How We’re Defined By A Lifetime Of Pills
By Carley Moore
From chewable vitamins to Lexapro, a story of pills in 13 vignettes.
* 1 *
I woke up early to cry. I did this sometimes. Out of exhaustion or sadness or to fit it in before my daughter woke up. I scrolled through articles on my phone — The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Daily Mail — about the terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad. Shooters opening fire into a packed stadium and concert hall, a suicide bomber still half alive in a pool of blood talking to a gathering crowd, and a tweet that ISIS referred to these attacks as “miracles.”
I texted my mother. “Are you awake?”
I called her and cried more into the phone. I said the hollow and true things we sometimes say, “It’s so awful. I’m thinking about all of those people who have lost someone. I don’t understand this world.”
The night before, I’d been texting with a stranger. We’d found each other on dating site called Happn, which tracks your movements and let’s you know who you’ve you cross paths with on the streets of New York. It reminded me of the old Village Voice ads for missed connections, except you can’t miss any connections, as long as the other person is also on the site. We haven’t yet met in person. We are already texting too much. As someone who has been single now for almost three years, I know how easy it is to create a person out of language. The sooner you meet the better.
I said the hollow and true things we sometimes say.
“Feeling sad about the world,” I texted him.
“Me too. Very sad,” he texted back.
The afternoon before, I sat at a fractious faculty meeting. Many people were silent. Some of us spoke. The process and outcomes were obscure at best. Our dean read a statement at the beginning and then promised to be silent. He was not. One of our Chairs, cried out near the end, “I don’t want to do this!” and slumped back down in his seat. We were drafting a response to the Provost. It was a place of somewhat hopeless middles. We are long-term contract faculty negotiating for new titles and raises. Another man in the room, said “No!” so many times that it began to rattle around in my head like daddy scolds used to do — an instruction to give up and slink away. I stayed.
As I wrote the next morning, post-tears, in an effort to make something as an antidote to terror, I wondered how I would have felt in that meeting, while texting a stranger, and while reading more horrible news on-line, if I were on Lexapro.
I knew I would feel better. Less edge. Less shoulder strain. Less worry. Less crying. Less, hopeless, maddening rage at the stupid, fucking world.
* 2 *
My first pill was a children’s chewable vitamin my mother bought from a vitamin salesman, across state lines, in the next town over. My mother kept them on a high shelf in the cupboard with the spices. She administered one a day to my brother and me. Grape. Orange. Cherry. Lime. I always wanted the grape flavor. Or gum too, on the rare occasions I got it. My brother wanted orange.
The high shelf didn’t stop us from using the stool by the phone, to climb onto the counter and sneak extra vitamins when my mother wasn’t around.
Don’t eat too many. Mom will know. You could die.
In those early years, ours was not a house with candy in it. My mother kept a tight reign on sweets. Birthday cake. Homemade cookies. Yes. But these treats were rare. I begged to lick the bowl when she baked; annoyed that she had scraped so much of the batter off the sides and into the pan.
* 3 *
My brother picked my daughter and me up from the airport. My 11-year-old nephew was curled up in the back seat of the SUV. We didn’t talk about the real things because of the kids. Instead, I told him about my consulting job at the private girls’ school. I asked about his business and how many companies he was working with.
“Nine, right now.”
We talked about a trip to Los Angeles, where he would meet a potential client. I pretended to understand, as I always do, the art of selling.
As we drove past my Rust Belt hometown’s struggling Main Street, I asked about a new restaurant and the soon-to-be-built Comedy Hall of Fame.
“Downtown is darker than you remember it. You wouldn’t like it anymore,” my brother said this ominously. “The drug situation, the Oxycontin abuse, people have been writing about it.”
The next day, on the way to the mall with my mother, my daughter in the backseat, I asked her about the Oxycontin. She was telling me about the new Cuban restaurant downtown and her belief that a lot of artists are moving back. I was skeptical about both the Cuban restaurant and the artists, but I didn’t say.
“Yeah,” she admitted, “It’s a really big problem.”
“People are in so much pain,” I said as we pulled into the T.J. Maxx parking lot. “Physical, economic, emotional pain. It makes sense to me.” I stared up at the white gray sky as got out of the car. I still found Western New York to be the most depressing place I’d ever lived. That winter sky, that gray, was unrelenting. It felt like a cement slab, and it contained a peculiar absence of light that no amount of staring could remedy. I sometimes fear that I’ll fail at everything I’m doing in New York City, and have to move back home.
