The Catalyst: An Accidental Overdose

The Catalyst: An Accidental Overdose

A Story by Erica Daubert

When I was just a little girl, maybe about eight years old, my grams told me a story. A story that haunted me my entire life. It was about a man named Glenn. My grandmother was a volunteer hospice worker and Glenn was a patient. She told me he died of liver failure because he had a drinking problem. She explained to me that when your liver fails, everything else begins to fail as well. That first, his skin turned yellow and his entire body began to swell. When his circulation gave out, his fingers and toes exploded. She told me it was a terrible death, to be wished upon no one.

Fifteen years later, that story was all that bounced around my mind as I sat anxiously by myself in the ER of Penn Hospital waiting for test results to find out whether or not I would die of liver failure within 48 hours. As I sat in fear, praying that my fiancé would walk through the curtain any second, I had no idea that this day would be, hands down, the most significant day of my young life. Today would change everything, forever.

April, 2013

I felt the pain come on slow. All the nerves in my temples started throbbing. The muscles in my right shoulder tensed up. Not again... I thought in despair. It was a headache from a molar cavity with an exposed nerve.

For years, I'd had problems with my teeth. By the time I was 20 years old, my six front teeth were almost completely chipped away, which took a huge toll on my self esteem. Like most kids in their early twenties, I didn't have thousands of dollars laying around to get dental implants. (It wasn't until 2012 that I was able to get my implants, with the help of a good friend who co-signed for the Care Credit account that made it possible.)

Toothaches are tricky things. Sometimes you can beat one if you can just brush your teeth fast enough and take some deep breaths. Maybe gargle some salt water. My first instinct was Ibuprofen... but a few hours went by and the pain only got worse so I decided to sleep it off. I woke up the next morning, in more pain than the day before. My bedroom's usual bright and sunny disposition felt cruel and torturous. I closed the curtains and tried to sleep some more but to no avail. The pain was just too intense. The only thing left to do was cry.

Three days went by and still no relief. The sounds of television and music became unbearable. The curtains were still closed. I'd barely eaten at all, the pain in my tooth made it almost impossible. In silent pain for four days.. No food, no light, no sleep. I started to feel like I was losing my mind. I couldn't take it anymore.

In general, I've always been pretty anti-medication... but I'd reached my limit. I asked my fiancé to go to Rite Aid and get me the strongest over-the-counter pain medication they had. He returned with a bottle of Tylenol Extra Strength. I eagerly grabbed the bottle from him before he even had it out of the bag. I took four of them without hesitation.

For the first time in four days, I felt relief. I felt the tension in my shoulder start to ease up and the throbbing in my temple beginning to fade. I finally felt like I could sleep. I laid down, feeling truly at peace, in hopes that it would last.

But it didn't. I woke up in more pain than before. I stumbled into the bathroom and took four more Tylenol, then stumbled back into bed. The pain let up once more and I began to doze off. Until the pain came back, again. So, again, I stumbled into the bathroom and took four more Tylenol and, again, stumbled back into bed. This cycle continued four or five more times before I finally woke up with no pain, to a bright and sunny world that I was happy to see.

I didn't want to waste any time. After four days of being bedridden, I wanted to jump right into art mode. I decided to get to work on a dresser that I'd been doing a mirror mosaic on. With a sudden burst of creative adrenaline, I spent my day liquid-nailing broken bits of mirror, charms and beads into intricate patterns and mandalas.

At lunchtime, my fiancé called me on his break, happy to hear that I was feeling better. I told him about how I kept waking up the night before, but the Tylenol really did the trick. I expected him to sound happy, but instead there was a short awkward silence.

"...You were taking Tylenol every time you went to the bathroom last night?"

"Yeah, why?"

"...You were waking up every fifteen minutes."

Now, you have to understand that extreme sleep deprivation and extreme pain in combination with no light, sound or food for four days can slightly alter your perception of time... among other things. I naturally assumed that the relief from those little pills were lasting 4-6 hours, and I was just catching up on all the sleep I'd been missing out on. I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in high school, so sleeping for unusually long periods of time wasn't that uncommon for me.

