What I really wanted to do this morning was to continue binge-watching Star Trek on Netflix. Unfortunately, it is cleaning lady day, so I spent four hours in a state of compulsory domesticity instead. Today’s project: cleaning out the medicine cabinets. My general rule of thumb at the onset was that any medicines with expiration dates in or before 2015 would be tossed. That ended up being about 3/ 4ths of them. The absolute winner in the category turned out to be this mysterious syrup – good for . . . who knows what? – which apparently expired in the 18th century:
Fifteen minutes into the project, I started wondering where in the heck all this stuff came from?! Take pain relievers, for instance. We have a fine selection of various brands and strengths dating back to early 2000s. An opioid addict’s dream come true – at least if they are not finicky about freshness. In each of these packages, there are about 2 or 3 tablets missing from 30 or so in there. I can only remember two past maladies for which painkillers were prescribed – and both times it was for my right shoulder. The first time was at least 10 years ago and it was a self-inflicted injury caused by seven hours of ironing. The other time was a year ago and led to my first experiences with an IV drip, physical therapy punishment, and massage sadism. (“Laptopping for Lefthanders” / “Miss Peevish and the Bruiser” ) I stopped taking those pain pills when I noticed that they were making me feel depressed.
More memories emerged as I sifted through the old medicines I had used when my daughters were very young. Vapor rub, calamine lotion, Bactine (“boo-boo juice”) and Winnie the Pooh Band-Aids, children’s cough syrup . . . It all made me just a wee bit nostalgic on its way to the garbage can.
I had reached the back recesses of the bottom drawer when things started getting interesting.
I pulled out a (seemingly empty) glass tube with my husband’s name written on the side – it slowly dawned on me what I was holding.
December 23rd, about five years ago. My husband and daughters came home from visiting his parents and the second they walked through the door, I could tell something was wrong. The girls looked scared and their dad was acting strangely – complaining of severe pain, pacing in circles, groaning, and snapping at me when I asked him what was wrong. He finally said he thought it might be a kidney stone and tried to lie down. I asked if we should go to the hospital and he snapped again. I told my older daughter to call Aunt Sue, talked to her briefly and then handed the phone to my husband. I packed up a few things for him as she convinced him to get in the car with me. On the way to the hospital, as we raced through the village at about 15 mph over the limit, he barked at me that there was no traffic so I should step on the gas. Within ten minutes of our arrival, he was in a room with a tube in his arm. As the morphine dripped, he slowly relaxed, looked at me, and started apologizing for his word, his actions, his medical state, basically for everything . . .
Friends of ours came to the hospital and took the girls home with them. I left a few hours later knowing only that my husband had to stay there for the night – that is, if they didn’t transfer him to the hospital in Graz. They couldn’t say how long it might be before he could leave. I picked up my daughters and brought them home. Once they were in bed, I dragged the Christmas tree up to the first floor and started decorating it. Somehow I would have to pull off this Christmas all on my own – making it as normal for the girls as I could. The mental list of preparations was long and daunting.
I’ve heard many a horror story about kidney stones since then. Many told me that the pain is as bad as childbirth, and one woman – who had been through both – said the kidney stone pain was worse. We turned out to be lucky in that my husband was released from the hospital the next day, we had a fairly normal Christmas Eve, and stone passed shortly thereafter. And here that stone was, in the tube in my hand.
Hard to believe such a tiny speck could cause so much pain and trouble. I placed the tube on the keeper pile and continued with my project.
One of the last things I pulled out was an ancient package of anti-depressants. The sight of it made me remember and smile.
About 15 years ago, my university students chose the topic “Drugs” as one of the social issues we would discuss that semester. They were expecting horror stories about heroin, but I focused more on prescription drugs. I had them read articles in Time and LeMonde about how the pharmaceutical industry does business. (One of the articles was called “Pharmaceuticals for Healthy People: Selling to the Worried Well”.) They explained how and why these huge corporations try to increase the profitability of each product by finding more people and new ways to use them. In a nutshell, it is easier to create new illnesses for existing drugs than to create new drugs for existing illnesses.
Common, difficult human conditions are relabeled “disorders” or “syndromes” and become chemically treatable. Shyness is now “social phobia” or “avoidant personality disorder” and you can take a pill for it. Highly active children are diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Ritalin. Depression is also a disorder with an anti-dote, regardless of the cause. Hating your job and not wanting to work in that crappy hellhole anymore is now called “Burnout Syndrome” and products are available. There are now eating disorders, sleeping disorders, breathing disorders, learning disorders, mental, perceptual and emotional disorders . . . . It seems that every common activity in a person’s average day can be done in a disorderly way. The list is as long as the army of pharmaceutical sales reps is wide. They fan out to spread such treatment suggestions to doctors. And in turn, doctors (like mine) tend to reach for the prescription pad before asking what symptoms you are experiencing. But this was not enough – why sell to the few doctors when you can sell directly to the consumer? So -at least in the States – Big Pharma pushed for and achieved the right to advertise directly. Now patients can tell doctors with the pad in their hand exactly which drug they would like to be written on it.
I showed my students three decades worth of statistics. They showed a consistent, gradual, long-term, downward trend in illegal drug use and a steeper upward trend in the abuse of pharmaceutical drugs. I said to them that if they wanted to see the problem with their own eyes, they didn’t have to go to the park at night, they could just open their parents’ medicine cabinet at home.
They weren’t buying it. It’s still easier to score pot than painkillers or anti-depressants, they said. And if this were all true, it would make headlines in the newspapers. All they ever read about were drug overdoses (whereby they assumed “drug” meant something illegal). I suggested they read those articles carefully and find out what exactly was ingested. They might discover that the majority of these deaths were caused by mixing alcohol (legal) with some prescription drug (legal).
They still weren’t buying it.
I didn’t like losing arguments. So I visited my doctor. She asked me, prescription pad in hand, why I was there. I told her that I had been feeling tired a lot lately – over-extended. I left her office ten minutes later with a referral to an internist to get my thyroid checked and this package of anti-depressants to tide me over.
I brought the pills to my course the following week and told them the story.
Standing by my medicine cabinet this morning, I opened that package of anti-depressants to verify what I already knew – all 30 pills were still in there. I then turned it over and checked the expiration date. 2004. I assume now, over a decade later, with cannabis riding a legalization wave and a new public consciousness of prescription drug addiction forming, it would not be so difficult to convince a bunch of business students to think critically. But who knows? According to my general rule of thumb, I should have tossed these pills onto the expired pile, but they were obviously still effective. They reminded me of the wackier things I used to do when I was teaching. Just looking at the package had made me smile. I slipped it back into the drawer – in the way back – between the Kidney Stone that Almost Stole Christmas and Winnie the Pooh Band-Aids.
It’s possible that I’ll be a Grandma someday. I might need them.