the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The Dark Side of the Pill

Popular wisdom says a blog must have a niche, or a focused theme, and today I found it — anxiety.  I walked into Walgreen’s, headed straight for the pretty Vietnamese pharmacist with the sour face, and without hesitation or shame, handed her a presciption for Buspar.

“It’s a mild anti-anxiety medication,” I said.

“I know what Buspar is.  I’m a pharmacist,” she replied, sourly.

I know my mother is going to call me in ten minutes and tell me NOT to take this pill.  She is so fearful of pills that she would be booted out of BlogHer today for being a bad mother to me when I was a child. When I had the flu, she would give me less than the suggested dose of any medication.  If it was a fever, she would cut the aspirin and give me half.  If I was coughing endlessly, she would give me a teaspoon of cough medicine.

“Mom, Robitussin says to give me a TABLESPOON, not a TEASPOON. Cough Cough Cough.”

I was an avid reader at an early age, and was fond of reading cereal boxes and cough medicine bottles.

“You don’t need a full tablespoon. You can get HOOKED on this and then you will be in the street, drinking cough syrup.”

“Yuch.  It’s too sweet. It’s like the Manischevitz wine at Passover that no one likes.  Who is going to get hooked on cough syrup?”

“That’s what they ALL say before it starts to become a problem.   Just drink more tea and honey.  That will make you better.”

My mother was like a Jewish version of a Jehovah’s Witness/Scientologist, who didn’t believe in modern pills.  It was always tea and honey.  And chicken soup, the cure-all.  I’m lucky I never broke a leg.

“Here, put some chicken soup on your leg.”

Her anxiety over medications became my anxiety over medications.

And drugs.

Remember when everyone laughed at Bill Clinton when he said he smoked pot, but never inhaled?  I never laughed.  I did that ALL the time when I was thirteen years old, hanging out with Scott and Phillip in Phillip’s room after school, when his mother was still at work.  Phillip would take out his nickel bag hat he bought from his older sister and then crank up Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on his expensive, wood-grained Sherwood stereo that he saved up for by working at his father’s store.

“This album is the fucking best!” announced Scott.

He always said that, just as “Money” started to play.  And yes, Pink Floyd nuts, I realize that “Money” is the first song on the B-side, but Phillip always played the second side first.  That’s how we rolled in Flushing, Queens.

I like Pink Floyd now.  But I didn’t like them at all when I was thirteen.  I found “The Dark Side of the Moon,” one of the best-selling albums ever,  slow and depressing. I secretly listened to the more upbeat, funkier, Commodores back at home, but never mentioned it to anyone else.

“Pink Floyd rocks!” I would say as Phillip would turn the bass up so high that it distorted the sound.

Note:  I made up that last quote where I say, “Pink Floyd rocks!”  Recently, there was a scandal where a blogger was caught making up details about his life, and I feel the need to kowtow to the pressure to be authentic.  I don’t really remember what I said in Phillip’s  during those good ol’ days, but I am positive that peer pressure had an even bigger effect on me back then, which would have forced me to say that I liked this album more than I did. (Albums, ha ha! How quaint! One day, I will talk about how important it was to have the right speakers and stereo system. We used to talk about it like kids talk about smartphones today.)

Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay
And your O.K.

Money, it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands
And make a stash

New car, caviar, four star daydream
Think I’ll buy me a football team

Money get back
I’m all right Jack
Keep your hands off my stack

Money, it’s a hit
Don’t give me that
Do goody good bullshit

I’m in the hi-fidelity
First class traveling set
And I think I need a Lear jet

Money, it’s a crime
Share it fairly
But don’t take a slice of my pie

Having just recalled the lyrics to “Money,” it doesn’t surprise me at all that my pot smoking friend ended up working on WALL STREET, rolling in the dough,  while I’m still lulling away the hours, fantasizing about the woman extolled by the Commodores in — (take it Lionel Richie)

She’s a brick—-house
Mighty mighty, just lettin’ it all hang out
She’s a brick—-house
The lady’s stacked and that’s a fact,
ain’t holding nothing back.

If you are a parent, watch what your children listen to when they are thirteen years old. It will determine their future more than what fancy school they attend.

Back to the pot.  I loved the smell of pot.  But I was my mother’s son.  I was afraid of getting lung cancer at age thirteen.  Why risk it just to get high?

“You can’t get lung cancer from pot,” said Phillip.

I researched this in the library, and Phillip was right.  But again, why take the chance?

