The Over-The-Counter-High: A Story of OTC Medicine Abuse

Melanie Sawyer began abusing over-the-counter medicine at the age of 14. After suffering through the debilitating effects of OTC medicine addiction, she finally found redemption through rehabilitation. Now 22 years old, Melanie seeks to share her story in hopes that others can learn the devastating impact easily accessible, inconspicuous over-the-counter medicine can have on a young life.

The Over-The Counter-High: A Story of OTC Medicine Abuse

By Wafa Unus, AAPCC Media Fellow

“I didn’t realize that I was abusing it. I just liked the taste,” said Melanie Sawyer, a 22 year old Maryland resident whose over-the-counter medicine abuse led her through homelessness, prison and a mental institution.

Sawyer began abusing over-the-counter cough syrup around the age of 14. It went from taking a little bit extra to intentionally misusing it to get high.

Sawyer was an ordinary middle school kid. She took part in after-school clubs and activities and had a comfortable family life. Aside from struggling with a learning disability, Sawyer said her childhood wasn’t much different from her peers until she fell into the wrong crowd who offered her the life-altering information. “You can get high off of cough syrup,” they told her. She already liked the way it tasted and she knew exactly where she could find it, in her cabinet at home. For Sawyer, it was an easy good time that took the edge off of the turbulence of teen years.

OTC medicine abuse is a growing national concern.  Nearly 5 percent of teens admit to abusing cough medicine to get high, according to a 2012 National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) survey.

“I would be in class, really high, feeling really good but not really knowing that I was doing something that was addictive and that it was going to cause problems down the road,” said Sawyer.

That road would prove to be littered with lies, deceit and personal tragedy. From middle school onward, Sawyer’s OTC drug abuse grew more serious as she switched from cough syrup to cough and cold tablets containing Dextromethorphan (DXM), a drug that chemically affects the part of the brain that controls coughing.

When abused, DXM causes effects akin to those of LSD or PCP, resulting in a high that includes hallucinations, hyper-excitability, lethargy, slurred speech and a rise in blood pressure.

During her freshman year in high school, Sawyer began to experiment with alcohol. It was only then that her behavior caught the attention of her parents, who began imposing the typical teenage restrictions: loss of privileges and groundings. As her behavior continued to spiral downward due to her continued use of over-the-counter medication, her parents turned to regular drug testing.

For Sawyer, who was now regularly stealing the tablets from local stores, drug tests were not a problem. DXM is not detected in most home drug tests and in any case, she often rigged the tests by obtaining urine samples from friends who were clean.

In retrospect she can’t understand her behavior. Her parents were trying the best they could, she said. She admitted her family wasn’t perfect and she felt an emotional void, but she knew they were struggling in their own way as well.

“They didn’t know how to handle some situations, and I don’t blame them,” said Sawyer.

OTC abuse raises a unique challenge for parents worried about their teen’s habits. Looking out for alcohol bottles and cigarette packets often distracts from seeing the inconspicuous pack of cough and cold medication.

“I was pretty much unaware [my addiction] was escalating. It was fun for the moment. Then, down the road something happened to me,” said Sawyer, a slight quiver in her voice.

Sawyer was sexually abused at the age of 16 and carried the secret with her for years before she felt she could share it with her parents. Her motivation for OTC drug abuse changed. No longer was she searching for a feeling of child-like euphoria. Sawyer began searching for a way to mask all feeling.

“It went from fun to just covering up my feelings, filling a void,” she said.

Filling that void meant sometimes taking about 30 cough and cold tablets over the course of a couple of days.

As her addiction escalated, Sawyer’s relationship with her family deteriorated. She was no longer living with her parents by the age of 18 and she found herself in between friends’ houses and stints in rehab. Meanwhile, she attended some college and worked. Finally, in 2010, Sawyer moved in with her sister who believed at the time that she had kicked her habit.

It was the day of her sister’s wedding that the effects of the cough and cold tablets took a nearly deadly turn. Sawyer fell into a coma and ended up missing the nuptials.

When she was discharged from the hospital, her sister refused to let her return to her home. Instead Sawyer found shelter with a friend. She continued to use and went from house to house, searching for the next friend who might lend her a couch to sleep on for a month or two.

After about four months, Sawyer’s mother, under the impression that Sawyer was no longer abusing OTC drugs, welcomed her daughter back into her home. Sawyer, still using but hiding it well, was eventually welcomed back into her sister’s home too.

Her charade only lasted a month or so and it wasn’t long before she found herself on the street again. Having exhausted the generosity of her friends and family Sawyer spent the week before her birthday homeless. Alone and disillusioned by the reality that she would spend her birthday homeless, Sawyer turned to hard liquor for comfort. The effects of the alcohol mixed with her OTC high. The events of the night are still a blur.

Sawyer recounted the pieces of that night. The rest, she said, was what the police had told her had happened.

She entered a house, assaulted a man in the home, destroyed over $1,000 worth of property and kicked the arresting police officers.

“I just wanted to go home. I wanted to go somewhere. I don’t remember that night. I just remember opening the door. I didn’t know what I was doing. I’ve never done anything like that in my life before,” she said.

Sawyer was incarcerated and spent the next 11 months in jail. That was when the withdrawal symptoms kicked in.

“I was hallucinating and hearing voices…I was out of my mind. I didn’t know what was happening,” she said. “At one point, I went under my bed and I felt like I had died there.”

Haunted by the images and voices of family members and loved ones, Sawyer felt trapped, forced to relive her past mistakes.

“I couldn’t get away from anything that I did. I was just going through my whole life story and having to hear it,” she said.

Still, Sawyer found comfort in the safety of her cell. The world that had consumed her was locked out and she was finally safe.

“I just knew from that moment that I was okay because I was away from everything negative.”

After 11 months in prison, Sawyer was moved to a mental hospital where she spent four months. Following that treatment she was admitted to a residential rehabilitation program in Maryland.

Currently in the program, Sawyer is no longer addicted to cough and cold tablets. She attends regular, mandatory substance abuse and mental health meetings, three times a week. In addition she works with a sponsor and attends consistent therapy sessions.

Sawyer admits that the desire to feel the high isn’t completely gone; it’s locked away so that she may remain free.

“I am always going to have [that] thought, to want to use, but as long as I don’t go forth with that thought, I’ll be okay,” said Sawyer. “The lucky ones break away…”

Sawyer is confident she’s a lucky one.

Many people are unaware of the dangers of over-the-counter medicine. If you or someone you know is struggling with OTC abuse, contact your local poison center.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers supports the nation’s 57 poison centers in their efforts to prevent and treat poison exposures. Poison centers offer free, private, confidential medical advice 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We take calls in more than 150 languages and from the hearing impaired. For questions about poison or if you think someone has been exposed to a poison, call 1-800-222-1222 to reach your local poison center. 

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