Excerpt from James Ellroy’s My Dark Places

I’ve been a big James Ellroy fan ever since I saw the movie L.A. Confidential. I went out and bought five of his books and read them one after the other in about three weeks. One of them was My Dark Places, his account of his attempt to find his mother’s murderer some 35 years after her death.

His description of his life in his twenties stuck with me. I include this passage as an example of the amazing lengths we’ll go to to tune our brain to a decent station.

“It was fall ’68. I met a freak a the Hollywood Public Library. He told me about Benzedrex inhalers.

They were an over-the-counter decongestant product encased in little plastic tubes. The tubes held a wad of cotton soaked in a substance called prophylhexadrine. You were supposed to stick the tube in your nose and take a few sniffs. You weren’t supposed to swallow the wads and fly on righteous ten-hour highs.

…They cost 69 cents. You could buy them or boost them all over L.A….The wads were two inches long and of cigarette circumference…The high was gooooood…It was just as good as a pharmaceutical upper high.

…[After losing two jobs in a row] I took a series of inhaler trips…I started seeing and hearing things that might or might not be real.

…It went bad slowly. The Voices came and went. Inhalers let them in. Liquor and enforced sobriety [from arrests for drunkenness, theft, and trespassing] stifled them. I understood the problem intellectually. Rational thought deserted me the second I popped the cotton wads in my mouth…

I could not stop taking inhalers. I heard the Voices for five years.

I spent most of that time outside. I lived in parks, backyards, and empty houses. I stole. I drank. I read and fantasized. I walked all over L.A. with cotton stuffed in my ears.

…I’d walk [down Wilshire Blvd. to the beach —  about 11 miles] and back in the course of one inhaler trip…

I walked five years away. They went by in a slow-motion blur.

Jail was my health retreat. I abstained from booze and dope and ate three meals a day…

I woke up strapped to a cot. I was alone in a private hospital…A doctor told me I’d have to stay there a month. I had an abscess on my lung the size of a big man’s fist. I needed 30 days of intravenous antibiotics.”

And that was the end of his OTC inhaler habit.



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