I read the caution label on the bottle, it said if you took more than the recommended dosage, that you should go to the hospital - even if you weren't showing symptoms.

But I wasn't showing symptoms. And I felt fine. Better than fine, in fact. I insisted that I was alright, and that there was no reason to worry. As anti-medication as I am, I'm even more anti-hospital. I was in the throws of creating something beautiful and I wasn't about to walk away from that after four days of misery. Inspiration is fleeting, if you don't harness it at the right moment, you could lose it. The dresser was my only focus. I didn't want to spend my day in the hospital over what was probably nothing.

The next day I woke up feeling like I'd been hit by a train. This feeling is also not uncommon for me. I push myself far beyond realistic standards on a day to day basis. I'm one of those people who never sit down, who always have to be doing something - even when I feel like I've been hit by a train. I went right back to the dresser and continued where I left off the day before. Over the course of an hour or so, I began to feel like I was getting increasingly more dizzy. I wasn't sure though. On top of having CFS, I am also hypoglycemic... dizziness can be caused by either of these conditions. Not to mention, I'd been staring at fragmented pieces of mirror that were catching glares of sun light. All of these things could cause dizziness. So I ignored it, grabbed a bagel and kept going.

Until about noon, when I suddenly started vomiting. Out of nowhere. Okay... this is not my CFS or hypoglycemia. I googled "Tylenol Overdose." It said that you would feel fine during the first 24 hours, but would start feeling nauseous around 48 hours. It'd been about 48 hours. I closed the tab and sent my fiancé a text message that I was going to the hospital. I told him I would message him from the Emergency Room and keep him updated. I told him I loved him and not to worry.

I walked the ten blocks from our house in the Italian Market to Penn Hospital on 8th and Spruce. I walked up to the desk, and with slight skepticism in my voice, told the attendant that I thought I was overdosing on Tylenol. I explained in a nutshell what had happened and she told me to take a seat and fill out the paperwork. I sat down, and before I could finish filling out my name on paper, I heard it being called by a nurse. I'd heard Penn was a great hospital but I hadn't expected to be seen that quickly. But before I knew it, I was having my vitals taken by one nurse, while another with a clipboard asked me questions for a psychological evaluation. It hadn't occurred to me that they would think I had overdosed on purpose. I told the nurse repeatedly that it was an accident. I tried to tell her what happened. But each question she asked seemed to get harder to answer. I couldn't think straight. I was blanking on words that should've been simple to find. They finally escorted me to a room in the ER where a doctor was waiting to take blood.

The doctor explained to me that there was an anecdote for Tylenol overdoses, but it's usually only effective if administered within the first 24 hours, and the earlier the better. She also said it'd be more effective if they knew the actual dosage of how many Tylenol I took, but I didn't know. It was all blur. She said, however, that they would still give me the anecdote, because a small chance was better than no chance. I asked her if I was going to be okay. As she turned to leave the room, she looked back at me and said,

"We won't know until we get your blood work back. Some people in your case have needed liver transplants."

That was when it dawned on me. The reason they called me back here immediately... is because this is serious. I couldn't believe it. This couldn't be real. My hands trembling, I quickly grabbed my phone and started text messaging my fiancé. I told him what they told me, and that I needed him. He told me he would be there as soon as he could be, which would take over an hour and a half by bus.

A few minutes later, another doctor came in to ask some questions. I wasn't sure at first because I wasn't 'all there' upstairs, but I started to feel like I'd already been asked all of these questions by the nurse. So I asked him. He explained to me that anytime someone comes in as an overdose patient that they need to undergo a psychological evaluation by a board of doctors. There are six doctors on the board, they all evaluate the patient individually then have a meeting to decide the best course of action. He told me to expect five more doctors in to see me, because, apparently, the nurses questions didn't count.

My fiancé arrived and flew into the room asking me questions about what they said, but other than the mention of a possible liver transplant, they hadn't really said anything. I was trying not to let my anxiety get the worst of me. I knew this couldn't be the end of my story. I was only 23. I was going to walk out of this hospital. You could call it denial, but it wasn't. Somehow, I just knew. But that didn't mean I wasn't terrified.

