What I learned from my friend, the drug addict


When stereotypes and reality converge, we may discover that what we see depends on where we stand.

It may be a sign that I'm getting older, but I find myself looking back on my pharmacy career more and more of late, reflecting on lessons of the past in an effort to learn for the future, not to mention entertaining myself with what seems more than my quota of wacky behind-the-counter stories, the lion’s share of which come from my time as a graveyard pharmacist.

Zombies on parade

What I remember most about those years was the group we called the “Tone People,” the folks who, more nights than not, would gather in the pharmacy seating area and wait, perfectly silent and still, until midnight. Having been told that their prescriptions, almost exclusively for narcotics or other controlled medications, would not be fillable until a certain day, these people gathered and waited for the very second that day would arrive.

The amazing thing was how they knew. At the time, the store where I worked would change the format of its in-store radio programming at midnight to something a little peppier. This switchover was signified by a tone that indicated the shift from one format to the other. If you listened closely, you could pick it up. When that tone came, the people waiting to collect their meds would slowly start to walk to the pharmacy pickup area, almost like a group of zombies, I thought.

Here's the clincher, though. No one ever explained the tone to them. Completely on their own, the Tone People figured out what that tone meant and how it related to them. To this day, that amazes me.

At the time, the words and terms and attitudes that most of the pharmacy staff displayed in referring to the Tone People were ones I would say were prevalent throughout most of the pharmacy world. I wasn't any different. I found the Tone People an annoyance - at best a threat to my license and at worst a threat to society. And my attitude reflected it.


Attitude meets reality

Then I met “Brenda” (not her real name). When forced to share a table at a busy lunch spot one day, we struck up a conversation, immediately clicked, and soon became fast friends. One of the things that drew me to Brenda was that she reminded me a lot of me. We shared an almost identical outlook on life, not to mention a lot of individual likes and dislikes, which ensured that our time together was always entertaining. I liked Brenda, and I considered her a good friend.

About six months after I met her, Brenda revealed that she had a history of narcotic addiction. She had been clean for years when we met, but she considered herself in recovery for the rest of her life. I knew she was telling the truth, because she knew all the tricks, tactics, and stories we're all familiar with.

Sometimes I wondered whether she would have been able to get an early refill past me if I had known her back then. When she told me about the time she scheduled an elective surgery just so she could get more painkillers, I decided she probably could have.

Brenda had a quote above her desk from the writer Eric Detzer that ended, “If I ever get off narcotics I'm never going to speak to a pharmacist as long as I live." We both got a kick out of it, the day she took it down.


Moment of truth

What I'll never forget about Brenda, though, was the look on her face when she told me how she volunteered to be a caregiver to her grandmother, who was dying of cancer, so that she could get access to her morphine. That memory would haunt her for the rest of her life, she said. It still caused her to wake up in the middle of the night in tears.

If she ever got close to relapse, she said, all she had to do was think of her grandmother and the shame of what she had done to her. She could never be forgiven, she said. She could only live a good and productive life from now on, in memory of her grandmother. 

Brenda taught me about the possibility and the value of redemption.

Later, when I heard an immature fool say that we “should just poison the drugs from police raids and put them back on the street,” it was like sandpaper on my nerves. 

It may be a sign that I'm getting older, but when I look back on them now, I think differently about the Tone People. 

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