The Vagenda

Addicted To Prescription Drugs: How America’s Medication Adverts Sold My Soul To Big Pharma


I would like to be known as the pharmaceutical industry’s Official Worst Nightmare. Why, you ask?  Because as I am typing I can feel tiny popping sensations in my brain, cleverly called “brain zaps” in the medical community.  Breathing is an effort.  My heart is desperately trying to escape my chest.  That’s not an attempt at a meaningful, poetic statement.  I mean my chest is literally pounding up and down, as if my heart is going to break through my ribcage.

​Let’s put it this way: if I was not aware that I was experiencing the withdrawal effects of Effexor – a medication usually used to treat depression, but which was prescribed to me to help wean me off the anxiety medication Ativan – I would take a five hundred dollar ambulance ride to the nearest hospital right now.  This, my friends, is the cost of placing your precious health in the hands of Big Pharma in my home country of the USA.  I am guilty (guilty makes it sound like it’s my fault… let’s go with “blissfully unaware”) of falling in love with my collection of prescription bottles.

It is no exaggeration to say that I would discuss these prescription bottles, in the past, with barely concealed pride – almost as though being heavily medicated made me darkly cool and eccentric.  But I’ve recently come to the conclusion that if being hip means taking not just Effexor, but Adderall for ADHD, Wellbutrin for depression, the aforementioned Ativan, and any number of others for sleep, concentration, side effects of other medication and more, then I would rather be the dorkiest person in the universe.

My transition from “pill enthusiast” to “will taking another Advil harm my liver?” hasn’t been easy.  Medi-Katie (medicated Katie) roamed this planet for five years, making careless decisions and throwing keys (or whatever was in reach) at unsuspecting boyfriends.  When I first made the decision to quit, I did a Google search about the withdrawal symptoms.  I craved stories written by real people with no agenda other than helping others feel less like a crazy person.  And I wanted to add to the discussion.

​I want to go deeper than the possible negative side effects you hear in TV commercials in America: “mild nausea, stomach cramping, headache… death.”  Wait, what? Did you just say death? Yes, but don’t worry about it – just look how happy everyone in the advert looks now.

First of all, when death is casually thrown into a list of side effects like it’s as innocuous as a stomach cramp, shouldn’t every viewer stop checking Reddit and throw their remote at their television? When did “we the people” decide, collectively, that it was okay to advertise a potentially fatal pill between episodes of American Idol or The Mindy Project?  The same subtle psychology and soft music convincing you to buy a new car or take that dream vacation is coupled with the happy side-effect-listing-guy, a beautiful girl riding her bike and going on a trendy brunch outing, and a deep voiced announcing promising you’ll never feel sad, or afraid, or sexually inadequate again. Talk about a recipe for brainwashing success.

So how does this mechanism play out in real life, when your doctor’s office is portrayed on TV and in magazines like a veritable candy store? Well, in my personal experience, it’s pretty much exactly like this:

Patient: Um, yeah. I saw an ad for a new anxiety medication and I want to try it.

​Doctor: Great! Here’s a script for a 90-day supply.

And that covers it. In my five years of “pill shopping” I almost always left my appointments with the prescription that I suggested, and I barely passed high school chemistry.  Not once did any of my doctors attempt to talk me out of trying that great new drug, that hot new pill I thought I’d check out. They simply nodded and wrote me out of the office.  America: home of the free, the brave, the permanently doped.

A few years ago, I was enjoying a pancake breakfast in a New York City diner and the guy behind me was loudly chatting with his friend about his own personal stack of meds. What really disturbed me about his conversation, apart from the fact that it was generally irritating, was that I knew way too much about every single drug he named (and there were quite a few). That’s just how it goes in the States. Tired? Anxious? Sad?  Hey, there’s a pill for that! We are a nation in a love affair with quick fixes, overly familiar with them as household names. And this romance is quite literally killing us.

Since I have stopped my prescriptions, I am much more in tune with my body and what goes into it. On drugs, I couldn’t have cared less. Fast food, soda, and in some cases, overdosing, were all fair game. If I had a really rough day, it wasn’t abnormal for me to pop four Ativan instead of the prescribed one every eight hours (or my favourite: “as needed”). Addicts, surprisingly enough, have trouble knowing when to stop – and when your supplier is so happy to be lied to, it makes it all the easier. Walk in there, recite: “I’m doing great! The drugs are really helping! But I do think I need a higher dosage – my anxiety is crazy right now,” and you’re in. The only problem? Another classic addict hiccup: it’s horrendously expensive. If insurance doesn’t cover your mental healthcare, then you’re looking at a very expensive bill for a ten minute joke of an appointment.  I’m saving over $300 a month nowadays by eliminating medication checkups and prescriptions alone. Think about how much that money really means, multiplied across the nation.

