My head hasn’t stopped pounding since the day I quit. And when I say the day I quit, I mean the day it was forcibly taken from me. Every breath tears a new hole in my lungs. The sight of the track marks on my arms makes my skin crawl and a surge of bile rises in my throat. My eyes are dry with lack of sleep and my head pounds. It feels as if a band is winding itself tighter and tighter around my chest. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
And then it goes back to normal. All of a sudden I feel fine. I fall asleep for two hours. Then I wake up with a skull-splitting headache, my heart racing faster than ever. Shaking all over, I try to rub some warmth into my goose-bump covered arms, but cold isn’t what’s causing the tremors. I begin to sweat profusely. The temperature in my room is perfectly mild.
I feel like I might die.
I pace back and forth on the hardwood floor. I should really invest in a carpet. My bare legs tremble as I walk. My oversized t-shirt swallows my tiny frame. I reach to throw my auburn hair into a messy bun and feel that it’s knotted and unmanageable. I can’t remember the last time I took a shower. I’m still shaking uncontrollably. Maybe a shower would make it stop.
My skin shivers as it’s doused with scalding water. The sensation of water cleansing every inch of my body is comforting. But suddenly I’m overwhelmed with a sadness. I slide my back down the grimy shower tiles and sink to the floor. I never know why I begin to feel this way. I sit on the shower floor until the water runs cold. Even then I sit for a few more minutes. There’s something satisfying about being in control of my own discomfort for once. I let the freezing droplets assault my skin until I can’t take it anymore. As I reach to stop the flow, another wave of nausea overtakes me. I fall on my side, clutching my stomach and holding back more tears, and let the frigid cascade numb me.
I only eventually get up because the phone is ringing incessantly. I don’t know who would be calling me. By the time I wrap myself in a worn out towel and shuffle over to the phone, the ringing stops. No more than two minutes later it starts up again.
“What.” It comes out as an angry statement rather than an inquiry. Somewhere subconsciously I think it would be appropriate to apologize and offer a friendlier greeting, but I am utterly indifferent about doing so.
“Hi, Lena.” I struggle to recognize the voice or to care who it is. Letting my towel drop to the floor, I make my way towards my bed and wrap myself in a bathrobe. It’s a man. He knows my name, so either I know him too or he’s a stalker. I haven’t decided which yet.
“And?” Once again a tiny voice in my head pipes up, rude, but I ignore it. I take a sip of the water on my bedside table but recoil when I realize it’s actually vodka. I shrug, and take another sip. In all this time, the mystery man on the other line still hasn’t answered. I can almost see him mulling over his answer.
“I uh, I think I can help you.” By the tone of his voice I’ve figured out that I do know him, or should. He sounds sheepish like I should be embarrassed that I need his help, and his ego is slightly hurt because I so blatantly want nothing to do with him.
“Help me what?” I ask, my voice dripping with tedium. Before I know it, my cup is empty. Another glass can’t hurt.
“With your, uh, problem. I have something that you might want.” Now I really don’t know who this guy is. Does he actually know about my problem, or is he talking about something completely different. He can’t be able to help. There’s no more left. I can’t be helped anymore.
“Oxytocin. Your addiction. I can help you, cure you.” My eyes widen. I head to the tiny, grungy kitchen in search of more vodka. The bottle is nearly empty so I don’t bother to pour it into a glass before taking a swig.
He can’t have it. There is no way that he has it. The Cuddle Hormone, that’s what people used to call it. I like to call it the Life Ruiner. It’s the reason I’m like this.
I wasn’t always like this. I loved people. There were people that loved me. Now I can’t. Love people, that is. Or trust people. Or form human connection. Not without it. But when I take it, it ruins my life too because I become dependent upon it. Now people just call it OT.
My mom started me on it. It was some paid clinical trial and we were struggling to pay the bills. I had terrible anxiety as a teenager. Fifteen was when it got really bad. Then doctors started producing this concentrated dose of OT that was supposed to only target the anxiety. Mom and I didn’t see any problem with it. The doctors assured us there was no risk. The worst that could happen was that my anxiety just wouldn’t get better.
For the first few months, Mom and I thought it was a miracle. It was as if my anxiety had been cured. I had zero panic attacks in all the time I was taking it. Only when I forgot my dose one night did we realize the problem. OT doesn’t just reduce stress and anxiety, it significantly impacts relaxation, trust, psychological stability, love. The dose that I was taking was only supposed to reduce my stress and anxiety, but the doctors didn’t know it would strengthen my trust, psychological stability, and ability to love. The past five months, my emotions had been depending on the drug to keep me going.