“I know,” she answered as we walked into the store.
The next day, I did some research before my daughter woke up. I searched Proquest for “Oxycontin” and “Upstate New York” and found 82 articles. I read a couple. In October 2013, the office of Senator Chuck Schumer issued a news release that the FDA would tighten the control of hydrocodone, which is “among the most highly abused and widely prescribed drugs in upstate New York.” According the Upstate Poison Control Center, “In Western New York, there were 2,324 reported cases of prescription drug abuse in 2011.”
I skimmed an article from Rolling Stone magazine by Guy Lawson from April 2015 called “The Dukes of Oxy” about a band of teenage wrestlers in Florida who were running an Oxycontin smuggling ring. “By 2009, [the operation] was shipping a couple of thousand pills a month to a connection in upstate New York.” The article, like many in Rolling Stone felt like a movie. Scarface meets Spring Breakers. What do those Florida teens understand about upstate New York, I wondered. It didn’t matter. They knew people wanted the Oxycontin.
* 4 *
During an early childhood fever, a bout with the flu, I hid the children’s Tylenol tablets my mother gave me behind the couch cushions. They were yellow and chalky, chewable maybe, though I can’t remember their flavor.
The first time, she gave them to me; I chewed them obediently and then promptly threw them up. The second time, I swallowed them with water. After about a half hour I threw them up again. After that, I pretended to swallow them, until my mother went back into the kitchen. I did this for a couple of days.
My mother made a bed nest for me in front of the T.V. and I watched Mighty Mouse and Woody Woodpecker in the mornings and fell asleep in the afternoons. I guiltily wondered if I was prolonging my illness by hiding the pills.
She must have taken off of work because she was home with me. When I started to feel better, she gave me Campbell’s Chicken Soup, saltine crackers, and ginger ale.
* 5 *
Miracle pill! Pink! Another chalky tablet. Roche, the pharmaceutical company that manufactured them, etched onto one side. A line down the center of the other. Synthetic dopamine. The chemical that a specialist in Toronto, realized I lack. The reason I couldn’t walk. The deficit that caused my muscles to tighten and my whole left side to drag behind me and curl in painfully.
He diagnosed my disease, a rare genetic neurological disorder, by giving me L-Dopa, the synthetic form of dopamine. If L-dopa worked, it meant I had Dopa-Responsive Dystonia.
I don’t remember the day I started talking this pill. We filled the prescription right away at the hospital pharmacy. My mother says the results were gradual, but certain.
Most people, if they know about L-Dopa at all know it from the movie, Awakenings based on the book by the same name by the late Dr. Oliver Sacks. In Awakenings, a group of catatonic patients who have encephalitis lathargica, come alive after Dr. Sacks gives them L-Dopa. Their joy at living again — at movement — made me weep so hard in the theater when I saw the film that I thought I might have to leave.
The pill that unlocked me and made it possible for me to become who I am today. The pill that set me free and let me walk. Eventually, I walked away from so much — my hometown, my family, and that sick little girl who was angry at the world.
It was a pill of constant nausea. A pill to take only with food. A pill that made throwing up a constant. My freshman year of college, I was so overmedicated that I rarely slept. I couldn’t synch up my mealtimes with the dining halls so I often took L-Dopa on an empty stomach. That year I threw up so much, I lost 20 pounds. Later, I recognized the stomach cramps I’d been having as hunger pains.
* 6 *
In the introduction to Testo Junkie, essayist and professor, Beatriz Preciado, claims that his/her book is “A body essay. Fiction, actually. If things must be pushed to the extreme, this is a somato-political fiction, a theory of the self, or self-theory” (11). I read Preciado’s claiming of a new genre for him/herself as a necessarily more complicated return to second wave feminism’s recognition that the body is a politicized object. Though now that we’re in the third and fourth waves of feminism, we can accept the body and gender as a construct, mutable, and ever changing.