I was not anti-marijuana.   I laughed when they had that school assembly where they brought in that former drug addict who told us that pot was his “gateway drug” to heroin. The “potheads” that I knew in school seemed way too lazy to go out and buy a needle.

I faked smoking pot with Phillip and Scott.   Of course, sometimes the smoke would get into my lungs.  It took some skill to fake smoking pot, because you were supposed to hold it in for what seemed like ten minutes to get the “full effect.”  At one point, Scott bought a bong, which always seemed to me like a Mr. Coffee for potheads.

Phillip and Scott would get high, grooving to Pink Floyd.  I never could understand how his parents never figured out what we were doing after school.  The entire room smelled of pot.  Perhaps they smoked pot themselves?

It was never much fun being the one friend who wasn’t high.    Phillip and Scott found everything funny, and there is nothing less funny than people who think they are funny.

Phillip: “If you reflect a magnifying glass just right, you can get this rainbow effect like on the album cover.”

Scott: “I love this album cover.”

Phillip: “You going to get the new Kiss album?”

Scott: “Kiss is for faggots.”

Phillip: “Yeah.  Ha Ha Ha.”

Scott: “Imagine kissing Shari Diamond.”

Phillip: “Oh yeah!

Scott: “Call her. Tell her to come over.”

Phillip: “Look at the wall! It’s like vibrating.”

Scott: “Fuck.”

I know I might seem like a wallflower, but I wasn’t.  I would participate in the conversation, too.

Neil: “Do you think the social studies test is going to be hard on Friday?”

Phillip: “What are you talking about, Neil?”

Scott: “Mellow out, Neil. Look at the wall.”

Neil:  “OK.”

Phillip:  “You see it?”

Neil:  “Yeah.  Cool.  (to self) Morons.”

2012, many years later.  Scott is on Facebook.   Phillip is missing.  My musical taste has not improved (see Kelly Clarkson?!)  And sadly, my anxiety remains.  Lately, I haven’t been myself.  I’ve been having trouble dealing with work and money and divorce and whether or not to make new business cards for BlogHer.

“Why don’t you take some Buspar?” said Dr. Fish, my primary care doctor who I went to because I had a pain in my shoulder.  Diagnosis: Tendonitis.

“I don’t need it.”

“Sophia said it might be good for you?”


I remembered that we had the same doctor and Sophia had just gone to Dr. Fish two days earlier for her yearly checkup.  I felt like I was being pushed into something I didn’t want to do.

“I don’t like pills.”

“It’s not a big deal. You take it.  If you don’t like it, you stop.”

“I’m not sure I have “real” anxiety.  It’s just a temporary thing.  I’m not afraid of people.”

“Not all anxieties are the same.”

“Well, come to think of it, I AM afraid of most people.  But I’m not crazy or anything.”


Mom, are you calling me now?

“Don’t take it, Neil.” I can hear her saying.   “Don’t take pills.   Finish this divorce already, and you will be OK.”

But I am an adult.  I need to stop listening to Sophia, Dr. Fish, AND my mother, and do what is best for my mental health.

The package of Buspar is sitting on the desk, next to the computer.  I’m still a little scared of taking one. Will I become a Stepford zombie? Will my penis shrink?

Maybe I should download some Pink Floyd on iTunes so I can create the right mood.


  1. erykah

    Back in the day, there wasn’t as many medications as there are out now. But we also didn’t live in a stressful crazy environment. My first time in nyc I had a huge panic attack. Anxiety has to be one of the worst feelings in the world. I have an emergency supply that I rarely use. Sometimes just knowing you have them makes u feel better. I’ve had too learn to self soothe. Connect w higher power. I’m loads better now & wish you the same love & light neil!

    • Neil

      I’m not sure today is any more stressful than before. We are just more aware of more options which make us more confused.

  2. Kyra

    You know, your mom and I would get along great. I’m scared to death of the medications too (although my mother was a nurse and is 200% behind better living through chemistry. Honestly, watching all the legitimate drugs without addiction flow through the house scared me just as bad as any illegal drug ever could.) But I will say this: I know I have anxiety, social anxiety in particular. I bet something would help. A couple of times I have asked for help from my Drs and they have acted like I was drug seeking, so I said never mind.

    However, my son about 6 months ago had his anxiety go out of control, and we got him on something. While I don’t think medication is for everyone, I DO believe it helps people in the right circumstance. I also believe that it helps in conjunction with other things too (like diet and exercise. I may not be on something, but what sane person who sucks at running runs as much as I do? Alternative therapy!)