After a few hours, the first doctor came back with my blood work. She told me that the average liver enzyme count should be somewhere in the 40's. Mine was in the 700's. I was being transferred to the ICU immediately. I knew, even with this grim news, I couldn't let the fear in. They told me that visiting hours were over in the ICU, but they would make an exception for my fiancé for a few more hours while I got settled.

I was given a private room where I was greeted by a nurse named Kevin. He explained to me that I was on suicide watch, and that it was his job to sit with me all night to make sure that I didn't try to hurt myself. I explained to him that I wasn't suicidal, and didn't need to be watched, but would welcome the company anyway. I knew he was just doing his job. He turned out be a fellow artist and showed me the sketches he'd been working on. He was also learning to play piano, and was happy to hear I played as well. For the first time since I had been admitted to the hospital, I felt like someone finally believed that I didn't do this on purpose.

A nurse came in and told us that my fiancé would have to leave, but she and Kevin would be with me all night. You could tell she felt terrible asking him to go, but once again, she was just doing her job. They'd already made an exception as it was. As we kissed goodbye, for just a moment, I wondered if it really would be goodbye. But as quickly as I thought it, I dismissed it. I smiled and told him I would see him tomorrow, and not to worry. I was going to be fine.

I heard a theory about angels once, that they are people who come to you as strangers when you need guidance or have hit a low point. They show up right when you need them most and after helping you, they disappear just as quickly. This ICU nurse was my angel. Don't get me wrong, I know that I obviously needed a nurse, but it was this nurse in particular that I needed. She made me feel like I was going to be alright, she even snuck me a veggie burger from the kitchen after realizing I'd been in the ER since 2pm but didn't get admitted into the ICU until 8pm, well after dinner hours. We sat and talked and laughed all night, until I finally felt calm enough to get some sleep.

I wake up the next day, and for a moment, I forget where I am. As I roll over, the jerking of the IV needle in my arm reminds me. I dread opening my eyes, and try to doze back off, but the beeping of the machine monitoring my vitals is just too loud. Kevin tells me he's leaving, and will report to the doctors evaluating me that he believes that I'm okay and no longer need supervision.

The nurse comes in and tells me that my blood work is looking better than the day before and I'm finally stable. They are preparing another room for me in general admission, and that I'll be out of the ICU in no time. However, not to get my hopes up. I was probably still going to be here a while.

It would be another four days of hospital living. At this point, it was all a waiting game. They just needed to keep me there until my liver enzyme count went back to normal, if it was going to. I had to find ways to keep busy. I played Sudoku puzzles and read every article in the Dog Fancy magazine that my friend Ashley brought me. She came rushing to the hospital as soon as she heard and it was the only reading material she had on her. It wasn't Bukowski, but it gave me a good laugh and drowned out Dr. Phil on my neighbor's television set.

Then, day four came. A doctor walked into my room, holding a clipboard, with an uneasy look on her face. I thought, this is it. She's got bad news. But to my surprise, she told me I was fine, and that I could go home today. She continued to tell me that they didn't know how I was fine, because apparently there was no permanent damage. None, whatsoever. That my body had completely healed itself, and they didn't know how. In fact, I was what they call a "miracle case." That in all likelihood, I should've needed a liver transplant, that the anecdote shouldn't have worked. She insisted that I do a follow up appointment in ten days, and I agreed.

I walked out of the hospital and was greeted by the surprise of warm, spring weather. I wore a winter jacket on my way there, but definitely didn't need it for the walk back. It felt like the sun came out just for me. I basked in it the entire walk home. I felt reborn.

Ten days came and went. I did my follow up blood work and the tests came back same as they did the first time. I was fine. No permanent damage. This can finally be over.

Or so I thought.

Fast forward to Winter, 2013

I feel it coming on slow. The shortness of breath. The pounding in my chest. The twitching in my eye. Impending doom. Not again, I silently scream in my head. 

