Saturday, July 2, 2011
MEDS: The Story Behind the Book
Every writer puts pieces of himself and his life into his work. It’s unavoidable. Sometimes we aren’t even aware of doing it. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine pointed out to me just how much of my own life was in all of my books. I was astonished. I’d had no idea I was writing about myself to that extent. But my new novel Meds grew directly from specific events in my life in ways no other book ever has — not the story the novel tells, but the novel itself. I spent more time on it and researched it more thoroughly than any other novel I’ve written and I’m thrilled that it’s finally available to readers. The story behind it is a bit long. I’ll try to be as brief as possible, but I apologize in advance for the length of this blog.
In 1999, my right hip began to hurt and rapidly grew worse, until I was hobbling around like an old man. It was incorrectly diagnosed as arthritis and treated as such for more than a year, during which time it only continued to get worse. Then one of the medical geniuses involved suggested an MRI, which found osteonecrosis. An attempt was made to save the bone with an operation called a core decompression, which I had early on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was wheeled into the operating room shortly after the Twin Towers fell and had no idea what I would wake up to after surgery. It was frightening. Half a dozen holes were drilled into my hip bone that morning in an effort to restore blood flow. We had to wait a whole year to see if the operation worked. It did not.
The next step was a total hip replacement. But even after that, the pain did not go away. In fact, it got worse. And worse. When I walked, I felt like my hip was filled with gravel and broken glass — so I didn’t walk much. I took a lot of drugs in the years that followed — Vicodin, Norco, Methadone, Oxycontin, Fentanyl patches, and copious amounts of marijuana. I did anything to dull the pain, which never went away. I spent most of my life during those years in a recliner, in pain and wiped out on drugs, little more than a grumpy vegetable.
A couple of years after the hip replacement, my doctors began to wonder if the prosthetic hip could perhaps — maybe, just maybe — be the cause of my pain. More procedures were done to explore this possibility and it was determined that the prosthetic hip simply didn’t fit the way it should. My only alternative was a second replacement.
I’m told the second surgery went well, but all I knew was that I was back in the damned hospital, going through the whole ugly, painful process all over again — not only the surgery, but the unpleasant physical therapy that followed, the effort to maintain as much use of my leg as possible after three operations in the same spot. Later, it was determined that the second surgery had been successful and the physiological cause of my pain had been repaired. But the pain did not go away. My doctor explained that my chronic pain was the result of a combination of things. Years of constant pain, which had a physiological cause, had convinced my brain that the pain was still occurring even though the cause was removed. The pain was real, but the source was no longer my hip. Apparently, my brain was confused about the issue. This was not the first time my brain has been confused about something and won’t be the last — it was just the most painful. Also, after years of taking narcotic painkillers, I was experiencing the rebound effect those drugs had. I had become addicted to the drugs. My body had developed a tolerance for them and wanted more, and when more was not provided, more pain was the result.
All of this was very depressing. And I was already depressed! In the 1980s, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which explained a great deal about my life up to that point; depression had been a big part of it. My doctor put me on antidepressants and drugs for mania (although I experienced that only occasionally), and I had been on them ever since. Over the years, dosages were adjusted, one drug was replaced with another, sometimes I was on more than one drug for depression at a time. Added to those prescriptions were antianxiety drugs and pills to help me sleep. My bathroom looked like a makeshift pharmacy. There were orange bottles of pills everywhere.
During those years, I had some strange symptoms that were, at times, frightening. Among the worst was the periodic inability to remain still. During these periods, I had to keep moving — a leg would jitter, an arm would twitch, or I would sit for a bit, then shoot to my feet and pace, then sit, then shoot up and pace. What kept me moving was a kind of electrical buzzing that seemed to zap through my body and made me feel like ripping out of my skin. Remaining still was not an option. This was always an unnerving experience, not only for myself but for anyone with me at the time.
Then there were periods of anger, rage, times when I wanted to break everything in the room. And I experienced suicidal bouts during which I became virtually obsessed with ending my own life. Over the years, I have probably imagined every possible way of killing myself, because during these periods, that’s all I did. When I reported these experiences to my doctor, I was told they were symptoms of the mental illness that the drugs were treating and if I weren’t taking the drugs, they would be much worse. Naturally, I believed that. So did my doctor at the time.
When the problem with my hip started, more pills were added to my museum-like collection of orange bottles until I hardly had enough room for all of them. During those years, every morning was exactly the same. I would wake up in pain, slowly make my way out of bed — a difficult, excruciating process — and hobble on cane or crutches to my bathroom, where those rows of orange bottles greeted me. And every morning, I had the same thought. I would look at all those pills and think, I could end this pain right now. I could take all of these pills and just go back to bed. It was tempting. But I couldn’t do that to my wife. During all those years, Dawn took care of me, made sure I was always as comfortable as possible and never uttered a word of complaint. She did everything by herself. She had to, because I was useless. I couldn’t repay that by just checking out and letting her come home to a corpse in the bed. But still ... it was so tempting.
