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My Boner-Pill Habit Became a Dependence on Nasal Spray

Allow me to explain.

by Grant Stoddard
Mar 4 2019, 11:00pm

Juan Moyano / Stocksy

In the summer of 2015, my wife decided that our seven-year open marriage was no longer for her. In the blink of an eye, her secondary partner became her primary partner, and I was her ex. Together, they committed to monogamy and, a year or two later, procreation.

Given that non-monogamy was something she’d persuaded me to try, I was pretty miffed, but as there was no recourse, I decided to step aside with minimal fuss. Within weeks, I’d moved back across the continent, and on the face of it, it was like our marriage had never happened. Now, what I maybe ought to have done at that point is spoken with a mental health professional. Instead, I went on a 24-month, full-throttle fucking spree that ended up with me afraid to leave the house without a bottle of Afrin Severe Congestion spray on my person. Allow me to explain.

My two-year bender wasn’t about promiscuous sex—though admittedly there was a little of that at first—but instead a headlong dive into polyamory. Though sex was an important part of the three relationships I was juggling as ethically and transparently as I could, I was just as excited to boyfriend. In fact, I made boyfriending my job. I made up for the shortfall in profits from my actual job by using the money I received from my ex-wife buying me out of the condo we owned. Wise.

There were elaborate excursions, dinners, and trips out of town. Six or seven nights a week, I was a mixologist, chef, Zagat guide, Netflix co-binger, experience curator, and sexual fantasy fulfillment specialist. I wanted to be a gatekeeper to every kind of fun imaginable, like a horny, heartbroken Willy Wonka.

In retrospect, I can see that I was working out some serious issues, but all I knew at the time was that I was fucking exhausted and needed pharmaceuticals to keep up with the life I’d created. Don’t get ahead of me. I’m not talking about nasal spray just yet. I’m talking about boner pills which were a sort of gateway drug, I suppose.

A friend had been buying generic sildenafil—the active ingredient in Viagra—from a company in India (not an endorsement, btw) and was happy to sell me as many as I wanted. The pills were $5 each, but my friend told me I’d only need to take a third to a half of a pill on the days when I felt that my energy reserves were unusually low. I used them sparingly at first, but when six out of every seven nights was a date night—replete with one or two morning rounds followed by me whipping up a pancake breakfast—I began to rely on the pills. Hard.


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The thing is, sildenafil has side effects. “It’s a vasodilator, meaning that it opens blood vessels and increases blood flow,” explains Michael Reitano, New York-based sexual health specialist and doctor-in-residence at health startup, Ro. “Sildenafil is something users really do well to titrate.” Reitano refers, here, to adjusting the dosage accordingly. How much you need in order to feel better is dependent on a number of factors that could include how much you’ve had to drink, how tired you are, your state of mind, and a host of other things besides. “If you were experiencing side effects, it might have been that you were using more than the minimum effective dose," he tells me.

Sildenafil can be great for giving you a crowbar-hard erection that’s impervious to alcohol, cocaine, exhaustion, and episodic indifference, but it gave me flushed cheeks, bright red ears, and a very stuffy nose because it turns out that blood vessels are everywhere. The blushing and ear thing I could deal with, but when you can’t breathe through your nose, performing oral sex becomes virtually impossible—dangerous, even. Moreover, how my partners’ hair, skin, and various other parts' smell is an extraordinary turn-on for me. So while I was sporting an indomitable, four-hour erection that I could hammer nails with after popping a quarter of a pill, I couldn’t smell, so I was paradoxically less turned on and less effective than I was au naturel.

During one early sildenafil-fueled session, I realized that the tradeoff was becoming untenable. But instead of admitting that my self-inflicted schedule was too much for me, I made a 2 AM run to the bodega to pick up some nasal spray. I’d never used it before, but friends with occasional nasal congestion swore by it.

I tore open the package and administered a mega dose on the 30-second walk back from the bodega. By the time I got my clothes back off, it felt like a fresh, minty breeze was whistling through every nook and cranny of my skull.

The funny thing is that I’d always thought that the stuffing in a stuffy nose was snot, but it’s chiefly the swelling of tissues in the nose. “Oxymetazoline is the active ingredient in most over-the-counter nasal sprays,” says Raj Sindwani, vice chairman of the rhinology, sinus & skull base surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. "It’s a vasoconstrictor, meaning that it has the opposite effect on blood vessels than sildenafil does.”

From the next several months, I reached for the miraculous nasal spray whenever the sildenafil caused congestion, though I sometimes noticed that I was often stuffy before date night got underway. I figured this had to do with the half-life (the amount of time it takes for your body to metabolize 50 percent of a drug) of the sildenafil. It wasn’t until I went home to visit my parents—and took a couple of much-needed weeks off from boyfriending—that I noticed my nose still felt as though a wet California king duvet had been stuffed into it. A little poking around online revealed that I should have read the nasal spray packaging I chucked into a garbage can while running back to my place to resume having sex. I’d done far too much, far too often. I was hooked.

“Yeah, you really shouldn’t use a topical decongestant for more three days,” Sindwani says. “It says that on the label.” Oxymetazoline, he tells me, works well in the short term but after a while, it can make the tissue inside your nose swell even more, something he calls a “rebound effect.” Known medically as rhinitis medicamentosa, this self-inflicted rebound congestion will often cause people—um, people like me—to use even more oxymetazoline, unwittingly making the problem much worse.

I ended up going cold turkey and, after a few uncomfortable days and nights of mouth-breathing, the situation improved. However, Sindwani says there are alternatives to going either cold turkey or gradually weaning yourself off oxymetazoline. “You’ll see three classes of over-the-counter nasal spray in the drug store,” he says “Topical decongestants that contain oxymetazoline, saline nasal sprays, and steroid sprays [like Flonase] which are often effective at relieving the rebound effect.”

Once I got back home to New York, I decided to stop putting so much pressure on myself to host, entertain, and perform for my partners. My chemical mishap led me to engage in a little introspection and soon afterward, I realized I’d worked out whatever was compelling me to make dating my number-one priority. Though I remain resistant to the trappings of monogamy on a philosophical level, I’m happy to be down to one girlfriend, no boner pills, and zero decongestant.

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