Born to pop pills

I have a well-chosen capsule for every occasion.

By Elissa Schappell
Published April 20, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Here is what I hate: pain. Here is what I love: extra-strength anything. Believe me, if it were socially acceptable, I'd name a baby Codeine.

It all started with baby aspirin, St. Joseph's. I was 12. The sweet orange tang, the transformation on the tongue from pill to sand to a velvety pink stripe -- I was hooked. It wasn't just the taste I craved, it was the imagined fortification those little peach-colored pills imparted. I was a ridiculously morbid child, acutely aware of my own mortality. On my 10th birthday I had locked myself in the bathroom and sobbed, refusing to come out. The pink cake, balloons, Barbies -- it all seemed pointless. I would be two digits now, forever. I was no longer a child. I was dying.

By the time I was 14, I was sucking mentholated eucalyptus cough drops and starting to smoke Salem Lights (I thought they kept me skinny), imagining that in some crazy way the cough drops were rebuilding my lungs. That's right, healing me. I was, by then, a fool for pharmaceuticals -- anything that would make life sweeter, hazier, less scary, more exciting. In no time at all, I got into heavier stuff, sneaking around, copping extra-strength Tylenol and Vicks cough drops at Happy Harry's pharmacy.

The rest of my family had -- still does -- a very Yankee approach to pain. Medication is strictly limited to uncoated aspirin, Pepto-Bismol, gin and bitter lemon, and a lot of fresh air. If your shrieks of pain are drowned out by the wind, they don't exist.

I, however, did not inherit the gene for stoicism. I've never been terribly brave. Even thinking about death as a melodramatic teen girl -- Will I be able to see my friends, or will I be forced to sit in alphabetical order for eternity? What if there is no God! -- put me over the edge. All the existential dread an adolescent lint trap of a brain can spin out got me chomping Flintstones chewables and taking tugs on the Robitussin.

My crush on pills turned into a full-blown love affair the year I turned 15 and my father was diagnosed with lymphoma. A tumor as big as a cocktail onion nestled under his jaw line. Almost overnight, I became even more obsessed with taking medicine. I needed it. I made myself chew adult aspirin, and as I gnashed my teeth, choking down the sour, chalky tablets, I felt impervious to harm. I envisioned surviving a crash landing in the desert and being the sole survivor able to ingest painkillers without water. I imagined building up a martyr's level of painkiller in my blood that would protect me from feeling anything.

Because my father was a Ph.D. chemist, I believed myself invested, by proxy, with some kind of unique knowledge of drugs. All those little experiments he'd brought home from the lab for me and my sister to play with -- a stupendous concoction that made bright pink foam bubble out of a test tube, and two liquids that, when united, created a terrific bang -- had made me a scientist. Forget that I couldn't do math. I was arrogant. I knew best.

"Suggested dosages" were for suckers. After all, pale flower that I was, I felt pain more intensely than others. So I took slightly more than was prescribed -- always. I also had to figure, pill popper that I was, that there was a level of tolerance that had to be accounted for.

My father's doctors took a high-tech melon-baller to the lump and sent him home with bright orange silos full of pills -- a low dose of chemotherapy. He didn't even have to take them for a month, that's how well they worked. It was astonishing; he never even looked sick. For one weekend he let the lawn go and he took a nap, something he never did. But not one dark hair fell from his head. He was cured, I believed, by both his Superman-like will to live and those pills.

My father was in remission when I went off to college. I felt weak and guilty as I popped my pills at keg parties or in the library stacks. In addition to my off-the-shelf pain relievers, I had phenobarbital for anxiety and panic attacks and Zantac for an ulcer brought on, no doubt, by my double major of English and Middle American partying.

I was a Girl Scout in pursuit of my pharmaceuticals badge. I was a walking medicine cabinet; I nearly rattled when I walked. I trusted pills. I could have kissed the chemist who created gel caps. Two blue-green gel caps -- meditate on that. I mean, was there any image more soothing? Not for me.

I liked feeling as if I had my own little army of soldiers ready for deployment at the drop of a boyfriend, ready to storm the beaches of reality. I liked being able to delude myself that I could take care of myself, that I was really taking control of my life. I may have been heading for the express ramp, but I was in control.

Until the cancer came back, six years later, my father took aspirin for pain, plus a little Bengay for post-squash-game aches. The second time around, the cancer was an almond-size tumor in his lung. (Why is it that cancers always come in the shape of fruits and vegetables? Is it less frightening to hear you have a green-bean-size tumor vs. a tumor as big as a AA battery?)

After the surgery to remove half his lung, my father started on morphine; but for fear of getting addicted, he took only half his prescription. Also at this time, my father did break down and add a new drug to his wee host of pharmaceuticals -- a seasickness pill for the scuba diving he took up after his lung surgery.

In his case, cancer was like a mangy dog you keep thinking you've left on the highway but that keeps showing up at your back door. It took six years, but the cancer had shown up again, filling my father's lungs, metastasizing to his spine.

