The following is excerpted from “Stash: My Life in Hiding” by Laura Cathcart Robbins. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc.
Too much Ambien and I’m sloppy; slurring, confused, and forgetful. Not enough and I can’t make eye contact, my voice gets too loud, and I’m easily agitated. So now I’m a chemist, looking for that precise formula that allows me to operate out in the world as inconspicuously as possible.
I know I can’t keep this cycle up much longer, but today is very important. I have to convince Dr. Linbaum to approve my second refill override that the ER doc wrote for me after my seizures only four months ago. I’m wearing my hair in a neat bun and have on gray Theory stretch slacks and a black Stella McCartney bodysuit. I’ve found that if I look put together enough, people tend to overlook how jumpy I am.
I’m sweating under my aviators and I’m afraid it’s a tell. I think about removing them, but I’m scared that Dr. Linbaum will see how dilated my pupils are. And I know that my inability to make eye contact is not typical for someone who is taking her medication “as prescribed.”
He barely looks up from the chart he’s reading as I sit down at his desk.
Uh-oh — bad sign.
He seems to startle at the sound of my voice.
“How are you, Doctor?”
“Mrs. Robbins, do you have any idea how much Ambien you’re taking?”
I’m suddenly grateful that I’ve kept my glasses on.
He knows! Oh Jesus, he knows.
I try to keep my face composed as I search for the right answer. I have a few top-notch excuses, but I can’t remember which ones I’ve already used with him. I switch to a casual tone.
“Oh, are you talking about that replacement refill I got a couple of weeks ago? That’s actually a funny story. You see, we’d gone to our Malibu house that weekend because our Studio City house was being tented. I won’t bore you with the details.”
I laugh a little, to test the waters. He’s stone-faced, steady reading my chart.
“Anyway, I’d left all my prescriptions in Studio City by mistake, and of course we couldn’t risk going back because of the gas, so I had to get everything replaced.”
Lies, lies, lies.
I fold my trembling hands on my lap out of sight and dig my nails into my palms. Dr. Linbaum flips through ten or fifteen pages of scribble.
“Your last scan showed that your brain activity is normal. No more seizures since February.”
“Yes,” I say, forcing cheer into my voice. “The neurologist said everything looked good. He gave me clearance to drive again.”
“But here’s the thing. Two weeks ago, a pharmacist called your insurance company. He was concerned about the amount of Ambien he was dispensing to you.”
Herman, that nosy fucker, I should have known he was going to dime on me.
“Mrs. Robbins.” He closes my chart and leans toward me across his desk. His eyes are tired and kind, but I’m still braced for the worst. “I’m afraid we’re going to need to discontinue the Ambien. Safely, of course. The nurse will give you tapering instructions. And I’ll see you back here next month.”
He’s cutting me off.
“Now, I’m not accusing you of anything.”
Yes, you are.
“But you’ve got to understand that if you’re abusing this medication, I could lose my license for prescribing it to you. I know you’ve been having a rough time, and I’m sorry to hear about your divorce.
But believe me, this is the best course of action.”
Back home, the nurse’s neat printing looks innocent enough, but each word is a knife in my stomach. Thirty Ambien, refill three times only. No early refills. That’s 90 Ambien for the rest of my life. I feel sweat dripping from my temples as my mind starts racing.
I was counting on refilling my stash today.
My heart is pounding so hard now that it pulses my tongue against the roof of my mouth. I go into the bathroom, kneel bare-legged on the floor and start my pill inventory with trembling fingers. Thirty-four. I need at least nine pills to get me through the night and two at the minimum to get me through the day. That means that thirty-four pills will only last me for three days. Even if I boost each pill with booze and a Benadryl it’s still not enough. I’m looking at days of painful, humiliating withdrawal.
I gather them all lovingly into three piles, six for today, 16 stay in the bottle, but the rest need to be hidden so I don’t take them by mistake in a brownout. I stash some in the toes of random pairs of shoes in my closet. I make a note in my Filofax so I know which ones once I’m lucid enough. L for Louboutins, G for Gucci.
I need to find another source and I need it now.
I’m trembling so hard my shoulders are shaking as I quietly close the bedroom door. I sink down to the floor and pull out my phone, scrolling down until I find the number of a doctor in our neighborhood, Dr. Nelson, an orthopedic surgeon whose kids go to school with the boys. Though he wouldn’t play ball for a friendly, neighborly Vicodin prescription for a fake back injury, he did question me about my sleep and asked if I had enough Ambien.
This gave me hope that maybe he’d be willing to prescribe it for me someday when I was really desperate. Like now.
I can see my heart pounding through my bodysuit as I push the call button.
What if Dr. Nelson mentions my call at his daughter’s birthday party next week? Or what if he reports me for drug seeking?
I know I’m playing Russian roulette here. A “no” is a bullet through my skull. A “yes” is a stay of execution. When the nurse answers I use my best white-girl voice to explain that we’re headed out of town and my regular doctor is away for two weeks.
“Would Dr. Nelson mind just calling in a refill for me this one time?”
I think maybe she’s hung up on me, but after a couple of excruciating seconds of silence, she asks me to hold on. I pace in a circle on the carpet, praying, praying, praying that I get that stay of execution.
Yes or no? Yes or no?
“Yes?” My heart stops beating.
“He’d like you to come in for an appointment.”
A gun cocks in my head.
“Since it’s been over a year since you were last here. Can you come in Wednesday morning?”
I sit on the bed and deflate like a day-old helium balloon.
I know what I have to do now.
My husband, who I’m in the process of divorcing, is sleeping here this week, so I wait until I’m sure that everyone is in bed before sneaking into my office and bringing up the website I’ve been secretly cruising for the last two weeks. Zolpidem, brand name Ambien. I have a 300-pill bottle in my cart.
Three hundred pills might last me 25 days if I can regulate myself. I’ve been here before, but I’m always too chickenshit to hit Buy. If I get caught ordering drugs off the internet, there will be no more claiming I’m taking these pills as prescribed, no more blaming my grogginess on lack of sleep, or brushing off my manic behavior as simply being overcaffeinated. I will have lost all semblance of credibility, and he will have won everything.
I hit Continue, extending my ears out like power antennas, listening for movement in the dark house. I’m waiting for that creak of the floorboard, the shadow in the doorway, that hand on my shoulder. I have to keep wiping my sweaty fingers on my pajama bottoms between entering and reentering the number of the debit card from my secret lawyer-ordered bank account. On the next page, I cheat off a crumpled-up Post-it Note from my robe pocket as I enter the address of my secret PO box.
If he were to walk in now, he’d have everything: the internet drugs, the secret account, the secret PO box.
My eyes scroll up and down as I frantically search through all the words on the next screen for a delivery date.
How long till they get here???
I freeze as I hear a clicking sound somewhere behind me. Was that a footstep? Was that downstairs? Terror begins to derail my ability to concentrate, so I click Confirm, click off the site, and click to clear my history.
Click, click, click.
Running on tiptoes down the hallway, I pass the closed guest-room door where I hear him snoring softly (thank God) and enter the haven of my bedroom. As usual, the boys beat me there. Their bodies are crisscrossed on top of the covers, one’s head sleeping on the other’s ankles. I gently move one moist body over so I can slide in beside him and pull the covers up to my chin.
“Stash: My Life in Hiding” by Laura Cathcart Robbins is available for purchase at bookstores everywhere.