It's a panic attack. They've been becoming more and more regular in my life since the overdose. I close my eyes and try to take some deep breaths, but they don't help. I feel like I can't breathe. My throat is closing off. Maybe if I step outside and get some fresh air. But the fresh air brings the city sounds of Philadelphia. Sirens. Drunken screams. Gunshots. I don't feel safe inside my house, but I don't feel safe leaving it either.

It started out as maybe once a week, then became once a day. Once a day now has become three times a day, and sometimes more than that.

It was the worst year of my life. I was constantly stuck in my head. Wondering if I'd die at any moment. I was convinced that somehow, my liver was still in danger. That the doctor's must've overlooked something. That one sip of alcohol would finish the job that the Tylenol didn't. Googling every pain and twitch. Sneaking away to the bathroom to check for signs of jaundice in the mirror. Did the palms of my hands always have that slightly yellow tint in the sun?

My Grams story about Glenn still rang through my mind. Was that some sort of cruel foreshadowing? A dark prophecy that I'd failed to interpret?

I couldn't understand. I'd heard about near death experiences. I'd heard about how beautiful they were, how people saw bright lights and learned the true meaning of life. But this wasn't beautiful. There was nothing meaningful about this. I was just scared. All the time.

I decided the first step was to quit drinking - I realized that even though I survived, that I would inevitably face that fate once more if I didn't. I hadn't really been drinking that often since the overdose, but I was realizing that, socially, it was hard to say no.

My mind was an intolerable place to be, but I didn't tell anyone. Not my fiancé, not my best friend. I kept it to myself. I didn't want to acknowledge my fears out loud, because on some level I knew that they were irrational. I got the follow up blood work, I saw the test results. I'm FINE. But my mind wouldn't let me accept that. Over the course of the year, I became more and more emotionally withdrawn from everyone around me. I stopped talking to the people who I realized were only "bar" friends. Considering I was in a constant state of perpetual anxiety caused by the idea of my liver failing, bars were the last place I wanted to be. I realized that without the bars, I didn't really have too much in common with a lot of these people. Though I will admit that there were a few friends I was sad to leave behind, I knew I had to separate myself from my friends who only wanted to spend their time drinking.

My fiancé knew there was something wrong with me, though. He'd ask me all the time if I was alright, I would lie and tell him I was. I knew he didn't believe me, and he knew that I knew, but he didn't pry. He knew I'd come around when I was ready.

I decided the next step was to take charge of my body and health by switching everything in my kitchen over to organic. I didn't know how much it would help at the time, but I was willing to try anything that wasn't medication. Beginning that holistic journey was the best decision I've ever made in my life. Some results came immediately, but healing yourself through a holistic lifestyle takes time. I wasn't sure how much time I had left, but I was convinced it would give me more than I had.

Fast forward to Spring, 2014

The panic attacks are fewer, but come on stronger when they hit now. During these attacks, I become almost catatonic. I can't really speak. All I can do is close my eyes and breathe deep. Anything can trigger them, there's no real rhyme or reason for most of them. I do everything I can to keep busy and distract myself. Practicing piano scales, cooking foreign recipes, learning French, picking up the ukulele, making beeswax candles, many failed attempts at growing a garden.

But I'm starting to realize there is one thing in particular that's setting them off.

That dresser.

After a few weeks of inner turmoil and debate, I confessed to my fiancé that the dresser was a reminder of the overdose and that it was causing panic attacks. That I needed it gone, and that I never wanted to see it again. He agreed with me, and suggested not only that we get rid of it, but that we destroy it first. With chisels and paint scrapers, we spent the night tearing off the broken bits of mirror, beads and charms that I'd so carefully arranged a year ago. At the end of it, I really did feel better. I felt lighter.

Fast forward to Fall & Winter, 2014

After almost a year of fully dedicating myself to a strict holistic lifestyle, I was really starting to see results. I'd run into friends from my drinking days, and they'd barely recognize me. They'd tell me I looked great and ask what I'd been doing. When I'd tell them I quit drinking and switched to an organic diet, their reactions were always one of two:

1.) They'd be genuinely happy for me and give congratulations.