In 2007, my doctor received an advertisement in the mail. It was hawking a natural supplement that made a number of startling claims, as they all do. He tossed it at the garbage can — but missed. The advertisement fell to the floor. He picked it, gave it another look, read it a little more closely, and he thought of me. He had recently retired from private practice, but he had been my doctor for the better part of two decades and had gotten me through a battle with alcoholism and had helped me struggle with depression. As he went over the material that had come in the mail, he began to think it might be just what I needed, even though I was no longer his patient. He came to see me and told me about something called NeuroReplete, a program of amino acids that had had great success in treating an impressive list of disorders — including chronic pain.
I was skeptical. So was he. For every genuinely effective drug or treatment, there are a couple dozen “natural” remedies advertised in the back pages of magazines or on late-night TV that make a litany of promises on which they cannot deliver. While I have nothing against folk remedies and natural treatments that actually work, it’s a field populated by hucksters and liars out to make a quick buck off of desperate and/or gullible people — like religion, or politics. But before calling me, my doctor had done some research and found that, unlike most of these remedies, NeuroReplete was backed up some hard science and years of research by Dr. Marty Hinz in Duluth, Minnesota.
NeuroReplete addresses a host of primary neurotransmitter depletion diseases including depression, bipolar disorder, Parkinson’s disease, fibromyalgia, Alzheimer’s dementia, insomnia, OCD, ADD, ADHD and others, and has also been helpful in weight loss. I know, I know, this sounds ridiculous. If you’re as skeptical as I — and I’m pretty damned skeptical about everything — you’re rolling your eyes, because this sounds like a typical miracle-cure pitch, like infomercial bullshit. And even though I trusted my doctor, I felt exactly the same way. But I was so miserable — in so much pain, so depressed, so ready to give up — that I decided it couldn’t hurt to try the stuff. If you’re interested in NeuroReplete — how it works and what it treats — you’ll find plenty of information here.
NeuroReplete requires initial lab work and then regular monitoring after that, but before I could start the program, I had to stop taking all the drugs I’d been on for so long. The supplements would conflict with the antidepressants I’d been on for two decades and the painkillers I’d been taking for several years. This was a scary prospect. I knew a little something about withdrawals, having quit booze cold turkey after about ten years of very heavy drinking and landing in the emergency room, projectile vomiting blood, convulsing with shakes and hoping for death. But quitting those drugs was the only way I could give NeuroReplete a try. So I did.
I tapered off the painkillers but was a little more abrupt with the antidepressants. Quitting those drugs was a nightmare. I was a mess for a while. By the time I got them out of my system, I was exhausted, but I was ready to start the NeuroReplete program. I expected nothing. Were I a betting person, I would have put money on their not working.
I would have lost that bet.
About four days after starting the program, I woke up one morning and began the process of getting out of bed. But something was different. Getting out of bed was easier. Simply moving was easier. Because the pain was gone. It had not decreased, it didn’t feel better — it was gone. I got up and walked to the bathroom and found that limping was not necessary because there was no pain. But — did I mention this already? — the pain was gone! It didn’t stop there, though, and this is where the story gets kind of weird.
The world changed. Everything changed. Not only was I pain-free, but I just kept feeling better ... and better ... and BETTER. A thick fog had lifted abruptly and the world was no longer the dark, oppressive place it had been for the last 44 years. I no longer felt certain that I was the most repugnant creature in the room at any given time. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. In fact, there were times when I wondered if I were losing my mind. As far as I could tell, insanity was not a side effect of NeuroReplete — it had no side effects. But everything was suddenly so different that I couldn’t help wondering if I were going barking mad! I soon began to realize that the only thing that had changed was me, the inside of my head, the way I saw everything. I was different, and the change was so abrupt and unexpected that it was a little like being hit by a truck while napping on the couch.
More than once, Dawn said to me, “Who are you and what have you done with my husband?” People who knew me well were astonished by the change in me. They said everything about me was different — my behavior, the way I looked, the way I talked, the way I walked, even the way I stood. The change in me was sudden and drastic and it went far beyond simply being pain-free for the first time in years. I felt so good, I spent most of the time wanting to cheer! At first, I thought I might be in a manic phase. But I knew what those felt like. Mania is draining. Even as you’re riding high on a manic crest, you can feel it sucking the life out of you underneath the hyper rush of all that invincible creativity, and when it ends, you’re like a jet airliner crashing into the side of a mountain. I felt none of that. This felt ... healthy.
Around Christmas time, my doctor came to the house for a visit. He kept looking me up and down with a slight frown of disbelief as he asked me how I felt, if I were having any pain, if I’d felt any symptoms of depression. After the questions, he stared at me some more, then said, “I can’t believe the change in you. I’ve known you for twenty years and I’ve never seen you looking or acting so ... happy. It’s like someone reached way down and pulled you out of hell.”
