From Heath Ledger to Michael Jackson and DJ AM, the media has recently been flooded with tragic deaths related to prescription drug misuse. Meanwhile, the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 48 million Americans — nearly 20 percent of the country’s population — have abused prescription meds. But despite the shocking stats and high-profile celebrity deaths, pill abuse is only now coming to the forefront as a serious issue.

Writer Joshua Lyon became hooked on painkillers in 2003, while researching an article about purchasing prescription drugs over the Internet for the now defunct Jane Magazine. In his new book, Pill Head: The Secret Life of a Painkiller Addict (Hyperion, July 2009), he chronicles his own multiyear struggle to overcome addiction and profiles the lives of several other people plagued by their dependency.

I recently sat down with Lyon to hear his thoughts on the mammoth, disturbing world of rogue Internet pharmacies, America’s casualties in the war on drugs, and finding the courage to finally put the cap on addiction.  

MNN: What were the biggest surprises you discovered in researching your book?

Joshua Lyon: The most surprising thing is how widespread this issue is, and that it has largely stayed a silent epidemic. There is this overarching sense that prescription drugs are not a serious issue — but literally everyone I spoke to was either directly impacted by prescription meds, or knew a close family member or friend who was struggling with them.

What range of responses have you received since the book came out last July?

Thankfully, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. I get a lot of e-mails through my Website where people really open up. I’ve been struck by how almost every story I hear is parallel to mine. The range of emotions has been similar and also the trajectory — how [prescription pill abuse] starts out so casual and small and eventually causes someone to check out from life around them.

Meanwhile, the same joke always seems to come up when I do guest spots on radio or television shows. One of the show’s assistants will find out why I’m there and will ask, “Oh, do you have any pills left for me?” That constantly shocks me. If I were there to talk about kicking a heroin addiction, no one would ever ask me that.

What about the response from family and loved ones?

I’ve found that it is taking a lot longer than I thought to regain people’s trust. I’ve been clean for a year and a half, but when people realize how easy it was for me to manipulate situations and lie about being sober, there’s a lot of room for doubt.

The day after Halloween my older sister and I were chatting and she said, “What is going on with your eyes?” I had eyeliner left on from my costume that made my eyes look sunken in, and her immediate assumption was I was using again. I don’t blame her though. I’ve realized that it really just takes time, and the more I reach out to people about moments of weakness, the better it is.

You write that, in 2004 more people were using painkillers recreationally for the first time than using pot or cocaine combined. How do you think this shift toward prescription drugs is changing drug culture in America?

Because of the lack of stigma around prescription drugs, it is much more acceptable than other drugs. Nobody bats an eyelash at work if you take a Vicodin. I’m not sure what it will take for this to become a serious issue. It turns out Michael Jackson didn’t die solely of painkillers, but at first I thought that might be a big factor.  

Have the DEA’s attempts to crack down on illegal Internet pharmacies been at all effective?

From the research I’ve done, it seems that it has become harder to buy drugs online than it used to be.

But the companies themselves still exist, right?

Oh definitely. I still get voicemails from pharmacies all the time. If your number is on their list, they cold call you. And sadly, it is more effective because if they catch someone on an off-day and ask if they want a refill, it is a lot harder to say no.  

And are the pills they sell all diverted or stolen from legal manufacturers, or are some of them now being made illegally?

It depends. If a pharmacy is hooked into some illegal network, they are most likely selling pills that have been made illegally, often in another country. You can actually buy pill-stamping machines now. It’s scary because there is a presumed safety around taking prescription pills. People think that they are getting clean, safe medication. But now that’s not for certain. It’s the same thing as buying a bag of coke and having no idea if it’s pure or if something has been cut into it.

Still, you are very careful in the book not to demonize the pills themselves. Why?

There was a lot of reactionary talk right after Michael Jackson died about banning Vicodin and Percocet. But I strongly believe that the drugs should be there for the people who really need them.

I also can’t stand the way doctors are being witch-hunted these days. After the numbers came out and the DEA suddenly realized how widespread an issue this was, they needed something quick and easy to target. They figured the easiest way to bust people was to target the doctors prescribing medicines. But that’s a huge mistake. Sure there are some bad apples, but everybody reacts differently to different prescriptions, and the DEA has no idea what an individual’s illness actually is.

My whole problem across the board is that whenever you’re talking about someone selling drugs or using drugs, they are automatically the bad guy. I’m all about humanizing that conversation.

The government’s “Just Say No” education platforms have largely failed. What might be a better way to educate younger generations about prescription pill abuse?

I think any kind of awareness is good, but it’s never enough to go the sound byte “Just Say No” route. As a former rebellious kid, I know that there are always going to be people who mess with that. It needs to be more about self-esteem building, trying to address problems about cliques and social dynamics in schools, and paying attention to what goes on at home. I don’t have all the answers, but the current model clearly isn’t working. The numbers keep going up.

I’m also torn about the creation of anti-addiction vaccines that would stop your body from having any response to certain drugs. A lot of people are saying that they are the future in the war on drugs, but you can’t take away someone’s addiction personality. I don’t mean to sound bitter, but if it’s not cocaine or heroin, they will find something else to be addicted to.

What are your hopes for the book, and for people’s awareness about prescription drugs?

I really hope that, across the board, people stop thinking that prescription pills are a safer alternative. They can be just as dangerous as a bag of cocaine.

And on a personal level, I hope that people can start living happier and fuller lives so they don’t feel this need to check out. Of course, I don’t think this is going to happen in the next five to 10 years. But what I hope the book can do is reach out to some of these people who are in the same place I was two or three years ago. When you are in that bubble world, you think you are the only one. I want people to realize that they are not so alone.