Investigating my drugging ten years later.
It wasn’t the first or last night of my twenties where some of the events were hazy. I was an amateur drinker, only a few months from my first alcoholic beverage. I’d been a judgmental teetotaler in high school but tried a Clemson-orange beer at a party a few weeks into college, away from the rules of my conservative parents.
I soon became more comfortable, trying vodka, which would soon become my drink of choice. I didn’t taste it much in comparison with the hoppy frothiness of beer. My friends and I would green apple Smirnoff Ice into our dorm rooms and share until my cheeks had become pink.
I’d signed a lease for my first “grown-up apartment” for the next year with two friends and we went out to celebrate. Some of the bars allowed 18-year-olds in to dance, but not drink. We’d found ways around that. Dressed up in our black “going out” tops, we sipped from a water bottle of vodka before going to a bar on King Street. We quickly washed the stamps off our hands and met a group of male acquaintances that already had a table full of beers. I knew a few of them, so I felt like they were trustworthy.
Apart from the sips of vodka, I was halfway through my Corona when I felt sick. I’d thrown up from being hungover before, but not from being drunk. I barely made it off the black and white checkered dance floor before unleashing my dinner into the stall. My friend Hanna followed me into the bathroom to make sure I was okay. Thinking I would now be okay, slate cleaned, I went back to dance. But then my memory slips away.
The next things I remember are in flashes. Of my legs feeling tingly. Of Hanna and one of the guys leading me outside to walk the three blocks back to my dorm. I was then unable to control my body and collapsed onto the dirty sidewalk. A police officer saw them trying to pick me up and called an ambulance. My eyes were closed, but part of my conscious was still swimming around. I recall telling the officer not to touch me, using colorful language that I wouldn’t have said when I was lucid. This would later get scribbled in my medical file as “inappropriate behavior.” I came back from blackness in a hospital bed with an IV in my arm.
Still under the influence of something, I felt panic, my heart beating wildly in my chest. Hanna had called my friend Casey, who drove my car to the hospital to bring us home. The doctors were convinced I’d just gotten too drunk, but something felt off. I was told I couldn’t leave until my heart rate went down, which seemed to contradict my knowledge of a “downer” like alcohol. I wasn’t tested for anything in my system and “extreme intoxication” was marked onto my file so that the likely-overworked hospital employee could back to other patients.
Eventually, I was released with a bruise on my hand from the IV, a medical bracelet, discharge papers about “abuse of alcohol” and little else. I didn’t even know what hospital I was at but felt shortly after leaving that not enough had been done. I couldn’t go back to the bar where it happened to collect information since I was there drinking underage. I couldn’t remember my ER doctor’s name to go back for further testing. I was left with no answers, just consequences.
Hanna slept on my dorm room floor and tried to explain what had happened to my roommate. The next day, I experienced a monumental hangover, unlike anything I’d felt before. My mind was racing immediately upon waking from a fitful sleep.
Was it one of those guys who drugged me? Did I know him? Was it the bartender or bouncer? Or was I the intended target at all? Who could I trust?
I stressed over the fact that I’d have to tell my parents, who didn’t know I drank at all, that I’d wound up at the hospital last night. I started sobbing before the phone had finished ringing. My mom had always told me to watch my drinks, but I never thought it would happen to me. I didn’t even know anyone who had been drugged, unaware of just how common it was in my cozy college town. I first spoke to my sister before relaying the message to my mom. My dad said I shouldn’t have been drinking. He was right, but I told myself it could have happened even if I was drinking water. I couldn’t handle talking to them for long before I broke down.
I know that in spite of everything, I was lucky. Someone didn’t take advantage of me while I was unconscious. I didn’t go into some sort of shock from the unknown drugs. But it didn’t feel like it at the time. My relationship with my parents was strained for many months to come, wounds reopened every time an expensive bill came from the hospital or ambulance. A few weeks after the incident, my father expressed his disappointment as he moved me out of the dorms, me sobbing in the front seat with all of my belongings piled up behind me.
Some of my friends didn’t believe me, that I had gotten too drunk, that I didn’t know my own body. A year later, my health insurance company dropped my coverage because of what they considered to be my “drinking problem.” My aunt seemed to be the only one on my side, sharing her own story of being drugged at a fraternity party.
