I vividly remember walking into the interview. I was a junior in college and had scored a meeting with Joshua Lyon, an editor at Jane Magazine, the publication I’d been dreaming of working for since the first issue had appeared on newsstands and I skipped school to read it cover-to-cover. The interview went well, and an hour later, I got the phone call that he had picked me to be his intern. I was elated.
Josh and I worked together for the next four years. Turns out that, for two of them, he was almost always high on prescription pain killers.
Josh has written a fascinating book, Pill Head, about the whole ordeal. It’s part memoir, and part sociological exploration of why so many people in the United States—48 million of them to be exact—have used prescription pills for non-medical purposes. After the jump, Josh tells us everything from how he got his hands on his first Vicodin to why prescription pain killers are especially popular with the ladies. Oh, and why you owe it to grandma not to try them.
So how did you get hooked on pain killers?
At Jane, all of us started to get a bunch of spam email that said, “Valium! Xanax! Vicodin! No prescription needed!” I wanted to see if it was a scam or not, so I pitched an article on ordering prescription pills. Fairchild Publications even gave me a $600 drug budget. 48-hours later, I had bottles of all three. After I wrote the story, I brought the bottles home, and one of my editors called me and told me to make sure to throw the pills away. I didn’t. I took three Vicodin and I loved it. I’d done every drug out there and the high was just lovely, but I could still function on it.
When did you realize this was connected to a larger phenomenon?
When people found out I had these pills, they kept asking me for it. I stopped giving it out because I wanted it all for myself. When I broke up with a boyfriend later that year, I gave him 15 Vicodins in a plastic baggie as a consolation prize.
Is this the only thing you have in common with Rush Limbaugh?
I hope so.
Why do you think so many famous people abuse prescription pills?
This is my own theory, but it’s because you can function so well even when you’re high on pain killers. It’s easy to hide if you work in the public sphere—you’re not going to be smelling of pot, you’re not going to have your nose leaking all day. If people see you take a pill, they don’t think anything of it. It’s easy to hide.
What are some of the most shocking statistics?
That 48 million Americans have used prescription pills non-medically. That’s 20 percent of the population. And I even think that number is conservative since you don’t have hardcore drug users or people in jail filling out these surveys.
How many women out there are addicted to prescription pills?
There’s a woman I interviewed in the book named Carol Boyd—she’s a professor at the University of Michigan—and she says this is the first time she’s seen a drug that more young women are using than men. Women tend to take more prescriptions across the board. A lot of this is self-medicating for depression, which women are more likely to do, especially when you look at factors like sexual abuse.
Any other thoughts on why prescription meds would appeal to women?
There’s less stigma attached. Maybe that’s changing with more public awareness after Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson’s deaths. I think it also comes down to the fact that, with prescription pills, there’s a perceived sense of safety. That somewhere down the line this came from a doctor and there’s no danger. I will say though, that pain killers do get a bad rep. The problem comes in when they’re mixed with substances that effect the central nervous system—like alcohol, Valium, or Xanax.
Has regulation of prescription pills changed over the last few years?
Oh yeah. It’s much more difficult to find pills online now. The DEA has really cracked down on it and created new laws were you can’t ship across state lines. They also upped many painkillers to a Schedule II status, which means they’re a controlled substance. So if you’re caught selling it, the price is much higher.
Do you think prescription pill abuse is a problem that will still be around in 20, 30 years?
It’s not a drug epidemic that you can combat like any other. You can’t go after the source because it’s manufactured for people who actually need it. Then jerks like me abuse it, and make it harder for people who need it to get a prescription. I try to guilt trip people about it. Like, someday your grandma will need prescription pain killers but won’t be able to get access to it because of you.