Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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I had perfectly orchestrated my day (or so I thought): first a meeting with my husband about our collapsing marriage; then lunch with a girlfriend; and finally, an appointment with my therapist — although it’s almost redundant to have lunch with a girlfriend and see your therapist on the same day.
I met with my husband at the mediator’s office, to discuss our divorce. The atmosphere was tense. Each time the mediator left the room, my husband asked me if this was really it, if it was truly over, and each time I said yes. I’d had it with his cycle of anger and regret, especially having seen its effect on our four-year-old son.
Afterward, I met my girlfriend for lunch, to decompress. She knew a little about the situation with my husband, and that I’d been forced to flee my home twice within the month for reasons of safety and sanity. She suggested that I go to the Herbal Tea Emporium and buy some shen drops to “soften your heart chakra.” At that point, I was ready to try anything to feel better.
At the tea shop, the pleasant man behind the counter asked what had been going on in my life, the way a doctor might ask where it hurts. I told him about my separation, and my husband’s anger. “Well, then,” he said, “I’d suggest the shen-reishi capsules.” In no mood to argue or question, I bought them.
The last stop for the day was my therapist, but I had about an hour to kill before my appointment. I noticed a nail salon behind the tea shop and, remembering my therapist had told me to be good to myself, I went in.
The smell of nail-polish remover was a shock after the soothing aroma of incense in the tea shop. I took a seat in front of a manicurist and asked for a glass of water to wash down my first shen-reishi pill. Then I got out the papers the mediator had given me, describing how to end my marriage.
As the manicure commenced, I tried to sense any change in my heart chakra. Instead, I became aware of what a folly this all seemed: here I was having my fingernails filed, reading my divorce papers, and swallowing pills to soften my heart chakra. I had to shake my head and laugh.
A few weeks later, I noticed that my laundry was turning pink: bras, T-shirts, bedsheets. This wasn’t something in the wash, however; it was something I was exuding. Through a process of elimination, I determined that the shen-reishi capsules were the cause. Whenever I took them, a few days later my clothes turned pink, as if the hurt in my heart were coming right out through my pores. I figured they must be working and kept taking them. Besides, I like pink.
Though no scientific argument can be made regarding cause and effect, my kidney sends its first stone down my ureter after a terrible argument with my wife. Last night, for the first time in our five-year marriage, I left our bed to sleep on the couch, where I lay rigid in the darkness, listening to her taunts. Now, as I begin dressing for work, a deep, extraordinary pain between my spine and my right hip throws me across the bed. Surprised and frightened, I think an organ is about to burst.
My wife eventually appears, wrapped in a towel. A social worker specializing in crisis intervention, she stands silent and sullen in the doorway, watching me writhe in pain. I tell her I need to go to the hospital. She looks at her watch.
I spend the next two days in the hospital receiving shots of Demerol every four hours. Wheeling an IV stand beside me, I walk slow laps around the nurses’ station in a haze, trying to get the stone moving. It’s firmly lodged in my ureter, however, and I picture it there, a spiky, crystalline boulder the size of a corn kernel.
Meanwhile, my wife’s family has converged for a weekend getaway at a nearby Catskill Mountains resort. During her visits, she pressures me to check myself out of the hospital and come join the fun. “Our room is already paid for, and there’s a doctor on staff there,” she says. Deciding I can eat pain pills and drink cranberry juice anywhere, I finally agree to go.
My wife arrives to pick me up in a new Ford Taurus she’s borrowed from her sister, and I put my overnight bag in the trunk. On our way through the mountains, we stop for gasoline, and as my wife fumbles for the fuel-door release on the floor next to the driver’s seat, she inadvertently depresses a round button with a keyhole, locking the interior trunk release. There’s no trunk key on her sister’s key ring. I begin to panic: my Percocet tablets are in my bag, which is now locked in the trunk. My wife assures me that her sister will have the key.
We arrive at the sprawling resort, and a bellman strides outside to help with my inaccessible baggage. Looking at her watch, my wife suddenly realizes she has five minutes to get to a massage appointment. Handing me the car keys and our room key, she walks away backward, explaining with much pointing and arm waving that the family is all in one wing, where I will supposedly find my sister-in-law and the key to the trunk. “I’ll see you back at the room!” she calls, breaking into a jog.