Then there was the email I received from the dean of students, asking for a meeting with me. Anytime a student goes to the hospital, the college is informed. In my situation, I had a tense meeting with the dean, who didn’t believe me either, before I was required to see a school counselor. I made my way to the office in the musty former library, still smelling damp from the countless floods over the years. Thankfully, this woman did believe me, seeing that it wasn’t a situation I would knowingly put myself into.
So where did I start to solve this mystery? I lay awake in bed one night, scribbling in my phone’s Notes, writing down everything I could remember from start to finish. I contacted the hospital that had taken over for the one where I was treated to see if I could track down my files. I wasn’t overly hopeful, especially when I found out that files are usually destroyed after ten years. But I sent a request anyway and waited for a few months without a response.
Nearly six months later, I got an envelope from the hospital in Charleston that filled in the details of that night. I started to read through them, much of the medical jargon not making sense to this layman, but it soon became overwhelming. The pieces of that night started to fall together and I felt sick to my stomach. They didn’t sound like me, but it was right there in black and white.
Much of it didn’t make sense to me and I’m not sure who answered some of the questions. The few items that immediately jumped out at me were that they were unsure of what I had taken and that I was being treated for alcohol abuse and intoxication. My behavior was listed as “inappropriate.” In the section marked “Urine Drug Screen,” nothing had been selected. Why wasn’t I tested if they didn’t know what I had taken? And if I truly was being treated for alcohol abuse or intoxication, why wasn’t my stomach pumped?
Twelve years after that night, I returned to the spot where I collapsed and the ambulance picked me up. The sketchy club that welcomed underage girls is long gone, replaced by a swanky cocktail bar and restaurant. We’re now standing outside, waiting to get in for my friend’s birthday, one who was present that night. I still remember the space, the layout of the dance floor, the bar that lined the wall on the right side. Even the cobblestones that I ended up laying on. I wasn’t even close to the last woman to be drugged in one of the city’s bars. I wasn’t violated, at least not physically, but my home no longer felt safe, no longer the city where there were no strangers, just friends of friends.
That night changed me in ways I still don’t understand, a constant mystery. It should have made me more cautious, slowing down my drinking. But instead, I treated myself like I couldn’t be broken. I’d stay out with guys I didn’t know, trying to keep up drink for drink. I continued to have nights that I couldn’t remember, under wholly different circumstances. It happened in far-flung cities after nights out with new travel companions and with my closest friends at a bar in my hometown. I became like someone with Alzheimer’s, looking at faces you should know, trying to play it off as you do.
It’s now over a decade after the fact and I’m trying to figure out what happened that night. This is post-Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kavanaugh hearings, and #MeToo. These days there are people who believe women’s stories, point blank, and ones who will always question what she was wearing or doing to provoke behavior. I learned the unique type of trauma that comes from not being believed.
It’s a time when drugs used in these types of assaults are easy to get, especially Ambien, Xanax, and even Benadryl, not just GHB and Rohypnol that we learned about in school. Back then, I didn’t know anyone else who had been drugged, but now it seems to be terrifyingly common. I’ve heard countless stories of friends and acquaintances getting drugged on vacation in Mexico, on a beach in Bali, at a restaurant near their home, all initiated with this horrible rite of passage. Plenty more didn’t have friends looking out for them like I did.
It feels like this story is about someone else and in many ways, it is. I wasn’t mentally there for much of what happened that night. But I want to know.
I no longer live in the city where it happened and many of the locations are now closed. The hospital where I was taken was absorbed by another two years after it happened. The bar closed not long after my incident and the space sat vacant for years, the black and white checkered dance floor the only reminder of its past life. I kept my hospital bracelet for years as a badge of honor. The only reminder of that night is a photo taken of me, with that beer in hand, smiling shortly before collapsing.
I haven’t forgotten the silver lining to that night. It cemented my friendship with the three people that would become a part of my life for the next three years, some even longer. I was undeclared in my major at that point, years away from my decision to become a writer. And it may have taken me over a decade, but now I know why I did. It was to share stories like these so that we’re not alone in our experiences. The time for silence is long gone.
We need action. There needs to be more education about the types of drugs used in these situations beyond the well-known ones, especially because of the potential reactions to them. There are some methods for testing to see if your drink has been compromised, but they’re not widely used or affordable. Schools and hospitals, especially in college towns, need to be aware of the rampant problem. Most importantly, we need to believe victims.