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The Unintended Consequence of Prescription Drug Abuse

By Amy Dresner 03/22/16

This whole situation made me angry at people who abused medications and got us into this whole Big Brother-esque situation in the first place. And then I remembered…oh wait, I am one of those people.

Hooked on Living

When you have a life-threatening illness that’s dependent on a prescription medication, it’s like being an active drug addict all over again. You can’t run out. You count the pills. You take them even if they fall on the floor or get wet. And you can’t travel without them. But unlike most drug addictions, if you don’t take them everyday, something really bad could happen—not just withdrawal, but death.

As some of you know, I have epilepsy as a result of my methamphetamine abuse. And after trying over a dozen anti-convulsant medications that either didn’t work or whose side effects were worse than the seizures themselves, I am on phenobarbital and have been for years. Yes, it’s a barbiturate. Yes, it’s old school. And yes, it’s what they give to epileptic dogs. And you want to know how loaded I feel when I take my two 64.8 mg tablets each morning? Not one tiny bit, goddamnit. So if you don’t think I’m sober because I don’t want to live my life in a crash helmet, well, enjoy your fundamentalism. And let’s see how your mindset changes if, God forbid, you ever get some gnarly medical condition that only a controlled substance will…umm…control.

Okay, so I was going to New York for a week to hock my book. I knew a few things going in: it would be cold as a PG sponsor’s heart. I’d be super stressed and ridiculously excited. And lastly, I would run out of pheno a few days into the trip.

“We can’t fill it early because it’s controlled,” the woman working at my local CVS pharmacy told me.

“I know but sometimes you can do an early fill if somebody is traveling…”

“I’m sorry but your insurance won’t cover it. But you can just go into any CVS in New York and they’ll refill it there,” she said.

“Oh really? Cool,” I chirped. And off I went, with my over-packed suitcase, my Rx naiveté and my LA shoes to the Big Apple.

A day or two before my script ran out, I called the closest New York CVS.  

“Oh, we can’t fill a script for a controlled substance from another state. You cannot transfer controlled substance scripts into New York.“

Wait. What? I did not know that, and even more frightening, neither did my LA pharmacist. And the most confusing part of all is that it seems to depend on the state. From what I understand from trolling the Internet, some states will allow it if the transferring state borders it. There’s lots of discussion boards filled with comments about it not being a problem if it’s the same pharmacy chain and if they are connected by “real time databases.” But when I looked into New York’s laws specifically, no, you can’t transfer a controlled substance refill between pharmacies, let alone states.

“You can have your doctor call in a new script though,” the New York pharmacist told me on the phone.

So then I called my neurologist. My neurologist was unwilling to call in a refill because I hadn’t been in to see her for a good while due to a bureaucratic fuck-up with my insurance.

“Well what should I do?” I asked the nurse, panicked. “I can‘t stop taking my medication suddenly. I’ll have a seizure for sure.”

“Well, if you feel that way then go to the ER.”


I called an ER doctor friend of my dad’s, but he was uncomfortable writing a script for a schedule IV drug. Schedule IV! That’s like a getting a D in drug abuse potential class. Think, Amy, think. I could have had a friend pick up my refill in LA and overnight it to me, but that seemed super shady.

Wait. Urgent Care! The trusted friend of the uninsured! I called the local urgent care clinic and explained my dire situation.

“We can give you one week’s worth if you bring in the bottle.”

Wow, this is like being a pill head all over again but without the fun. I do not have a pattern of refilling this script early and I have never abused it—unless you count taking the whole bottle in an obviously unsuccessful suicide attempt years ago. This whole situation made me kind of angry at people who abused medications and got us into this whole Big Brother-esque situation in the first place. And then I remembered…oh wait, I am one of those people. 

I ended up seeing the urgent care doctor in her adjacent office, and she was very understanding and wrote me a full script with one refill. Out of pocket price: $150. You know what this could be seen as? Doctor shopping. That’s right. Not being able to transfer my script forced me to get a new doctor to write me a new script, and now I have scripts on both coasts. I’m officially bicoastal, just not in the way I have always dreamed.  

I took my new script and trucked into Duane Reade across the street. They didn’t even carry my medication because it’s so fucking unpopular. I was surprised they didn’t suggest I find the closest veterinary clinic. I finally ended up at the New York CVS that I had originally called, now that I was armed with a hard copy of a script from a local doctor. And yes, I got my medication. Otherwise I’d be writing this piece from the neurology unit of New York Presbyterian. 

But this prescription drug crackdown is happening in other ways too. My boyfriend takes Ambien (also a Schedule IV drug) because he has the worst insomnia I’ve ever seen in somebody who isn’t smoking methamphetamine. He envies my ability to just lay down and take a nap, anytime, anywhere.  

“You are so funny. You are either 100% on or asleep. It’s like you just flip a switch.”

No, it’s not narcolepsy. I am just tired. And old. But the point is that now they will only give him 15 pills, which is only two weeks' worth if you take it every night. What happened to the term “monthly prescription”? This is somebody who has never tried a hard drug in his life and has no history of addiction. This new half refill shit is really bad for him because he travels so much, so he’s constantly running out of medication. I’ll wake up and he’s eating a chicken leg, in bed, at 3 a.m., watching back to back episodes of Nathan for You. An even worse scenario is him trying a smorgasbord of weird natural sleep aids that don’t work for shit while I’m subjected to some creepy “soothing” guided meditation in the hopes that the white noise will lull his hyper and brilliant brain to sleep. 

In closing, some stats about abuse: a whopping 54.2% of prescription drugs that are abused are either given freely by a friend or a relative, while only 18.1% are from a doctor and a measly 1.9% are from multiple doctors. My point? Let’s not penalize the people with legitimate medical issues who are going through the proper channels. And yes, I know it’s hard to tell the junkies from the people with real medical need. But if somebody wants to get drugs, they will. They can order them from a Canadian pharmacy, go on Craigslist, roll down to Mexico, find a local street dealer, rifle through the medicine cabinets at open houses. The options are endless! The truth is, I respect my epilepsy too much not to take my medication religiously and I also respect my sobriety too much to ever abuse my medication. It’s not my lack of access to drugs that keeps me sober. It’s my decision and my recovery. But heaven forbid I want to leave the confines of LA and enjoy my new big sober life. I'd better pack a helmet or find me a doctor in that destination city, just like the old days.

Amy Dresner has been a columnist at The Fix since 2012 and is the author of the forthcoming My Fair Junkie. And she is on twitter

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