Pills

by: Douglas Grant

Cornered by a world that provides answers to its problems in capsule form, we explore one man’s desire to relinquish a pill’s unrelenting hold….

In the fall of 2000 I was twenty-three and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Fresh out of college, I’d moved back home for an interim of saving money before venturing off into the real world. I was a bachelor of the arts with very little ambition to speak of, but that was okay at the time.

My friend and I were gambling at Foxwoods Casino, and I was coming off a hot streak on the Craps table feeling quite alive. My friend, too, was in high spirits from hitting green double zeros on a spin of roulette. We were up.

We’d been invited to dinner at one of the casino’s swankier restaurants, a business dinner the nature of which I was unaware of. Walking up to the table and greeting everyone in turn, the first observation I made was the presence of two young ladies, approximately my age, seated at the far end of the table, looking sexy and confident. A fair-skinned blonde and a swarthy brunette, they engaged the other diners with charming, radiant smiles accompanied by an air of playful exuberance. What have we here?

“Who are those girls?” I asked my friend optimistically. “Are we being set up?”

“I don’t know,” my fried replied, seemingly irritated that no one had thought to inform him.

Overhearing us, another diner at the table took the liberty of clearing up any foregone conclusions. “Oh, no,” she said. “They’re the ones hosting the dinner. We’re their guests. You should introduce yourselves.”

These girls were gesticulating with mirth and good humor. They had the undivided attention of everyone at the table. Neither of them looked a day over twenty-one, but there was a sophistication in their mannerisms that suggested otherwise. I was intrigued by the paradox. They were dolled up immaculately; everything about their hair, makeup, nails, and outfits implied a natural classiness.

“But who are they?”

She seemed amused with me, as if she was suddenly aware of all of the failings and shortcomings of my young life.  “They’re reps from Pfizer,” she told me, “here to meet with the doctor.”

Reps? These girls are pharmaceutical reps? I was perplexed. They were so young. Sales I could understand. But now we were talking about the world of legal drugs and all the medical ramifications of what that mass production entailed. What qualifications did these girls have?

As soon as I asked myself the question I knew the answer. What qualified them was the magnetism that had drawn me to them from the moment I’d laid eyes on them. Score one for Pfizer. Their sales department definitely knows what it’s doing.

My eyes remained fixed on the hostesses, and my new companion continued to enlighten me. “You know, there’s money to be made out there in pharmaceuticals.” She seemed to sense my desperation in finding a suitable vocation. “You remember ___________________ from high school? He was in the grade above you. Well, he’s out there selling Viagara and making a killing.”

“Really?” I said, now turning to face her. “Him?”

“Oh yeah,” she replied with a smile. “He’s got a way with people. Very charming young man.”

A year later I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like my esophagus was melting. I remember it clearly; I had taken down a whole Dominoes pepperoni pizza only hours before. This would be my first dance with acid reflux disease, but it would not be my last. Heartburn and I are now intimately joined, intertwined for the rest of my days. In the beginning I thought slight modifications to my diet might be the answer. This was not to be the case. Then I practically ruined my teeth eating Tums like they were being distributed from a Pez dispenser, but those chalky tablets only masked the real problem.  Fast forward twelve years, to now, and I’ve got the situation under control. One miracle pill—one little striped purple gel capsule every morning—and I don’t even have to think about that slow burn. I can eat whatever I want now. No compromises. I’ve got the situation under control. Or so I thought.

It doesn’t dawn on me, but rather a friend of mine, that I have become subservient to a pill—a very expensive pill. “Do you really want to take a prescribed medication for the rest of your life?” he asks.

At first the logic behind the question doesn’t quite register with me. “What the hell else would I do?” And then I quickly grow irritated. My friend is trying to shatter the illusion that this situation had closure years ago when I discovered my precious Nexium. How dare he?

But as I get to thinking more about it, it dawns on me that he might be right. I immediately hit the internet looking for answers. Everyone on the web—qualified or not—has an opinion about my daily remedy. Most of these opinions are negative. This leads me to make an appointment with a gastroenterologist.

In his office I tell him my concerns. He seems like a trustworthy individual. “So you take one Nexium every day?” he asks me. When I nod, he says, “So what’s troubling you?”

“I don’t want take a prescription medication every day. I’m worried about side effects. I’m worried that I’m just masking the problem.”

He assures me that although my concerns are valid, I should keep taking the Nexium, one every morning. I feel a sense of relief.

I tell my friend what my doctor told me, trying to hide my smug sense of satisfaction, but he just laughs at me. “What is so goddamned funny?” I demand of him with irritation.

