“Doctors can be so naive,” I thought, months ago, as I waited at a pharmacy for two prescriptions to be filled. One was for a powerful sleep aid, Imovane, and the other was for Xanax. I also remember thinking, “Thank God doctors are so naive.” I needed the pills. I’d first tried them, thanks to my mother-in-law, four years earlier. I’d mentioned that I was having trouble sleeping, and I was panicky about an upcoming dentist appointment. She gave me Xanax for my dentist visit (she needs them for her dentist visits too) and Imovane to sleep (she uses them when she travels). When I first took the Xanax, I felt calm within 20 minutes. And for the first time in over a year, I slept a full eight hours, thanks to the Imovane. I was hooked, probably, from that point on. When I took the Xanax, I was calmer. When I took the sleeping pills, I slept! But who knew it would get so out of control — or, rather, I would get so out of control?
That day months ago, I had gone to the pharmacy after walking out of a nearby walk-in clinic in a major city, prescriptions in hand, having blatantly lied to the doctor. It wasn’t my first visit to that clinic. I had been there numerous times — too many to count — seeing rotating doctors to ask for refills. “I know I have to stop taking them, but now is not a good time. I’m having personal issues that I don’t really want to discuss. I’m not depressed, though, just overwhelmed,” I told the doctor on call that day.
These words, I’d learned, work like a charm. Admit up front you know taking drugs isn’t good for you, say you’re overwhelmed, mention you’re not depressed and make it clear you don’t want to get into your private life. You come across as reasonable and stable. You come across as anything but an addict. The doctor looked at me sympathetically and wrote the prescriptions, wishing me the best. I tried not to roll my eyes.
The fact is, of course, I had a problem. I was addicted, both to the sleeping pills and to the Xanax. I could no longer sleep without that little blue pill, and if I didn’t have one, I would be up all night, knowing the first priority of my day was to get some more. I took Xanax before big meetings or when I felt stressed out, which seemed to be all the time. They made me relax. I was always thinking about them and looking at my pill bottles, counting out how many days I had left before I needed to get more. But I also knew how easy it was to get prescriptions. If, for some reason, the doctor at the walk-in clinic refused to refill them, it would be okay. I had a family doctor I could go to. I knew I could walk away with a prescription after listening to a 10-minute lecture, though it would be more time-consuming, since his office was across town. I also had a third doctor — whom I paid for at one of the private clinics that have popped up in this country — who had, only weeks before, filled both prescriptions. It was too soon to call that doctor, but I could easily lie, as I’d done many times before. “I left my medicine in the hotel on my business trip” and “The cleaning lady threw them out, not knowing what they were” were lies that had worked in the past when my prescriptions ran out in less than 30 days. When friends asked how I got the pills so easily and how they could get them, I was an expert. “Tell them you’re going through a divorce,” I said. “Tell them you’re going overseas for business. Tell them you just got fired.” All lies that had worked for me, then worked for them.
It’s worth noting that I’m Canadian, and all the doctors and walk-in clinics I visited to feed my addiction were in Canada. This is important, because with celebrities dying seemingly every other week with prescription medications found in their homes, we may think that prescription abuse is a “Hollywood thing” or an American pandemic. Wake up and smell the Tim Hortons coffee. I’m a highly educated, career-oriented, ambitious woman in my mid-30s, a middle-class Canadian who was, for two years, addicted to Xanax and sleeping pills. At the height of my addiction, I was thrilled after visiting a doctor who printed off a prescription on a piece of paper from a computer. I photocopied that one, using the machine at the pharmacy, 10 times. That was a good run. Of course, I couldn’t use the printout at the same pharmacy, so for months I would go to different pharmacies all over the city, using the photocopies of the original. Never once did I have a problem getting them filled. I charmed the pharmacists, asking, “Can I fill it here? I’m just in the area,” or, “No, I haven’t taken these before. How long does it take to work?” As if I didn’t know. My only regret was that I didn’t photocopy more of them. Not that it turned out to matter. I learned very quickly which walk-in clinics were easiest to score from. Never go to downtown clinics, where the homeless and hard-core drug addicts go. The best walk-ins are the ones in the tonier parts of town, where the houses are large, the salaries are large and the egos are large.
When I met doctors, I looked like anything but a typical addict. I would purposely display my car key and expensive phone with my sleek purse and designer clothes. I was sure that, thanks to my look, they were less likely to question me about an addiction problem. Or maybe they didn’t want to. There’s a hint of fear in these doctors. They want to be liked. You don’t want to be the doctor who doesn’t prescribe pills — especially to the patient who comes across as educated and employed.
At private clinics, the relationship between doctors and patients is different. At the end of the day, whether anyone will admit this or not, everyone knows you’re paying for a service. Doctors are workers. You are their “client.” Do they want to lose you and their fee — which can be around $3,000 a year — for saying no to a prescription? Never once was it suggested that enough was enough, that I shouldn’t use sleeping pills or Xanax for so long. When Michael Jackson died, I became worried. I thought that doctors might crack down. I needn’t have worried. Celebrity after celebrity died with seemingly unwarranted prescription meds in their systems, but it never became more difficult for me to get mine.
Not that I didn’t wonder why none of the doctors said no to me. I did. I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t sleep without the pills. I would get shaky if I didn’t take the Xanax. I felt like a child who needed to be punished. I needed a doctor to say no. None did. I don’t fully blame them. As I said, I had become a skilled liar. But I wouldn’t say they’re blameless. I was told when I was first prescribed the pills — when I thought I needed them — that they weren’t addictive. Also, after so many months, how could they not see through my lies? (Sometimes, stupidly, they even left prescription pads in the room. I was too scared to steal them, but the thought crossed my mind.)
I wasn’t depressed, but with the number of pills I was getting, I could have overdosed if I had decided to take them all at once. Sure, I wasn’t using crack or heroin, and I functioned perfectly well at work and at home, but as smart as I was about getting the drugs, I was also smart enough to know that it was all just plain stupid. An addict is an addict, and I didn’t want to be one.
And then one day, shaky and sweaty after three days of trying to get off the pills with no sleep, I went to a clinic. I wanted to stop. I was taking more and more Xanax. I was taking two sleeping pills at night. I was tired of lying and spending so much money. I told the doctor, up front, that I was an addict. He gave me two choices: “Go through two weeks of hell, or wean yourself off them slowly.”
I told him I’d wean myself. He wrote out the prescriptions, which I found slightly odd — how was he to know, or I to know, if I would follow through on weaning? But he also recommended a book, I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can, written 30 years ago. I bought it online for $3.99. It arrived one week later, and I inhaled it in days. It was a hauntingly beautiful memoir about getting off Valium, written by Emmy-award winner Barbara Gordon, whose life crumbled when she went off her prescriptions. That really helped. It showed that even pills like Xanax are addictive and not easy to stop taking.
I started weaning myself off. Instead of three Xanax a day, I took two. I stopped relying on my nightly aid, and didn’t sleep for two unbearable weeks. The Xanax I managed to quit. But nighttime, without the pill, wasn’t working. I went back to that doctor six weeks later and told him about the impact of the book. He said every doctor should tell patients to read it. I agreed.
I also told him to write a note in the clinic’s computer system to not prescribe me anything for three months. All doctors at the clinic would then know I had a problem. He said he would write it, and that we had a “verbal promise.” It’s funny. I may have lied to doctors, but I always honour promises. I did. I didn’t go back.
*Name has been changed.