Pills are needed, but can pile up into a problem
I emptied all the prescription pills on my desk, sorting through them like an old-fashioned pharmacist.
Meloxicam. Naproxen. Diclofenac. Atorvastatin, to name just a few that I can almost pronounce.
I then emptied some of my daily supplements:. Glucosamine chondroitin. Multivitamins. Cod liver oil. Fish oil. Nighttime sleep aids. I followed that with other pills that I occasionally use for my various aches and pains. Excedrin migraine, 250 mg. Ibuprofen, 200 mg. Melatonin, 10 mg.
My desk was now covered with pills of all shapes, colors, sizes and strengths. I felt like an addict. Maybe I am an addict. A junkie for pills. Yet, I never once considered this until I started sorting through all of them.
I was simply trying to find the right nighttime sleep aid on a cold winter evening. I’ve had insomnia problems since childhood, waking up in the middle of the night for a snack for as long as I can remember. Cupcakes, doughnuts, cookies and milk. For decades. How I’m not clinically obese is beyond me.
Also, I just read about a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology stating that losing just two hours of sleep a night makes people angrier. Researchers at Iowa State University found that losing sleep not only results in negative feelings, but also chronic grumpiness.
This may explain a lot about my attitude since I was a restless teen.
Just a couple of years ago, I started taking sleep aids to knock me out and shut off my ever-active mind. A nightly cocktail of melatonin, Unisom and a boring TV show is a blissful feeling for this insomniac. I still wake up in the middle of the night, but I usually fall back asleep without a problem. Usually.
On this night, I ran out of my sleep-aid cocktail and I scrambled to find a substitute. Any kind of substitute. What the heck is Meloxicam? Naproxen? Diclofenac? I had to go online and look up their purpose and dosage. Antiinflammatories? Nope, those won’t help me.
Then I remembered I was once prescribed a pain pill that came with the utopian side effect -- “may cause drowsiness.” Perfect. But where did I put it? And how old is it? I searched through my medicine cabinet, stumbling onto several other prescription medicine bottles for assorted injuries, illnesses and ill-advised doctor visits.
I had no idea what those pills were prescribed for through the years. I don’t consider myself a hypochondriac, but I owned more pills than I remember asking for or buying.
I sent a late-night text to my daughter, who’s a pharmacist. She knows every medication and supplement on the market. She also knows their purpose, dosages and efficacy. But I wanted to go to sleep as soon as possible. I searched for each one online.
“Naproxen tablet: This medication is known as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID),” a website said. “To reduce your risk of stomach bleeding and other side effects, take this medication at the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible time.”
I wrote notes on a piece of paper. I separated the pills into piles. I re-labeled prescription bottles into easy-to-understand categories: PAIN PILLS, MUSCLE RELAXERS, SUPPLEMENTS, SLEEP
At some point, I paused to reflect on what I was doing.
I flashed back to my youth when I struggled to swallow a single pill, even if I was seriously ill. My family had to hold me down and physically force me to take a pill. Or they would smash up a pill and hide it in my meals. I suffered through too many illnesses for too long because of this stupid problem.
And now here I am at
56, swallowing pills of every kind like they’re candy.
I also reflected on the current opioid epidemic in our region, and in our country, killing more than 100 Americans each day, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This deadly crisis not only involves overdoses of heroin and synthetic opioids, but also addiction to prescription pain-relievers.
Remember in the 1990s when pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain-relievers? And when healthcare providers began prescribing them at greater rates to patients in pain or perceived pain?
“It led to widespread misuse of these medications before it became clear that these medications could indeed be highly addictive,” the CDC states on its website. As many as one-third of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain are misusing those pills.
I’m not addicted to prescription pain pills. I rarely take them. Still, I have too many bottles of pills in my medicine cabinet, as I realized on that sleepless night. A pill for this, a pill for that. Got a headache? Here’s a pill. Got muscle soreness? Here’s a pill. Got a cholesterol problem? Here’s a pill to take every day for the rest of your life.
It’s disturbing. It’s reassuring. This is the beauty of pills. This is the tragedy of pills.
We need them. We want them. And we have too many of them in our homes. Worse yet, we casually swallow the advertisements for them without a sip of reflection on their integral role in our lives.
At some point, we’ll be taking a daily pill to chemically remind ourselves to take all of our other pills. I’m kidding, yet I can see this as an alarming reality in the near future.
Meanwhile, I’m forcing myself to consciously ask if I truly need every pill I pop into my mouth. Bad habits are bad enough. Vices can become addictive. And addictions go down as easy as rationalizations.
This is what I realized on that sleepless night.
This is what others should realize, too.
The true cost for all the pills we take shouldn’t be determined strictly by dollars and cents, but more by the staggering toll – physically, emotionally and psychologically – of why we need so many of them. This cost alone should keep us up at night.