MEXICO CITY: Drugs!

If somehow I’ve failed to make you aware, I have Multiple Sclerosis. (Don’t you wish English was like German and just capitalized everything? I do. I never know if I’m supposed to capitalize diseases. I don’t think so, but then I feel wrong. But then I remember how I was lambasted as a junior in high school by a community college “professor” — pretty sure his day job was a bank teller — about how he would never accept homework that didn’t have the word Internet capitalized and I’ve never been able to NOT capitalize it, even though I really don’t think anybody else ever does. Sorry for that. I had a flashback.)

Anyway, I have this ridiculous autoimmune disorder. It’s real and it’s one of my favorite excuses. I wish I could, but, you know, I have MS? That kind of thing. I’ll see you in Hell for it, but at least I had fun. I feel a bit fraudulent about the diagnosis, though, reader. Don’t get me wrong, I know I have it — I’ve seen the MRIs of the lesions on my brain — I just don’t seem to have any flares or symptoms or concerns. Ever since I started my medication, switched up parts of my diet, and had truly nightmarish steroid injections, I’ve been fine. Years and years now and just nothing. I haven’t gone blind again and I don’t need a cane. My fingers don’t tingle. The heat rejuvenates me instead of crippling me. I remain the master of my bowels. I have a bit of depression, but who doesn’t? It’s 2020; we all have depression. And I have chronic fatigue, but that was a part of my life long before Multiple Sclerosis. It was probably one of the first early warning signs though, and it has become absolutely intolerable.

As the only really symptom of my disease, I decided that something must be done. I wasn’t sure what exactly needed to be done, though so I decided to google. (Again, Google? Or google? It’s literally considered a verb now. I won’t go linguistically insane on you, though I really should have become a linguist. Whatever, not the time nor the place.) The first suggestion on the first website google showed me was coffee for the caffeine. Duh, I chortled, sipping the double espresso latte I had just picked up at the coffee shop window next to the public toilets. (That always felt so wrong but the coffee was always perfection.) Caffeine did nothing to me. It hasn’t for years. (Reader, the only time I remember feeling any effect of caffeine was the night I had my first espresso. I went to a party with my classmates in Paris at a gorgeous restaurant across the river from Notre Dame — Left Bank — and it was immensely chic. That night I had grapefruit for the first time, veal for the first time, and had my very first sip of espresso. I was up all damn night singing Eartha Kitty’s greatest hits and I had a practical class the next morning that I had to set up for. This required me to be there at like 7:30 at the latest which meant I had to leave my apartment in the 11eme at like 6:45. My Parisians will know the inconvenience of getting to Vaugirard. I was drunk from the six different wines we had sampled so I twirled around the Place de Gve in front of the cathedral until at least two o’clock in the flurrying snow. Wild night. My partner — who I loved and still love — had diarrhea from the cheese course and I had to go down into the cellars myself and get the ingredients for twenty others and act cool in front of Chef Corte. Wow, sorry guys, all these memories are ridiculous and suddenly vibrant.) Anyway. Caffeine. I’m not immune to the stuff because I’ll turn into a raging bitch without it, but it doesn’t hype me up. It doesn’t make me feel like I could deep clean the entire apartment complex. I crossed that off the list with a sad chuckle.

Nicotine was next. I don’t smoke and I don’t have any intention of starting an addiction to cigarettes. They make you look cool, but then you smell funky and your walls are yellow. So I looked for those nicotine patches at the pharmacy. They didn’t know what I was talking about. Then I thought maybe I’d buy one of those vaping things the kids are using so I went to the corner store to look for them. They don’t sell those kinds of things in Mexico, I guess. 

There are newspaper vendors every few blocks that sell chilled beverages, magazines, lighters, snacks, and to my amused delight, self-serve cigarettes. Like, you literally pull one out of the packs displayed. Just one cigarette. You don’t need to buy the whole box. I groaned knowing that to do my experiment properly I had to try all the suggestions so I asked my corner lady how much. Five pesos, it turns out, which is like…nothing. So I gave her the coin, grabbed the prettiest cigarette — it had a turquoise tip, reader! — and lit it with the provided lighter that dangled from a piece of string off the roof of the kiosk. I pretended I knew what I was doing and I didn’t make an utter fool of myself in front of everybody, much to my shocked delight. I hadn’t smoked since I was champagne drunk with Anne and Sue and sneaking onto the Metro…Paris is very near to my memories today, sorry!

It was vile. But I felt SO cool. I couldn’t begin to understand the appeal. Why would you get hooked to something that nasty? Then I got a rush of energy, which was weird, but it didn’t last any longer than the cigarette. How do people do a pack a day? How do you find the time? I crossed nicotine off the list. If I wanted the level of energy that I was hoping for, I’d become a human chimney. It’s not worth the lung damage for a temporary solution.

The rest of the list was composed of pills. I’d been told that medicines are easier to get ahold of in Mexico, but there was no pharmacy selling Vicodin or Adderall without a prescription. You could get all the antibiotics you wanted, but that wasn’t going to keep me up. I was disappointed, so I took myself to lunch, it’d already been a long morning of embarassing exploration. As I waited for my food to arrive at the Cafe Bertico, I scrolled through the New York Times

Y’all, if you don’t subscribe to the Times, I’m going to ask you to start immediately. Think what you will about this particular newspaper, it’s hard to deny that it’s one of the most important in the nation. For the past few years, I’ve subscribed to the digital version and part of my morning ritual is to scroll through the articles, read those of interest, and then do the miniature crossword. It makes me feel wise. There was an article in that day’s issue about college kids finding ways to boost their mental acuity using one of a number of what they called “smart drugs.” I was a long suffering college student at the time, even though I was living it up abroad, so I sympathized and empathized immediately. (Don’t mind me, I’m chortling at a private joke.)