Preciado mines his/her own bodily transformations on testosterone for one year, while examining the ways in which the pharmaceutical and pornography industries have shaped our desires and our ideas about gender. In chapter two, “The Pharmacopornagraphic Era,” Preciado argues, “we are being confronted with a new kind of psychotropic, punk capitalism” (32). He/she calls this new global regime, the “pharmacopornographic” and notes that:
Our world economy is dependent on the production and circulation of hundreds of tons of synthetic organs, fluids, cells (techno-blood, techno- sperm, techno-ovum, etc.), on the global diffusion of a flood of pornographic images, on the elaboration of distribution of new varieties of legal and illegal synthetic psychotropic drugs (e.g., bromazepam, Special K, Viagra, speed, crystal, Prozac, ecstasy, poppers, flood of signs and circuits of the digital transmission of the extension of a form of diffuse urban architecture to the entire in which megacities of misery are knotted into high concentrations sex capital. (32).
In other words, capitalism, in its endless mutability has made itself dirty and drugged-out, “punk,” and we are awash in its detritus. We have access to an endless stash of porn stars, pills, and screens, and our megacities allow us to detach from the miseries of (child) sex workers and the often racialized others who serve us.
Preciado understands that our subjectivities are defined by pharmacopornographism, and so he/she reminds us that we are “Prozac subjects, cannabis subjects, cocaine subjects, alcohol subjects, cortisone subjects, silicone subjects, heterovaginal subjects, double-penetration subjects, Viagra subjects, $ subjects…” (35).
As I read Testo Junkie, I wondered if it mattered that our pills and porn define our subjectivities? What does it mean to be a Viagra subject or a double-penetration subject? Or for me an L-Dopa subject?
I’m not a trans person, but rather a middle-class cisgender woman with a disability and who is of mixed race, but who passes for white, and sometimes identifies as queer. But I get in some fundamental way that we sometimes take medication to become who we already are inside but can’t quite manifest physically. Dopamine made me into myself. IVF drugs turned me into a mother. In my heart I was already myself and a mother, but I needed drugs to manifest these identities. I don’t have any evidence for this feeling, but I stand by it. Pills constructed me.
* 7 *
Valium. Yellow. Small. Round. In a small prescription bottle that I shook like a maraca. My neurologist prescribed it for me for anxiety in middle school. I kept it in the spice cabinet near my mother’s multi-vitamins and iron supplements.
Mother’s Little Helper.
So great was my fear of addiction, that I only took this pill once. After school. Alone. I waited for the rush of relief. Or a really big high. I felt neither and returned to the comforts of a bag of potato chips, a tub of Helluva Good French Onion Dip, and reruns of Three’s Company.
The morning after a complicated Thanksgiving day with family, I Google the slang for valium. On Addictionblog.org, I find a top ten list: V(s), Yellow V(s), Blue V(s), Benzos, Dead Flower Powers, Benzos, Downers, Howards, Sleep Away, and Tranks.
I imagine Betty Friedan and William S. Burroughs, two of my early favorite writers, tripped out on valium for totally different reasons.
* 8 *
Out of my 28 first-year writing students this semester, five wrote personal essays about depression and anxiety. I can’t say that this is a lot or a little, but it’s more than usual, though students regularly cry in my office and break down after class. I teach small classes, I tend to notice when someone is struggling and I check in.
One tried to tease out the relationship between his mother’s depression and his own. Another explored her mother’s death at age eleven and how she became a cutter to cope with the pain. Another was about going off of her medication to truly feel her sadness. And still another wrote about her decision to start taking medication for depression even though her parents were against it. Another wondered about the difficulty of experiencing joy if you’re depressed. One of my seniors, in a course I teach called, Youth in Revolt, who wrote about Black Lives Matter and was involved in student government and protesting on campus, came to me after class and told that she was recovering from a sexual assault and was struggling with focus. Another one of my seniors made a zine about her brother’s heroin addiction and recovery.
At a meeting I attended with student leaders across campus, a student said to the crowd of 200 students and 25 faculty that suicide has become the second leading cause of death among 18–24 year olds in America. A week later, I Googled it. He was right. I wasn’t surprised by this data from the Center for Disease Control. I am often a sad person. I find the world to be a sadly vibrant and interesting place. I don’t often have suicidal thoughts, but I’ve had them. At a bar, I once argued with a poet who was pissed off with a close friend for committing suicide.
“I’m still here fighting,” he said. “Why isn’t he?”
“He made it pretty far,” I reasoned. “He fought for as long as he could.”
As I sat at my mother’s house on Thanksgiving morning and worked on this essay, I wondered if I’m writing about depression or pills? Maybe it’s just about the choices we make to get through our shit. But that’s not it either. Our pills define us, and it doesn’t matter if you’re going on or off a pill. We live in pharmacopornographia. We’re in the pill, the Matrix, if you want to get Hollywood about it.