I stand looking at the useless keys in my hand. A stab of pain reminds me it’s been almost four hours since my last Demerol injection. Squinting through the building’s stardusty glass façade at the cartoonish glamour of the lobby, I wonder whether I might be having a nightmare.
Security measures prevent the pimply desk clerk from telling me my sister-in-law’s room number, and there’s no answer when he calls. Taking the gold-mirrored elevator to our floor, I knock on doors until my mother-in-law appears behind one wearing a mink headband, and suggests I look for her daughter on the tennis courts. Imagining my naked, blissful wife on a massage table somewhere, I march through a series of buildings connected by glass breezeways, following signs toward the tennis courts. The pain in my back is like a siren approaching in the distance.
I finally locate my sister-in-law. “Oh, we don’t keep trunk keys on our rings,” she says. “You open it from the inside; there’s this little latch next to the driver’s seat. . . .”
Back at the reception desk, trying to conceal my full-blown panic, I ask if anyone in Maintenance can help me get the trunk open. I’m beginning to perspire and shake from the pain. The clerk says the staff locksmith left for the day about fifteen minutes ago. He loans me a ragged local Yellow Pages.
On the fourth try, I reach a locksmith who works on Saturday, and I wait for him on a cracked, faded naugahyde bench in the lobby. I’m in a cold sweat by the time a young man arrives with a large satchel of tools. After a few minutes of twiddling he decides that, without the dealer key code, there’s nothing he can do, short of punching out the entire lock cylinder and leaving a jagged hole in the trunk lid.
I trudge back to the tennis courts, limping now, and picturing my oblivious wife in a sauna, wearing a mudpack, perhaps with cucumbers over her eyes.
Courtside, I ask my sister-in-law for the name of the dealership where she purchased her car. Back at the pay phone in the lobby, I get the dealer’s number from directory assistance and dial quickly, hoping they’re still open: it’s almost five o’clock.
I’m momentarily relieved to reach a smooth-talking salesman, who locates my sister-in-law’s file in his computer. Thinking I might be a fraud or a thief, however, he refuses to give me the key code. I’ve never felt more helpless. “You don’t understand!” I shout. “My pills are locked in that trunk, and I need my pills!”
The dealership manager gets on the phone, and I relate my bizarre story from the top. My last Demerol injection is no longer having any effect, and the pain is excruciating. I can’t imagine a knife or a bullet could feel any worse. I appeal to the manager’s human side: “Please, help me. I have a five-centimeter kidney stone stuck in my ureter. I’ve got to get my pills out of that car.”
He asks to speak to the locksmith, then asks us both to wait while he confirms the existence of the locksmith’s business. Then he gives the locksmith — not me — the precious code.
Once the trunk is finally open, I pay the locksmith, tipping handsomely, and gulp down two or three pills at the water fountain. In my room, I fill the tub with hot water, climb in, and drift into a drugged sleep.
It is dark by the time my wife returns. “Oh, you’re not dressed for dinner,” she says. “Did you get your pills?”
Shokan, New York
Because we didn’t see him much, my father was able to hide his illness from us children until he was too sick to keep it a secret any longer. Now he was dying, and I had come to New Jersey to be with him. My mood alternated between disbelief and fear. How could my father, only sixty years old and full of energy, have had a fatal illness for three years?
Between visits to the hospital, I stayed at his house, where I wandered restlessly from room to room, poking through his closets, his desk, his drawers. In the bathroom, I opened the medicine cabinet, and there, on the narrow glass shelves, were bottles and bottles of pills. Most were prescribed for my father, though some were for my stepmother, and many had passed their expiration dates. They were all tranquilizers.
I experienced many feelings at once: understanding of his need to relieve his anxiety in the face of death; disdain for his weakness in having become addicted; anger at his having kept yet another secret from me — and, hard as it is to admit, an urge to take some of these pills to soothe my own burgeoning fears. I slipped a bottle into my pocket, and didn’t tell anyone what I’d found.
I took most of the pills during the last three weeks before my father died, and during the first few weeks of mourning. After that, I took one only now and then, during a rare bout of insomnia. When they were finally used up, about a year after my father’s death, I was hit by an unexpected wave of grief, as if that small bottle of neat pink tablets had kept me connected to him, to his pain and fear, to his need for secrets.
When I was twelve I was hospitalized with abscessed sinuses. I had to be given antibiotics by injection, because pills wouldn’t be strong enough. Since my beanpole arms were too thin, I received the injections on the tops of my thighs. Every eight hours a nurse would loom over my bedside, remind me to be a big boy, and then insert the needle. The pain was searing. I’d bite my lip, clutch the bedrail, and try not to cry. After the needle had come out, I’d thrash around in agony, my muscles knotted and spasming.
