I was 17 when I took my first Vicodin. My doctor gave me the prescription for a bottle of 20 pills after removing a painful cyst from my knee. He never mentioned that I could get hooked on Vicodin, an opioid analgesic; he just said to take one every four to six hours. The first pill made me slightly nauseated, but it also dulled the throbbing sensation in my knee. I took another one as instructed. This time a warm, tingly feeling swept through my body. My physical pain disappeared, along with my teenage angst. I felt giddy and light, as if I were floating. That lasted only a few blissful hours—until I took another pill. I was sad when the bottle was empty.
It’s no surprise that I was looking for an escape. My parents split up when I was very young, and at various points I lived with my mother in Atlanta or with my father and stepmom in California. I was often depressed, and by my teen years I was doing poorly in my classes and hanging out with a rough crowd. Concerned, my father sent me to a therapist, but to little avail. I got kicked out of two schools and landed in boarding school in 11th grade. There teachers noticed that I struggled with reading, and I was diagnosed with dyslexia. My parents were relieved to have an explanation for my behavior. I was, too. I got serious about academics and worked with a tutor, who helped me catch up. I graduated with a GPA of 3.8.
I dreamed of being a chef, so after high school, in 1989, I attended culinary school in South Carolina. Like many other students, I drank occasionally—nothing serious. I worried mostly about my weight (though at five feet five and 130 pounds, I wasn’t heavy). When I heard about an appetite suppressant called Fen-Phen, I told my doctor that I wanted it for weight loss, and he handed me a prescription. Easy. The pills made me less hungry and gave me energy. I loved them.
I continued taking Fen-Phen well after I landed my first job, as an assistant manager at an Atlanta restaurant. It helped me get through my long, busy days, but soon that wasn’t enough. I had started stressing out over work and having terrible headaches as a result. When I mentioned this to a friend who was a physician’s assistant, he prescribed me a muscle relaxant called carisoprodol, which seemed to take the pain and the worry away. I downed that with my Fen-Phen daily and loved the way the combination made me feel—energized yet numb. But I kept the pills a secret. By then I had started dating Peter*, a former coworker, who had no idea that I was taking them. I hid them in my purse and in a cabinet under my bathroom sink.
* Some names have been changed.