We live in pharmacopornographia.
While my students wrote their essays, I slowly weaned myself off of Lexapro. The withdrawal symptoms were far more intense than I imagined. For two weeks, I experienced a vertigo so strong I often needed to lie down. I cried for what seemed like an entire week. In bed, at yoga class, after I taught, with my friends, and at a bar. At the bar, I cried so hard that the bartenders gave me free drinks. One bartender slid them down to me, but refused to make eye contact. The second one, a woman I know, gave me a hug and said, “You’re safe here. Cry all you like. You look beautiful.” I loved the simplicity and kindness of her gesture.
During this time I read Diana Spechler’s series of blog posts in the New York Times about going off of her medications called “Breaking Up With My Meds.” Halving her pills. PMSing. Going on Tinder. Eating too much and not enough. I found it enormously comforting, smart, and raw. I shared it with my student who was writing about quitting her meds, and she used it in her essay.
* 9 *
Lexapro. 5 mg. “A homeopathic dose,” my neurologist said. Small, round, white, pill. Easy to lose in the dark and in the pill case where I keep my Sinemet, Advil, and Midol.
Pill of giving less fucks. Pill of eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Pill of if I wake up I go back to sleep. Pill of I fall asleep right away. Pill of no more explosive rage. Pill of whatever. Pill of less worry about the future. Pill of I’m still very much myself.
I loved falling asleep on Lexapro. A quick, gradual tapering off. The end of thought. The mind gently led away from its blathering. I fell asleep at any man’s apartment. It didn’t matter that there was so extra pillow for my shitty shoulder or that we were wedged into a twin bed. Nothing mattered all that much. I loved it.
Pill of weight gain. Pill of constipation. Pill of always full no matter what I ate. Pill of bloat and fat.
In the end with Lexapro, I told my friends, it was a contest I called “Fat Vs. Sleep.”
* 10 *
I got them at the Department of Health Family Planning clinic in my hometown when I was 17. I went with my boyfriend at the time, my first love, the first person I ever had sex with. I can’t remember if he came into the examination room with me or not. I do remember him playing with the plastic model of the vagina and uterus in the waiting room, until he dropped it on the carpet and we both burst into nervous giggles.
Like most children of the 1980s, my sexual education was largely an experience of terror. Because of AIDS and fears about pregnancy, we were all pretty much told that sex equaled either death or the end of your life as a carefree teenager. We saw ads for safe sex on television and we got a year’s worth of nuts and bolts sexual education in 8th and 9th grade. But nothing sex positive. Nothing about how to negotiate desire. And certainly nothing about pleasure.
Ortho Tri-Cyclen. White and blue tablets. Green placebo tablets. That cute plastic compact case. Are you powdering your nose? Or taking a birth control pill? The compact seemed to indicate that you could be a demure slut and that birth control needed a disguise because it was private or shameful or secret.
Like most children of the 1980s, my sexual education was largely an experience of terror.
I kept dipping in and out of Testo Junkie as I wrote this essay. I wanted to imagine my genderless future, because honestly my femininity bores me. I dream constantly of a butcher version of myself, or maybe I just want the power that I see too many men wielding. Or maybe I want to become one of Preciado’s “bitches.” I’m sure I’m not alone in this desire.
The compact. The case. The cover. Mask for shine. Mask for shame. And yet it is a lovely object. Think of the cigarette cases of the 1950s. Opening and closing these cases was a pause, a comma, a rest, and sometimes a flirtation. A week ago, I watched the movie Carol by myself in a crowded theater. Carol, played by the luminous Kate Blanchett, has such a case. Gold. I sobbed through most of the second half of the movie. I wanted to be in that relationship or I want to be in love. Or both. I couldn’t decide. On the way out, I bumped into a friend on a date. She and her date were dry-eyed. My friend hugged me, and I kept crying as we made small-talk.
What I loved most about being on Lexapro was that it acted like the compact or the cigarette case — it gave me pause, it typeset a comma into whatever sentence of feeling I was currently inhabiting. It let me rest.
Before we walked to school, I powdered my nose. My daughter asked me why and I couldn’t explain. Sometimes her questions expose the stupidity of our gender acts.
“I don’t know why, I just do. It feels nice.”
