Travel Pills

Travel sickness, fear of flying, panic attacks behind the wheel of a car – there are those pills you take to get you through a difficult journey.

Early January 2011.  3 a.m. one  Saturday morning.

Just popped a pill. – Sitting on the bathroom floor, waiting to conk out. – Can’t seem to sleep without pills nowadays. – “Whatever gets you through the night “– as the song goes. – At first I tried to get through with deep breathing, and meditation. – Emptying my head of all dark thoughts by concentrating on something pleasant. – It never worked. – Pills are far better.

The pill will take twenty-five minutes to kick in.

This is a tranquiliser, what mum used to call “a relaxing pill”

A month after mum’s death, a month of not sleeping, and three vasovagal attacks. I finally went to the GP.

“You’re depressed,” she said

“Am I” I replied.

“Yes,” she confirmed, before writing out a long list of pills in that scrawly undecipherable writing, common to all doctors. Spidery hieroglyphics that only bespectacled pharmacists seem able to read.

Later, the pharmacist plonked four boxes or Paroxetine down on the counter, then reeled off the dosage.

“Half a pill day for two weeks, then one a day for two weeks. If you feel very depressed, you can up the dose to four a day”

This is the stuff that mum was taking. She’d knock the pills back like sweets

Mum liked her pills and potions. Something to knock her out or pep her up.  She didn’t feel secure unless she had pills near to hand. She never followed the correct dosage; she just popped a pill when she didn’t feel right.

As far as I can remember, Mum hadn’t been feeling right since Tuesday August 16th 1983. That was the day I came home from France to find mum sitting in a chair in her bedroom, clutching a copy of the Bible and telling me that she was going to die. Quite a lot to handle, for a 17 year-old.

“It’s depression brought on by the menopause” said Dr Webber in his lispy Germanic tones* .

He prescribed mum vast quantities of pills. I ran down to the chemist and brought mum back a large paper bag filled with tranquilisers and anti depressants. She stared at the bag in with her truculent and angry “I’m not getting the attention I need” stare.  She sniffed and threw the bag on the floor.

“That’s no bloody use” she sneered. “I need a home visit from the doctor.”  Mum then took to her bed and apart from trips to the loo, refused to get up for the next fortnight – all on the pretext that she had lost the use of her legs and she was dying.

Over the next week, Dr Webber came round everyday. One day he came twice. Mum wanted a home visit from a psychiatrist. Dr Webber said she didn’t need one. He gave mum the address of a “self help” group. He said that the only cure to mum’s depression was within mum. She had to make the effort to go and seek treatment, rather than waiting for specialists to beat a path to her door.

Mum reeled off a long list of reasons why she couldn’t possibly move concluding with the words “Help me, I am dying.”

And when all that failed to move Dr Webber, mum just sat up in bed crying – floods of tears punctuated by a self-piteous wailing more associated with a spoiled child. “You’ve got no sympathy”

On Tuesday August 30th, Mum finally got out of bed, shed the pyjamas she had been wearing for two weeks, and went along to a church hall in the back streets of Bromley to attend a session of the self helpers. This gave me the opportunity to nip along to the local laundrette and wash mum’s pyjamas and bedding. We didn’t have a washing machine at home. When mum did finally get a washing machine nearly fifteen years later, she never used it on the pretext that it was “too complicated”.

“Any good?” I asked a screwed-up faced, discontented mum on her return

“It’s just a bunch of chain-smoking loonies who sit round in a large circle and say how depressed they are.”

Mum didn’t go back. When she couldn’t get the psychiatric help she needed, she joined the local Evangelical Christian church. – One morning a slim, well-dressed gentleman came to the door; cream-coloured, well-tailored, Italian-style double-breasted suit, well pressed, collarless white shirt and beige hush puppies – sharp dressed early eighties bible thumper. The youthful, greying fifty something introduced himself as George. He had a firm handshake and a soothing voice. He went upstairs to see mum. I took them a cup of tea. George was kneeling on the floor and holding mum’s hand – he was quietly reciting a verse, whilst mum sat in bed with her eyes closed and one of those glazed, smiles of a new convert.

George left after two hours. Mum, fully dressed and even wearing make up, accompanied George downstairs.

“What a lovely man” gushed mum when George had gone. “At least he understands my problem, and he took the time to listen to me, not like the rest of you who tell me that I’m just feigning depression.”

