I was feeling no pain.

I cared about nothing but this.

It wasn’t just an absence of pain. It was warm waves pulsating through my muscle and skin. Breathing was hard, my chest felt weighted down by my own ribcage but I didn’t panic because it’s impossible to feel anxiety about anything when every inch of your body is having a constant low-grade orgasm.

I don’t know how long I lay there on my bed, watching the blades of my ceiling fan slowly turn, lazily spinning tufts of dust before they floated down through the air around me like so much gray snow. Through half-lidded eyes I watched Ollie, my cat, go ape-shit chasing the dust puffs, and it took every ounce of strength to turn my head toward the other side of the bed. I lifted an arm, ran my fingertips along the wall until they hit the mattress. I studied the blank wall. Its surface was pebbled under the paint. I’d always thought it was smooth. I got a sudden craving for an Orangina, and with a herculean burst of energy, sat up. Ollie freaked at my sudden movement, his eyes bulged out of his tiny skull and he went tearing out of my room in a manic frenzy. I heard him skid down the hallway, claws slipping on wood.

My skin itched. Everywhere. I stuffed my hands down the back of my shirt, pulled up my jean cuffs to get at my ankles, dug around the insides of my thighs. My fingernails sent jolts of red electricity down to the bone, but any discomfort washed away before it had a chance to really set in.

I kicked a pair of flip-flops out from under the bed and left my apartment. The usually harsh, trash-filled street looked soft as a meadow, and the light of the setting sun felt like a warm glow coming from inside me instead of the sky. In the bodega I found the Orangina and I wandered up and down each aisle three times, picking up a bag of pretzels, putting it down. Opening the freezer, then shutting the door. Mr. Clean and I shared an intimate, prolonged stare. The cashier gave me a knowing smile and handed me my change.

Back upstairs I collapsed on the couch. Ollie dove into my lap, stayed there, warm against my stomach, writhing, trying to get closer. I reached for the TV remote but it was a good six inches out of my grasp so I gave up. I felt my head roll back and hit the back of the sofa as another wave hit me and I said out loud to Ollie, to myself: “This is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life.”

Three Vicodin. That was all it took.

I was in love.

In the summer of 2003 my co-workers at Jane magazine and I began receiving massive amounts of email spam offering up Valium, Xanax, and Vicodin with “No Prescription Needed!” I kept hitting delete until the words actually sunk into my brain. It couldn’t be that easy. My own physician wouldn’t even prescribe me a sleeping pill for a flight I had to take in the weeks immediately following 9/11. (In his typically reserved way, he had told me to practice deep breathing and maybe have a cocktail, but no more than one.)  So, strictly in the name of journalistic curiosity, I convinced my editor to let me try and buy these pills online. I wanted to see if it was just a scam or if it really was that simple to get controlled substances without a doctor’s prescription. Everyone in the office—particularly the fashion and art departments—loved the idea and seemed unusually eager to hear the results. The story got approved as a small front-of-book piece in our pop culture section. Even better, I was given a $600 drug budget, courtesy of Fairchild Publications.

The Xanax and Valium were easy—I just had to fill out an online form. In the section where I had to explain why I needed the drugs, I wrote that I traveled a lot for work and that I had a fear of flying. Within forty-eight hours I had two Fed-Ex packages waiting for me on my desk:  one with 30 brand-name Valium (the beautifully designed kind with the negative space V in the center of each pill) and the other containing thirty alprazolam, the generic equivalent of Xanax. Those two lots ran me $312 together.

The Vicodin order included an extra step: one of the online pharmacy staff doctors was going to call me for a consultation. I was also supposed to provide a phone number for my primary physician. I gave them a fake doctor name and an unused telephone line at my office.

Their “doctor” called me first thing the next morning. The conversation went like this:

“You called to order Vicodin?”

“Hey, yeah, I, um, just had my appendix removed. I don’t have insurance and your Vicodin prices seem pretty cheap.”

“Yes, we do have good prices. We’ll send it right out. Do you want, thirty, sixty, or ninety?”

Ninety, of course. And it was a good price, only $223.

The third package arrived the next day. I wrote up a quick 250-word blurb about how frighteningly easy it was to order meds online, making a joke about slurring my words a lot ever since, and took the bottles home. It was a Friday, and they might have remained in the bottom of my underwear drawer forever if I hadn’t received a frantic phone call from my editor around 8:00 PM. I panicked when I saw her number on my cell phone screen, thinking that something disastrous had happened at work, especially since I knew that she was supposed to be at her place on the Jersey Shore that weekend.

“What are you going to do with those pills?” she demanded as soon as I picked up the phone.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Give them away? I hadn’t thought about it.”

“I spent the entire train ride out here imagining you face down on the floor somewhere,” she said. “I can just see the headlines now: ‘Magazine kills editor.’ It’s the last thing we need.”