One nurse pointed to the large crucifix hanging on the wall at the foot of my bed and said, “Think of what it was like for him.” On subsequent visits, she would sing to me as she depressed the plunger: “Jesus hanging on the cross, / Tell me, was it I? / I see great big teardrops fall, / Did I make you cry?”
Days later, the doctor shone a light into my nasal cavity and declared me cured. But it wasn’t long before I had to be readmitted. This time, however, instead of injections, I got fat, oblong pills in a small plastic cup. I swallowed them eagerly, throwing my head back and downing a glass of juice while the nurse waited. I could have swallowed a golf ball.
The nurse who had sung to me wore a look of disappointment now, as if I were letting her — and Jesus — down by taking the easy way out. She no longer sang to me.
When I lift Annie’s tail to check for tapeworm segments, she meows and swats at me, not understanding that I’m trying to help. The segments hang like grains of orange rice in the fleecy fur around her anus — evidence that my cat is playing her natural role in the parasitic food chain: tapeworms live inside fleas; Annie swallows the fleas while cleaning herself; the worms take up residence in her digestive tract.
Annie also doesn’t understand the need for what comes next, though she probably dreads it as much as I do.
The pill is the size and color of an aspirin, with a groove down the middle. First, I pin Annie lengthwise in my lap — already she’s fighting — and cup my hand under her chin, my thumb and forefinger at the sockets of her jaw. Then I tighten my grip like a vise, forcing apart the bony hinge. The pressure required to do this is like the hunched, all-out effort of twisting open a stuck jar lid.
Annie wriggles one hind leg free and digs at my forearm, leaving a deep scratch that wells with blood. Her mouth snaps open for a second, and I pop the pill in as far back as I can, then clamp her jaw shut. She makes a strangled sound. I can feel her tongue twitching, trying to work the pill out. I stroke her throat with a finger and murmur gently to her. She glares up at me, her eyes a baleful, reptilian yellow.
I used to consider myself good at this. My family has always had cats. When I was a kid, I had to administer everything from pills to medicine drops to daily injections of insulin. But Annie, a delicate gray-and-white tabby, is stubborn in a mindless, implacable way that often frustrates me to the point of rage. Sometimes, in the middle of helping her, I just want to wrap my fingers around the soft fur of her throat and squeeze.
Still holding her mouth shut, I watch the clock go from 9:47 to 9:51. Finally, figuring the pill must have gone down by now, I release her. Annie smacks her lips, pink tongue flexing behind sharp teeth, and produces a dollop of froth in which the pill, now partially dissolved and ragged around the edges, rides like the yolk of an egg.
Cursing her, I scrape the pill out of the warm, slimy spittle, stuff it back in Annie’s mouth, and clamp down. Annie struggles even harder to free herself, gouging my hands, clawing my arms, and marking me with the musky smell of a frightened animal. Her head is soaked with her own saliva, her hair punk-spiky. She looks half drowned, and makes a noise somewhere between a moan and a growl.
“Swallow it!” I cry. “Swallow the fucking pill!”
I will win this fight, eventually. Afterward, she’ll run to a corner of the apartment and clean herself, regaining her composure. At my bathroom sink, I’ll do the same. Soon she’ll meow at the door to be let outside, where she’ll pick up more fleas, and in a couple of weeks the tapeworm segments will reappear. Until then, we’ll be at peace: happy owner, happy pet.
For the moment, though, we’re stuck here in my bedroom, me in my chair, her trapped in my lap — each wishing the other dead.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
When I was in high school the only full-length mirror in the house was in my older brother’s room. He’d graduated more than a decade earlier and now worked for our dad’s small concrete-contracting business. They were gone from sunrise to sunset each day, weather permitting.
Every morning, on the way to my brother’s mirror, I would pass his dresser, its top covered with needles, spoons, matches, and a dusting of yellow powder. Percodan was his drug of choice, although he also took amphetamines to get him through those twelve-hour workdays. Once, he gave me a couple of Preludins, and before long I was happily paying him $17.50 apiece for them: a large chunk of my $1.85-an-hour wages at Dairy Queen.