The problem with our prescriptions is that they begin to control us, even change us, when we take it too far. I was insecure and sheepish before I started coming off my prescriptions.  That’s not who I am! I’m a delusional drama queen with the kind of naïve confidence that makes me think I can easily become famous but I just haven’t found the right avenue yet (film? Television? Theatre? These are the difficult choices I still currently face).  And guess what?  I LIKE that Katie.  She is the girl lucky enough to have seven awesome siblings, a cross-eyed cat with a heart of gold, and a hot, bearded boyfriend with whom she credits a portion of her new-found happiness (just a portion, now – girl power is still important to me.)

​Sure, I sometimes still get extremely anxious in social situations.  I am easily distracted.  I often think of twenty things at once. And there was a time when I became convinced that these aspects of my (fully functioning) personality were in fact symptoms of multiple mental illnesses. But Big Pharma — Wyeth, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Novartis, and Sandoz, to name a very small few — can keep its daily dose of lethargy, indifference and passivity now. I refuse to bury my negative feelings in addictive drugs that are sold as miracle cures for every minor human inconvenience.  The price of buying into them is just too high.

​I’m not advocating never taking a single pill for a legitimate mental illness, or relying on poultices and ancient remedies to regulate the imbalances of the four humours. Medicine has its place and it saves lives everyday. But here in the US, we deserve to be better informed about the pros and cons of the things we put into our bodies rather than blindly marketed a vast array of quick fixes that promise to smooth us out into easy, emotionless cardboard cut-outs with hundreds of pill bottles stored up in our bathroom cabinets.

Is that too much to ask? (If you answered ‘no’ then I think we’re on the same wavelength here, so let’s maybe hang out and talk about this over coffee.  The only side effect you’ll experience is fun!  Yeah, I was trying to go for a cute ending.  Just go with it.)

-Katie S

32 thoughts on “Addicted To Prescription Drugs: How America’s Medication Adverts Sold My Soul To Big Pharma

  1. Is it seriously that easy to get pills in the US?! I’m “legitimately” bipolar, and it took over a year before I was allowed the medication I (correctly) thought would help. Hell, it was months before I got any meds at all. The idea of “pill shopping” is insane (pun not intended) :O

  2. It’s very different in the UK, because with the NHS paying, they want to save money where they can, so often you run around untreated for months. I’ve heard about this over-medicated thing being the case for children in the US as well, which is particularly bizarre to me. Sometimes it just seems like quick fixes for problems that don’t exist (not meaning to belittle those who genuinely cannot function otherwise, of course. I don’t mean to offend).

  3. I was medicated against my will while committed for treatment of an eating disorder in America in 2011. I spent January 2011 to July 2013 on and off of medications, many of the same you were taking. I was prescribed Pristiq, which is a “new” version of Effexor, Neurontin, Ativan, Xanax, Buspar, Celexa, Risperdone,Tegretol, and finally Effexor itself before I finally put my foot down and said to my doctor and my family, NO, prescription pills will NOT cure my eating disorder; peace and quiet and food will! I spent July 2013 – March 2014 sober, smoked medical marijuana from April – November 2014, and finally now I am 60 days clean from ALL medications, including prescribed medical marijuana. And guess what ? The hospital where I was treated for my eating disorder was shut down in 2014 for not recording what medications the patients were taking, and for operating chemical dependency treatment without a liscence. Furthermore, the psychiatrist who initially prescribed the Pristiq and Neurontin to me had lost her liscence in the past for overprescribing patients. The author is right, doctors are paid off to overmedicate patients and as long as they get paid, they and the medical institutions they work for literally don’t care what happens to you! They say you’re important and are caring for you the best they can, but they just say that to comfort you. You’re just another statistic, another wallet and another poor sick sucker to them.

  4. An interesting article, thank you.
    I experienced the other extreme in the UK when I was suffering from extreme depression. I saw my GP and because I was suicidal was sent for a psychiatric assessment where I was told: “But you don’t look depressed” (sigh) and was put on a 3-month waiting list for group CBT (WTF?). I eventually got put on medication but it was a struggle and I felt like I would actually have to go in with a rope around my neck to be taken seriously.
    Funnily enough, once I was on the medication there was zero follow up and I just had to pop back to the GP every month for the repeat prescription, no questions asked.