I spent about a year trying to explain to the people in my life what I was experiencing. I’m usually pretty good at explaining things — words are what I do and normally, I don’t have a problem communicating with people. But the changes had taken place inside my head, and even people who had known me for a long time had never been there. They’d never seen the landscape in there and were unfamiliar with the weather. They could see the outer differences in me, but not the interior changes, and trying to explain them just made me sound crazier than a bag of wet cats. So I stopped.
My doctor continued to be amazed by the changes in me and consulted Dr. Hinz about it. Such drastic changes, it turned out, were not uncommon in people who went on the NeuroReplete program. My doctor went over my medical history, which included a period in my childhood when I spent a lot of time in the hospital with an illness that baffled doctors. They found that one of the problems was that my kidneys were wasting potassium as fast as I could take it in. My doctor suspected that if they’d looked closer, they would have discovered my body was also dumping amino acids at an alarming rate. He strongly suspected I’d been dealing with neurotransmitter depletion my entire life. It certainly made a lot of sense and explained ... well, everything.
All the symptoms I had experienced while taking antidepressants, antianxiety drugs and tranquilizers for so long were quite conspicuous in their absence. Those horrible periods of being unable to hold still were gone and I had no suicidal tendencies. I was sleeping dream-free — at least, I couldn’t remember any dreams — after a lifetime of restless sleep plagued by nightmares. I asked my doctor about all of this. Where had these symptoms gone? He explained to me that before retiring, he had pulled way back on the number of antidepressants he’d been prescribing because of information that had come to light about the drugs. He said there was a chance many of the symptoms I was experiencing were, in fact, caused by the antidepressants. “Even the suicidal urges?” I asked. Yes, even those.
I found this disturbing. Antidepressants were being handed out by doctors like Skittles at Halloween — but they were causing the very symptoms they were supposed to alleviate? This called for some research. I began reading up on antidepressants. I told my agent about the changes in my life and mentioned that I was interested in possibly writing something that was related to it. I also told him I was researching antidepressants and prescription drugs, just for my own edification. He recommended a book by his friend and client, Dr. Peter R. Breggin, Medication Madness: A Psychiatrist Exposes the Dangers of Mood Altering Medications.
I’ve been reading horror fiction my whole life, but Dr. Breggin’s book, which is nonfiction, is the scariest damned thing I’ve ever read. It's filled with documented accounts of people whose lives have been ruined — people who have died and even killed — because of the dangerous side effects of antidepressants, tranquilizers and other mood-altering drugs, side effects the manufacturers either did not warn about sufficiently or deliberately concealed.
Remember that horrible electric zapping feeling I sometimes had that made me unable to hold still? I learned from Dr. Breggin’s book that it’s called akathisia. You may know it as “restless leg syndrome,” but in its more extreme form, it is not confined to the legs. It is a drug-induced neurological disorder, a common side effect of antidepressants and antipsychotics. I was lucky that my experience with akathisia was mild. It has driven others to suicide and violence and resulted in injury and death.
Dr. Breggin’s book led me to a lot of other work on the subject of the dangers of prescription drugs and I began to see a troubling pattern in the way pharmaceutical companies test, advertise and, frankly lie about their products.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to pharmaceutical drugs. Medical science has given us — and continues to give us — amazing drugs that have alleviated or stopped suffering, saved lives and allowed us to live longer. I know plenty of people who simply would not be alive if it weren’t for the drugs their doctors prescribed to them. I have nothing against these drugs and the great things they can do. But I’ve got a real problem with an industry that sidesteps the medical establishment and irresponsibly markets these drugs directly to the public, convincing people they need them when that’s not necessarily the case. Even worse, initial test results are massaged and manipulated — the term is “tortured” — to make the drugs look safer and more effective than they actually are, and they are marketed before some of the worst side effects are revealed. Quite often, even doctors are unaware of some of these side effects. Much of the information that doctors are provided about new drugs comes from the very companies that manufacture those drugs, so in many cases, doctors know only what the pharmaceutical companies want them to know. So when their patients report some of the side effects they're experiencing, doctors say what my doctor said to me: That’s a symptom of the mental illness that the drugs are treating, or something to that effect. This happens not only with antidepressants, but with all kinds of drugs.
What about the FDA? Aren’t they supposed to be the watchdog that protects us from this kind of chicanery? Tell me something. If you worked at the FDA and a big drug company approached you with an offer of a cushy job, fat with salary and bonuses, that you could take when it comes time for you to leave the FDA — we’re talking the kind of job most people dream of and lust for — and if that drug company also happened to have a product it wanted to sail through the review process, a product it wanted to get on the market as soon as possible with as little trouble as possible, might not the glimmering brass ring of that future job move you to give the drug company a bit of a hand in achieving its goals? And what if that were the case with a lot of people in the FDA? Newsflash: It is!