Meanwhile, our home was unfinished and filthy, with half a dozen cats spraying the unpainted drywall and defecating at will. Only narrow walkways were left between boxes and clutter. Mom was depressed and miserable. She weighed about three hundred pounds, and never climbed the steps to the second floor, where our bedrooms were. Dad slept alone in the basement.
In high school I was obsessed with what was normal. Was it normal that a grown son could openly use drugs in his parents’ house? Was it normal for parents to sleep in different bedrooms? Was it normal that Mom left open cans of cream-of-mushroom soup in the living room and made tent dresses by folding fabric over once and cutting a neck hole on top? I struggled to prove that I was normal. I was class president. I had the lead in the school musical. I was prom queen. Yet even today I long for a pill, a drink, anything to escape from reality.
I started taking birth-control pills in college, when I was twenty-one. A pregnancy then would have disrupted my plans to finish college, go to graduate school, get a job, make money, and have a nice home and a secure life. My boyfriend and I were careful. About to leave for work after a night of passionate sex, he would smile down at me, nod to the little container on the night stand, and say, “Don’t forget to take your pill.”
I am thirty-five now, and my life has gone according to plan. I have the degrees, the job, the money, the nice home, and the secure life. My boyfriend and I have gotten married. I do not take birth-control pills anymore; I now want those postponed children. Getting pregnant, however, is not as easy as I once feared. Despite months of frustration and a heartbreaking miscarriage, we have continued to try. These days, after a night of purposeful sex, my husband smiles down at me as he leaves for work. My hips are elevated by a pillow to try to hold in his precious fluid. He nods at the prenatal vitamins on the night stand. “Don’t forget to take your pills,” he says.
Pills were a familiar part of my childhood back in the fifties. Everyone on my father’s side of the family used amphetamines the way most people drink coffee. My dad took a “pick-me-up” on weekends to get more yardwork done; my Seventh Day Adventist grandma took “a pill” each Saturday morning to keep her awake during her long church service; and my beatnik-artist aunts ate “bennies” like breath mints. When studying for high-school and college exams, I, too, turned to the old family remedy. I never saw anyone get irrational or psychotic from using pills — except for maybe Aunt Bev.
Aunt Bev rode an amphetamine-and-barbiturate roller coaster for decades, but had to quit in her later years because of an accident that left her epileptic. After that, she had to take pills like Dilantin, hating the way they made her feel. Once, while reminiscing to me about the better pills she’d taken, she proudly confessed, “I was leaving a drugstore some years ago when I noticed a bottle of Dexedrine the size of a fruit jar in the pharmacist’s area, near the exit. There was no one around, so I just picked it up and walked out. When I got home and saw the bottle was full, I felt immortal, like I had all the time in the universe.”
The summer I was fourteen, my mom was dying of cancer. I was forced to stay inside during the long, hot days, to empty her catheter bag, fix her lunch, give her sponge baths, and organize her medications.
Each day, while watching The Young and the Restless, I’d sit on the floor in the living room and divide her pills into separate containers for morning, noon, and night. Sometimes I’d open all the bottles and dump the pills into one big pile on the blue carpet, remembering to leave at least one pill in each bottle so that later I could put them all back correctly. I was fascinated by the different shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. Some were powdery, like aspirin; some were soft but firm, like jello; and others were hard and shiny, as if shellacked. I’d arrange the pills into pictures of mountains and stick people and houses. Then I’d mess them up — hundreds of pills scattered about — and move them around again, one by one, to make patterns, a circle, a maze.
My mom died that November. After the flurry of the funeral passed, I came home from school one day to a quiet house. Out of habit, I went directly to my parents’ room, where I found my mother’s rented hospital bed gone and her medicine and lotions cleared from the night stand. For the first time, the reality of her loss hit me. Panicked, I rushed to the trash can to rescue her bottles of pills. I emptied one into my cupped hand, filled my mouth with pills, and swallowed hard. Then I curled up on the floor and started crying.
Within moments, I realized what I’d done. I ran to the bathroom, fell to my knees in front of the toilet, and stuck my finger down my throat. Flushing, I watched the symbols of our suffering swirl and disappear.
Ithaca, New York
When I was a child, I eagerly anticipated my grandmother’s annual month-long visits from Germany. I loved everything about her — her lavender-scented cologne; her ample bosom (which she referred to as her “balcony”); the clear polish on her fingernails; the hint of a British accent beneath her German one; the way she’d sigh, “Oh-la-la,” as she dropped into a chair; even the ritual she’d developed around her array of medications. I’d watch, rapt, as she lined up the bottles and shook the pills into a saucer. With each bottle she’d say in German the name of its corresponding ailment: “Hertz. Blutdruckung. Ischias.” (Heart. Blood pressure. Sciatica.)