  5. Thanks for writing such an interesting article.

    Big pharmaceutical companies are pure evil. It’s in their interest for people to become addicted to their drugs, because then they just buy more and more. Many anxiety medications are extremely effective when they’re used in the correct way (for very occasional use, only in very stressful situations), and its a shame that they’re so often used incorrectly.

    As someone who has just finished medical school, the teaching now is that when you prescribe any of the drugs you were taking, you need to provide a tonne of education about the side effects and the addictive nature of them. The problem is that this sort of education takes quite a long time, and people don’t always listen. Like you said, there is a bit of a culture of addictive, psychotropic drugs being “darkly cool and eccentric”- and there isn’t a lot that doctors can do to combat that on an individual level.

  6. Bit of a different take from my perspective, here in new zealand we a very good national health system, and you won’t get medication to order. My own experience was of years of anxiety and depression left untreated medically as I had bought into the whole herbal alternatives first idea, self medicating with st johns wort and blaming myself for not trying hard enough. I now look at that and think, would anyone encourage you to just try harder to manage any other medical issue?. Big mistake when you are dealing with a condition that is in my case part heredity and part traumatic experience as a little person and 100% in me. If it’s in you and part of you eventually you need to accept it and get help to move forward. Years of talk therapy at my own expense taught me some valuable things. But I can honestly say that with the help and support of my fantastic and caring doctor, starting anti anxiety/depression meds and ending up on Effexor changed my life. I now know what normal people feel like, like I do now. My creativity and energy are being chanelled into so many wonderful things now and yes, I will be on it for life and thats OK. For me a whole new way of being has opened up and I am grateful every day that this option is available now. Medication prescribed accurately and for real conditions can change lives, I am the living proof.

  7. It’s possible, if you have a disconnected doctor and a motivated patient, to get highly overmedicated here in the US. But it’s also possible to have a good doctor who will not prescribe whatever to whoever.

    I had a doctor once prescribe Klonopin, a benzodiazepine, for a REM sleep disorder I have. She failed to warn me about the risks of physical dependence and did not refill the prescription past one month. The come down off of that was terrifying, and ever since then I have been extremely careful about what doctor I go to. If I feel a doctor is only too happy to prescribe whatever, I will find another doctor. Too many GPs here, especially since Medicaid opened up, have become way too busy to see patients adequately, and you have to hunt sometimes to find one that is a good fit for you.

    But, I suffer from major social anxiety and panic disorder, and my life would be completely different without my SSRI prescription. It’s a relatively low dose, and just enough to help me put things in perspective and be able to handle everything I need to deal with in an average day without hiding under the bed. It calms the cycling thoughts enough that I can function fairly normally. It’s made me reasonably well-adjusted. I’m thoroughly grateful for it. I may not be on it forever, but even if I am, that will be okay. And I don’t resent my disorder, either. It’s part of me, and it’s made me who I am, but I couldn’t function the way I need to without a bit of help. So meds can be a life saver, but they can also be dangerous and are not to be taken lightly. You have to be your own advocate sometimes.

  8. It IS really that easy to get those drugs here in the US. If one doctor says no, you can go to another who will say yes. And yes, there are definitely children that are being prescribed these meds too. Often parents have no problem giving their children these pills. There are some legitimate cases of children that need them, but doctors here will give pills to anyone for profit. In high school I had to go to a psychiatrist for depression and he prescribed me a handful of medications, some even mentioned in this article. My depression ended up being caused by my diet (very unhealthy vegetarian), no exercise, and stayed inside all day long. Once I fixed my diet and habits I no longer had the problems, my doctor didn’t even bother checking for a nutrient deficiency. There are so many adverts for prescription drugs here, too. It’s a popular, cool thing to do in college to abuse these drugs.

  9. you sound just like i did when i was on the meds. the things youre saying about being on meds for life and it being ok is the exact same rhetoric that doctors gave me, since you are the only thing able to cure your depression *ultimately no counselor or chemical can change you*. doctors are paid off to put you on meds for life instead of being honest and saying hey, you need to change, and i dont know how to go it. honesty dpesnt pay the doctor, big pharma does, and big pharma wants your money for the rest of your life. i used to say EXACTLY what youre saying when i had no hope. hope you get better before your liver fails or your kidneys, truly i do.

