Scampering through Cape Cod, searching for an outhouse, looking out for Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Secret Service…

So I’m staying at the Kennedy Compound because I’m writing a biography on Sargent Shriver, the guy who started the Peace Corps. Bill Clinton is there, sailing with Ted Kennedy. Arnold is there. I’m out walking around town when suddenly the anxiety hits. Anxiety leads to a certain gastric distress so I’m rushing back to the house, sweating, looking out for celebrities and the secret service, wondering if I can make it back. I get there—and the toilet breaks. Sewage rises around me, ruining my pants. I mop it up with towels just as the dinner bell rings for some sort of fabulous Kennedy soiree. I sneak out and race up the stairs, half-naked, wrapped in a towel and run straight into JFK Jr. “Oh hi, Scott,” he says. He was totally unfazed. We had met the day before.

We decided I should buy a girdle in Brighton Beach. It became part of the plan. Drew’s Yorkshire accent had taken a hit after years in New York. He slid through the specifics with fast, slanted a’s and round Brooklyn o’s. How I would fly it in, how I would meet up with The Guy, how I would get the money, “Don’t tawk to no one, raht luff?” He said for the thousandth time while we walked along the Coney Island pier.

“No, I won’t. I can do this. Don’t worry,” I responded. He continued detailing how we’d call the fugazi travel agent, the I’m just a man with a computer, the guy who would get us a fourteen-day-advance fare for a same-day ticket. I’d heard about this agent, sure, but had never laid eyes on him. Drew saw him once, said he looked like Igor in Young Frankenstein. Abby Normal. We would drop off the cash, folded over and rubberbanded, with the agent’s doorman on the Upper West Side .

“No problem.” I said.

The Coney Island sun is mustard flavored. It’s hot sweep fades the signs advertising sword swallowers and Nathan’s hot dogs, and softens to a cold pastel those painted clowns with gaping holes for faces. Disembodiment photo ops. Splintered reds and blues ran right off the old wooden coasters and onto the boardwalk. Past the black haired Italian boys taking deep pulls off stolen cigarettes, past the Russian women, their calloused feet balanced precariously on tall Lucite shoes, and past the three elderly Jewish ladies in their wide-brimmed hats, unwrapping knish on towels in the sand. Coney Island is a diaspora-layered cake and I felt like I fit right in.

“Vatsa little ting like yous aneeda dees for?” asked the store clerk, as she folded the slick, skin-colored girdle and slid it into a plastic bag. I probably smiled and pretended not to understand. I absolutely didn’t say it was so Drew could tape thousands of ecstasy tablets around my waist, so I could subdue the plastic-wrapped pills underneath a loose shirt and trench coat. It was before the towers fell so you could still just walk right through security with coat, shoes, everything. All we really had to worry about was the dogs, but even then, not really. The odorless pills with their price per square inch made it a pretty easy act of espionage.




A week later, Drew walked me up to the metal detector, kissed me goodbye, saw that I made it past the badges and I descended, a few hours later into the agri-circles and low buildings of Springfield Missouri, my bladder bursting and my adrenaline on volume ten.

It wasn’t as easy as we planned it out on the boardwalk. It wasn’t just in and out, I had to wait. A lot of waiting. For This Guy and That Guy to come up with the cash because I couldn’t give it on the arm and someone was always out of pocket. I acted annoyed when I talked to Drew on the phone, told him I couldn’t wait to get back, but secretly, I loved the urgency. I possessed, or was possessed by, an unprecedented power. It was in me. Rather, it was in my backpack. But I felt it, all brilliant and scary and intoxicating.

I had something people really wanted. I sat still, I occupied a seat, I took up space in the world and they came to me.

In physics, power is the rate at which energy is converted. In politics, power is the ability to exert control. My perceived ability to exert control grew at the rate those tablets converted from tiny white circles, stamped with little stars, into stacks of cash. But power is problematic. Perceived power even more. This was a kind of gratification that eats through rather than inhabits. Like drinking acid. If I felt spare before…the dive into the world of buying and selling drugs pared me down even further, sucked the marrow.

I associated with a s/gr/n/eediness that manifested as a Hunger of insatiable proportions. I stayed up for days doing lines off the cover of a Roxy Music cd, and when I’d finished that, crushing the ecstasy tablets and cutting them up, while I waited for the money, the arm, the pocket; while I waited and wilted. Drew called daily screaming, “Where is my money?” and “Are you high? Don’t fucking lie to me, I know you’re high!”

I made sure I was horizontal when he called to make my voice sound sleepy.

“No, I swear I just woke up. I am not high.”

As if I could actually turn down that level of chemically induced adrenaline before answering the phone and then force my voice to sound tired. But you couldn’t have convinced me of invincibility’s fallibility for a million cocaine-covered dollar bills. I was on fire. I was an arrogant Secretariat with a heart the size of two, so full of pumping blood, I still thought I could outrun the demons pounding their hooves into the dust just twenty lengths behind me.




I was looking for a Klonopin or some Xanax bars when I found Jason lying on the floor of my rented room. Jason had originally introduced me to The Guy and was also my coke dealer. He was short and prematurely balding and he always wore these old green cargo pants full of drugs, full of money. I was on my way around the bed when I tripped over the soft mass of Jason’s leg.

His eyes were pressed wide open, squeezed open instead of shut. Like they were frozen in fear, popping out in cartoonish surprise. A string of clear drool trailed his mouth to the carpet. My knees disappeared and my liver rose up into my throat and lodged itself with a bilious fortitude. “OhmyGodOhmyGod,” I heaved. “OhmyGod.”

I knelt down.

I checked his breathing with my cheek.

I set my hand on his chest and felt the slow rhythm of a heart.

I stood up.

I kicked him a little in the ribcage.

Jasonwakethefuckup. I pushed his leg with my foot. Jasonwakethefuckup.

What I didn’t do was call 911. Aside from the rib kicking, I did absolutely nothing to help him. Even though I thought he was dying on the floor.

Instead, I grabbed my sunglasses with the red lenses, and because it was an emergency, and I was sure he would understand, I searched his pockets and stole what he was holding before I ran downstairs and vomited in the kitchen sink.

I didn’t want Jason to die.

But worse, I didn’t want to ruin this feeling, I didn’t want to admit defeat, I didn’t want to get caught, I didn’t want to disappoint Drew, myself, I didn’t want to stop.

When I stepped outside to sit on the concrete step that led to the parking lot of that low-rent, low-key-location apartment building, and I dipped my little finger into the baggie I’d lifted from Jason’s pocket, the air swelled. It became a swirling torrent of thick black dust and I was deafened by dissolution, by the malevolent thunder of forty-eight hooves.

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.