Recently I found myself under a pile of used tissues, cough drop wrappers, and empty foil medication packets. I had a sinus infection and was determined not to let it deter me from my social schedule. I dragged my pajama-ed self out of bed, drove to the nearest CVS, and pondered the array of ways to self-medicate yourself.
I am someone who takes three aspirin when I feel the rumble of a headache coming on. I down cough and flu pills like candy when I get a tickle in my throat during cold season. I chug Pepto Bismol’s nasty pink chalk when my stomach feels like it’s fighting a UFC Heavyweight competition.
I like browsing the medication aisles of the grocery store or pharmacy–scrutinizing all the clever names pharmaceutical company’s come up with to suck you in: “Cold Eez,” “Theraflu,” or those cute teddy bear-shaped medicinal lollipops you give to your unsuspecting kids. I like to be able to compare boxes with my symptoms and walk away knowing I beat the “system” and really chose the right kind of fix for my pain. I like saying no to body aches and yes to sinus congestion. I like being able to buy the cheaper box if I’m strapped for cash…
Most of all, I like having dozens and dozens of choices. It makes me feel powerful. It makes me feel like I’m playing my part in a world of advertising and commercialization. Maybe I don’t like the way those little animated blobs of green mucus make fun of my congestion. Maybe I do like the way that lady sighs after consuming a steaming hot mug of Theraflu.
When I was in London this summer, however, my little bubble of power had a pin taken to it. British pharmacies carry a minimal selection of over-the-counter choices. None of them look particularly trustworthy (gimmicky packaging and few symptoms are addressed), most are geared specifically towards hay fever, and in order to actually find out which is best for you, you must speak with a pharmacist. Now, given that the pharmacies in England operate on a more personal level similar to America’s doctor’s offices, British people only go to the doctor for something serious. Trifling colds, flus, and infections are dealt with at your nearest Boots location. To an American girl like me, it was unsettling.
One of my last days in London I tried desperately to find something–anything–similar to Dramamine. Having a horrible proclivity to motion sickness, I had run out of my supply I brought over from America on the many trains, planes, and bumpy bus rides. My eight-hour return flight loomed in the horizon and I knew that without some medicinal sedation pumping through my system I would be a real mess. So I went to Boots.
It took me ten minutes to even find the over-the-counter meds. A tiny section of maybe three brands of cough/pain meds, two flavors of cough drops, and all manner of “trapped wind” relief you could dream of. Nothing for motion sickness. I found the pharmacist and the usual (or unusual since technically we were both speaking English) language barrier became evident. I asked for something for “motion sickness” which garnered a shake of the head and a confuddled expression. Then I tried to explain what motion sickness was (much harder than you think it would be) and finally the pharmacist mentioned “travel sickness” (umm, duh?). This conversation took about ten minutes for us to agree that I meant travel sickness. This realization led the pharmacist to bring out a clipboard with a list of ten to twelve bizarre questions (what is your eye color? natural hair color? how well do you tan in the summer? etc) that finally led to him producing a package of generic-looking travel sickness pills. The process took so much longer than it should have and I walked away hoping that the package he gave me was actually going to work.
The problem I had with the whole ordeal was that it made me question things I normally wouldn’t have even thought about. I buy Dramamine because it’s a generic, well-known medicine. I don’t know how strong it is, if there’s something stronger out there, or what side-effects it has because it has always just worked. Walking out of Boots I wondered if my answers to that questionnaire would have given me some low-dose travel medication. I wondered if I should have played up my problem to be given something stronger. The minute the decision was taken out of my hands, as the consumer, I was angry and questioning.
As Americans we are used to being self-sufficient. We are used to being responsible for our own decisions, at least when we are able to make the decisions. And if we’re still unsatisfied, we can always blame the company for false advertising. But when that choice is taken from us, we are left to trust another human being. A being who doesn’t know us, who doesn’t feel our pain. A stranger who doesn’t sit in a sterile smelling room with a medical diploma on the wall next to his four kids and a dog. We’ve come to rely so much on ourselves that we have a hard time accepting outside opinions. We’ve become so comfortable with our aisles and aisles of choices that we expect them stocked, ordered, and abundant. Choice is the American Dream.