  10. im so happy that you found out what was truly wrong instead of eating pills like ms. pacman. i had nutrient deficiencies that were unaddressed as well. to the extent that i was given doses of pills that compromised by bone density and lead to me shattering my femur. i was never given a bone density test or nutrient deficiency test before being given heavy doses of meds *for an eating disorder related depression*!!!

  11. It sounds like you had an incredibly tough time Sandra and were very poorly treated. I’m not overly familiar with the mental health system in the US but you’re experience sounded horrific and I’d hope it’s not the norm. But there are cases where prescription anti-anxiety meds or anti-depressants responsibly prescribed can help someone. They’re never intended to be long term solutions and most countries aren’t used as such. But they can help you manage the symptoms as you tackle the root cause.

  12. A lot of people with severe mental health issues go untreated in my country. I think it’s very important not to vilify drugs that, if used correctly, can save lives.

  13. This is a great article, thank you for sharing.

    What really struck me about this piece was your comment about how acceptable it is to advertise potentially fatal medication on the television. And yet I feel like every day in the US I read about yet another measure to limit women’s access to safe, legal abortions. Hey, big business trumps a woman’s right to bodily autonomy!

  14. This is exactly my worry as a psychologist, (with the aim to being able to help people with mental illness in the future, but not that qualified yet). The diagnostic statistical manual used in the us and uk to diagnose and treat mental Illness has changed in the last few years. The new version of the DSM has a widened their categories- meaning basically it’s easier to be diagnosed wrh depression or whatever. While in some instances this can be useful, it’s worrying when in the past (not sure about the current ones) the editors of the DSM have links to big pharmaceutical companies, and there seem to be new things in there, like a new childhood behavioural disorder, which as far as I can tell is just giving a named (and therefore “treatable”) disorder to temper tantrums.

    The uk however, depending on where you go, you can have real struggles to get treatment, and unfortunately it’s far easier and cheaper to prescribe medication than wait months and months and months for the appropriate therapies.

  15. Yes Charlotte, many people in the uk are on medication instead of getting the help and support they need.
    In my case, it was 18 months of being bounced around two mental health departments. One decided my problems were too bad for them and the other said my problems were not bad enough sent me back to the other place for the whole process to start again. I wont even go into the assessments and ringbacks i had to undergo. In the end however, i told them id had enough.
    I cant really afford to go private and even if i could finding the right one (not the ones that take your money every week and dont really help) is a minefield.
    Im relying on self help now and i have come off the tablets for my anxiety. But i would of liked to have done this with the right support.

  16. The sad thing is that most people in the USA are on drugs of some kind whether prescribed or not and it is the norm for most people’s experiences, but I am one of the very few that actually wakes up and stops taking the drugs and deals full force, head on with the real issues, no matter how scary and disturbing they are. Most people on drugs are almost broken from horrible things like rape and domestic violence that are left to run rampant in America with our macho, paternalistic legal system running everything. There is no safe place to hide. Stay in the pill bottle, and you have a fake life with fake emotions and remain the same; or be coached to “accept the situation” by therapists that will take you aside and admit that most people aren’t helped by the mental health system at all. The entire culture of mental health in the USA is geared towards “living with it” instead of facing your demons and becoming independent. Social Security Disability applications are strongly encouraged as well. It’s overall quite pathetic and disempowering on every level, but most people who have mental health problems are too mentally weak from fighting to stay alive to have the energy or strength to deal with the ugly realities of human nature and life unfortunately. I was one of the lucky ones. My horror is/was your horror, we are all human and share the same nature. We all need to accept that instead of trying to become somehow superhuman through chemical abuse.

  17. I agree it just infuriates me how the most disadvantaged, disempowered, damaged people have to accept mediocre or substandard mental capacities at the hands of debilitating psychiatric medications…… rather than be given the tools to socially reconstruct their lives in healthy ways by escaping abusers, retooling early childhood messages and experiences, overcoming social distortions and norms that are damaging, etc. The mental health system reinforces social problems by sweeping victims under the rugs with pills instead of giving people the tools to change society by starting within and changing themselves. F*** the system.

  18. Women shouldn’t have unprotected sex, or have sex at all, unless they are 100% sure they wouldn’t mind having a baby with their sexual partner, in the eyes of conservative USA politicians. After two abortions I suffered when I thought I was still infertile from an eating disorder and was proved horribly wrong, I came to the conclusion that the studies that are done about women having psychological aftereffects that are negative are totally true. I still miss those babies, even though they would have been born disfigured/mentally retarded as I was on psychiatric medication at the time.