Over time, due to crises and slow-dawning awareness of our differences, my family splintered, and we all fell from each other’s grace. I tried to make my life as unlike that of my immigrant relations as possible.
Now I’m forty-two and trying to stave off mortality. I take a lot of dietary supplements. Sometimes I catch myself reciting, “Echinacea. Antioxidant. Calcium. Acidophilus,” and I wonder if I’ve ended up more like my grandmother than I ever would have thought.
Susan E. Fernbach
At Vacaville State Prison, my bunkmate’s name was Tommy. Tommy was a J-CAT, which was the prison’s way of saying he was crazy. But I didn’t care; he was cool by me.
Every morning, the nurse would come by and give Tommy his daily medication: a small zip-lock baggie containing about a dozen pills. Instructions affixed to the bag told Tommy what pills to take at what times, but he didn’t pay them any attention. He would save the bags up until he had about three or four days’ worth, then take all the pills at once, stuffing his mouth full and washing them down with a cup of instant coffee.
The pills would knock Tommy out for a good forty-eight hours, and for the next twenty-four he would wake up briefly now and then but stay in bed. On the fourth day, I’d help him get dressed and lead him down to the chow hall to try to get some food into his system. He’d be a sorry sight, barely able to hold his tray, shaking like a dog taking a shit in a rainstorm.
After an episode like that, Tommy would declare how stupid it was to take that many pills at once, and vow never to do it again. While he recuperated, he would abstain from taking any medication, throwing the bags into his locker. Of course, after he had saved up a few bags, he would jam his mouth full of pills and wash them down with an other cup of coffee.
Tommy had a collection of self-inflicted scars on the insides of his forearms. The scars embarrassed him, because they made his suffering visible to the world. A tattoo artist, I agreed to try to cover the scars. The ink could not hide the lumpiness of the tissue, but it did help to camouflage the marks.
I would hate to think that there are any new scars over the tattoos, not because I worry about the artwork, but because I hope Tommy no longer feels the need to do that to himself.
Crescent City, California
Before I became manic-depressive, I believed madness came from some dark place in the soul, like evil. Now I see it is a biological disorder, like diabetes, never cured, but (with luck) kept in check by medication.
Psychotropic drugs are a double-edged sword. The primary law of medicine is “First, do no harm,” but they all do harm, and require constant effort to balance the bad with the good. Right now, my drug cocktail consists of lithium, Synthroid, Cytomel, Wellbutrin, Depakote, and Ambien, with Inderal taken as needed. Every month, I spend fifteen minutes going over this regimen with my psychopharmacologist, a doctor who specializes in treating mood disorders with drugs. On the Internet, we call them “pdocs.”
Lithium, my most important medication, keeps me from becoming manic. It has a great array of possible side effects, some of them intolerable. I’m lucky. It merely causes me to pee every two hours. I drink two gallons of water a day, because if I don’t get enough, I could start to lose kidney function.
Synthroid, a synthetic version of the common thyroid hormone, helps keep me from becoming depressed, but at the same time suppresses another thyroid hormone, so I have to add Cytomel to balance it. Cytomel causes my hands to tremble as if I had Parkinson’s— enough that I can’t write. Inderal helps with the tremor, but I have to watch out; it can cause depression.
Wellbutrin, a new antidepressant, carries with it the risk of mania. Five days after I started taking it, I felt great! I would get up every morning and dance before breakfast. Then my pdoc added Depakote, a mood stabilizer, which brought me back to normal. Depakote, however, causes me to binge eat. A lot of people gain fifty pounds on it, but so far I haven’t.
Wellbutrin had its own side effect: insomnia. When I began waking up each morning at 3 or 4 A.M., my pdoc reluctantly gave me Ambien, the most-prescribed sleeping medication in America. As far as I know, Ambien is the only drug I take that has no side effects for me, although my internist thinks it could be the cause of my unexplained bursts of fatigue.
Lately, I’m feeling human: the side effects are tolerable — for now.
