the kindness of strangers,
or, how a humane pharmacist reminded me of the simple power of decency
every day for the last nine years i have taken an anti-anxiety medication called lorazepam (ativan). i started taking it soon after my last stay in the psychiatric ward. after i was released from the hospital, and had returned to ottawa, i started experiencing severe anxiety.
if you’ve never had this sort of anxiety, then it is easy to underestimate just how bad it really is. more than just anxiety, what i was feeling a combination of fear, self-loathing, and stress at levels so bad that i was in physical and emotional pain. i started to contemplate suicide: if life was going to be only agony, then i didn’t want to be alive. i felt this way all day every day for about a week before i finally decided to go to the hospital.
i went to the emergency room at the civic hospital and waited. as i was “only” experiencing an anxiety attack, i ended up waiting at least 8 hours. when i finally got to see a psychiatrist, she did almost nothing to help me. in fact, she probably made my anxiety slightly worse.
as i was a heavy drinker, she refused to prescribe me any benzodiazepines (a group of medications commonly prescribed for anxiety), and instead increased my dosage of quetiapine (seroquel). while quetiapine acts as an mild anti-anxiety drug for some people, it also produces anxiety in others. i happen to be one of the others, although i didn’t realize this at the time.
a day or two later i found a pill bottle half-full of lorazepam that my biological mother had been prescribed at some point. as the psychiatrist had almost prescribed me lorazepam, and, as i was still experiencing terrible anxiety, i decided to try some. i was desperate. while taking random medications isn’t safe to do, i was willing to take a risk in the hopes that i might feel better. and it worked. within an hour my anxiety was almost gone – more like actual anxiety rather than brutal waves of fear, stress and self-loathing. within two days i was mostly well again (in the context of my mental health at the time, which wasn’t especially great), and within a couple of weeks i had recovered completely.
since then i’ve been taking lorazepam regularly, although i’m presently getting off it. now that i’m sober, avoid caffeine, and have done three and a half years of intense healing work, the fear, anxiety, guilt and shame that were disabling me are much reduced and generally under control.
the main cause of anxiety in my life these days is, ironically, my anti-anxiety medication. lorazepam is highly addictive and the withdrawal symptoms, for me anyways, are severe. as a result, when i don’t have my lorazepam, i am not a happy man. it is stressful and scary, and i know that a little bit of emotional hell is lurking around the corner.
about two months ago, i ran out of lorazepam early. my prescription wasn’t due to be refilled for another four days. i was worried. i had called my doctor’s office the day before asking them to send a fax to my pharmacy permitting an early release of my medication, but i knew from past experience this might not happen in a timely manner. i figured that if i exerted myself – going to the doctor’s office, talking with someone at the ontario disability support program, and calling the pharmacy regularly, i would get my medication within a day or two, but even so the next couple of days were likely to be a brutal mix of stress, fear, self-loathing, waiting in offices and phone calls.
i was hoping that it would all go well. i was hoping that someone from my doctor’s office would have got the message i left and faxed in the prescription to the pharmacy. i was hoping that, even though i hadn’t received my drug card from the ontario disability program yet, the pharmacist would still give me my medication. i had a lot of hopes, but no certainties.
the pharmacist that day was a young woman of colour with bleached blonde hair who i’d interacted with before and who had been helpful. i asked her if my doctor’s office had faxed in my prescription and she said “no.” she paused, and then she said, “but i don’t think it’ll be a problem. just give me a second, i’ll ask.” she walked over to her boss and asked him a question. when she returned to the counter she told me that she’d have my medication ready in about fifteen minutes. i immediately felt relieved. she asked if i was going to wait, and i said i’d be back soon.
i quickly walked by to my nearby apartment, and searched for money. i found about $25 in change, and took i took it all with me. i didn’t have my drug card, which might be a problem, but i could hopefully pay cash if i had to.
when i got to the pharmacy, i was once again feeling nervous, this time about whether or not she’d insist on gettinga drug card, and whether $25 would be enough if i had to pay cash. when she saw me she got my medication and handed it to me. she didn’t ask for my drug card. i thanked her and left the store. i was feeling so good: happy and relieved, joyous even.
the fact that the pharmacist responded to me as a human being who needed help, rather than as someone whose situation violated store policy made such a big difference to me, and provides a good example of a simple way that acts of compassion and humanity make the world better. you know, i doubt that she is or was even aware of how much she improved my day. the way that she helped me wasn’t spectacular, but without it i would have suffered painfully.