“Of course he told you to keep taking the pill. What did you think he was going to tell you?”

Side effects may include headache, nausea, an increased risk of heart attack or stroke, difficulty breathing, constipation, diarrhea, paleness, dizziness, shakiness, weakness, anxiety, lethargy, swelling of the trachea, thoughts of suicide, chronic back pain, blurry vision, congestion, hair loss, joint pain, cholera, dysentery, polio, tuberculosis, Parkinson’s . . .

I walk into my local food cooperative and attempt to pick an employee’s brain about my acid reflux. I’d heard about some type of prune juice, or something like that, that is just as effective as my coveted Nexium. The following is what I think I remember about that conversation: “Oh yeah, you don’t want to take a pill every day. Try this. It’s all natural, not made in a lab. It’s 100% organic, no GMOs, is full of antioxidants . . . homeopathic remedies . . . electrolytes . . . no animal testing . . . farm- raised . . . grass-fed . . . free range . . . paraben free . . . gluten free . . . dairy free . . . environmentally friendly . . . recyclable container . . .

The whole time she’s talking, I’m thinking to myself, Wow, the audacity of this grocer to match wits with a licensed medical practitioner.

I take my concoction home and drink it down, giving my purple friend the day off. Big surprise; it doesn’t work.

I pick up my girlfriend from work, and on the way home she asks me, “So how did it go at the doctor’s?”

“All good. Problem solved.”

I glance over at her, and she gives me a look of skepticism that suggests that I’ve once again accepted the proverbial Kool-Aid with open arms. I don’t like that look. “Let me guess. He put you on a pill.”

My first instinct is to come up with some smart-ass retort. I’m no one’s fool, and I haven’t been duped. But the retort doesn’t come. I rewind the whole visit to the doctor in my head. I told him my problem, and he broke out his pen and paper and tore me off a prescription. Simple as that. There was never any talk of an alternative to taking the pill. Just head on down to the pharmacy and give them this.

I have nothing witty to come back with. I mumble, “Yeah, he put me on a pill.”

One day I open up the medicine cabinet above my bathroom sink, and a troubling thought surfaces. My cabinet has become a recreational pill popper’s wet dream: Xanax for anxiety, Vicodin for a recent root canal, Aderall for a one-time problem with focus, Flexeril for a pinched nerve in my right leg. I didn’t seek out any of these medications, not directly, and yet here they are. All of them, when abused, can be as dangerous as a hooded cobra. Acquiring them was too easy. None of them were cheap. I close the cabinet door and stare at myself in the mirror for a moment. “You’re a sucker,” I tell myself.

Day three of the government shutdown, and I’m having a drink with a friend. Neither of us are talking; we’re both watching the muted TV above the bar. Apparently there are no sports worth watching. C-SPAN is on, and we’re reading the captions, sipping our beers. I’m acutely aware of all of the staggering problems that Obamacare presents to our health care system, but I’m happy that at the very least a president is finally trying to address the problems that plague what is, in my opinion, a very flawed paradigm of our society. “Man,” I say to him, “I mean, I can understand that politicians are pissed off about Obamacare, but to be so self-serving as to shut down the government? It’s so disheartening.”

My friend actually works for the federal government, and is on an indefinite sabbatical at the moment. He takes a sip of his beer, and with a cynical smirk on his face, says, “There are a lot of politically affiliated pharmaceutical interests that are losing money right now, and they are very pissed off.”

I never accept anything I hear as absolute truth, and it may be that my friend is over-simplifying the problem, refusing to see the bigger picture. When the chips are down, it’s easy to point the finger at corporate greed. But I find myself suspecting that what my friend speaks may be the truth, and it bothers me tremendously. His rationale certainly fits with everything I’ve learned in the last decade.

Recently in my life there’s been a natural progression in which I find myself gravitating toward eastern philosophies when it comes to well being and general health. Yoga and other exercise to combat anxiety, acupuncture for the aches and pains I suffer from, and a better diet that is a commonplace practice in those countries where people tend to live longer—the antithesis to the corporate fast food atmosphere that we find ourselves immersed in here in the states.

I am still a slave to my Nexium. I don’t know how I’d live without it. Maybe one day I’ll come across a viable alternative, but until then my morning ritual remains the same.

Please don’t get me wrong. Modern medicine has done wonders in treating the ailments of our citizens. But let’s face it: Pharmaceuticals is big business. And at the end of the day big business is what our capitalist society thrives on. Maybe there’s another way to treat ourselves, to cure ourselves. In my case, I haven’t found it yet. I’ll keep looking though.

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