February 27, 2012


(artwork by Jason Mecier)

By now, we're all aware of the death of Whitney Houston, the superstar especially beloved by us gays. And while the cause of death isn't known, we're hearing that Xanax and alcohol were involved. As tragic as losing such a talent is, we don't need all of the details to know that there's an epidemic of prescription drug abuse in this country. One wonders why any doctor would prescribe anything addictive to a proven drug addict like Whitney. But if you have enough money, you can find a doctor who will literally put you to sleep forever--as in the case of Michel Jackson. Anna Nicole Smith, Brittany Murphy and Heath Ledger are other recent high profile victims who overdosed on legal drugs.

But one needn't be a celebrity to be part of this nationwide epidemic of pill abuse. Kids now party with pills--it's a fact. There's a perception that since these medications aren't sniffed or injected, that they are safer. But some painkillers are just as addictive as heroin and even require a methadone-like program to kick. Eminem featured a Vicodin tablet on one of his albums before admitting to his own addiction. These drugs are a growing part of our culture and deaths and hospitalizations from overdoses have jumped dramatically. SAMHSA reports that opioid painkiller abuse is up 400% in the last decade. Pain killers are right behind marijuana now as what we get high on. In 1998, Newseek reported that we are more likely to die from prescription drug abuse than we are from AIDS or street drugs.

I was particularly concerned by Whitney's death because I take Xanax to help me sleep or relax enough to fall sleep. I don't take them with alcohol and I obviously don't take baths as she did. But a friend had given me several pills and I took two when I desperately needed a good night's sleep before a big gig that I'd flown to a different time zone to do the next day. I didn't want to risk bolting up in the middle of the night with jet lag and to be crabby with no sleep at my gig. A pharmacist friend later asked me what the pills looked like. I just assumed that Xanax was Xanax and gave no thought to the milligrams. But it seems that I took such a strong dose that I might have never woken up from my nap. When friends give each other drugs or we buy them from the street, they don't usually give the info that a doctor should on dosage or drug interaction precautions. I also had no idea that grapefruit juice, of all things, intensifies the effect of benzos like Xanax and Valium.

Another issue we've become aware of is Ambien black-outs. A friend of mine popped one after a night on the town and woke up chanting "French fries, french fries" like a zombie. She drove herself in her sleep to the nearest burger joint, pigged out in her sleep and then crashed her car on the way home. Since then, I've seen similar situations reported on the news and seen security cam footage of people in Ambien stupors cooking in their sleep--running all kinds of fire and burn risks. Not to mention that if you're that messed up, what's to prevent you from forgetting the Ambien you've already taken and gobble a few more? With booze, this could be fatal.

But we don't hear too much about our growing drug problem on the news. Why not? Because our news wants pharmaceutical companies' ad dollars so they soft-pedal the damage. We've all laughed at the ridiculously long lists of dangerous side effects in the commercials for some drugs. Growing up, I don't even remember ads for prescription drugs. Your doctor prescribed them if you needed them--there weren't ads to convince the patients to diagnose themselves. Don't get me wrong--I have no problem with physicians taking advantage of medical breakthroughs and prescribing new, helpful drugs. The older I get, the more I rely on Viagra. I mean for my dates--I'm a bottom! But have you seen the antacid commercial where a chubby guy looks longingly into a pizza joint? He can't eat pizza without getting an upset stomach. Then he discovers some acid reducer and by the end of the ad, he's oinking pizza and beer with a bunch of friends! That's the wrong message--to eat unhealthy foods and take a pill to correct your mistake. The right message is not to eat foods which upset your stomach in the first place.

A few years ago I was put on the anti-depressant Lexapro to treat anxiety. Almost everyone I knew was on some kind of happy pill, so I gave it a shot and it seemed to work for a couple of years. But before flying to LA for two weeks to shoot Drag U, I mistakenly packed an almost empty bottle and left the full bottle at home. So there I was in Culver City, munching a tiny crumble off of the 4 pills I did pack to make them last for two weeks. It was my first experience with reality TV and I was terrified of having an attack of nerves and really melting down on the set. When I returned home, I asked my doctor about it because my online research had indicated that you need to wean yourself off of Lexapro and similar anti-depressants with a doctor's supervision. My doctor said I had effectively weaned myself off of it in those two weeks and I decided to stay off of that med. While it may have reduced my anxiety, the side effects were weight gain, sleeplessness and diminished sex drive. I thought hell, I'm fatter than ever, bitter from lack of sleep and even if somebody wanted to fuck my fat ass I wouldn't even want them! Did I forget to mention that Lexapro, the anti-depressant, can also bring about suicidal tendencies in a few people? No anxiety whatsoever if you're dead!

Sorry to blab on about myself, but I'm not a health care professional or researcher. However, I can draw conclusions from my own experiences. While I've been overweight since my twenties, I've alway had perfect, textbook blood pressure. Recently it zoomed up and my doctor suggested Enalipril to lower it. I asked him what people would have done to lower their pressure before Enalipril was invented. "Diet and exercise" was his reply. I told him I'd like to try that and he convinced me to take a small dosage in conjunction with my accelerated fitness regime. My blood pressure is back to textbook. In this case, a pill worked. But doctors get financial kickbacks from prescribing these pills so they can be prone to overprescribing.

Sorry if I'm a conspiracy theorist, but drug companies have proven again and again that they place profits over our safety. Vioxx, anyone? I can actually imagine a meeting in which heads of Pfizer sit around jealous of street dealers and conclude: people want to get high and we want a piece of the action. But our shit will be legal! We'll call the heroin Oxycodone. And we'll call our speed Adderall--which for some spooky reason is only legal in the US and Candada...

Obama met with big pharmaceutical companies behind closed doors at the White House before he dared to craft his health care reform stance--presumably to assure the companies that whatever he did, it wouldn't slash their profits much so that they'd still donate to his reelection campaign. With so many of us living on prescription drugs, the wealthy manufacturers of these pills have enormous political clout. And Obama recently appointed Michael Taylor, Monsanto's former VP as the senior advisor to the Food And Drug Administration's commissioner. Talk about the fox watching the henhouse! Taylor was in charge of FDA policy when genetically modified organisms (GMOS) were approved into the US food supply without any safety tests. He's now in charge of America's food safety! Who needs conspiracy theories when the facts are in front of our faces? Actually, they're inside our faces and we're chewing these mutations daily even though we don't know what the fuck they are. Corn genes grafted with firefly genes, for example? Could you possibly imagine that the FDA is any less corrupt with it's drug policies? 50% of Americans take one prescription drug per day and they are expensive. That's just too big of a profit for corrupt lobbyists and politicians to ignore.

Again, I have no problem with advances in medications which help us if we truly need them. But when our politicians are appointing crooks to oversee drug pushers and the effect is record deaths and hospitalizations from these drugs, this is an alarming trend that we need to be more aware of. I'm very sad that it took the silencing of Whitney's thrilling voice to begin that conversation. But let her untimely death spotlight this growing threat and perhaps reduce it.