagination, and could not be displaced. Each time, my mind reverted to this image, the dream placed it in a slightly different location, configuring a dream geometry or dream-space as a kind of reliquiary for this obsessive thought – the repetitive nature of this horrific vision is expressed by the proliferation of the image in slight variants across an imaginary space. In my view, the delirium had only a few ciphers, only a half-dozen characters, so to speak, but this alphabet of horror was reiterated across the interior surface of the many-cornered chamber, comprising a kind of ghastly wallpaper to the space that I was traversing. But, of course, there was no real space. In dreams, repetition of thoughts discloses itself as a proliferation of the same or similar images across an imaginary landscape.
The next morning, just before dawn, this delirium reestablished itself. This time the hallucination was vividly erotic, although I was never a participant in the orgies that I witnessed, merely a somewhat passive observer. To reveal anything more about this delirium would be unseemly. However, I will note that the erotic encounters comprising this vision were also distributed across a distinctly familiar closed space, possibly with many corners. Once, again, it seems to me that repetition of certain obsessive thoughts generated an entire landscape, a vast pornographic portfolio repeating the same basic and atrocious couplings with slight variations across a kind of malodorous and gloomy imaginary seraglio.
As a child of the sixties and seventies, I am aware that the conscious mind is only a tiny fragment of the enormous structure of perception that each of us embodies. Experience with hallucinogens immediately shows us that there are unfathomable abysses that underlie the fragile veneer of reason – ordinary, pragmatic thought, the kind of sensibility that comprises our ego and that we identify as ourselves, is a laminar tissue only a few molecules wide, a film stretched between opposing universes of bright and dark in which there is no such thing as time or causation or, even, space, infinite realms in which all sorts of bright and terrible entities lurk but where we don’t really exist. Nonetheless everything is related. The immense caverns of the imagination here and there pierce our conscious ratiocination. The vast mountains submerged in the trenches of the ocean sometimes show outcroppings poised against the battering and glacially cold seas.
Here is a vision: there is an enormous library but almost all of it is hidden underground. The library is accessed through one or two openings in the huge, ornate reading room with the vast oak tables, the lamps in their emerald-colored visors, the coffered ceilings and the great high windows looking out onto the quadrangle. The doorways are unobtrusive and can’t be closed. You can always go into the stacks of this library if you so desire although no one does this and it takes you a year, maybe, two years studying in the reading room to even notice that there is a passage that leads back into the miles of metal shelving where hundreds of thousands of books are stored.
When you enter the stacks, there are shelves from floor to ceiling pushed closely together so that there is scarcely room to pass between the ranks of old, moldering books stored there. The shelves fill the entire shell of the building and at the corners of the huge space, you find metal stairways, built in spiral form so as not to occupy very much of the interior and these steps will take you down several levels, four or five, in fact, until you read another set of spiral stairs that is locked in a metal cage, the steps imprisoned as if they had committed some kind of serious crime merely by existing. But there is a central atrium, a gloomy shaft and you can look down and see many levels of library, all locked away from you, descending into a profound darkness. It is completely still among the books and the windows in the facade of the big library are opaque, cream-colored, admitting only a pallid, semen-colored light that doesn’t penetrate more that a few feet into the stacks. Each row of shelves has a motion-activated light switch – when you enter an aisle some florescent lights stutter into operation casting a white, clinical radiance onto the dusty metal deck where you are standing, the ancient books, the grey-metal shelving.
Then, one day, you make a discovery: if you are careful, you can perch on the metal fencing off the atrium well and, then, let yourself down into the levels locked away below. Basements and subbasements are layered under the stacks above where there is open access. Into these depths, no one goes: the books on the shelves are old and printed in foreign languages and there are long sections bricked-up with ancient periodicals bound in heavy leather. You are now below grade and the opaque vertical windows like gills on the side of the building are far above you. The metal terraces are bolted to bare concrete footings. The air seems progressively damper and more complex with mold and rot. At last, there is a bottom, a concrete prairie where ruined volumes are heaped up, either for reconstruction or incineration – who can tell?
Somewhere in these subterranean shelves, I encountered an old book published in German. The volume was printed in thorny Gothic, the letters afflicted with thorns and tumors that hurt my eyes when I read the words on the yellowing, slippery pages. “Die Geschlechtsitten der Naturvoelker”: “Sexual Customs of Primitive People” – scattered throughout the book were plates showing horrific forms of circumcision, infibulation, scarification, the feet of Chinese women bound and crushed into the simulacra of vulvas, little lotus-toes turned inward, the mangled genitals of eunuchs, forensic photographs of sex-murders, hand-colored pictures of different forms of venereal disease. The book was heavy as a brick and exuded an odor of decomposition. It was part of a series of books, all published in the same format – the row of funereal volumes extended across the shelf for a considerable distance.
For some reason, the forgotten books about sexual perversion, many of them with Latin paragraphs interspersed, were near the theology books. Most of this stuff was in German, printed during the “Hitlerzeit”. The books were old enough to be abandoned, but not so old as to be relics – they were merely disreputable, pedantic, and unnecessary.
Here is a Bible verse:
Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly, but everything that is exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore, it says:
Rise from the dead
and Christ will shine on you.
Ephesians 5: 11 - 15.