It was nice to know where I stood in the scheme of things.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get rid of them,” I said.

“Promise?” she asked. “Flush them down the toilet.”

“Yes, I promise,” I sighed, but it was already a lie.

I have a problem. When someone tells me not to do something I will immediately go out and do it. It’s an anti-authority streak that has been in me pretty much since birth. It first reared its head in my Montessori school when we grew a large crystal made from Epsom salt on a string. We were told not to touch it, but it ended up in my pocket. When it was discovered missing we all had to sit in a circle on the floor and received a stern, yet oddly sympathetic speech (a trademark Montessori method) about stealing. Our teacher told us all to reach into our pockets, see if it was there and come clean if it was. I slipped my hand inside my red Garanimals shorts, felt the smooth sides of the crystal, with its comforting, sharp points. I kept my hand tightly clutched around it. It was mine now.

When I hung up with my boss, I pulled the bottles out of my bag and stared at them. The labels were pathetically generic and looked like they’d been created on a typewriter. The originating pharmacies were located in Florida, Arizona, and Colorado, and the addresses felt strangely cold: for some reason the phrase “Florida Drive” just screams unmarked storefront with the blinds closed shut, located in a partially deserted strip mall, an empty soda can rattling by, pushed by the wind.

The Vicodin bottle was fat, almost two inches in diameter. I’d never even seen a pill bottle that large. I opened it up and removed the cotton. The pills were pressed together so tightly that when I stuck my finger inside I couldn’t even get past the first layer. They were thick, the size I’d always called horse pills, and looked like they’d lodge directly in my windpipe if I tried to swallow one.

I took three.

That night I drifted in and out of sleep, but not in an unpleasant, restless way. It was more like a constant waking dream, and when the alarm went off the next morning I still felt a little high, but not at all hungover. That was all it took to seal the deal—I’d  discovered my perfect drug.

From PILL HEAD: The Secret Life of a Painkiller Addict by Joshua Lyon. Copyright © 2009 Joshua Lyon. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.

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JOSHUA LYON is the author of Pill Head and the ghostwriter of several memoirs by public figures. He has worked at Interview, Conde Nast Traveler, Jane, V Life, Country Living, and Us Weekly. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Marie Claire, Out, The Huffington Post, and many other outlets. Visit jklyon.com for more info.

8 responses to “Prologue: An Excerpt from Joshua Lyon’s Pill Head

  1. Joe Daly says:

    Creepy. Because I’m pretty sure I know where this is going.

    It’s amazing how easy it is to circumvent the prescription drug laws. Nice style- story moves along nicely.

    Made me remember the afternoon I spent sitting outside of the pharmacy holding a prescription for Percocets, where the prescribing doctor had forgotten to fill in the “Number of Refills ___” field. I had a pen in the car, that was the same color (I hoped) as the pen used on the prescription. How hard would it be to just put a “1” in there?

    30 minutes later I walked in and picked up my Percs with the field still blank. I’m told I made a good decision.

  2. Yep, that description of every inch of your body having an orgasm . . . wow, you nailed it.

  3. Dana says:

    “Mr. Clean and I shared an intimate, prolonged stare.” Great, descriptive line!

    There are few things in life I enjoy more than a glass of red wine washing down a Vicodin. Fortunately/unfortunately my husband’s hip was replaced and we no longer bear the weight of knowing that a scrip can be so easily obtained. His doctor held the golden key and she would write MULTIPLE prescriptions for him. Perc’s make you nauseous? Here try some Vicodin — 90? With 3 refills? Those not cutting it anymore? How about some Tramadol? Honestly, if he hadn’t gotten that new hip 2 years ago, we’d probably both be in serious trouble.

    I like your style Joshua — looks like I’ve got yet another TNB book to purchase!

    Can you divulge what magazine you’re working for now?

    • Marni Grossman says:

      That was exactly the line I was going to comment on: “Mr. Clean and I shared an intimate, prolonged stare.”

      So brilliant-

  4. dwoz says:

    I was recently involved in a conversation with Vicodin (broken rib). I actually wasn’t all that enthused by it. I found that I had to take a pretty big dose (or bundle it with oxycodone), to make it start to hit critical mass…there wasn’t really a “mild” setting…it was either not enough or bingbingboingbing.

    • Joshua Lyon says:

      Ha! Yeah, it didn’t take long before I was up to ten, and after a while, Vic became like baby aspirin. Morphine and Dilaudid worked much better, and were cheaper than Oxys.

  5. Tom Hansen says:

    I know the feeling

  6. Lora Grillo says:

    Its hard to praise this piece specifically without potentially incriminating oneself. I’ll just say I am looking forward to the book release and any subsequent readings.

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