2.) Their entire disposition changed to a skeptical and almost cold attitude, then quickly make up an excuse to be on their way.

The second reaction was more common.

But I was coping. I was being more open with my fiancé about my panic attacks, which not only brought us closer together, but gave him some peace of mind in knowing what was going on in that mysterious head of mine. Not to mention, I was finally starting to make new friends, and even rekindled a few friendships with old friends that were also working on getting their lives together. Things were starting to feel normal again...

But winter was coming and we needed to be prepared. The previous winter enabled the majority of my stress and anxiety. We wanted to make sure it didn't happen again, not when I was making so much progress. We decided to create a vibrant and colorful gypsy den in our unfinished basement. We put a lot of work and love into creating an atmosphere that was welcoming and creative. We put down vinyl floor tiles to look like hardwood, along with throw rugs. We hung up everything from tapestries to sheets and blankets to hide the concrete walls and pipes. We trash picked mismatched furniture and scavenged the thrift stores. Paintings & knick knacks everywhere. A huge mural of plant life, lizards and mushrooms. It was our oasis. A secret little oasis in the middle of an industrial wasteland.

Most anyone who's lived in Philadelphia will agree with me when I say that the sounds you hear resonating through the city at night are far more pleasant in Spring and Summer months than any other. Most people stay inside during the cold and dark months of winter, leaving only the homeless, police and criminals out on the street at night. Sirens, screams, gunshots. Philly's winter soundtrack.

The basement blocked out all of these sounds. I was free from distraction to create again. I started doing art for the first time since the overdose, a year and a half ago. My furious dedication to art was the reason I almost died. And, on some level, I think I was afraid it would happen again. Painting was the first step in me truly getting better.

Creating the basement was like bringing the best parts of my imagination to life. I was the kind of kid who painted on the walls when I was old enough to know better, who always insisted that my birthday party be themed so I could dress up as a mermaid or princess, who lived in a world with no creative boundaries. The atmosphere we created reflected the me that I once was, it reflected my inner child. It was that winter that I realized I had lost myself long before the overdose.

Fast Forward to Spring, 2015

It's a Thursday night around 7pm when I get a phone call from my friend, Ashley. She tells me she was just told that our friend, Erik, is in the hospital. That he is dying of liver and kidney failure, and that he only has tonight for visitors because he will be in treatment all of tomorrow, and they don't think that he will make it to Saturday. She tells me that only a few people are being told about this, and to keep it quiet because he doesn't want people to see him this way. She tells me she's on her way to get me so we can go see him.

My heart sank. This was the friend I previously mentioned that co-signed on my Care Credit loan to get dental implants. He put his credit on the line for thousands of dollars just so I could get my smile back. Getting my smile back was like getting my life back. He was the big brother that I never had but always needed. If I was stranded three hours away in a blizzard, he would jump in his car to get me without hesitation. We explored every nook and cranny of the city night life together. I even wrote a story about some of our more epic bar exploits called "Fear In Loathing In Philadelphia." It was an homage to our mutual favorite author. He was my best friend.

He was also one of the people that I had to leave behind when I decided to quit drinking. We'd still keep in touch on Facebook, every once in a while he'd call me and we'd talk for a few hours, catching up on a few months at time. I missed him more than anyone else from my old life. I always thought one day that he'd settle down and get married. We'd link back up in our older years and do the holiday thing, that my future kids would call him Uncle Erik.

But now he was dying.

By the time we got to the hospital, he was exhausted from a long day and had very little energy left for the visit. He was happy to see us, though. He didn't expect us to come. I told him there was nothing that could've kept me away. With a weak smile, he told me I looked great. This was the first time we'd seen each other in almost two years. We chatted until we could tell that he was just too tired. I told him I loved him, gave him a kiss on the cheek, and walked out of the room. It was the last time I would ever see Erik again.

It was cruel poetry. The friend I left behind was condemned to the fate that I narrowly escaped two years prior, almost to the date.