The article was life changing, reader. I’m not being hyperbolic either. I don’t know what my life would be like right now if I hadn’t sat down at the Cafe Bertico that afternoon. The author spoke anonymously to different students about their struggle and it took all I had not to scream, “WHAT!? ME TOO!” The students had too much to do and so much that they couldn’t begin to do anything particularly well. This is exactly the issue with a lot of education at any level or proficiency, each class is ignorant of the demands of others. Suddenly you’ve got three research papers for three different classes that all require substantial chunks of your time. It’s criminal. And so the cool kids at the Ivy Leagues had discovered a drug called Modafinil. 

I feel like whoever discovered the chemical process for synthesizing the drug should get a Nobel Peace Prize. Unlike the more common and popular Adderall, Modafinil doesn’t have amphetamines in it that get your heart rate up and your brain buzzing. Instead, blissfully, Modafinil erases the feeling of fatigue and helps you focus. It doesn’t provide laser focus, of course, but it helps your thoughts from wandering. If you’ve taken Adderall you might know the thrill of energy it gives you but the synonymous frustration of being unable to maintain concentration. Modafinil allegedly was the best of both worlds, and reader, I was fascinated. 

And so, while sipping my third coffee of the day, I dove into research about this new and fascinating pill. It’s a controlled substance in the United States and is prohibitively expensive. Apparently, it was developed by the armed forces as a way to help pilots stay conscious and alert for longer missions that could go up to twenty-four hours. (And as an aside, I just read the absolutely fascinating book Drift by Rachel Maddow which is all about the development of America’s military complex. It didn’t used to be like this, and I hadn’t realized just how recently America had become so militarily focused. This nonsense is really just a little older than I am, so it’s all I’ve ever known. Anyway, up until recently, there have been planes flying about with nuclear warheads that are fully prepared to be dropped in the off chance that nuclear war should start and our launch sites are damaged. If this were to happen, the pilots of the planes were supposed to target the enemy since they were likely the last remnants of our armed forces. Isn’t that ghastly? Why don’t we all try a little harder to get along? I’ll get off my soapbox. VOTE BIDEN 2020.) 

Apparently it worked and so the drug was used with almost no side effects. As time went forward, it became better known and students managed to get ahold of it from abroad to help them with their studies. And patients with Multiple Sclerosis have found that it significantly improves their chronic fatigue. Allegedly you can order it online from countries where it isn’t so restricted, but that wasn’t a route that intrigued me. I googled to see if it was available here in Mexico, and reader, let me tell you, I felt a rush of glee run up and down my spine when I found it was. I knew then what my mission for the day was.

This is the kind of travel that fills me with a sense of complete contentment, which might make me a bit odd, but that’s something I accepted decades ago. I love to dive into the real world of a new place. I mean, it’s great to see the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, of course, but there is something truly thrilling about navigating a grocery store in French that makes you feel slightly more brilliant than eating in a cafe next to the Pompidou. Do you know what I mean? If I could get my hands on this pill using only my mediocre Spanish, I felt that it would be a real accomplishment. And so the journey began. 

Pharmacies are legitimately everywhere in Mexico City, and I’m still not fully aware of the differences amongst them though they apparently serve different needs. The one across the street from me had a doctor that you could visit, but they didn’t sell what I wanted. They pointed me to one about a block away. This pharmacy was like a warehouse of medicine. You could see the assistants navigating long narrow aisles of white boxes loaded with pills. It was insane. They didn’t sell what I wanted either. I was perplexed because the Internet had made it seem easy to find, but the pharmacist pointed to another pharmacy across the street from him that I hadn’t even noticed before, so I crossed the street again. 

I assume that I looked like a junkie on the prowl for my next hit of drug. I know nothing about this, but I enjoyed the mental image as I slinked into my third pharmacy of the afternoon. My luck was changing and nobody here looked at me like I was deranged. Instead, the young woman behind the counter and I made small talk in Spanish — I was beaming and thought myself fully fluent — while an entire array of pills was fetched for me from the shelves behind. 

You could buy small boxes and big boxes and you could start a plan and you could buy more drugs that were like these drugs but not those drugs. In the end, I decided on a box that was the equivalent of a month’s supply. It was expensive for Mexico, the conversion was something like fifty American dollars, but that was still laughably cheaper than the price of the generic version in America. Without insurance, the same box of pills would have cost ten times more. Drug prices are ludicrous, y’all. 

I completed the transaction, clutched my bag to my bosom, and darted the half a block back to my apartment. There I unwrapped the pills, studying the mysterious oblong capsules with reverence and fear, reveling in my success. I was ridiculous. But it was too late in the day to indulge in this new discovery, the Internet had made it clear to me that if you take it past about nine o’clock in the morning, you will be up ALL night. I usually am anyway, but I wanted to do this right, so I put my pills next to my arsenal of other medicines, smirked with satisfaction and planned for the morrow, unwittingly I was going to be in a gay pride parade, so I would need all the rest I could get. Gays are exhausting. Trust me. I know. 

Anyway, it’s been awhile now, and I have a prescription for this wonderful drug now from my neurologist. After a ton of calculations and searches, I get my medicine at roughly the same price that I can in Mexico. This is wonderful, of course, and I’m enormously grateful…but it also interfered with my dreams of going to Mexico every six months or so to pick up my pills. I really cherished that thought, reader.

Still, this is more convenient and it’s something that I truly need desperately. My life after this pill is drastically different to the one before it. As Paulina de la Mora says in the final episode of my beloved show, Casa de las Flores, as a mariachi band proudly plays, “Viva Mexico!” Indeed. 

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