No Laughing Matter
- July 9, 2015
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STRAPPED INTO A NITROUS OXIDE HELLEVATOR
I’m settled back in the dentist’s chair, relaxed and ready to have two crowns done. It’s Spring 2012.
Having been told the procedure’ll last a couple of hours, I ask for nitrous oxide, to ease the process (nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, is commonly used in dentistry for its anesthetic and analgesic effects).
For my previous dental visit (a two-hour laser surgery/deep cleaning) I hadn’t needed novocaine and had taken nitrous oxide, inhaling it fairly deeply the whole time, feeling both present and pleasingly dissociated — I could feel the pain of the dental work but didn’t mind it. Nothing weird, nothing unpleasant, nothing truly disorienting.
This time is, however, very different.
After only a few inhalations of nitrous (through a clownish rubber nosepiece), I am much more dissociated than before, not just in degree but also in context — there’s an alarming sense of being marooned, disastrously out of reach.
I am experiencing a level of disorientation that shocks me. It has happened so quickly that I’m in disbelief that it is actually happening. Even though my senses are functioning just fine, I am peculiarly detached from their readouts, feeling a darkly dizzy removal from my surroundings.
I look up at the ceiling, taking its detailing in, but don’t register this like I normally would, whether in the waking or dreaming state. I have been transported indescribably far from my everyday state — and from my dreaming state — I have no bearings, no sense of locale, no capacity for anchoring, my sense of self ricocheting and swallowed in an infinite vortex devoid of any familiarity.
I’m oscillatingly disturbed — as if on a madly looping rollercoaster with no discernible dimensions — but decide to keep the nitrous oxide mask on. I notice I can slow down the process some by inhaling through my mouth. I remember to only exhale through my nose at all times so that the dentist and his assistant are not subjected to any nitrous oxide fumes.
Less than a minute has passed.
I register this with astonishment, feeling my sense of time rapidly losing all its moorings. Data from my senses states that I am here in this room, but my awareness is primarily rooted elsewhere, in a locale devoid of any defining topography. I’d like to take off the nosepiece, but am determined to stay with the experience, despite my mind’s industrial strength campaigning for a return to the familiar or to at least something vaguely familiar.
The dentist asks me how I’m doing, and I somehow emit the word okay, though I am far from okay. He injects my crown-area gums with novocaine, which I notice from a careening distance, even though I feel all the sensations. My skull feels like it’s been blown to smithereens in an insanely avalanching sky that is far more than a sky.
What’s left of me is in a hugely looping vortex, through which I am being rocketed at extreme speed into an unbound, thickly ribbed openness that is at once uterine and far beyond anything remotely human or mammalian. Stranger than strange.
I am clearly in a deeply altered state, which is starting to feel like the near-death experience I had in 1994, when immediately after smoking a large dose of 5-MeO-DMT (at the time, a legal drug, probably the most potent psychoactive agent of all), I’d lost all physical consciousness and — without any memory of having done so — twice stopped breathing for a long enough time to come very close to death. I’d had no ability to leave the state I was in, though being hyperaware of it, as if in a lucid dream which one cannot depart, despite knowing that one is very close to actual death. (This is described in my book Darkness Shining Wild.)
But I am still, however slightly, physically present, breathing, and breathing steadily. And perhaps too deeply. I take a few inhales through my mouth, and gain a touch more of a foothold in everyday reality, though without any significant sense of familiarity with it.
Hours seem to pass. I’m alone in the room, waiting for the dentist to return (he’s left while the novocaine does its work). I think his assistant is there the whole time. She asks me if my lip feels numb. I squeeze out an assent, feeling the rubbery feelinglessness of my lip. But very soon after that moment of almost normal contact, I am spun out even further into my dissociated state.
My desire to cease taking the nitrous intensifies, along with the concern that I will forget that I’m even breathing nitrous oxide. I am, in fact, forgetting it. My mind frantically scrambles for meaning, lurching between possibilities, broadcasting that I am in danger.
But am I? Or am I just very stoned? I am far, far away not only from my usual way of being, but also just as far away from my unusual ways of being.
I cannot stay with anything; one moment I am feeling immense compassion for all beings, and a moment later I am grippingly aware that I might die like this, or that I am going to die like this, and very soon. I feel both terror and numbness. I am as overwhelmed as I am helpless…
Things are profoundly weird. But I do know this place, and know that one cannot know it unless one is immersed in it. I was here in 1994 under much more extreme conditions, and here I am again. Again. The very fact that I am recognizing this terrifies me, but not enough to have me cease taking the nitrous. I’m at an edge that keeps morphing into monstrous mutations of itself, minus any rememberable visuals. No notes can be taken here.
I have lost touch with the fact that I can slow down my breathing, inhale through my mouth, or even ask to have the mask removed. And recognizing for a moment here and there that I have lost touch shocks me into the extremely convincing realization that I am very close to death and can do nothing to stop it. Just like in 1994.