One afternoon, when I returned home from school, the sheriff, the doctor, and my father were leading my mother away. She wore a secondhand fake-fur coat that looked more green than black and in the bright sunlight appeared covered with gold dust. They were taking her to the state mental hospital, these men, taking her away because she wouldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t talk without yelling or crying. They put her in the back seat of the sheriff’s car, a large gold star on the door, and drove away.
My mother’s sister took me to stay with her for a month. During that time, my father never took a drink, and brought my two brothers to see me once a week while my aunt washed his clothes.
The day my mother returned, she walked into her father’s grocery store, where I was selling Girl Scout cookies — 125 boxes in just one weekend. When I saw my mother come in, I dropped the box of cookies I was holding. I felt as if I were being filmed, and knew I was expected to be overcome with joy and run to my mother and fling my arms around her waist. And I did run to her, aware as I ran that people were watching me and perhaps saying to themselves, Oh, look how much she loves her mother; look how much she missed her. Everything is going to be all right now. But when I looked up into my mother’s face, everything was not all right. That same look was there — the one she had worn in the bedroom while she stared at the ceiling and cried.
She stayed home after that, but now she took “nerve medicine,” tiny olive pills, every morning and every night. The pills made her drowsy. When she wasn’t cooking, she was on the couch sleeping. She gained weight and talked even less than before. If you asked her a question, you’d have to repeat it and say, “Did you hear me?” And she would turn her head and say, “Oh, yeah.” In fourth grade I got roller skates for Christmas and asked her if I could skate in the house. “Oh, yeah,” she said. So I roller-skated through the house all winter while my mother lay with her eyes closed on the couch.
Many years later, when I returned home with my husband for a visit, I noticed at once that my mother’s speech was still slurred, her movements still slow and thick. I told her to ask her doctor whether she still needed to take those pills after all this time. He said she could stop if she wanted to; it was up to her.
So she stopped. And she began to talk. She talked about what she did when she woke up each morning; about who had died and how they had looked in the coffin at the wake; about what she was cooking and how the birds perched on the branch outside the kitchen window. Sometimes she talked nonstop, and when there was a lull she would say, “Yeah,” or, “Soooo” — anything to fill the silence.
One day, I asked her why they had taken her away in the sheriff’s car. She said she’d been going through the “change of life,” and it all had gotten to be too much for her. And sometimes now she was so angry at my father she wished she could send him away as he had done to her.
And when I asked my father why he had done it, he cried, remembering that when she’d gone to the mental hospital, the doctor had told him she would never return; remembering how he’d had to live with the thought of going it alone for that long month, until finally she had returned — at least, the part of her not stolen by those little green pills.
Diann A. McCabe
San Marcos, Texas
When I was a teenage girl growing up in rural Michigan in the seventies, my grandfather would often lecture me on how the country was “going to hell in a handbasket” thanks to the “pill-poppers, pushers, and goddamn drug addicts.” I never told him that I and most of my friends fell into that category.
One day, my grandmother and I went to the hospital to visit my grandfather, who was convalescing from a hernia operation. We found him in bed, sleeping like a baby. My grandmother frowned and tried to wake him. His eyes cracked open and rolled around once or twice before he sank back into a peaceful, vegetative slumber. Fearing that something was seriously wrong, Grandmother went in search of a doctor. I stayed behind and watched my grandfather sleep. I had never seen him this way before: he hadn’t shaved for three days, his hair was uncombed, and his dentures were falling half out of his mouth, causing drool to run down his chin.
My grandmother shot furiously back into the room and started slapping his face, demanding, “Harry, you wake up right now!”
My grandfather opened his eyes and struggled to focus on Grandmother’s face, just inches from his.
“The doctor says you’ve been taking pain pills for three days!” she shouted. “And he says you keep asking for more! Why do you keep asking for more?”
My grandfather sucked air through his lips and wrapped them around his dentures, trying to pull the teeth back into his mouth. Then he wiped away the drool with the back of his hand, smiled, and said, “It’s beautiful.”
Grandmother sent me home.
The next day, I went back to visit my grandfather, and he was once again his normal, feisty self: cleanshaven, hair combed, dentures back in his mouth. He told me about his operation, and how bad the hospital food was. I had planned somehow to ask what drugs he had been taking, but I chickened out. Soon he launched into his same old lecture, but with a new twist. The nation was still “going to hell in a handbasket,” he proclaimed, but this time the doctors were to blame, because “the doctors are turning people into goddamn drug addicts!”