When I forgot that night, I woke up the next morning in an uncharacteristic rage. I was overly paranoid, and I had my first panic attack in five months, except it was worse than any I had ever had before. When my mom tried to comfort me I told her I hated her. The words didn’t just carelessly fall from my lips, I meant them, I felt them. But I didn’t know why. I didn’t know how to interact with people. After missing one pill, I went off the rails. Mom and I went to the doctor that day and demanded reimbursement for their errors and that they wean me off the drug. The doctor had a guilty, shameful look on his face. Something was wrong.
I wasn’t the only one who had been given the medicine as a trial. The clinic had distributed the drug to so many people that it had become an epidemic. A boy had come in with the same problem earlier that week. They tried to slowly lower his dosage, but he only got worse. His brain had become dependent on the drug to produce oxytocin. Without it, he could barely function as an emotional, compassionate human being.
Approximately thirty thousand patients had been given the drug across the country. The doctors thought it would be best to discontinue the production of the concentrated dose and just let all thirty thousand of us suffer rather than risk anyone else getting ahold of the drug. I could feel bile rising in my throat and tears welling in my eyes. My mother’s mouth dropped open in shock. They couldn’t just ruin thirty thousand people’s lives. We couldn’t function without OT now that the concentrated dose had been in our systems.
But that’s exactly what they did. And now here I am five years later in a dingy apartment, looking out over a nearly vacant city, on the phone with a man I am supposed to know but don’t.
“Lena? Are you there? I can help you. I promise.”
I roll my eyes. Promise. The doctors promised my treatment wouldn’t hurt me. People promised I would get better. When someone figured out how to copy the same concentrated dose that was in the trial, the strange man I met on the street when I was seventeen promised that I wouldn’t get addicted if I injected one dose of OT. Injectable OT causes the same symptoms if missed as the pills, while also being even more addictive, not only mentally, but physically. I still have that first needle, as a reminder.
“Who is this?” I finally ask.
“It’s Jack,” he answers quickly, abashedly. Then I remember: Jack. He went to my high school. We had been friends, best friends, before my condition spiraled out of control. He was an actual genius, but very quiet so we became each other’s only friend. We haven’t spoken since that first day I missed my medication.
There is no way he can help me.
I’m startled out of my thoughts by a loud knock on my door. I set my phone on the table and cautiously approach the door. A glance in the peephole reveals a mop of dark curls and strikingly blue eyes. The man holds a cell phone almost apologetically in his left hand.
“Come in, Jack,” I whisper, unlocking the door and allowing him to let himself in. “Have you been outside my apartment this whole time?” Maybe I know him and he’s a stalker. His eyes are sadder than I remember, although he did always have a grim air about him.
“Lena, I… I’m sorry about what happened,” he mutters, icy eyes facing the uncarpeted floor. His voice shakes slightly and I can tell he means the words. The statement startles me somewhat. I wasn’t expecting any apologies to be exchanged between us, much less for Jack to apologize to me. None of this is his fault.
A flicker of a pang of empathy, no, regret almost pulses through me but without the OT it doesn’t get very far before fizzling out. The part of my brain that’s been dormant for two years since injectable oxytocin was eradicated, wrecking my human connection, almost awakens at the sight of him. Jack’s eyes soften as he recognizes this near-emotion lighten up my face. After five years I don’t know what to say to him, but fortunately he does most of the talking.
“So, about helping you. I have a way to help your brain start making its own oxytocin again. You have to trust me, I know that’s hard for you now, but you have to try,” he says sympathetically. I roll my eyes with a scoffing noise and surprisingly, Jack bursts into a husky laugh. “I’ve missed you Lena,” he breathes into my hair as he pulls me into a hug. My arms stay flattened against my sides, and I have no intention of moving them, but they seem to act on their own. I suddenly find my arms encircling my old friend.
A word, trust, flashes in my mind. I trust him. I have no reason not to. He’s familiar, he’s never hurt me. He can help me. I trust him. Almost.
“I want to trust you,” I mumble, muffled by his t-shirt. He looks down at me with a wide smile. But I can’t trust him. My brain won’t let me, but wanting to trust him is a start.
“Good. Now I can help you. Get dressed, then come with me.” He goes to wait outside while I throw on a gray t-shirt and jeans. I hurry outside, feeling a glint of something. Hope? Happiness? After all these years, maybe now I’ve found an answer. Just in case, I grab the bottle of vodka on the way out. Jack raises an eyebrow at me.
