Chapter XXXV: Public Enemy—The Sleeping Pill

Our present modern day is sometimes referred to as the age of miracles and indeed this is so. At no other time in the written history of man has there been a civilization which has produced such a great super-abundance of mechanical and electronic inventions which should, by the same token, have elevated man to a new standard of living. Yet, paradoxically enough, many of these inventions and productions have also produced a great deal of harm. The misuse of many of our familiar everyday aids and conveniences kill and cripple countless thousands every year. Now personally, I would not advocate eliminating—for the sake of saving all this life, injury and property damage—all or part of the many and wonderful things we find about us. Rather, effort should be made through the channels of public education to cut down on this needless waste of life and material. Many of the killers and destroyers are easily identified; some are more subtle but nevertheless just as dangerous and destructive in the end result.

One of these almost unseen and unheard of killers is the common sleeping pill or capsule. Did you know that these brightly colored capsules kill over one thousand people a year not counting those who commit suicide? Do you know that addiction to barbiturates is more serious in many ways than morphine or heroin, also, that 350 tons are consumed in this country annually? I was just as surprised as anyone could be when, on a television dramatization by the San Diego Police Department, a full and authoritative disclosure was given. In a short drama, all the horrors and dangers of the sleeping pill addict were depicted. Hundreds of thousands of people in every walk of life, our folks, friends, anyone we may chance to meet could be such an unwitting victim. There is no way of estimating as to the exact number or as to the severity and length of their addiction. Some, no doubt, would be shocked to learn that they were well on the road which had only one ending—death or a long and painful withdrawal treatment under the hospitalized care of a competent doctor. Usually most addiction comes from certain groups or strata of people. They are the ones who, in the present taut, strained conditions of productive competition, become nervous and distraught, or they may be going through or have gone through great emotional strain in a divorce or a death. The causes are innumerable which may produce such tensions and neuroses. The victim is faced with a continual and increasing number of sleepless nights. Soon he seeks out a doctor who issues a prescription which is usually based on the assumption that the mental disorder is of a temporary nature and will dissipate itself in a few weeks.

Now the pattern is laid. In seeking and finding a temporary escape from one mental problem, the victim quickly finds other problems to take to bed with him in order to justify what has now become a nightly dosage. And so the vicious circle goes on. With the passing of time the victim finds that one or two tablets are no longer sufficient. He must wake up in the night to take another. The opened bottle is by the bed on the night stand, and in his half-dazed condition, tortured by strange ideas, shapes and forms which are always incurred in over-dosage of these hypnotic or sleep-inducing drugs, he may spill a half dozen or more into his hand and another name is added to the ever-growing roster of deaths from this killer.

Fortunately, sometimes the victim will realize before it is too late that he is headed for nowhere and manages to break away from his dangerous habit, or a doctor may recognize the symptoms of addiction. The use of a strong barbiturate is always accompanied by the following morning hangover, thick tongue, headache, nervousness, etc. Just as overindulgence in alcohol leaves a person with the inevitable hangover, so do these brightly colored capsules. Withdrawal is most often a very serious thing and has very often resulted in death. Severe emotional as well as physical pain is incurred. The victim frequently goes into spasms and convulsions which may kill the individual if he does not have prompt medical aid.

The pattern is always the same. In about thirty-six hours from the last pill, he will begin the deadly agonizing process. He may start by a frantic search for a pill, or he may become extremely depressed. There are tears and recriminations, then fear and cold sweat pours out all over his body; finally, convulsions and trauma. However, under a competent doctor, a slowly diminishing dosage is allowed; psychiatric guidance and advice is also very valuable; however, even when cured (so-called), the habit is much more easily fallen into.

Of course, no competent physician would issue a prescription with the conscious knowledge that the patient would become addicted; neither can a car dealer be sure in an assumption that the car he sells will not become a deadly weapon in the hands of an incompetent driver. Even an innocent bathtub sometimes participates in an accidental death. There are countless other known or unknown hazards in our everyday process of living. There have always been many, and likewise, the future may bring its new numbers of such hazards.

The obvious thing to do is, first, corrective measures. By proper education in all usages, much danger and death can thusly be eliminated. Correctly used under supervision, barbiturates are very valuable aids in overcoming many painful and distressing ailments. In the hands of an ignorant or nervous person, they will inevitably lead to great suffering or even death. If you are one of these who must have your nightly capsule, better see your doctor or at least take definite steps to stop before it is too late.