C. Avery Blumbergs
Lake Orion, Michigan
Jeff and I had been together for nine months when I started taking the pill. At once, I felt liberated from the itchy ooze of spermicidal jelly, and from Jeff’s complaints about the discomfort of condoms. Now we could be spontaneous and rash — sex any time, any place! Best of all, I’d no longer have to suffer anxiety about my periods, which before had swung from twenty-seven to forty-two days.
The pill was like a miracle: my acne cleared up, my horrendous cramps disappeared, my moods evened out, and my breasts swelled voluptuously. I didn’t even gain any weight, as I’d been warned I might. I felt the way a feminist in the seventies must have felt: one little pill had put me in charge of my reproduction and sexuality. I was free and powerful.
A year and a half later, things began to change. My skin sprouted a pimple or two every month. I started to get frequent colds. I was irritable and withdrawn, so that even though I could have sex “any time, any place,” I was hypercritical of Jeff and wanted only to be alone. My gums bled, my cramps returned, and I had headaches every night. My doctor didn’t think the pill could be the cause of my problems. Maybe I was depressed, he said. But, after a few tense discussions with Jeff about the benefits of condoms, I stopped taking the pill altogether.
Now I feel free in a different way: I am truly in charge of my body because I’m not using artificial hormones to control it. I like the fact that Jeff is taking his turn at being in charge of birth control. The acne is back, and so are the cramps, but to alleviate them I practice yoga and try to avoid caffeine and sugar. I’m less withdrawn. My periods are back to their usual fluctuations, subject to stress, exercise, and sex. But I like it this way. I accept that my body is often a mystery — complex, fragile, and uncertain — and that I can never be completely in charge. My body is a tangle of curves and shadows and whispers that will not submit to the simplistic control of one little pill.
My father built a special safe for my mother’s pills into the top shelf of the bathroom cabinet: a half-inch plywood door with a brass lock. He could have saved himself the effort; I was no more interested in that shelf than my pill-popping, teetotaling mother was interested in her father’s liquor cabinet.
Valium, Librium, Motrin. They came in cloudy orange vials with childproof caps that I’d been opening since the age of five. My mother, incapacitated by what she’d already ingested, would pass them to me after failing, with fingers, teeth, and the edge of the counter, to open them herself.
Cafergot, Elavil. The Physician’s Desk Reference, with its listings of drug dosages and effects, sat beside the Bible and the dictionary on our bookshelf. Darvon and Darvocet, Percodan and Percocet. My mother’s pain defied diagnosis. She changed doctors every few years, carefully overseeing the transfer of her burgeoning medical history. By the time I was an adolescent, she was traveling for treatment to New York or Chicago for weeks at a time. At home, she was unconscious for days under heavy medication.
Uppers, downers, painkillers, muscle relaxants, antidepressants, tranquilizers. She would not leave the house — even to go to the store — without a clutch of pills and a thermos of water. Plans to attend social events were frequently aborted, with a plausible alibi: she was stressed; stress caused pain; pain warranted pills; pills incapacitated her.
Stelazine, Thorazine, Sansert. Years of psychiatric treatment ended in psychoactive drugs, fits of rage, and ultimately a locked ward. She called and asked me to smuggle drugs in for her. “There’s some screw-up,” she whispered into the pay phone opposite the nurses’ station. “They say there’s no order for my pills. But I know the doctor said I should have them.”
I brought her the pills.
“I could have brought them in myself,” she said. “They never even searched me. I had scissors in my bag.” Her eyes were wide. “Look how sharp they are. Can you imagine if one of these nuts got ahold of them?”
By age thirteen, I had become a problem child. Depending on which psychological theory you believe, I was either acting out the family’s anger due to my parents’ divorce, rebelling because of my stepfather’s drinking, or declaring my uniqueness in a homogenized society. Probably all of the above. In any case, I was miserable and didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere.
My family kept trying to figure out what was wrong with me, but never thought to look at themselves. They figured the problem was with me, or maybe at school. So they sent me to a prestigious private school, believing I would get more individual attention there.
At my new school, there was a smoking lounge for the upper classes. Juniors and seniors could use it. Ninth- and tenth-graders had to have permission from their parents to be there. Eighth-graders like me were definitely not allowed. I was there on a regular basis.
A ninth-grader named Cathy decided she didn’t like me. She would intimidate me and block the lounge doorway when I tried to leave. I thought it must be because I wasn’t cool enough for her. She was the only person who treated me that way, so of course she was the only one whose opinion of me seemed to matter.