    In all honestly, I’m terrified something will change who I am and will affect those I hold most dear. Were it not such a “what about them?” kind of thing, I would have tried something long ago (irrational anxiety, anyone?) If it helps you? Go for it. 😉 make it about you, not anyone else. Not your ex-wife, your mother, your neighbor. Just you. The best life, for you.


    • Neil

      I do tend to think doctors prescribe too many drugs, especially those the sexy drug salesgirl just sold to him at lunch.

  3. Karen

    As an expert in anxiety of all kinds…. I have the crazy person variety, the every day variety and the same pill aversion anxiety you do. I was faced with that first pill once. I imagined all sorts of craziness would happen. Then I took one finally. And all that happened was I calmed the hell down. That was in 2000 and I haven’t died or even tried heroin, so there you go.

    • Neil

      Not too late to go the heroin route.

    • Jena

      Karen, I’m right there with you. I’ve been on and off Xanax (ooooooh, dread) for 19 years now. My anxiety had gotten so bad (my mom not only had a pill aversion; she didn’t believe in anxiety) in college, I was having auditory hallucinations. I was finally hauled into a psychiatrist’s office who diagnosed me with two anxiety disorders, both on the severe end of the spectrum.
      I now have a plan anytime I have to start taking a new pill (and this includes supplements). I take it for the first time while I’m with a certain friend. She knows about and understands my anxiety, and I know she’ll react promptly if there’s a medical emergency (yes, this is all part of the problem of anxiety). So, I take that first pill with her there, and her vigilance makes me feel better. Then it’s usually smooth sailing after pill #1.
      I watched Celebrity Rehab a couple years ago and saw Angie Dickinson talking about “benzos” and got nervous that I might be scandalously addicted to Xanax. I went to my doctor, worried that I might have a problem. He reassured me that in all the years I’d been taking it, my dose had increased very, very minimally, and often decreased, and had stopped and started plenty of times with no withdrawals.
      In my sessions with my therapist, we discussed the fact that people with, say, heart disease have to take certain pills for that. They would have physical and psychological reactions if you took away the pills that keep them healthy. That’s not necessarily addiction. Sometimes people just need medicine.
      For those who say I should try diet and exercise, yeah yeah yeah. I exercise every day; I eat an extremely healthy diet that contains no caffeine, processed foods, sugar or white flour. I don’t use aspartame or saccharine and I get my omega 3’s. I’m not saying I have the perfect diet, but I come pretty darn close. And my everyday stress isn’t all that great. I made a conscious decision to reduce the anxiety in my professional life by taking a step down the “corporate ladder” so I didn’t have quite as much responsibility. I’m happily married, have well-behaved kids and don’t have any major financial problems.
      So, what is there to be anxious about? When you have anxiety, it’s often not about “acute” stressors. It’s about everyday stuff — like driving. Hugging people (technically, being hugged by people, since I’m averse). Does that crack in the ceiling mean the house might be shifting on its foundation, and we’re going to have it crash in on us? And speaking of that, would insurance cover it, knowing that I saw it before it happened and didn’t have a contractor come in and do something about it?
      It’s worry that I’m not doing enough house cleaning, and that I can’t get a housekeeper to do things the way I want her to. It’s obsessing over every little thing I said in social situations, and wondering if people took things I said the way I meant them — and surely I could have said them better. And then there’s obsessing over whether people meant things the way I took them. Is writing a novel about my anxiety as a comment on your blog going to set loose another person’s judgment and cause me to be the focus of negative attention? Should I have admitted it was Xanax I take? I know how people view it. It’s considered a weak person’s drug.
      I just read all that back, and I’m not going to delete it like I normally would. I’m going to leave it because I hope it might help you to see that anxiety is its own animal. It’s often genetic (my mom did finally find out she had it, too, and is being treated — I also see it in one of my daughters, and I’m sure we’ll be dealing with that soon enough) but it can also be an acute thing. Just something you deal with for a few weeks/months while you’re going through a tough time. I don’t think medicating it should be something to be ashamed of.
      If you’re nervous about taking the pill, maybe start with your mom’s approach and only take half (if it’s the kind of pill that can be split, of course).

  4. V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios

    “Neil,” she says in her most seductive voice, “Neil…drugs are your FRIENDS.”