Fast Forward to Summer, 2015

(The Present)

The world is teeming with life. The trees have filled out, the morning glory vines are climbing and the birds have returned to their posts on the power lines. Wildflowers have taken over what used to be my garden, and I think I'm okay with it.

I've been okay with a lot of things recently.

I'm becoming more and more myself with each day that passes. Calm and centered. I am a Zen master.

I tend to think objectively now, I'm rational and in control. I make healthier decisions and it's getting continually easier to do so. I'm becoming the person I always wanted to be, but never thought I could be. The person that my inner child so badly wanted to grow up to be. I'm laughing and smiling. I'm having fun again.

I look back on that day I walked into the ER of Penn Hospital, unbeknownst of the journey that was waiting for me. I remember the person I was... and I barely recognize her. I was an empty shell, wandering aimlessly with no point or purpose, wasting the majority of my undiscovered talents on alcohol.

I have since excelled on the piano far beyond what I thought was attainable, along with learning a little bit of several other instruments. I've developed my own distinctive style artistically and am finally starting produce pieces that I am truly proud of. I've learned a little bit of French and Spanish and will continue to keep learning as much as I can of both. I can cook authentic meals from Mexico, Hungary, Australia and Thailand. I still haven't managed to successfully grow a garden yet, but I intend to keep trying until I finally develop the green thumb that everyone in my family seems to have inherited but me.

Almost three years after my near death experience, I finally have some closure into the insight that I was so desperately seeking. I see now that almost dying saved my life and my panic attacks made me a more driven person. The ways in which I chose to distract my mind were in turn expanding it.

I reflect on Erik's death often, and find solace in that he did genuinely make a difference during his time here. I am not the only person that will tell you stories about how he went to the end of the Earth and back for them. That's just the kind of guy he was. I can't help but wish that he could've been given a second chance like I was... but I know that if he were here now, he'd call me a dirty hippie, noogie my dreadlocks and tell me not to dwell on what I can't change. I know he wouldn't want me to be haunted by his death the way I'd been haunted by the story of Glenn. So I do my best to push out the image of him in his final moments, and remember him how I know he'd want me to remember him. Full of life and adventure.

I think the most important lesson I have taken away from my three year journey is that things are not always as they seem. I was so angry that such a simple, yet stupid, mistake almost cost me my life. I was fully aware and frustrated by the irony in that I was afraid of dying, yet my PTSD kept me from going out and actually experiencing anything that would be worth living for. What I couldn't see back then was how I was evolving into a more creative and intelligent individual. It was a slow process and only now in hindsight do I fully understand why overdosing  that day was, in fact, the best thing that ever happened to me.

That simple yet stupid mistake led me to the person that I am today. It has taught me to find beauty in situations where it may not seem like there is any. I've learned to ask questions and keep an open mind, even when I'm thrown outside of my comfort zone. I've learned that growing old is a privilege denied to many, and to embrace it, not fear it. I've learned not to judge others, for not everyone's pain can be seen from the outside. And most importantly, I've learned to be myself.

© 2016 Erica Daubert

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A powerful story. No-one learn the easy way. I like the way you set-up the story. Allowing the reader to follow a life. The ending was perfect.
"That simple yet stupid mistake led me to the person that I am today. It has taught me to find beauty in situations where it may not seem like there is any. I've learned to ask questions and keep an open mind, even when I'm thrown outside of my comfort zone. I've learned that growing old is a privilege denied to many, and to embrace it, not fear it. I've learned not to judge others, for not everyone's pain can be seen from the outside. And most importantly, I've learned to be myself. "
Above lines are lesson to be taught. Thank you for sharing the amazing story.

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Added on November 1, 2015
Last Updated on October 5, 2016
Tags: overdose, panic attacks, meditation, organic, holistic, anxiety, art, music, psychology


Erica Daubert
Erica Daubert

Philadelphia, PA

Erica Daubert is a Philadelphia-area singer-songwriter, composer and multi-instrumentalist. Born and raised in South Jersey, she was heavily influenced by her grandfather, frontman and guitarist for .. more..