A couple of weeks later, George came and collected mum for an “appointment” – on her return mum told me that she had just had her baptism and had officially joined the Assemblies of God. From then on, mum received regular visits from her new Christian friends. They took her to prayer meetings and bible study classes. At least God was getting mum out the house, but, even with the Good Lord to help her, mum still carried on the pills, but she explained that this was “God’s will” – and I thought it was the doctor’s orders.

Since that time, I’ve never been a great fan of pills. And I’ve never been too keen on God either.

I’m staring at a box of Paroxetine as I search the web for some information on what I am about to pop into my body.

Paroxetine?  I don’t even like the name

What does this stuff do?

A search on the web and …

“Paroxetine is an antidepressant in a group of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). It works by restoring the balance of serotonin, a natural substance in the brain, which helps to improve certain mood problems.”

“Paroxetine is used to treat depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”

Do I have PTSD? I thought only soldiers and crash survivors got this

I read on:

“You may have thoughts about suicide when you first start taking an antidepressant such as paroxetine, especially if you are younger than 24 years old.”

That’s okay. I’m in my mid forties.

I know that these pills are going to be unpleasant, and I haven’t even started reading the bit about the side effects.

“Nausea, drowsiness, dizziness, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, weakness, tiredness, dry mouth, sweating, yawning, or headache may occur.”

And, as I suspected, I can’t drink. In the evenings, Mum used to take her Paroxetine with a glass of sherry. She said it took the taste away.

Now, mum took so many pills that she must have rattled like a tube of Smarties. 27 years of legal drug addiction. When she couldn’t get satisfaction (i.e. vast quantities of pills) from one doctor, she would change her GP, and when the new doctor didn’t give enough, she would ring up M Doc. Not only would mum get a home visit, but the M Doc doc would always give mum a huge repeat prescription of all the pills she wanted. Mum measured the quality of care by the number of pills she got. “That doctor’s bloody useless, he won’t give me anything.” She used to rasp after leaving the surgery empty-handed.

Mum never bothered to read the exhaustive “instructions” included with the pills, and from one doctor to another, she always lied about what she was actually taking. She must have been taking “contradictory” medication, but she didn’t seem bothered. Whenever I broached the subject, mum just said that I didn’t love her.

When I cleared out mum’s flat, I counted roughly four hundred boxes of assorted pills.

Of course there was Paroxetine.

But to calm the effects of the Paroxetine, there were numerous boxes of tranquilisers, and because this screws up your digestive system there were boxes of Omeprezale and pain killers and pills to control lower bodily functions, and pills to control the swelling on her knee and her feet and  …

Mum has been dead for two days, and I have to hire a taxi to take five large black rubbish bags of pills along her local pharmacy.

In the pharmacy we empty the bags, and there are more pills in my horde than there are on sale. It is quite simple. Mum had repeat prescriptions on everything, and as soon as she opened a new box and popped a new pill, she would send along the pharmacy for a new prescription. I guess that comes from growing up in the War, and the fear of going without. Mum always liked to have “a few pills in advance for emergencies”

This explains the other rubbish that mum has accumulated. The hoarding of useless items on the strength that “they might come in handy” – but also another of Mum’s traits, “we’ve paid for that”

In the flat, I am clearing out …

  • Plastic bags (at least a whole cupboard full).
  • Countless hotel soaps, shower caps, sachets of shower gel and shampoo.
  • Hundreds of boxes of matches.
  • 25 Miniature jams (the sort given out at hotel breakfasts).
  • Two bagfuls of small complementary sewing kits.
  • Stickers.
  • 1251 Beermats.
  • Assorted drinking glasses and cutlery sets from every flight, train journey or coach trip that mum ever went on over the last 20 years.
  • Five boxes of rubber surgical gloves.
  • an envelope cotaining 10 viagra pills, tucked away in the back of the sideboard
  • a 1975 guide to london zoo
  • 3 cassettes of German christmas carols
  • 16 electric heater elements (all new and still in packaging)
  • 30 lightbulbs
  • 4 telephones
  • one large box of late 60s books on educational psychology
  • one large box of library books from Maria Grey college where mum did her teacher training
  • two dead christmas trees (in the garage)

and much more…

Mum would not be content with one jam, one sewing kit or one sachet of shower gel. In hotels she would systematically track down cleaning ladies and raid their trolleys for bathroom goodies and anything else that might be “useful”

No matter where we went, if there was anything free, mum would take fistfuls of samples and then send my brother and I back for more.

*you’ll meet Dr Webber properly in the Camping Interlude

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