    My husband has this same mentality about “drugs.” He’ll tell you all about not wanting to alter his brain chemistry while drinking a Belgian beer (at night) or an amped up coffee (in the morning). I roll my eyes and say unequivocally that drugs saved my life. Cause they did.

  5. Marie Nicole

    I am the queen of denial. That being said “what’s anxiety?” Denial is my new black.

  6. kenju

    ““Don’t take it, Neil.” I can hear her saying. “Don’t take pills. Finish this divorce already, and you will be OK.””

    Your mom is smart.

  7. Jada

    I’ve suffered from anxiety for years, to a degree. It’s all dependant on what’s happening in my life. Did I sometimes need the Ativan? HELLS YES. So I took them, when I needed them. When I didn’t need them, they stopped, period. I went through some rough shit that couldn’t be handled without help, be it medical or just other people. I had no people, so I had pills. Now, on the other side, I could likely weather similar circumstances without pills because I know what sets me off and how to compensate for it. But at the time-best idea ever. Do what’s right for you. I preferred pills I could take when needed over ones you had to take everyday, but hey. that worked for me.

    Or, you could start drinking. Beer works too, and your mom might approve? :p

  8. Jana A (@jana0926)

    This is a brilliant and brave post. I hope that your new meds will help take the edge off. I also hope I’ll be able to meet you at BlogHer. YOu should totally get new cards. 🙂

  9. mamikaze

    Neil, I can’t go into my therapists or psychiatrists office without taking an extra Xanax. Even talking about anxiety out loud sends me into the self-talk death spiral. I really think you should find a new doctor and get a real psych screening. It’s scary but truly beneficial to have someone take a look at your life from a neutral viewpoint. There a lots of meds that work better and last longer than Buspar. You are not crazy, you are stressed. Spend some time taking care of yourself.

    • stephan

      love how depressed people see and want to see everyone like them.

  10. Emily

    I got nothing on the pills, but finish the damned divorce.

  11. Hannah

    I’m pretty shocked that your doctor brought this up in this way.

    Finish the damn divorce. Get another doctor who isn’t Sophia’s doctor, too. Find your own place in this world and carve out your own life for just you.

    I’ve taken pills for anxiety. They helped, in that they gave me enough calmness to clearly see what was making me so anxious. You may find that for you, too.

  12. Lisa Golden

    First – you are hilarious. You’re not just an Instagram wizard, you’re a very funny man. I mean funny in the best possible way.

    Second – I’m pill wary unless it can make me lose weight. Then I’m all gimme gimme.

    Third – I’m taking anti-depressants that really seem to be working, but I don’t want to take them forever. I’m probably going to need some Buspar to help me deal with my anxiety over wanting to quit them.

  13. Katebits

    I hope you feel less anxious soon!

  14. Sandy

    Thanks for sharing Neil & adding a humorous flare to your story. Whatever you decide I hope you feel better soon. I understand the turmoil. It took me 6 mths before I decided I should talk to my doctor. Forget about what everyone thinks & make the best choice for you. I’ll be thinking of you.

  15. The Honourable Husband

    “Sophia said it might be good for you”


    Sorry to shout, but somebody had to.

    Neil, men like us have been anxious all our lives. But you’ve moved into a form of anxious arousal that has a different quality.

    Inability to concentrate, make plans, attend to needs. Indecisiveness and confusion. Longings and intrusive thoughts.

    You know what this sounds like? To me, it sounds like grief. The recently bereaved often go through a stage where even tiny decisions are overwhelming.

    Is unattended grief messing with your mind? Have you properly mourned the end of your marriage? Have you really thrown the clod of earth on its casket, as you bury it?

    Mourn, and mourn well. Then, time can heal the wound.

    The symptoms of grief mirror the symptoms of depression or anxiety disorder. What helps such symptoms? Time, for one, as I said. Active physical pursuits, for another. Many, including me, pop some fish oil. And in the acute phases of grief, antianxiolytic drugs like the one you’ve been prescribed may comfort you.

    With the full knowledge that you are under special and distinctive stress for a short period of your life, you might wish to comply with your doctor’s offer of a little help. Or not, if you choose to address your grief in a different way.

    But treat your grief. Do it deliberately, and do it now.

    By the way, treating your grief doesn’t always mean bucking up and “getting over it”. Legitimate mourning involves a period of sadness and reliving memories. It also involves a clear acknowledgement, to one’s self and to the world at large, that the change is permanent.

