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Original Essays

Pill Head

by Joshua Lyon
  1. Pill Head: The Secret Life of a Painkiller Addict "The painful evolution of a gay New York City drug addict, from first encounter to detox....His long road to recovery is just beginning when this searing chronicle concludes. As real as it gets." Kirkus
The timing of the release of my book, Pill Head: The Secret Life of a Painkiller Addict, has some spooky mojo surrounding it. Twelve days prior to publication, on my birthday no less, the world's biggest pop star dropped dead from an alleged painkiller overdose. It's creepy how so many media outlets have been trying to find personal ways to align themselves with this event in order to validate their coverage. But I'm joining the masses — I really do have a random connection to Michael Jackson besides him dying from the substance I was addicted to for five years. For a few days during the summer I first discovered painkillers, I was married to his ex-wife Lisa Marie Presley, for my first ever magazine cover story.

Well, we weren't really married, but we did have a ribbon binding ceremony. (How Wiccan!) I wrapped our hands and wrists together and said a few words about devotion. Lisa Marie always seemed to be marrying random people for shorts bursts of time, so I wanted to see what it was like to be her "husband." She was surprisingly game. The union ended after only three days but it was long enough for me to get to know her a bit and like her a lot. The strangest thing she told me about Michael Jackson was that when they were alone he didn't use a high-pitched voice. He spoke normally. That weirded me out more than the fact that they never lived together during their marriage.

Jackson's death wasn't the only random twist of fate involved in the publication of Pill Head. After I wrote my initial proposal for the book, my agent sent it out to six major publishing houses, directly to editors who she thought would respond to the material. The package was delivered on a Friday morning. That Sunday, the cover of the New York Times Magazine featured a massive investigative report on painkiller addiction. Any editor who might have been initially wary of painkillers being a topic of interest to readers was immediately satisfied that it was. I couldn't believe my good fortune, and a few editors even asked me if I had known the article was going to be published, if we had purposely sent out the proposal to coincide with it. We hadn't.

The Times' validation of everything I was saying in my proposal led to every author's dream scenario — an auction. I even had an additional major publishing company call me into their office the morning before the auction started, because they had caught wind of it and wanted in. I was so excited about the sudden onslaught of attention that when the meeting was over and the company's editor extended her arms to usher me out of the office, I mistook her gesture for the open arms of waiting hug. I leaned in, pressed my head gratefully against her shoulders, and didn't realize my mistake until I noticed that both of her arms had dropped stiffly to her sides.

One week later my proposal was bought by the company I had secretly been hoping would win the auction. I had no intention of quitting my job, since my boss at Jane, the magazine I was working for, had already promised to work around my production schedule if I needed to travel or take any time off to write. So I was devastated when four days after the book sold, Jane magazine folded. I felt horribly guilty for having an immediate project and salary to fall back on, when all of my coworkers were freaking out about what to do next. The magazine closing ended up being a blessing in disguise, though. I had no idea just how huge the project was that I had taken on. I needed a full year to work on it.

Once Michael Jackson died, the media's interest in Pill Head exploded. Good Morning America had already turned us down as a subject for their show, but they ended up calling me at home on a Saturday, asking me to go live the next morning to talk about my book. I've landed tons of radio interviews on shows that wouldn't normally want me. It makes me feel kind of gross to know that the interest is only because of someone famous dying, but the one good thing that has come out of Michael's death is that America finally seems to be sitting up and paying attention to the fact that it's got a huge problem on its hands. The latest numbers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse show that almost 20% of our entire population has abused prescription medications at some point in their lives. I think that's a conservative finding. The problem with getting accurate statistics is that most hardcore drug users aren't the type to fill out surveys, and one of the reasons no one caught the epidemic in time is because for a long time painkillers were lumped into the same category as heroin on questionnaires, since they're both opiates.

With all of the strange coincidences surrounding Pill Head, I feel like I need to tread very carefully and respectfully with it. I've always been a superstitious person, and two of the three major factors that have contributed to getting this book out into the world have been at the expense of other people. In the epilogue of Pill Head I wrote that I didn't write this book for anyone except myself, because I was trying to make sense of what had happened to me. I added that I would be really happy, though, if anyone else happened to get something out of it. I feel differently now. I'm pretty emotionally divorced from the personal events that I detail. The only way this book will be worth the time and sacrifice is if it helps other people. Here's hoping.

÷ ÷ ÷

Joshua Lyon is a journalist who has worked for several major publications, including Interview, Condé Nast Traveler, V Life, and Jane. He has also contributed to New York, Out, Vice, Nylon, and Page Six magazines. Joshua lives in New York City. This is his first book. spacer

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