What a lay me down this is
with two pink, two orange,
two green, two white goodnights.
Now I’m borrowed.
Now I’m numb.
–Anne Sexton, “The Addict”
I have been taking pills every day–usually twice a day, though sometimes more and sometimes less–for twenty-six years. Theophylline, the first medicine I ever took regularly, came in capsules, white on one end and clear on the other, with small white spheres inside. When I was very little, I couldn’t swallow pills, and so I mixed the contents of the capsule into yogurt, which was the only food strong enough to mask the flavor. At that time in my life, I only liked vanilla and lemon yogurt (and coffee, but I wasn’t allowed to have that), and I ate a bowl of yogurt every morning and every night. That I still like yogurt is, I think, somewhat astonishing.
I’ve since taken many other pills — and been glad, on many occasions, that they’ve developed better treatments for asthma than those old theophylline capsules, which made my heart race and my hands shake, and which my body metabolized with remarkable rapidity, so that the pills I’d taken in the morning almost never showed up in blood tests done by the allergist in the afternoon. Antihistamines, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds; brief outings with mood stabilizers and anti-psychotics, standing dates with antibiotics about once a year and over-the-counter painkillers once a month, and all manner of inhalers. My favorite pills of all time, aesthetically speaking, were some that I took only for a few short times when I was young. I don’t remember what they were for, but they were so very pretty: tiny capsules that were a translucent blue green at one end and clear on the other, with tiny pellets inside that were red and white and pink.
I think of pill-taking as a normal part of living, and I’m always slightly shocked when I hear someone complain about having to take pills. Mostly I think (and try not to say), “Oh honey, you don’t know the half of it,” because for all that smugness is an ugly emotion, the alternative is worse. The alternative is that I start thinking about how tethered I am to these pills, and to all the things that they require. It’s a bad idea to go anywhere without an inhaler, even these days, when my asthma is generally better. I try to keep a dose or two of all my medication with me at all times, too, in case I get stuck somewhere. I have to remember to get my prescriptions refilled in time, and I have to remember to arrange to pick them up in time, which is somewhat more complicated now that I live thirty miles from a pharmacy. And I have to have health insurance to help me pay for all the pills and all the visits to doctors that they require, and that in turn requires that I have a certain kind of job, and that I keep on having those kinds of jobs, lest I have a period of no coverage and thus never again get covered for those wretched “pre-exisiting conditions.”
There are a lot of reasons that I won’t ever get to go build a cabin in the woods, not the least of which is my total almost lack of practical skills, but I always blame my inability to imitate Thoreau, or to follow the leaves of grass, or what have you, on the need to have health insurance, and then I hate the people who are naturally healthy, because I imagine (quite probably incorrectly) that they do not have these problems.
Anne Sexton’s poem is about being addicted to the drugs she’s prescribed, and to death, which she feels she’s also been prescribed. I’ve been fortunate enough to escape both those fates. I often think, though, about something my mother once said — that several hundred years ago, living with depression would have been more akin to living with poor eyesight. There would be things you couldn’t do, or couldn’t do as well, with depression or myopia back then, but they would pale in comparison to the things that the modern world requires that you cannot do with untreated depression or uncorrected vision. And so I wonder, then, if all my tethers to modernity are really addictions of a sort, and if the need for the pills — or at least some of the pills — would begin to disappear if I lived a different sort of life — if I really did get to go camping and never come back, which is what I always wish at the end of a camping trip.
As I said, I try not to head down this particular path. I try to take my pills and not think about addiction and society and healthy people. That way lies madness — and I do not know if beyond the madness lies any sanity, and so far, at least, I am afraid to find out.