'Pill Head' On Prescription Drug Addiction

Author Joshua Lyon

Joshua Lyon credits a good psychiatrist with helping him maintain his sobriety. Aubrey Edwards hide caption

itoggle caption Aubrey Edwards

Journalist Joshua Lyon decided to investigate the phenomenon of online pharmacies. Drugs such as Valium, Xanax and Vicodin arrived in the mail.

Pill Head is the story of Lyon's subsequent hard core addiction to the medications. After a year of steady abuse, he realized that he needed to quit after a surgical procedure. He received morphine to manage his pain, and because of the tolerance he'd built up, it did nothing to help him feel better.

Lyon then made a six-month break from the drugs, but later resumed his habit. Finally, a friend intervened and he quit, but he still suffers from memory loss as a result of his addiction.

Excerpt: 'Pill Head'

Cover of 'Pill Head' i i
Cover of 'Pill Head'

Pill Head: The Secret Life of a Painkiller Addict

By Joshua Lyon

Hardcover, 288 pages

Hyperion

List Price: $24.99

In the summer of 2003 my co-workers at Jane magazine and I began receiving massive amounts of email spam offering up Valium, Xanax, and Vicodin with "No Prescription Needed!" I kept hitting delete until the words actually sunk into my brain. It couldn't be that easy. My own physician wouldn't even prescribe me a sleeping pill for a flight I had to take in the weeks immediately following 9/11. (In his typically reserved way, he had told me to practice deep breathing and maybe have a cocktail, but no more than one.) So, strictly in the name of journalistic curiosity, I convinced my editor to let me try and buy these pills online. I wanted to see if it was just a scam or if it really was that simple to get controlled substances without a doctor's prescription. Everyone in the office — particularly the fashion and art departments — loved the idea and seemed unusually eager to hear the results. The story got approved as a small front-of-book piece in our pop culture section. Even better, I was given a $600 drug budget, courtesy of Fairchild Publications.

The Xanax and Valium were easy — I just had to fill out an online form. In the section where I had to explain why I needed the drugs, I wrote that I traveled a lot for work and that I had a fear of flying. Within forty-eight hours I had two Fed-Ex packages waiting for me on my desk: one with 30 brand-name Valium (the beautifully designed kind with the negative space V in the center of each pill) and the other containing thirty alprazolam, the generic equivalent of Xanax. Those two lots ran me $312 together.

The Vicodin order included an extra step: one of the online pharmacy staff doctors was going to call me for a consultation. I was also supposed to provide a phone number for my primary physician. I gave them a fake doctor name and an unused telephone line at my office.

Their "doctor" called me first thing the next morning. The conversation went like this:

"You called to order Vicodin?"

"Hey, yeah, I, um, just had my appendix removed. I don't have insurance and your Vicodin prices seem pretty cheap."

"Yes, we do have good prices. We'll send it right out. Do you want, thirty, sixty, or ninety?"

Ninety, of course. And it was a good price, only $223.

The third package arrived the next day. I wrote up a quick 250-word blurb about how frighteningly easy it was to order meds online, making a joke about slurring my words a lot ever since, and took the bottles home. It was a Friday, and they might have remained in the bottom of my underwear drawer forever if I hadn't received a frantic phone call from my editor around 8:00 PM. I panicked when I saw her number on my cell phone screen, thinking that something disastrous had happened at work, especially since I knew that she was supposed to be at her place on the Jersey Shore that weekend.

"What are you going to do with those pills?" she demanded as soon as I picked up the phone.

"I don't know," I said. "Give them away? I hadn't thought about it."

"I spent the entire train ride out here imagining you face down on the floor somewhere," she said. "I can just see the headlines now: 'Magazine kills editor.' It's the last thing we need."

It was nice to know where I stood in the scheme of things.

"Don't worry, I'll get rid of them," I said.

"Promise?" she asked. "Flush them down the toilet."

"Yes, I promise," I sighed, but it was already a lie.

I have a problem. When someone tells me not to do something I will immediately go out and do it. It's an anti-authority streak that has been in me pretty much since birth. It first reared its head in my Montessori school when we grew a large crystal made from Epsom salt on a string. We were told not to touch it, but it ended up in my pocket. When it was discovered missing we all had to sit in a circle on the floor and received a stern, yet oddly sympathetic speech (a trademark Montessori method) about stealing. Our teacher told us all to reach into our pockets, see if it was there and come clean if it was. I slipped my hand inside my red Garanimals shorts, felt the smooth sides of the crystal, with its comforting, sharp points. I kept my hand tightly clutched around it. It was mine now.

When I hung up with my boss, I pulled the bottles out of my bag and stared at them. The labels were pathetically generic and looked like they'd been created on a typewriter. The originating pharmacies were located in Florida, Arizona, and Colorado, and the addresses felt strangely cold: for some reason the phrase "Florida Drive" just screams unmarked storefront with the blinds closed shut, located in a partially deserted strip mall, an empty soda can rattling by, pushed by the wind.

The Vicodin bottle was fat, almost two inches in diameter. I'd never even seen a pill bottle that large. I opened it up and removed the cotton. The pills were pressed together so tightly that when I stuck my finger inside I couldn't even get past the first layer. They were thick, the size I'd always called horse pills, and looked like they'd lodge directly in my windpipe if I tried to swallow one.

I took three.

That night I drifted in and out of sleep, but not in an unpleasant, restless way. It was more like a constant waking dream, and when the alarm went off the next morning I still felt a little high, but not at all hungover. That was all it took to seal the deal — I'd discovered my perfect drug.

From Pill Head: The Secret Life of a Painkiller Addict by Joshua Lyon. Copyright 2009 Joshua Lyon. Published by Hyperion. All Rights Reserved.

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