When I first read Roland Barthes' book Mythologies, which describes the mythological significance of everyday objects and events, the first thing I thought was that he had left out pills.
What could be more mythological, more like magic really, than a tiny, self-contained package the size of a fingernail, with the power to change all the complex chemical workings of your vast, expansive body? If it were food, it would be less than half a bite, a sixteenth of a bite, not enough to provide any nourishment at all. Yet this minuscule vessel holds the power to cure headaches, clear mucous from your nose and throat, lull you into a deep sleep, keep you awake through the night, correct the feeling that your life has no meaning, make you hallucinate, prevent the growth of a tumor. It could make you terribly sick. It could make you break out in a sweat, make your skin turn red or blue, send you into a coma. It could kill you. So much power in something so small that it would get lost in your pocket, something that needs to be carried around in special tiny bottles, something that can hide snugly between your back tooth and the inside of your cheek in case you get into a sticky spot and need to execute a hasty suicide.
It must be some sense of the connection between pills and magic that leads people to associate them with Alice in Wonderland, even though there are no pills in that book, just magical potions and cakes and mushrooms:
One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, and the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all. Go ask Alice, when she was just small.
You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
In the real world, we don't have enchanted cakes and potions and computer programs that instantly transport us to a different reality; all we have are chemicals.
When I was a child, I loved Alice in Wonderland and I thought pills were magic. They reminded me of the scene in The Secret of NIMH where the mother mouse carries packets of mysterious herbs home to heal her little mouse son, who has pneumonia. She pours the packets into a cup of hot water, where they fizz a bit and then settle into a steaming, volatile-looking brew. It reminded me that medicine was like magic, the magic of secret hiding places and chemistry sets and Native American remedies and poisonous plants and everything else that blurred the lines between the scientific and the supernatural.
When I was in high school, I carried my Advil and Pseudoephed tablets around in antique pill boxes that felt infused with the mystery and intrigue of their contents. I loved to pull the box out during class, swallow a pill without water, and feel like I was doing something illicit and covert, when in fact it was the most culturally sanctioned of activities, the easy solution to problems that could have been solved with more sleep, more and healthier food, and, ironically, less medicine.
The sickest I’ve ever gotten was from pills, specifically an antibiotic called erythromycin that I took for strep throat when I was fifteen. When my mother called the all-night advice nurse to report that her daughter was screaming in pain and couldn’t stop dry-heaving and vomiting water all over the floor because of a medicine she had taken, the nurse said:
“Was it erythromycin? It’ll do that.”
I was given a new antibiotic to take, but my bottle of erythromycin sat on the windowsill of my bedroom for months afterwards. It seemed like a shame to throw out medicine, especially such pretty pills: they were lovely translucent green capsules that shone in the light from the window.
Once over the phone, I told my friend Matthew that I had pills on my windowsill.
“I’ll take them,” he said.
“They won’t do anything to you,” I said. “They’re antibiotics. They made me sick.”
“I don’t care,” he said. “I’ll take them.”
I thought he was stupid, but I also knew why he wanted them. There’s an extra, scandalous thrill in taking pills that weren’t meant for you, your mother’s painkillers, your little brother’s Ritalin. They can’t be bad for you because they’re medicine, meant for healing. Even if you’re not sure what they’ll do to you, you’re ready for it. You’re brave, like Neo in The Matrix, prepared to face the unexpected, and whatever it is, it’s bound to be interesting.
Thanks to Adam Caldwell for the illustration.