Snake Oil on the Indiana Turnpike

Nonfiction by Alexandra Hall

The overpass looks like the top jaw of my first neurologist, Dr. Chad Abercrombie. I knew his fangs well, mostly from the perspective of lying motionless on a table covered in parchment paper. After small talk of diagnoses and anatomy, I’d succumb to the strange movements of his hands that would fidget with my neck like an unruly Jenga puzzle. A part of me wants the support beam to come crashing down on my car like a loose tooth thrust out of place. I am on my way home. 

The off-ramps on the Indiana Turnpike look nothing like home, a word whose meaning became lost to me after my injury. I still feel the urge to close my eyes when my car begins to tilt, even though there are no specific reminders of what happened to me on the road other than the blueprint of my body. Foundationally, I am askew. And I’m the only one who feels it. 

It takes approximately twenty hours to get from my university to my parents’ house. It feels like an eternal commute through the most boring states. The American midwest has its charm in its cheap gas prices and its “world’s largest crucifixes,” but its greyness overpowers any desire to be here longer than I must. 

Sometimes when I yearn for familiarity and various iterations of what once was, I tell myself I am aching for the Rockies. Colorado is one of the most beautiful states in the country, but it possesses no magic— even though the past often promises it. 

The silence of car rides brings memories up to the dashboard of my heart. How the breaks slammed. How my dog flew from the back seat to the windshield. How the Subaru bounced cartoonishly off of my aunt’s Jeep wheel. How my head snapped against the plastic headrest. How the firewoman told me I was okay. 

“It’s okay.” 

That is what my new neurologist cooed in my ear yesterday as she plunged 32 syringes into my scalp, face, and neck, trying to map out the roads of my nerves and block them where the pavement was cracked. Six years ago my head was in the hands of a first responder. Since then I’ve lent it to anyone who will listen, and I’m convinced that if you tweak it the right way, it’ll pop off like a toy. 

When I’m driving, I have control. My body is no longer a plaything at the hands of others but an autonomous being, putting together manmade symbols and signs to guide me home. Home as the faceless entity of who I was before that day. Home as the place you always seem to end up even when you think you are fully removed. I am afraid that if I get out of the car, the very channel that shattered my life, I will lose it all. Whatever structure I’ve built since then will crumble. 

My CRV is trusty and named after a song. There’s a streak of maroon on the ceiling upholstery from a grape popsicle. It now holds a good portion of my worldly belongings, including the suitcase that looks like the one that holds my clothes, but really is filled to the brim with pill bottles, ice packs, and torture-looking devices that are shams for pain relief. Years of chronic pain will wear you down enough to chug snake oil when it is offered to you. Salesmen these days often wear white cotes. They’re company drug dealers minus the taboo doing their damnedest to serve their customers, not patients. 

And at twenty I’m a junkie. Every two and a half months my eyes go cloudy, my hands numb, and the lightning bolts return to their skies above my head. People tell me I look tired. I take painkillers with breakfast and sleep with tens unit cords around my neck. I patiently wait until it is my turn to see my dealer. To lie down on that parchment paper for an excruciating procedure because it is the only thing that keeps me alive. She knows and I know that this is anything but okay. A few days later, the toxin seeps into my muscles and successfully paralyzes them for a few more weeks. Enough time to pretend that I am normal and that my life is going the way that I want it to. 

I cry as I pass the Illinois border sign, picking at the scabs that have formed on my forehead from the incision spots. In a few states, I’ll be home. I’ll be looking up at Pike’s Peak, not the incisors of another stranger promising relief. Vulnerable people, broken people, are often perceived as weak. I am a machine that keeps running, even with dents in my bumper and popsicle stains on my ceiling. But these days, living is taking repeatedly wrong exits and closing my eyes when I tilt. 

Published 20th April, 2023.

Alexandra Hall is a student in southern Michigan studying Rhetoric & Media, Journalism, and Biology. Her work has appeared in the Denver Post, the Wall Street Journal, PULP Magazine, and You Might Need to Hear This. More here:

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