Possessing illegal drugs is a crime. Costs for some prescription drugs is a crime. On both sides of the law we have a drug problem.
As is the case with most of us elderly, as the years add up, so do the pills. Taking more medications is as much a part of an aging life-style as afternoon napping and watching Jeopardy.
Either because of medical necessity or spiritual emptiness, young Americans are getting hooked on drugs at alarming rates. Addictions are largely driven by feelings of spiritual vacuity, a pervasive sense of inner emptiness and meaninglessness. Sedative dugs anaesthetize those feelings while amphetamines and hallucinogenic drugs provide intoxicating energy and optimism. For the chronically ill, there are often not enough drugs, on the street there are always too many, and for all concerned they cost too much. It’s an odd thought that legitimate patients, drug pushers and junkies share a common concern: will our drugs be available when we want them, and if they are, will we have enough money to pay for them?
As a kid, on my bike, I delivered prescriptions for our local pharmacist. Mrs. Waters was my favorite client. She was so grateful when I arrived with her “headache powders” and tipped me generously, a quarter, big money in 1948. Heaven only knows what may have been in the powders but whatever it was she was always glad to see me and that, including the tip, made me feel good.
Our dependence on drugs for our health and comfort has grown dramatically since World War II. Prior to 194l, only six drugs accounted for sixty percent of all prescriptions written. In the last decade, James Surowieki reported in the New Yorker, that U.S. drug companies have created more than three hundred new medications.
Drugs and medicinal potions have been integral to the human experience. From ritual incantations chanted over herbs and roots, from ‘potions,’ from the claims of ‘patent medicines,’ to the modern miracles of pharmacology, we continually hope for healing. Healing from what? From the afflictions that ail our bodies, to be sure, but also from the conditions that trouble our spirit.
In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth worries about his wife’s disturbed state of mind; she’s not sleeping. He implores the doctor:
“Cans’t thou not minister to a mind diseased…
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote, cleanse
the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart.”
Macbeth’s plea is common enough: “Come on, Doc, can’t you give her something?”
He can’t: “Therein the patient must minister to himself,” the physician concludes. Today, Macbeth would never have held still for that kind of advice; he would have immediately sought a second opinion.
America’s extraordinary history with patent medicines–– nostrums as they were called –– reveals our deep longing to be made whole, a desire often exploited by charlatans that introduce false hope. This history should also make us thank our lucky stars for the FDA.
Before modern pharmacology, and in the absence of effective diagnoses and treatment, the sick were desperately vulnerable. Their plight bred a large ‘patent medicine’ industry which made outrageous claims, while selling as antidotes, what were hardly even anodynes, and toxic ones at that.
If you lived around tidewater, there was even a potion offered to treat ‘miasma’, allergy to swamp gasses. Most likely, it was a derivative of Jack Daniels.
Take the shameless Dr. Archambault, an industrious nineteenth century Boston entrepreneur. He claimed that his treatment called “Wonderful Paris Vital Sparks,” stimulated “marital vigor.” It was reputed to ” . . . act on the organs as rapidly as a cathartic acts on the bowels.” Dr. Archambault’s formula, with its comprehensive properties but explosive propensities was wisely accompanied with his company’s assurance of legitimacy. Similar to our own prescription drug disclaimers today, it covered the waterfront while remaining totally inscrutable. “Sincerity in speaking as they think, believing as they pretend, acting as they profess, performing as they promise, and being as they appear to be. This is what the Dr. Archambault Co. always does.” Bubba’s lawyer couldn’t have said it better.
Patent medicines affected no cures, except perhaps for the soothing effects of opioids and alcohol. Their active agents were typically combinations of both. Some contained lethal agents like mercury compounds and hydrochloric acid. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 began to curtail these shams, and suits against the companies continued well into the l920’s.
Today, Lady Macbeth’s physician would have knocked her out like a light in seconds and would not likely have recommended psychotherapy. Every day new wonder drugs promise effective treatment for all kinds of ailments–even those that may be “just in your head.” Some critics are disturbed by the increasing use of drugs to correct aberrant behavior like shoplifting, or interpersonal problems such as shyness, and the recently diagnosed affliction, “Affluenza,” a nervous disorder suffered by some who win lotteries or become millionaires overnight. Affluenza patients may turn out to be lucky on more than one count: the cause of their neurosis also pays the freight for treating it. For the rest of us, treatment costs are onerous.
But rarely do drug manufacturers make the outrageous and fraudulent claims they once made in the past. Manufacturers’ disclaimers, however, will frequently contribute to our confusion. Most are written as exhaustively as Dr. Archambault’s assurances. Medical professionals regard such disclaimers as simply attempts by manufacturers to CYA. Are drug companies suspect in their practices? If they are, it’s not the first time. Back in 1776, Adam Smith wrote that “Apothecaries’ profit has become a by-word denoting something uncommonly extravagant.”
You’ve probably noticed that many HMO’s are sexist. For instance, most HMO’s will cover Viagra but not Birth Control pills. I know women with insurance policies that won’t routinely cover an annual physical for them. Men’s yearly physicals are regularly covered. I’ll bet it’s mostly guys who are making these policies.
Our real problems arise around the miracles of modern pharmacology, not so much from their efficacy–– many are an undisputed blessing –– but in learning how to use them to live life more fully, not to escape it.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.