Do not swallow that pill

Picture Credits: Canned Muffins

It is small, blue, and appetizing. You will want to take a bite, well, for a lot of reasons. First of all, you are feeling tired. Directionless. This pill has promise: It will bring your life into focus. It will add some WD40 to the workings of your brain, won’t let you wander – lazy, and lost. This pill has power: If you swallow it, you will get things done. You’ll drive around the roads of your hometown with their quaint names like River and Church, long black streets with a yellow middle pulling you in and spitting you out into a world that suddenly makes more sense. The tree leaves rustling will inspire you. The slanted stop sign will inspire you. The Landscapers whistling from their truck will inspire you. From your brother’s old brown room with a glass of chardonnay on the bedside table, you will write your way out of your parents’ house, into grad school, into New York City; you will write yourself back to life.

Do not fill that prescription.

At the 58th street office, the waiting room is empty, a small kitchen off the side, and a CATS MAKE ME HAPPY mug hanging upside down in the draining board. It’s just hard for me to focus, you rehearse. I can’t finish what I start. Inside, you notice he sports the generic psychiatrist look: grey, disheveled hair, surrounded by piles of exploding binders, paper seeping out like meat in a deli sandwich. He talks about his daughter, their dinner at Carmine’s on 91st street, and you look out the window, count the multi-colored planters on the balconies.

It’s so hard to focus, you tell him. It’s like this all the time.

It’s raining when you leave. You don’t bother with a hood, but hold the prescription in your pocket, folded and dry, keep feeling for it to make sure it’s still there. Run your finger along the messy words and milligrams, your very own ammunition for life.

The small orange bottles will follow you everywhere, hidden in handbags or waitressing aprons or glove boxes. Crumbled into morsels, dusting up corners and seams.

Although you will never become “an addict.” Addicts don’t have prescriptions. Addicts don’t walk right into Duane Reade with a doctor’s signature and an insurance card. The man in the white coat carefully puts your medicine together, and gives it to you with a smile. $2.93 cents, he tells you. You are not an addict, because you have a receipt.

Do not double your dosage.

The pills will be pale pink now, like a sunset. Their bottle sits by your bedside next to a glass of water and your alarm clock. You need them before a shower, before makeup, black eyeliner on your waterline. Food no longer holds you hostage; you can do without, heat some portobello mushrooms in a pan and sprinkle cheddar on top when you’re hungry. You can run now, circling the Central Park reservoir, when it rains, or when the sun beats down on your back. You stare at your feet moving one after the other, and they are unstoppable, kicking gravel into dust. You are no longer the twelve-year-old coming in almost last at the fifty-yard field-day dashes, sitting on the sidelines during the mile runs. This is the new you: fit, slightly muscular, fat falling off step by step. And your brain, now freshly greased, will write for as you move. Images translate into words, descriptions so concrete and eloquent you pause to note them down. The elderly woman with legs spotted like an overripe banana. Cigarettes poking out from beneath calloused index fingers, ground beef scents wafting from Sabrett stands.

When five miles is over, you walk along with sweat and relief on the streets of Manhattan, or Gun Hill Road, or anywhere, singing out loud. Because here is life on amphetamines: conforming to you, everything shifting out of your path while painting itself into the perfect background to highlight your existence.

You are not an addict, and you have things to prove it: mileage, published work, and Masters degrees. You will graduate from Teachers College with a 4.0 and become the Young Woman Who Could, nominated for teacher of the year, holding each NYC teenager’s heart in your hand. They will love you. You stay up all night writing notes in the margins of their black and white composition notebooks. Things like: This is amazing, I need to hear more. Or: Be yourself, those who mind won’t matter and those who matter won’t mind. Your attention to their details will melt them. They will stare at the comments, confused. You read my journal? they’ll ask. Of course, you tell them. Of course I did.

And on the way home from school, you will buy plants, and let them die.

Beneath the luster of your accomplishments, there will be something darker, quieter, more dangerous, and it grows like mold. There are small things: the blue paint speck on the tiles in the floor of the restaurant where you moonlight; you will grab at it every single night.

There are bigger things: more time alone at bars, avoiding the emptiness of sleeplessness. You’re young and beautiful, so men will tell you about their investments, or their girlfriend in Co-Op city, show you pictures of their two little children with muddy knees, complain about their Union job. They will help you grade your papers, condensation from Martini glasses forming semi-circles around the student’s names. I have to pee, you’ll say, and carry your purse to the bathroom. Inside the stall, where it says Jesus loves your momma, you will take another bite, feel the sour pharmaceutical composition, swallow it with tap water in your palm.

And when the lights go on, and the beer glasses have been cleaned, you will stumble back home to your studio apartment and your cat with a full litter-box, to stare at the ceiling, tired and wired, chasing sleep, unable to catch it. Feeling your heartbeat, a broken clock that keeps ticking, the second hand stuck, no room for both you and your secrets in this tiny double bed.

If you take that pill, you will miss things. Baby showers and birthdays, appointments, a sister who needs you. You’re limbs will turn into a collection of tiny arguments waiting to happen. Your words will be fighting words, during phone calls and emails to even your mother, cracking a relationship already strained by coming of age in different generation. Because all the darkness inside of you, the badness these pills have brewed and left in their wake, you will have nowhere to put it, except onto her: the woman who crafted and cared for your life.

For this, you will never forgive yourself.

One morning you will wake up on the bathroom floor, head cut open, covered in blood, no recollection how you got there. A Roomba at the doorway, a memory gone. Are you in an abusive relationship? the nurse at St. Lukes will ask you. Is there anyone hurting you? You will tell them no, while thinking, Yes, I guess there is. I guess I am.

Please stop taking those pills. You will make a mess, believing you are creating order: in your closet, your classroom, your life.

Yet somehow, by the grace of something greater than God, you will still meet a man who was made for you, and he will stay. You will fold his soft T-shirts for hours on your tiny couch, and he will wake you up with egg sandwiches from the Asian spot on 116th. He will scoop your cat’s litter-box, and place his razor in the medicine cabinet, asking no questions, except if you will marry him. You will say yes.


Even though you don’t deserve it, your first daughter will save you, when she’s only a sonogram with a white sac in a dark shadow. For months you will be awake but asleep, he will carry you to the car in the mornings to drive your school in Brooklyn and dump you at the door. The weight will pile on, thirty pounds in a month. You will blame it on the raspberry-sized baby, not the $10 panini sandwiches, their white deli bags turning clear with grease. Eating, laughing, and crying – this is all your body remembers how to do without 120 milligrams of speed flowing through it morning, noon and night.

You will realize that while the people around you have been growing and evolving, you are stuck where you started, at age twenty-two. You haven’t learned to take care of yourself, or anyone else, without the help of a chemical.

And there isn’t time to learn.

She will come to you on an early November morning, her thick brown eyes saying, I don’t care. I don’t care how hard this is, how tired you are, or that you aren’t ready.

I need you anyway.

Years later, you will sit on a white bedspread, comb her hair behind her ears with your fingertips. She will pat your belly and tell you it feels like slime. You will laugh, inside a calm you almost forgot existed. And you will thank her. You made my belly that way, you will say. And you saved my life, you know.

She will posture up, head cocked. Your life? She will laugh.

My life, you’ll say, filled with equal parts love and regret, as you watch her try to hold that truth, to make sense of its weight at four years old, a Nickelodeon commercial blaring behind her.

About E James

E James is a writer living in NYC.

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