Adobe and schizophrenia: a personal journey
I know from regular responses to this column that some readers believe my admiration for mud to be a puerile obsessive-compulsive complex possibly derived from growing up in a family that drilled water wells. The obsession is bad enough, but I have experienced other psychoses as well, directly or indirectly attributable to my favorite building material.
In 1993 I presented a paper in Silves, Portugal, entitled "The purpose and mechanics of lime renders." I was utterly unqualified to have been published on the topic, but was, and my colleagues for nearly twenty years now have been kind in eliding references. That conference in Portugal was life enhancing, despite my cheek, because it led to the one and only first-hand experience I have had with schizophrenia.
When the conference in Silves was over my wife Ann and I drove to Madrid, Spain, with a detour through Morocco. In Algeciras, the night before we were to take the ferry across the strait, I felt the unmistakable onset of a gout attack. As I was without my prescription of a very effective drug called allopurinol (it along with much else having been stolen from our car in Seville) I made a trip to the pharmacy.
The woman behind the counter was not a pharmacist but tried very earnestly to accommodate. I asked for the pills, which I have done many times in Spanish in other countries, and she asked me to repeat myself. "Al-o-poor-ee-nól." This drug is sold over the counter practically everywhere but here, so I was surprised when she looked at me closely and asked for a prescription. I told her I didn’t carry it and when she got reluctant I appealed to her sympathies by telling how my medication had been stolen and that I was beginning to feel symptoms. At that she flinched, backed a step away and asked me to come back in an hour after she had a chance to clear it with the pharmacist who was off duty. A strange reaction to a request for a very benign substance, but in the end I got the drug along with effusive best wishes for its effectiveness. In the meantime the gout subsided on its own.
Two days later Ann and I were limping south from Tangier in a wreck of a Peugeot when I turned to her and asked that she hand me a couple of my pills. She pulled out the prescription and dumped three blue tablets into her hand. We commented that the color was weird but oh, well, and I took two.
All was well that day and we explored various earthen sites and souks on the way to Rabat. The following day we decided to drive inland. I was beginning to feel a little annoyed with the car and, rarely for me, with the whole country. As the day wore on my annoyance with everything and everybody grew.
That evening we found a pretty nice hotel in Meknés and sat down for dinner. That was the moment it really hit me. What the hell was I doing in this pit sitting down to food that I didn't like and why was Ann acting so suspicious of me and why didn't they tell us the hotel backed up on the train tracks? In an uncharacteristic fit of pique I abruptly bolted from the table, insulted the waiter who was just bringing the meal and went down to get something out of the car. Ann was appalled.
I got what I wanted from the car but in the process of locking it the one key we had snapped off in the lock. Damn this car! Damn this place! Damn these people! I hurled the key stub into the street.
What happened next truly warms the heart but at the time I was convinced it was all part of a nefarious plot. It was well after dark and the low wattage streetlights cast an evil pall. As I stood there with my anger and irrationality growing, a young man approached and in broken English asked if he could help. No. There’s nothing you can do, just leave me alone. Well, he responded, if we hurry the locksmith down the street may be able to help. Yeah, right; leave me alone. Thief.
Without another word the stranger began searching the street for the key stub that he had seen me fling. It took a while in the dim light, but he found it. He then took out a pocketknife and managed to dig the shank out of the lock. Even in my fey mood I was impressed – but still suspicious. Come, he said, and took me by the arm at a trot to an old blind locksmith who was just closing up. Terrific, a blind locksmith.
The old man took us into a tiny shop that was strewn with thousands of keys and, as a courtesy to us, screwed in a 20-watt bulb so we could see. He worked the pieces of the key in his fingers, held them up within two inches of his failed eyes as if to divine an image and went to work. He felt through piles of old keys and blanks and finally found the one he wanted. The rest was easy and the young man turned to me with a nod and a smile when the key worked.
He wished me good night and disappeared. Neither he nor the locksmith would accept payment.
The next day was the worst. My throat dried out and began to spasm. Finally I had to turn the driving over to Ann while I used a tee-shirt to grip my tongue to keep from swallowing it. We headed north as fast as the junker would take us, and we both began to think that this adventure could have a really bad ending.
Well after dark Ann found a hotel in Tetouan and I was once again convinced that everyone in the parking lot, in the darkened lobby, in the hallway, was plotting to get us. Fortunately, by morning, both the physical and mental symptoms had begun to abate. We headed home.
Unpacking back in Santa Fe I found the Spanish prescription. I belatedly did what I should have done in Morocco, duh; I read the label. It all became clear –- especially the alarm on the face of the woman in the pharmacy: When I had asked for allopurinol, she had repeatedly heard "haloperidol," a powerful drug used to treat paranoid schizophrenia. Among those who are not so afflicted, the medication itself can invoke schizophrenic behavior -- as I can attest.
I take this experience as a self-informing cautionary tale; I now allow my enthusiasm for mud walls to be governed only by my simple, developmental psychosis and assiduously avoid drug-induced enhancement. Perhaps I should also pay homage to the karmic reality that, counter-intuitively, was positive: I paid instantly for the incompetence of my lime presentation in Silves.