Deciding that doing drugs would make me cool, I went into my parents’ medicine cabinet and stole a bottle of pills prescribed for my mother. I brought them to school so that everyone would see I was cool enough to get high, and not afraid to do it at school. I didn’t know they were sleeping pills. I took twelve.
I remember being unable to stand up. I remember my history teacher asking another student what was wrong with me. By the time I was taken to the hospital in an ambulance, I was unconscious. I vaguely recall being given something to make me throw up, and my mother and stepfather standing next to my bed, and a police officer handing me his card and telling me to give him a call if I ever wanted to talk.
Convinced that I’d tried to kill myself, my family sent me to a child psychiatrist. I sat in his office and refused to talk to him.
Sometime after I’d returned to school, I passed Cathy in the smoking lounge. She stopped me and said, “I heard about what you did. It was pretty cool.”
Grass Valley, California
My grandparents’ bimonthly trek to the doctor’s office began days before the appointment, with a whirlwind of cooking: gefilte fish, baked apples, peach pies, shav (don’t ask), and dozens of chocolate-chip cookies — all gifts for the good doctor. It took nearly as long to load this cornucopia into the car as it did to drive into Manhattan.
We would sit for hours in the ornate waiting room, until the time came for my father and his parents to receive their medications. Forget prescriptions and drugstores. Their doctor had a set of large metal filing cabinets filled with hundreds of pill bottles. He would spin around in his rolling chair, opening and shutting drawers with a flourish, extracting a bottle here and a bottle there until his desk mounted with an assortment of pills in various colors, sizes, and shapes. Then he’d give curt directions as to their use as he poured them into smaller bottles, which my grandmother would pack into her pocketbook. She and my father and grandfather never doubted that these pills would cure them of their host of ailments (from which they nonetheless continued to suffer). The pills did not save my father when that same doctor misdiagnosed his colon cancer as an ulcer.
As an adult, I abandoned all medications in search of a more natural way of life. Feeling a rush of freedom, I flushed my pills away. Good health and good luck kept me off medication until, at age forty, I was given a package of estrogen and a video. Holding the tiny blue pill in my hand, I crossed the threshold between my childbearing years and the nether world of menopause.
Now, seven years later, my morning ritual includes a rainbow coalition of pills: yellow triangles for cholesterol, orange footballs for irregular heartbeat, blue and white dots to jump-start my ovaries each month, white baseballs for back pain. The list varies, but it doesn’t dwindle.
On Wednesday nights, we perform the pillbox ritual — and it is a ritual, as much an act of faith as any religious rite. A week’s worth of medication adds up to hundreds of pills; we organize them in a box the size of a lasagna pan, dividing them among its twenty-eight compartments. Sitting in bed, surrounded by little bottles, Gladys shakes, counts, and plunks out the majority of the pills, while I snip open the endless foil packets of Cyclosporine: enormous dusty pink capsules that reek of skunk and dominate the pillbox with their heft; Gladys currently takes seventeen of them a day.
Cyclosporine is the drug that revolutionized organ transplants, making rejection far less frequent. But it’s been around for more than ten years now, and its drawbacks have become clear. Ironically, it’s toxic to the kidneys, so a very delicate balance must be achieved: too little, and the kidney is rejected; too much, and it’s ruined. It also raises blood pressure — another possible cause of kidney failure. Like all immunosuppressants, it increases the risk of cancer and “opportunistic infections.” And each capsule costs about ten bucks, so Gladys’s current regimen, I figure, runs her HMO more than five thousand dollars a month.
On an instructional video, a mother gushed into the camera, “Thank you to the Sandoz Corporation for making this wonderful drug, Cyclosporine, which is keeping my daughter alive.” (Sandoz had sponsored the video, of course.) But it’s hard for me to imagine that these malodorous, bullet-shaped pink monstrosities are what’s keeping the woman I love alive. These, and the hundreds of other pills we plunk weekly into her box, instead seem to me more like a pact with the devil.
Lora, a woman in our support group who got a new liver a couple of years ago, told us that she has a note taped above the dresser where she keeps her pills. It reads: “This is better than the alternative.” We repeat this phrase often.
These days, when Gladys and I smell skunk on the highway, we both call out at once, “Cyclosporine!” It’s the same damned smell. And then we laugh. We have to laugh.
Ruth L. Schwartz