Janet Sheridan: The puzzle of pills

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Janet Sheridan

After my mother’s death, my dad disposed of her many prescriptions. He thought the pills — big, small, yellow, white, and twice a day, as needed — contributed to her death.

Dad never questioned the home remedies recommended by his grandmother — oatmeal baths for chicken pox, licorice paste for corns, onion juice for earaches, and Pepto Bismol, Epsom salts, or witch hazel for all else.

But, if he had to swallow a pill, his demise was imminent.

“Janet,” he said, “aspirin have crossed my lips, but only to quiet your mother.”

I inherited Dad’s distrust of pills. I resist when a doctor wants to prescribe a daily tablet into infinity: “Maybe I could lower my cholesterol by making better food choices,” I bargain, though past efforts to live without ice cream and eggnog tipped me toward insanity.

When I read the information sheets for new prescriptions, I fall into a tizzy: Side effects may include abdominal pain, nausea, and liver problems. I should seek immediate medical attention if my ankles or tongue swell, my eyes or skin turn yellow, or I stop breathing.

“Wow, those are some mean side effects,” I think, “I’ll be lucky to survive this pill.”

I usually quit reading, afraid to discover that continued use will make me disrupt meetings, disrespect my elders, and shoplift.

I also worry that the innocent-looking pill I’m about to swallow will cause physical reactions that will require more pills, and then those pills will spur the need for more, on and on and on, until I’ll need a wheeled suitcase to move my prescriptions about.

Remembering when to take a pill, with what, and without what, is akin to memorizing “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” and as merry. How do you manage two pills you can’t take together that need to be taken in the morning, on an empty stomach, an hour before eating, and four hours before consuming anything that contains calcium? I lie awake at night, puzzling the impossible.

I frequently forget to take pills at mealtime. I’m distracted by my cooking: dropping ingredients on the floor, burning holes in hot pads, and wondering if I can substitute mashed turnips for tomato paste. I don’t mind, though. Forgetting to swallow a pill with dinner means I can take it later with a snack — though doing so will interfere with the bedtime pill that should be taken on an empty stomach.

When the directions say, “Take with food,” how much food does that mean? A cherry tomato or a generous piece of cheesecake?

The cost of pills can be dismaying, so dropping one on the floor initiates a search requiring a flashlight, the hand-patting of carpet, and my behind in the air while I sight along the floor.

When I find the elusive pill under the couch, nestled with dust balls, a decaying grape, and a lost sock, I worry about taking something found in such unsanitary conditions. Then I remember its cost and swallow.

Despite my unease about pills, I admit my life is better because of them.

I spent too many years with an ulcer: chugging milk, avoiding spicy foods, and telling doctors, “I AM NOT STRESSED.” Then my doctor prescribed a daily pill that controlled my symptoms, and a few years later, a three-week course of antibiotics rid me of my ulcer. Not a day goes by that I’m not grateful.

More recently, thyroid medication stabilized my life, though I had my usual stormy relationship with the new pill: resistance, denial, anger, and frothing. At one point, forgetting my degree was in education, not medicine, I decided I didn’t really need to take the thing.

A few months of weight gain, heart palpitations, muscle aches, and edginess convinced me I needed it. My doctor, taking pity on me, didn’t say, “I told you so.”

I have been blessed by modern medications. I just hate taking them.

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