The first time I ever abused a prescription pill, I was a senior in high school. It was a Soma—a muscle relaxer that had gained rapid popularity in my school—and it was my first time experiencing a drug besides pot. I remember staring at the little white pill in my hand and thinking, “How bad could this be for me?” So I took it and spent the next few hours feeling like a jellyfish. Honestly, I loved it. It required less effort than drinking and there was no hangover the next morning. “Whoa”, I thought. “Pills are so easy and cool! Why doesn’t everyone do them?”
Well, they kind of do. It’s estimated that 33 million people have admitted to abusing painkillers alone. If the ’60s had LSD and the ’80s had cocaine, my generation has prescription pills. Adderall, Xanax, Ambien, Vicodin—these are the things that make many 20-somethings world go ’round. The people who abuse them don’t usually fit the profile of a typical drug user either. I know many people who take Adderall to clean their apartment or get work done, and don’t take any other kinds of drugs. No coke, no ‘shrooms, no weed. To them, Adderall is sort of like a five-hour energy drink, not a highly addictive amphetamine.
The casual attitude towards these drugs is what makes it so different from past drug fads. When people were doing heaps of coke in the ’80s, they were aware that it was “a helluva drug.” Prescription pills, however, are largely perceived as little helpers. Xanax bars, for example, look so adorable, and people will take them if they’re just having a rough day. Similarly, someone will take an Ambien before bed and stay up to see how trippy things can get. Role Models even parodied the drug when they had Seann William Scott’s character take one, and end up facedown by a campfire naked. See? Prescription drugs are hilarious!
People’s relaxed perception of benzos, stimulants, painkillers, and sleeping pills probably has a lot to do with how people get them. Unlike other drugs, you don’t have to go to the corner of Shootout and Crackhead to get something like Ativan. You can just call a friend who has a prescription or make an appointment with a doctor. Walgreens can be your new dealer and if you have insurance, it can set you back as little as ten bucks. There’s no sketchiness involved which makes the incentive that much greater to obtain them.
I’m not saying that everyone treats these medications like they’re Flinstone’s vitamins. I’m also not implying that some people don’t actually need these pills to function to the best of their ability. I’m just saying that enough people abuse them to make it a ‘thing’, to make it our generation’s drug of choice. If you’re unfamiliar with some of the pills I’m referencing, let me give you a little guide.
Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan, Valium}
Pros: Helps treat acute anxiety by making you feel blissed-out and calm. If you don’t actually have an anxiety disorder, take it only when you’re flying on an airplane.
Cons: Can become a crutch and actually create more anxiety. Turns your memory into swiss cheese.
Opiates (Vicodin, Percocet, OxyContin)
Pros: Pure euphoria. I mean, it’s an opiate. Its job is to make you feel the opposite of pain. Let’s just say it likes to work overtime.
Cons: Insanely addictive. Guaranteed life-ruiner/trip to rehab.
Stimulants (Adderall, Ritalin)
Pros: Will help you write that 30-page research paper on the ambiguities of Thomas Jefferson. Produce 10,000 “aha!” moments and make you feel super brilliant.
Cons: The high is followed by a crushing low. It’s essentially speed, which is gross and super addictive. It will also make you an annoying person to be around.
Sedatives (Ambien and a bunch more obvi)
Pros: Helps you fall asleep in 2.5 seconds and you wake up feeling rested.
Cons: Developing a dependency on sleeping pills actually sounds like hell on Earth. Can you actually imagine not being able to sleep without a pill? Terrifying.
So there’s some Prescription Pills 101 for you. Now that you know the basics, where do you go from here?
Writer (and sometime Thought Catalog contributor) Joshua Lyon wrote the seminal book on prescription pill abuse in modern America. Part investigative journalism and part harrowing memoir, Pill Head: The Secret Life of a Painkiller Addict explores the prescription pill epidemic and Lyon’s own struggles with illuminating candor. Ironically, I read it while high on Vicodin recovering from one of my many surgeries. Although it was a complete buzzkill, it motivated me to ditch the meds and embrace the pain.
To be completely honest though, I’m not sure if I’ve come to a conclusion about the Rx Generation. Part of me feels that there’s no harm in taking the occasional unprescribed pill. Vicodin works great for hangovers and sometimes an Ambien is crucial for getting a good night’s sleep. But then I think of Joshua Lyon, a figure like Heath Ledger and quite frankly, my own issues with them, and I start to think they’re dangerous motherfuckers that need to be taken seriously. One thing is for certain: Prescription pills are here, queer, and some of our generation might have to go to rehab for it.