Somehow I am still able to respond to the dentist when he asks if I’m okay. He’s doing some deep and sustained drilling and it has no impact on me. I also realize that I am not at all aware of what he is doing for seemingly prolonged periods.
My eyes open without any volition on my part, and I see the ceiling, see the dentist and his assistant, and seeing all this makes no difference whatsoever, which both deeply disturbs me and seems to indicate that I have crossed into something from which there is no escape…
I now have no capacity to leave where I am. I have, it appears, gone too far. I don’t know how long I’ve been here. My sense of time is obliterated. I feel grief and horror that my life has come to this. Images of dying in the dentist’s chair parachute through the stunned skies of my mind. Any sense of taking off the mask is gone; I’ve forgotten that I’m inhaling nitrous oxide. My awareness of breathing is gone.
Whether my eyes are open or not makes no difference. I am not hallucinating. I am gone. Gone beyond gone.
Where am I? In featureless limbo. In boundless emptiness. Too demolished to cry, too gone to return, too displaced to be embodied anywhere. An alien in a forever alien domain. A speck of sentience cut adrift, madly floating through unmappable spaces that seem to be none other than me.
Has a second gone by, or a lifetime? I don’t know.
I do not want to die like this. But I’ve let myself go beyond the point of return. There is nothing, nothing I can do. Just like in 1994. I can’t move, can’t talk, can’t snap out of the hell I’m in. It’s completely out of my hands.
The bare facticity of this runs through me like an endlessly falling stone in an infinite abyss…
Now I hear the dentist ask me how I’m doing.
My eyes are wide open but I’ve no context for what is being seen. His presence has no effect on me; he might as well be a piece of see-through paper plastered against a disappearing wall. I am unable to respond to him.
I cannot make a sound. And I know he doesn’t know where I am, and also intuit that my lack of response will make him take some sort of action, even if it’s too late.
I feel as though I’ve died and am simply bodilessly witnessing the registering of my lack of response by the dentist, who is now saying my name, trying to call me back.
I cannot speak. His voice is coming from far, far away, as if from a long ago dream that is edging into my consciousness. I cannot tell if I am breathing or not.
It’s as if I’m observing a terrible accident from high above, yet I am clearly lying back in the dental chair. The whole scene is simultaneously utterly surreal and terribly flat, akin to being in a dream constructed solely of transparent cement.
He says more, something about it’ll be okay, and now I am aware of breathing. Breathing!
The mask is off. He adds that he’s seen this before, and my capacity to function is suddenly back. I mumble that I was not normally dissociated, but went way, way beyond that. I don’t recall his response. But I’m coming back.
I turn my head and look at him and ask if he can see me looking at him. He says yes, and I’m now fully back, incredibly relieved and grateful to still be alive. It takes me at least a minute, a very long minute, to realize that I really am back and am not just dreaming that I’m back.
The mask is put back on, and I am told that it is delivering pure oxygen to me now. I am happy to breathe it! A few minutes pass, and he says he’s ready to resume prepping my teeth for the crowns. I say that I’d like to go back on the nitrous, but at a lower concentration (in dentistry, nitrous oxide is always mixed with oxygen), partially because I feel too shaky to directly endure the drilling, but mostly because I want to reexperience the state I was just in, albeit from a less gone place.
Very soon I am again in an extremely altered state, but do not lose my awareness of breathing. I keep my breathing pattern slow and not too deep, taking occasional inhales through my mouth. At one point the drilling really hurts — stabbingly sharp nerve pain — but I don’t want more novocaine. I actually welcome this pain, for it helps ground me as the nitrous pulls me close to the same place I was in just a few minutes ago.
I feel much of what I felt earlier, a similar horror and disorientation and loss of mooring, but I don’t let myself go past the point of no return. I know I could surrender to that, but I also know that I almost died back in 1994 from not being able to breathe, and certainly don’t want to, so to speak, tempt fate.
I am much more aware now of what the dentist is doing. Finally he’s putting on the crowns. It seems that only a minute or two has passed since the mask was put back on…
The rest is anticlimactic. When I leave I am shaky but clearly functional. I have been deeply rocked, realizing that I cannot return to being who I was before this experience. I have a compelling sense of being given another chance, much like in 1994.
I have had many times of “dying into Life” or “dying into a deeper Life.” Such times arrived unbidden; if I’d known ahead of time what was in store for me, I surely would have made alternate plans! My nitrous oxide experience was such a dying, and continues to be that, reminding me of how incredibly precious it is to be here in the flesh, with so little time even as we abide at the edge of Eternity, less than a breath away from all familiarity, literally being more than we can imagine.
(Epilogue: I took nitrous oxide a few more times at the dentist’s office, with no more effect than pleasant dissociation. Then it ceased having any impact on me, even at maximum dosage, giving me nothing more than a headache. So now my dental visits are nitrous-free.)