Altitude Sickness
December 22, 2015

Of injuries and addictions

Of injuries and addictions

Dec. 11 was a day for reflection. It was a day where I left behind my usual psychotic musical diet of Beatles and metal, and cranked up Desmond Decker and the Aces, The Specials, English Beat, and even some Rancid and Timebomb Tim. It was a day where I remember who I am, and why I am who I am.

On the day, in 1993, I embarked on my fourth day of Telemark skiing. Back then it was telemark bindings (I can’t even remember the brand), and Alico short leather three pin telemark boots screwed to 205cm GS skis (I may have been on my Hart Mogul Extremes, but I think that was later when I resumed the sport).

I was a pretty good skier back then, I could turn mid-bump line 360’s on alpine skis, had a killer double daffy, and lived for moguls, waterfall tree skiing, and large air.

On this particular day in 1993 I was skiing at Smugglers Notch. Out for my fourth day, I was feeling pretty special. My first day was horrid, I was at Jay where the only trail open was Jet, a super steep expert trail, and I had no one to tell me which foot to put forward in a telemark turn, and my skis were dull. I came home with green swollen hips and elbows from constantly sliding off my skis and landing on them on the ice.

But this fourth day was a different story. I was riding bumps, and I had successfully pulled a daffy and a backscratcher mid-line on the bumps. I decided that it was time to try what we called back then a “helicopter.”  I found the mogul of appropriate size with a good approach and landing on Chute just uphill from Upper RumRunner.  I hit it, checked it out, and then next run I approached it to make my move.

I stood above the mogul/jump. (It wasn’t large, I favored low air with gradual landings for my 360’s back then), scoped it out, and hit it while a lesson group was watching me. Thank goodness I didn’t say “watch this!”

The mid-air turn was uneventful, and for all intents and purposes perfect, but suddenly I found myself on the ground having heard a horrible noise, and with a foot pointing the wrong direction.  It turns out that in performing my maneuver I had not planned on the tails of the skis hanging down (obviously this isn’t a problem with alpine skis), and when the tail of my left ski caught the ice it stayed, rocking my ankle over to the side, and holding my left foot stationary while I continued to spin. I yelled for someone in the lesson to go get ski patrol, and the folks who stayed with me kept telling me to relax, because apparently only my shoulder blades, my forearms, and my right heel were touching the ground.  I was fully arched.  Needless to say it was fairly painful.

After my ride down in the ski patrol sled, my roommates came to pick me up and bring me to the hospital in Burlington (no way I was paying for an ambulance). Every corner in the road, I could feel myself moving toward, or moving away from my foot. A truly disconcerting feeling.

After failed attempts to set the bone, I was taken to surgery, and bolted up (screws shot into bone sound just like screws shot into wood, by the way).

My surgeon, the head of orthopedics at UVM, told me “Don’t get physical therapy, it just puts money in other peoples pockets. Here’s your jug of Percodan.”

This is not an exaggeration, this actually happened, except the jug was a massive prescription. A prescription of fateful scope.

My recovery from the injury was at epic speed, I learned to drive a stick shift with one foot, and I very quickly became an opiate addict. I detoxed by accident, not knowing that I had developed a physical dependency. (I mean jeez, I had only been taking the maximum prescription, two pills every four hours, for months, what could go wrong?)

I woke up one day and thought, “I’d better get rid of these things before I become an addict” and poured my stash down the toilet.

Five hours later, my bowels (which had not released in months because of the opiates) let go, and did not stop letting go for a week. Seven hours after I poured a street fortune in Percodan down the crapper, my mouth started watering, and my head started pounding. It was like I had swallowed an entire meal of live snakes while someone was taking turns hitting my head and ankle with a hand sledge. Another hour later, sweating and itching like a man whose clothes are made of fiberglass, I started heaving up my guts, and didn’t stop for days.

I didn’t make the connection. I thought I had the flu. People would come in my room to check on me, and I would snarl at them like a caveman. Then someone said “Yeah, withdrawal is a bitch.”  That woke me up. I then tore my room apart, looking for a stray pill. I tossed my room like I was a cop looking for…well…looking for drugs.

Luckily it was late at night, and I didn’t find any, and I had to wait until the next day to get a prescription. As I was coming out of withdrawal, and I thought “maybe this stuff isn’t so good for me.”

Then, not realizing the irony of my actions, I then went to the liquor store, bought a gallon of whiskey, drank it while smoking joints, then went to a party and did so many mushrooms that every time I yawned I grew a new head out of my mouth and my old head dried up and became part of my shirt collar. This replacement therapy of whiskey for opiates was not only highly effective, but a harbinger of behavior to come.

I eventually went back to my active lifestyle, and though my ankle still doesn’t work right, it works right enough. While I did not get physical therapy, Taekwondo saved my ankle, and probably saved my life (many thanks, Grandmaster Barrett).  I was active enough that I had them take my hardware out after 6 months, an operation where I was over anesthetized on the table and had to be resuscitated. (Lidocaine push anyone? The scene where they resuscitate Ewan MacGregors character in “Trainspotting” is spot on.)

Due to my untruthfulness about my level of alcohol consumption and susceptibility to addictions. My conversation with my surgeon when like this: “OK now, just remember, don’t stick your foot in a hole and then turn it.”  “OK, thanks doctor.” “Oh, and don’t forget your prescription.”  “OK, thanks doctor.”

So I did another cycle of pain killers (its OK, the doctor told me to take them right?), did another less horrible withdrawal (but rather stunning considering how much less time I was taking them), and moved on.

I didn’t telemark much for a few years, but I did go back to skiing on my nice safe stable alpine boots — and I started drinking in true earnest. My previous excessive and show-off-y binge drinking was mere training for the next 10 years of my professional-level drinking career.  Now, 22 years later, I still get sweaty and itchy when I am around pain killers. No kidding.

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