Volume 17 • Issue 24 | Nov. 5 - Nov. 12, 2004

The Penny Post

The perils of memory meds

By Andrei Codrescu

When I was young I was never tempted to undergo any kind of clinical trial, even if it paid a hundred dollars a day. I gave blood several times, but the pay kept going down. The first time they paid me $20 and fed me a steak. After that, it oscillated between $10 and $15 and no steak. I was once desperate enough to try a sperm bank, but what happened there was funny enough (in retrospect) to write about in my first autobiographical novel, “The Life and the Times of an Involuntary Genius,” published when I was 26 years old. Read it in there, I was funnier back then. (And I remembered more).

Last month in Memphis, Tennessee, I met a doctor who specializes in Alzheimer’s Disease and is conducting trials of a new drug called Namenda. I was complaining to her about how I was starting to have trouble remembering things like the names of my books and what happened in them, like the sperm bank, and she said that Namenda was doing wonders for Alzheimer’s patients with dementia, and that it was being tested on younger people, too, who needed more clarity and focus. So I signed up. She gave me a book of pills with instructions on each row and a long list of things to take with them, like mega-doses of Vitamins C and E. I took my first one as soon as I remembered that I’d gotten them, the very next week. After I took the pill and the vitamin sidekicks I sat down in an armchair and waited for my childhood to come back to me. There were a few spots there, involving my mother and the police — that interested me for literary reasons. Nothing happened. My head felt a little funny, like there was a wisp of mustard gas making its way to my third eye, but I put it down to psychosomatics. I read again about how the drug worked and from what I could see it sent some kind of medicine into a tangled web of fibrillary nerves responsible for amnesia.

Next day I took the second dose and felt a preternatural clarity as if a cleansing rain had washed everything, including the armchair and the trees out the window, I still couldn’t remember much, but I had focus on the things right in front of me. These things said to me, and I repeat: “We are here. Don’t worry about us. We aren’t going anywhere.” That was comforting for some reason, but in the evening the mustard gas came back and I felt that all the nerves in my skull had been husked back by a spider. I was sure that my head was going to lift off my shoulder. I took a Xanax.

Next day I went to teach class on my third dose of Namenda and as soon as I saw my students I felt like crying and not just crying but also telling the truth. I couldn’t help it. I told them everything I thought was wrong with their assignments and I gave them some bleak assessments of the future. Giving blood and sperm banks were nothing compared to what they had to do in the future to earn a living as writers. After class, I thought about curling up like a snail inside an old tire and waiting there for the mood to pass.

I wrote the doctor that I was quitting and described my symptoms. Such symptoms had never before been noted by anyone. That may be, but I now remember why I never take any medicine unless I’m sure that I’m totally dying.


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