  19. Sexual liberation is an academic way of saying, loose morals, or to put it in my slangy American parlance, being a slut. Seriously, mass media brainwashes us ladies into thinking that opening our legs opens the door to Nirvana…. guess what it doesn’t. You won’t find yourself between your legs, but you will find yourself between your ears. Why even have sex with a guy you didn’t love enough, one who you wouldn’t want to have a kid with??? GROSS!

  20. I think that’s what infuriates me about their stance. I’m married and am evangelical about birth control, but no birth control is 100% effective. Am I supposed to never have sex with my husband, in case we accidentally spawn? What about married women who already have a child/children?

    I strongly disagree with the “evidence” that suggest there is a negative emotional impact on women post-abortion. While this is clearly true for some women, as you have experienced yourself, and for those women in religious communities who have been subject to all manner of baby-killing brainwashing, this is not the only story. Legal abortion is a safe, effective and minor procedure. In the past we’ve rarely heard from women who are willing to speak up about abortion being a positive experience, but thank goodness that is starting to change so that we can do away with this rhetoric that it is “the hardest decision a woman will ever have to make”.

  21. HAHAHAAHHA, it is not a minor procedure!!! You’re ending the beginning of a fetus, and there is SO MUCH FREAKING BLOOD! It’s like a murder scene in your industrial strength diaper-like pad! Dont trivialize murder

  22. Its not a f**king positive experience, its legal murder, because people recognize that in this capitalistic society called America, if you dont have the dollars to raise the kid, you’re legally allowed to kill it! Dont ever say its positive, the only positive thing about it is that I am allowed to keep on my original life path instead of struggling on welfare and trying to raise a retarded kid! I am just able to take advantage of the legal system, I feel freaking spoiled! Our ancestors never had such loose morals or disgustingly legal violence!!!!

  23. About you and your husband, yes, you pretty much got it right. Nowhere in the Bible does it say *why* two people would want to get married. It literally has no comment. But it does say ALOT about what happens when you murder, or commit adultery. You hit the nail on the head. If sexual relations is the primary reason you got married, then you got married for the wrong reasons……………. and if you wouldnt welcome a child into a marriage, then you shouldnt have sex if the risk of conceiving is too great. Christianity is MUCH more esoteric in its pure form than many can even handle. It is ascetic spiritually, mentally, and physically.

  24. Sandra, Just because America has an over-prescription problem doesn’t mean that no presciption is ever necessary. Melissa isn’t from the US, it wasn’t easy to get her drugs, and the doctor’s didn’t want to give them to them. Big pharma is NOT a New Zealand problem. Have some respect.

    Melissa, I’m glad you feel better. x

  25. Sandra abortion has been going on since forever, and the gift of life is something women should have the right to give, hence *giving* birth, It’s not giving if you’re forced to do it.

    If you think it’s so evil, why did you do it? Hypocrite.

  26. “”Of course women frequently think about their abortions and feel pangs of regret. But for most, it’s not because, as the anti-choice movement would have you believe, they think they should have had the baby. It’s often more that they regret getting into a situation that required an abortion: an accidental pregnancy, a bad relationship, that sort of thing. It’s like when you break your leg and you ruefully look at the cast later. You’re regretting that you made the mistake that led to a broken leg, but you’re not mad that medical science was on hand to fix the problem”"
    — Nicki Minaj and the Inevitable Politicization of Celebrity Abortions

    This exactly sums it up.

  27. It was a very positive experience for me. Yes there was bleeding and I was sore for a few days, but that was nothing compared to the pain of raising a child (who would be unwanted and resented)

  28. Similar story to me- I was in denial for years, always making up excuses for why I was feeling the way I was… And then like you, I found a fantastic doctor and was put on Effexor and my life has improved 100-fold. I will also be on it for life, as my imbalance is hereditary.

    And no, I have not been sucked in by Big Pharma.

  29. Christ, in the UK you have to sit and suffer for months, before you get to see your own gp, who then gives you a 3 minute(?!) telephone appointment, the gp will then say why don’t you make an appointment to see me in a week and see if you feel any better then(?!) if you do get to see your own gp its a bloody miracle and even then they’ll offer you every alternative diagnosis for your problem (be it mental health related or physical) before finally coming to the conclusion that it is what you thought it was a year and a half ago when you first started your plight for an explanation as to why your own body was trying to kill you!