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NyQuil Was My Gateway Drug

There's a reason they call it robo-tripping. I'm now eight years clean of the syrup.

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sniffling, sneezing and tripping Photo via

By Randi Newton

04/15/13

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A while back I dated a man named Danny. He lived in Long Island, but other than that he was a nice guy—a good boyfriend who had his own car. He seemed shocked that I rarely drank alcohol. Occasionally we would drink wine with dinner, but every night we would have some NyQuil—and we didn't have colds.

He told me early on that he could never get to sleep, so he'd just take NyQuil. "Is it safe?" I asked him. I never looked at the ingredients on the blue bottle, assuming that a shot of something from a Duane Reade shelf couldn't be that bad. Just a sip from the little plastic cup that came with the bottle, and I'd feel warm and fuzzy and off to dreamland in no time. Yes, I woke up feeling groggy and lethargic—the NyQuil hangover—but it was a small price to pay. I quickly figured out that the liquid was better than the gel caps—the drink hit your system much faster.

Time passed and Danny and I started to really commit to our cough syrup nightcaps. We got rid of the measuring cups as our tolerance levels surpassed the suggested daily limit. Soon we were splitting a bottle between us every night, switching from cherry to that mysterious green-flavored concoction which had a more sedating effect. It tasted so rancid I would pretend it was absinthe to make myself feel more glamorous.

My affair with NyQuil lasted far longer than any romantic relationship. By the time I realized the habit turned nasty, I had been guzzling the medicine for over two years.

Next, we graduated up to family-sized bottles, downing them in one fell swoop. Then Danny and I broke up, but my relationship with NyQuil only became stronger. My habit became expensive—I tried generic brands, but nothing could compare to the original.

I started seeing a new guy, and instead of a toothbrush I would leave a bottle of NyQuil at his place. One day he told me he thought I had a problem with it. Solemnly, I poured the bottle's contents into the toilet and he congratulated me on taking such a big step. Then I went out and bought another bottle and resolved to just drink it before going to his place.

My affair with NyQuil lasted far longer than any romantic relationship. By the time I realized the habit turned nasty, I had been guzzling the medicine for over two years. First my body started rejecting the liquid. Then I started breaking out in blotchy rashes all over my body. My left arm became numb. My heart rate would skyrocket the minute I took a gulp. I got used to feeling lightheaded and nauseous. I became scared to fall asleep. I pushed through these side effects for a few more nights before finally thinking to read the back of the bottle.

Looking at the label, I was surprised at what I saw: "Do not exceed four doses per 24 hours." And "See overdose warning." I immediately Googled all of the active ingredients in my beloved bottle.

Acetaminophen-650 mg—a pain reliever and fever reducer. Taken consistently over long periods of time could cause liver damage and internal bleeding.

Dextromethorpan HBr (DXM) 30mg—cough suppressant. In addition to what DXM is intended for, taken in higher doses it is a hallucinogenic with side effects similar to those of ketamine and PCP.

Doxylamine Succinate-12.5 mg—an antihistamine (the ingredient that makes you sleepy). Can also cause hallucinations, seizures, and cardio-respiratory arrest. It's the main sedating ingredient in just about any over the counter sleeping aid.

After reading this, I started to dwell on the thought of being found dead of a NyQuil overdose. I realized that switching over to straight up vodka would be a much better idea. Very quickly I began sliding down the slippery slope of a full-blown alcoholism. Giving up NyQuil was easy—a shot of vodka had more alcohol content and fewer calories than the cough syrup. Who could argue with that?

Later I learned that it's not unusual for people to use cough syrup recreationally, and that it can become an introduction to booze and drugs. One friend, now in recovery, told me that NyQuil was a staple at his desk so that he could stave off delirium tremens, keep a steady buzz and get a nice high from the DXM during the work day. I only found out it was called "robo-tripping" long after I'd stopped doing it.

Recently, I phoned up the call center at Procter and Gamble, the manufacturer of NyQuil, for some clarification. I learned that there are 13 "servings" of NyQuil in a bottle, at 93 calories a tablespoon. I was told that the product is supposed to be consumed "in moderation" and that the gel caps were suggested for customers with substance abuse issues.

The conversation didn't get uncomfortable until I asked about serving sizes and alcohol content, when the representative began to struggle with the pronunciation of the ingredients. I confirmed that NyQuil is about 10% alcohol, a higher content than most domestic beers. When I asked about the relatively high proof, I was told that the alcohol "dilutes the active ingredients. The alcohol free version is there for customers with addiction issues." Initially called "Less Drowsy NyQuil," the product's name was changed to "Alcohol Free Nyquil" in 2009, though the person was "not 100% sure" exactly when "Less Drowsy" was introduced to the market. I also found that in that version there is twice the amount of DXM. When I asked if I could speak to a chemist or scientist, I was told they didn't have anyone who fit that description there.

It’s been eight years since I kicked NyQuil. I've been sober from alcohol for four years. Recently I spoke to Danny and asked him how he was doing with his NyQuil, years later. He said he ended up switching to a combination of Ambien and beer, and proudly proclaimed a freedom from NyQuil. But, he told me, he does take it when he has a cold.

Randi Newton contributes to The Gloss and Jezebel, among other websites. Follow her at @WorldOfRandi on Twitter. She last wrote about Faux-caholism for The Fix.

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