She took it from me and powdered her face. A couple days later, at the drugstore, she asked for her own compact. We found one that is just a mirror. Revlon. A black case with a turquoise vaguely henna-tattooed pattern on it. I almost bought one for myself it was so pretty.
In chapter eight, “Pharmacopower,” Preciado charts the complex history of the Pill — its clinical trials on minorities and mental patients and the marketing and design decisions that led to its packaging. Preciado argues that “The Pill is the first pharmaceutical molecule to be produced as a design object” and the that the husband and wife team that designed the packaging were “reinterpreting the bond between husband and wife as a model of the designer-user relationship” (195).
“In the pharmacopornographic era, the body swallows power.It is a form control that is both democratic and private, edible, drinkable, inhalable, and easy to administer, whose spread throughout the social body has never been so rapid or so undetectable. In the pharmacopornographic age, biopower dwells at home, sleeps with us, inhabits within. (207)”
Our pills privatize and democratize us. I take it as a given that until I ask, even my closest friends, I won’t know what pills they’re taking. When I first started taking Lexapro and talking openly about it, I was surprised by how many people I knew were on it or other similar pills.
* 11 *
Sinemet. 25/100 mg. Oval-shaped. Lavender. Or the generic is peach. When I was 28, Roche laboratories stopped manufacturing the pure L-Dopa I was taking. I found out when I went to the pharmacy. The pharmacist shrugged blandly at me and said, “They’ve discontinued it because not enough people take it.” I panicked.
My childhood neurologist, still based out of Buffalo, who had taken over my care after the specialist in Toronto essentially cured me, was as surprised as I was. I don’t remember our phone conversation or if we even talked. I was living in New York City. She was in Buffalo. I knew I needed a new doctor, someone local, who could see me as an adult. Luckily, I found the specialist in Dopa-Responsive Dystonia in North America. Her office called me right back. They wanted to study me. She prescribed Sinemet right away. When we met, she was surprised that I’d been taking that much L-Dopa for that many years. We began a long weaning process. I grew less and less nauseous. I no longer suffered from intense bouts of hyperactivity. I didn’t feel so manic, all of the time.
I still wonder what my teens and twenties would have looked like if I weren’t high on synthetic dopamine.
* 12 *
In my new favorite essay, “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” YiYun Li examines the complicated relationship between depression, time, and writing. As a Chinese immigrant and a published writer, she is often held up as an example of the possibility of the American Dream. But Li doesn’t see herself this way. She frets at having been called a dreamer, examines her time in the hospital, and questions the suicide of two friends — one in China and one in America. I found myself re-reading the beautiful, counterintuitive claims she makes at the ends of the numbered sections of her essay.
“What one carries from one point to another, geographically or temporally, is one’s self: even the most inconsistent person is consistently himself” (110).
“I had only wanted to stay invisible, but there as elsewhere invisibility is a luxury” (111).
“Only the lifeless can be immune to life” (117).
“To write about struggle amidst the struggling: one must hope that this muddling will end someday” (117).
“One has to have a solid self to be selfish” (119).
These claims are puzzles, koan-like in their simple intricacy. They are, in a way, anti-pills. They fix nothing. Take no edge off. Start thought rather than stop it.
Isn’t the essay form itself an anti-palliative, a recipe for pain, and an invitation to cause trouble? Because the writing of an essay is the untangling of the worst kind of mental knot. It does not offer the simple fix of a pill. It doesn’t cure me of anything. In my essays, I plan to wallow and wander, to get stuck and linger over painful moments and difficult texts. I am trying to figure something out here, and to name it for myself and for you my dear friend.
The writing of an essay is the untangling of the worst kind of mental knot.
Yi borrows her title from a line from a Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks, and admits that she cried when she first read it. I cried too when I finished Li’s essay because she reminded me that the fundamental act of writing is of reaching out and of connecting, “What a long way it is from one life to another: yet why write if not for that distance; if things can be let go, every before replaced by an after” (120).
We let go of so much. Time demands that we do, and yet the writing is way to navigate distance and loss.
* 13 *
I take the Midol Complete that says Midol on it. Oblong white caplet with blue letters. I take the Advil that says Advil on it. Autumn russet color with black letters. These pills have a slippery surface. Go down easy. Over the counter. Slick. The Midol helps me not have to lie down all day because of cramps. The Advil, well, everybody takes Advil.