It was only then, in considerable pain and under the doctor's orders, that my father began popping steroids and painkillers. As my father got sicker, I began to develop psychosomatic symptoms. His back and neck hurt; the length of my spine felt as if it was being forced through a meat grinder. He couldn't draw deep breaths and his throat was sore; ditto for me. He had numbness in his extremities, and he had nausea; me too, me too.

I suppose I wanted to be close to him. At the slightest threat of pain -- headache, stomachache, a swollen gland -- I was certain I, too, was dying. After all, I was his daughter. I was sure I loved my father more than any other girl and so how could I live without him? I took a pill.

I popped pills in defense, I popped pills in solidarity. It was a bonding thing, although I never confessed my ailments to my father. I liked to think that, sometimes, as I took a pill like Wellbutrin -- a bit of smiling sky -- perhaps my father and I were dosing at the same time. One part of me knew that I was going to lose him, but there was still a part of me that held out some hope of a miracle. I was desperate for even the most tenuous connection.

Returning home from the hospital after my father died, the first thing we did was go through the house with a giant green trash bag, rounding up all his pills, from morphine to Benadryl, and throwing them out. We blamed them, in some small part, for failing him, for failing us. I was punishing science, turning my back on pills. I didn't believe in them anymore.

It didn't last. The fallout from his death was overwhelming and I found myself back on an antidepressant; but all my other drugs, all my little friends, I shunted to the back of the medicine closet. I wanted to feel pain. How much more could I possibly hurt? To not feel pain felt like a betrayal.

After a couple of years, I started to realize I didn't need to carry an arsenal of painkillers and mood modifiers. After all, the worst I could have imagined had happened, and it didn't kill me. I could, if I chose, handle anything. Pills didn't hold the same sway for me.

Not that I am reformed. I haven't kicked pills altogether, oh no. To this day I usually have on hand at least two types of tranquilizers -- Ativan, a white tepee-shaped, slow-pitch anxiety reliever, and Xanax, a white, blue and peach take-'em-down-at-the-knees pill for attacks of panic. I also occasionally carry Klonopin, a cheery safety-orange disk with a cut-out "K"; it's highly addictive but good to have on hand, just in case.

When I travel, this is what I pack: green and white Sudafed Sinus, for any close encounters of the pollen and mold kind, and a muscle relaxant (the name long erased from the bottle, as a result of my talismanic rubbing), just in case I should find myself moved to engage in some kind of activity I usually eschew, like swing dancing, capricious movement of heavy furniture or the occasional "Hey, I'm not that old" back walkover, usually performed after a couple of mai tais. I've got a few penicillins in there (yes, I realize you must take the entire prescription), because at times one sallies forth without shoes, or a scarf at the throat, tempting all sorts of mayhem. There's the two blue Zoviraxes, in case I should forget my parasol -- my quaint protection from the rude sun -- and begin to sense a slight tingling in my lips, the doomed harbinger of dastardly cold sores.

Also tucked into the first-aid kit are a tin of chalky tummy drugs such as Titralac, Gaviscon and their poor relation, Tums; two pretty pink Benadryl capsules, should I be beset by hives or insomnia; Atenolol, a performance-anxiety drug, because you never know when you will be called upon to do an impromptu recitation or have to commandeer a classroom of roaming creative writing students. Finally, and most banally, I have red and white Excedrin Migraine tablets for headaches and the strangely orangey-brown Advil for everything else. Advils are the M&Ms of the pain pill world, slightly sweet and easy to swallow -- you can take fistfuls of these.

I realize my habit raises eyebrows in some circles. But unlike vitamin gobblers, or those who would imbibe elixirs of echinacea and goldenseal, brew murky bark teas or dribble tinctures of flowers on the back of their tongues, I want certainty. I want statistical results backed up by pie charts, not herbal patent medicine quackery.

I confess to a flirtation with the very Victorian idea of distilling and ingesting essences of herbs and flowers, flakes of robin's blood and powdered foxgloves, but when it comes right down to it, in the middle of the night, when I'm haunted by phantoms and gnawed at by pain or dread, or both, I reach for my revolver -- three Excedrin PMs.

While I am a lot slower now to pop just any pill or tuck into codeine syrup, in my heart I still believe in the power of the well-chosen pill. If that means I am just one step away from getting a Burroughs-Wellcome tattoo on my fanny, well, so be it. Though I don't take half of what I used to -- and though I am still devoted to over-the-counter pain pills -- I do like to have some big-time pharmaceuticals on hand, just in case. It's like having a hit man in the family. Those pills are like an old friend you know you can rely on, someone who has seen you at, and through, your very worst.

Recently I was spring-cleaning my bathroom closet and happened upon a bevy of zip-lock bags in a box at the rear of a shelf. As I went through the bags I found a sample of nearly every prescription I've ever had. Romantic that I am, I'd kept them the way you'd keep a corsage from a fancy dance, to remind you of a love affair, a tempestuous and dangerous flirtation, a bad mistake. I shook the jars and listened to their songs.

Elissa Schappell

Elissa Schappell is the author of, most recently, the short-story collection "Blueprints for Building Better Girls."

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