    As chemical helpers go, BuSpar seems to be a pretty benign drug. It has a mild side-effect profile, matched (alas) by a mild effect profile.

    By the way, Crazymeds is my go-to guy for this kind of info. The chap who runs the site is bipolar, bless him, and he puts his manic impulses to good use with some punchy prose.

    • Jena

      Honourable Husband, you are awesome.

  16. Lisa

    I feel your pain. I took prozac for about four months, and then later tried celexa. I wasn’t entirely convinced that they were helping so I didn’t stick with them. Anxiety is evil. Even when you hate pills (I do too…) enough anxiety will make you try anything just to escape from it. I’ve always wanted to try Manischevitz but every Jew I’ve ever met has insisted that I really don’t. Is it truly that bad?

  17. Sharron

    Your mother is right. Sooner or later we come to realise that they always are.

  18. Marinka

    As soon as you get back to NYC, we’re going to party with some cough syrup. AND cough drops.

    • Amy

      Then rub VICKS vapor rub all over yourselves!!!!

  19. Wendi

    This was hilarious. Loved the writing, Neil.

  20. Amy

    You crack me up. Don’t you know 99% of all Americans are on some form of anxiety pill. And the other 1% are lying.

  21. pia

    I have been on anti anxiety meds for too long to be logical about it

    I just had a conversation about blog her with a math professor who is thinking about starting a blog. She didn’t know the layers of angst, self-doubt and hate it would bring up in me. She thinks you just learn about blogging; I think you learn why everybody else is more “popular” than me though I might be a better writer writing about a subject that scares me

  22. Leslie @ The Bearded Iris

    You had me at Commodores. Spectacular storytelling!

    Anxiety really is a bitch. Good luck with your decision, Neil. (And some chicken soup never hurt. What? Oy, are you trying to kill your mother?)

  23. revisingloneliness

    . . . yes . . .

  24. Marcy

    I don’t have any comments to make about medication or anxiety, etc, but just wanted to say I really like how you laid out this story.

  25. tracy @mamacreates

    I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression my whole life… a kid, even before I knew what that “pit in my stomach” feeling was. I had no idea; it was just there, familiar & wretched all at the same time. It’s been better or worse throughout the years, usually depending on external circumstances. My anxiety has gone from a “pit of anxiety in my stomach” to chest pains, and I’m not a doctor, but I think that’s some serious shit.

    I believe that the energy we put out into the world, we get back, but I don’t believe that, for some people, it’s enough to declare your intention to be happy, and POOF!, you’re happy……depression? What depression? Anxiety & depression strips away that ability, and it’s taken me many, many years to accept that my brain is just fucked up. There’s a thing on your brain called the cingulate, and thoughts & compulsions get trapped there, racing back & forth, instead of hopping off the cingulate train to wherever their next destination is.

    That being said, I am a firm believer that there are some people who need meds to live, and I am one of those people. While I can’t imagine actually taking my life, I’ve been close to acting on it many times. Being in that dark place is a scary, scary place to be, and I know that’s where I’d be if I were unmedicated again. Even medicated, I still have really shitty days where I’m huddled on the bathroom floor, ugly-crying at work….again, usually a direct correlation to external circumstances. I don’t care what anyone says, it’s not always a case of mind over matter….not when your brain is telling you all kinds of vicious lies.

    I also think Honorable Husband made some excellent points….points that I’ve heard from my shrink more than once. The grief stage is where I’m stuck. I’ve been purposefully avoiding dealing with things instead of acknowledging, accepting, and then moving on from my grief over my yet to be finalized divorce, losing my family, losing the picture in my head 0f everything that was familiar to me (even the fucked up, dysfunctional bits), losing my house, losing what I thought was a “this is it” relationship post-separation….all of these things (coupled with the depression & anxiety) has made it really easy to subconsciously avoid finalizing things…..divorce, as you know, sucks. And merely finalizing the divorce isn’t going to instantaneously fix anything. I get so tired of everyone telling me, “things will be better after the divorce”. Bullshit. The divorce isn’t separating me from the person I’m co-parenting a child with, and the divorce doesn’t erase the hurt, and the divorce doesn’t correct the dysfunctional behavioral patterns that played a major role in getting me to this very point in time.

    And with that, I’m going to close before I fall asleep at the keyboard, and send this comment with a bunch of trailing eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee’s

    {hugs, friend}

    ps, since you denied my entry into the no-niche blogging niche, you better let me into the anxiety blogging niche 😉

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