I shrug, “It helps with the tremors.” My head is still pounding, but for now my walk is steady and my mouth has turned slightly up at the corners, the shadow of a smile. Before we leave I remember something. I dart back inside and grab my first syringe and stow it in my pocket before Jack can see. We drive for about twenty minutes to a medical facility that I don’t recognize. My skin begins to itch at the thought of natural OT pulsing through my body once again. My heart races at the prospect of my withdrawal being over. Jack can help my brain start making its own oxytocin again. I can be a real human again.
The letters OTTC are plastered on the front of the building and seem vaguely familiar. I assume OT stands for oxytocin but I’m not sure about the last two letters. Jack leads me into the facility. As soon as we step in the door, my walls go back up. The white tiled floors and suffocating disinfectant smell remind me of the doctor’s office where I got my first “treatment.” The fluorescent lights shine too brightly, causing the ghost of my headache to haunt me again. I come to a dead stop, and Jack gives me an encouraging look.
“Come on, Lena. This is a good thing. You’re the first step in fixing this problem for people,” he assures me. I reach for his outstretched hand, then hesitate.
You’re the first step. Jack said he already had a cure, but what if this is only some sort of test? Another clinical trial? The realization floods my expression before I can make a break for the door, and by that time Jack’s grabbed me by the arm and I hear the click of an automatic locking of doors.
Jack’s grip is tight, too tight. I raise my eyes to meet his and see grim guilt residing there. He looks away. The tremors and headache that had subsided when I saw Jack again start up violently and I can feel myself falling into a panic attack. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
Out of the corner of my eye, three burly men appear and try to keep me from struggling. A fourth person, a woman in a white lab coat, appears, holding a syringe. She comes close enough so I can read the words on her jacket: Oxytocin Testing Center.
OTTC. Suddenly it makes sense. My syringe, given to me by the stranger, has those letters down the side. I can almost feel it growing heavier in my pocket. As I thrash around trying the escape the three men’s hold, I recognize one of them. He is the man who somehow found me and started me on injectable OT three years ago. Another wave of realization hits me so hard I almost feel it physically: Jack did this to me.
The panic and anguish dissipate from my eyes. I stop struggling. My expression hardens, hazel eyes stone cold. I look Jack straight in those calm blue eyes, “You did this.”
He winces visibly at the words. The brightly lit hallway only intensifies his icy eyes. He looks apologetic, almost regretful.
“I had to Lena. I just… this whole thing, it was my fault. I tried to fix it by making injectable OT and that failed. And now I’m really going to fix it. I’m going to fix you. I promise,” he speaks frantically, as if he’s reassuring himself. His eyes are crazed with guilt.
My eyes widen in shock. “What do you mean this whole thing is your fault?” I ask, although I’m afraid I already know the answer.
“The concentrated dose of OT…I developed it. It was supposed to help people,” he stammers. I still don’t break my gaze. My numbness is gone. His betrayal is a brand new, more painful symptom of my withdrawal. He did this to me. He ruined my life. He was my friend.
And now I’m his test subject.
With my hands held against my back it’s easy to subtly inch the syringe out of my back pocket. The guards’ grip on me has loosened slightly. Jack is just close enough to me that when I break my right arm free and lunge, I catch him in the shoulder with the edge of the needle and push the plunger with a shriek.
Within the millisecond that it all takes place, the guards contain me again. Jack stands up looking shaken. The woman with the other syringe comes forward again and hands it to Jack.
I realize it will only be worse if I struggle. I maintain glowering eye contact with Jack as he adds a star to the constellation of track marks on my arm with his own traitorous needle. Pure bliss runs through my veins again, but my body jerks from the shock of receiving what it’s been craving for so long.
I feel like I might die.
I let out a whimper and my body relaxes. Air forces its way into my lungs, but it feels as if it’s hardly reaching my brain. This is more than just oxytocin. Incapacitated, I lay slumped on the frigid floor and the guards back away.
Jack stands over me, “I already told you Lena, I’m sorry.”
“I forgive you,” I whisper through a haze of tears and darkness. The words startle me, but feel strangely natural in my mouth. They hang between us, me and Jack, joined by a thousand other regretful words we haven’t spoken. And I hope, as the last wisps of my consciousness ebb away, that I am the first step, that Jack finds a cure, and that this epidemic will finally be over. Jack’s sad, salient blue eyes are all I see before everything goes black.