Are you beginning to get the picture? This doesn’t happen only in the FDA, of course. Our entire government is a hall of revolving doors through which corporate America seduces the elected and appointed officials who are supposed to be working for us. But for now, I’m focusing on the FDA. It has become little more than the lapdog of the pharmaceutical industry. As a “watchdog,” it is toothless, sedated and dozing.
The pharmaceutical industry has turned the United States into a nation of drug addicts. We’re addicted to drugs we’ve been convinced we need, even if we don’t, by the slickest, most calculated and manipulative commercials on television, which tell us that the slightest ache or twitch must be medicated immediately for instant relief and to ask our doctors if drug X is right for us. We’ve become convinced that there is a pill for everything. I’ve talked to some doctors about this. They’ve spoken candidly with me only on the condition of anonymity. They don’t want to be connected to negative remarks about an industry that regularly provides them with nice dinners and trips to conferences about the latest drugs — conferences that happen to be held in beautiful vacation spots. Oh, yes, you didn’t know that? Your doctor is regularly visited by representatives of drug companies — always the most attractive and ingratiating young people imaginable, by the way — who invite them to gatherings of doctors in, say, Mexico, where they can learn about the newest innovations in pharmacology ... when they’re not lounging on the beach in the sun. Nothing illegal, mind you. It’s all perfectly above board, according to the law. Of course, just because something is legal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ethical or right. Sorry, I got sidetracked for a moment.
These doctors have told me that those colorful, soothing commercials have convinced their patients that they know best what they need; they come to the doctor’s office convinced they need do nothing to improve their health because there’s a pill to fix whatever’s bothering them. Right? I mean, isn’t that what we’ve been told? That is entirely the work of the pharmaceutical industry, an industry that has seduced us with pills that hold dangers about which we’re being kept in the dark.
Oh, sure, the risks come out sooner or later. Once enough people have been sickened, damaged, or killed by the side effects — or have been driven to hurt or kill others, which is more common than you think (I strongly recommend that you read Dr. Breggin’s book) — then the side effects are revealed and added to the warning label. These are quite often side effects the manufacturer has known about all along but has made an effort to conceal and has conveniently neglected to point out to anyone. After all, that information might get in the way of the ultimate goal here — BIG FAT PROFITS!
If you think that pharmaceutical companies are concerned about your health and well being and want to treat your illnesses and make you better ... well, you might want to sit down because I’ve got some unpleasant news for you. The pharmaceutical industry really doesn’t give a flying fuck at a rolling donut about your health and well being. Healthy people don’t buy their product. Sick people do. Wanna know a surefire way to stay sick? Believe everything the pharmaceutical industry tells you about their products. Making people better would be self-defeating for this industry. It’s not what they do. What they do is generate revenue. There’s no revenue in good health.
Yes, yes, I know this sounds paranoid. But I’m a skeptic. I don’t buy into conspiracy theories and I require evidence for everything. Well, I dug up the evidence for this myself. And it made me angry. It made me want to do something about it. But who am I? I write scary books for a living. Who the hell’s going to listen to anything I have to say about prescription drugs? So I did what I do best — I wrote a story about it. And that’s how Meds happened.
Meds is a thriller that tells two parallel stories. The first is about Eli Dunbar, a man who’s trying to repair his shattered life. Eli discovers that something is making people all over town become murderous and violent, something they all have in common ... and when he learns that it’s something he has in common with all of them, he becomes terrified, because it means he is a ticking time bomb. The other story is about Oran Rubinek, a professional hit man with an eye toward retirement who has discovered that he really does not like the final job he’s been hired to do. These two stories converge in what I hope will be a suspenseful read. No, it’s not a polemic, it’s not a sermon. It’s a book designed, first and foremest, to be an entertaining thriller. The fact that I was able to throw in some useful information was a bonus.
I’m not telling you to stop taking all of your prescription drugs. Please don’t do that. I’m not a doctor, although I’ve seen people play them on TV. I’m saying that you should be aware of the fact that no one is looking out for you when it comes to drugs. That is a job only you can fill. The internet is an amazing source of information. Take some responsibility for your own health and start researching everything your doctor prescribes. Do as much research as possible and learn everything you can.
I hope you enjoy Meds. I hope it takes you away from your daily life and transports you into an exciting story, because that’s the book’s purpose. But I also hope it will make you aware of some unpleasant facts about the drugs being prescribed to us. It’s a thriller with, I hope, some chilling side effects. If you enjoy the book, I hope you’ll tell a friend, or go to Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com and write a review. It’s available for Kindle from Amazon and for Nook from Barnes and Noble. For updates on new releases, drop by my website.