Edith Beach Watches Eli Lilly at Midnight


On a rooftop in Indianapolis

From the rooftop of a fifteen story building, a thirty-eight year old woman named Edith Beach gazed across the city at the global headquarters of Eli Lilly & Co. Hugging her chest and nearly doubled-over in a beat-up kitchen chair, she leaned forward and watched the glowing red Lilly logo on the horizon, a florid cursive mark that was perhaps Eli’s signature although it looked unnaturally chipper and feminine, more like a brand of easy bake muffins or department store perfume than a major pharmaceutical manufacturer that tinkered with people’s souls. Edith stared hard at this happy red signature as if she were waiting for some kind of information.

She did not know what she expected to find in Indianapolis, only that it felt right to come up here each evening and sit in this chair next to a prehistoric heating or ventilating unit and watch Eli Lilly’s headquarters sleep through the night while she pieced together the things she wanted to tell the people inside. Hulking in the dark, the slabs of staggered cement and glass looked like the nation’s brain stem, quietly secreting the chemicals that modulated its moods. Edith’s memory of the journey to this rooftop was patchy, a mad fifteen hour drive from Dallas starting at midnight and ending the following afternoon, a straight shot without any sleep because Edith suffered from moderate to severe insomnia, generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks that crashed upon her like cold waves, and most likely clinical depression. Doctors had been telling her this for years, starting back in 1996 when she checked herself into the emergency room because she believed was having a heart attack, stroke, and losing her mind all at the same time.

Trembling hands, racing heartbeat, blurry vision, paresthesia of the limbs, and a frightening sense of self-consciousness, the crackle of her noisy head, the sides of her face, the shadow of her nose, the tension in her neck, the sensation of being too alive or perhaps a ghost at which point she began hyperventilating and pulling at her hair until a nurse administered a blessed intravenous drip of diazepam aka Valium and a few hours later she was released with clean blood work and a referral to a psychiatrist, which she tossed in the trash. Others might be depressed but not Edith. She raised two children pretty much by herself while working as an editor for the Star-Telegram, ran two marathons, and ate whole grains. She kept her car tidy and wore matching outfits. She was not mentally ill. After her fourth trip to the hospital in 1998, however, she finally called the number on her sixth referral slip and made an appointment. After a twelve-minute consultation, the psychiatrist used words like ‘depersonalization’ and ‘hyper-vigilance’ and handed Edith a prescription for twenty milligrams of fluoxetine aka Prozac.

She decided not to bring a weapon tomorrow. So long as she was polite and reasonable, they would speak with her.

Born in 1838, Eli Lilly served in the Civil War as a Union colonel. In Alabama, he was captured and held as a prisoner of war. Upon his release, he settled in Mississippi where he attempted to run a plantation. After his wife succumbed to malaria in 1866, Lilly returned to his hometown of Indianapolis and opened a pharmacy. Reeling from his wife’s death, Lilly threw all of his energy and money into developing gelatin-coated capsules for the effective administration of quinine, a crystalline alkaloid that cures malaria. Applying a rigorous scientific approach to drugs in an age of erratic and oftentimes dangerous tonics and patent medicines quickly made Lilly wealthy. Recognizing the potential for abuse of his products, he pioneered the practice of prescriptions and advocated for federal regulation of pharmaceuticals. After earning his first million dollars, Lilly became an extraordinarily effective philanthropist, providing food and shelter to the poor and investing heavily in city infrastructure. Many bigwigs encouraged him to run for governor, but he refused politics in favor of focusing on charity.

By all accounts, Lilly was a good man as was his son, Josiah, who rushed medicine to the victims of the catastrophic 1906 San Francisco earthquake and standardized and mass-produced insulin in 1923. Lilly’s grandson introduced penicillin in 1943 and a decade later, he developed secobarbital aka Seconal aka ‘red devils’ aka the heavily-abused ‘dolls’ of the 1960s and 1970s that claimed the lives of Judy Garland, Jimi Hendrix, etc and was pulled from the market in 2001 although it is still used for euthanizing horses and livestock. In 1972, researchers discovered that fluoxetine had a therapeutic effect on patients with clinical depression and inner agitation by modulating the levels of serotonin in the brain. When it was brought to market in the mid-1980s, Prozac revolutionized the treatment of mental illness and became a pop-culture phenomenon. Today Eli Lilly & Co. makes billions selling pills for erections (Cialis), kicking heroin and opium (Methadone), screwing with a cow’s pituitary gland (BGH), and depression (Cymbalta and Prozac).

After four weeks on Prozac, Edith’s panic disappeared yet she felt tamped down, compressed somehow. Rich dark rings appeared under her eyes because sleep was fitful due to vivid nightmares (side-effect #12) and her hands trembled constantly (side-effect #7) and she no longer thought of herself as a sexual being (side effect #2). Maybe she didn’t need this drug, she thought, rocking in the chair with a headful of colliding beliefs. Perhaps the endless crush of daily chatter and hyperlinks had simply scrambled her brain. She ought to take up meditation and go vegan. Although Prozac kept her from climbing out of her skin, it was doing something to her soul. No, this internal weather was chemical. It was a disease, the way each morning she’d wake up feeling unreal, crumbling inside, waiting for somebody to give her instructions. Was this not an illness as real as malaria, diabetes, or syphilis? So why shouldn’t she place her faith in the corporation that had treated these diseases with quinine, diabetes, and penicillin? After all, nearly 12% of Americans eat anti-depressants each day. She’d met with eight different shrinks in five years and each of them had immediately recommended Prozac or one of its modern descendants. So to hell with the drug-pushing doctors, why not go straight to the source? She knew Eli Lilly & Co. must have hard drives and file cabinets stuffed with research and studies they weren’t sharing with everybody. Was she a free-willed human being with a soul or a chemistry experiment?

Tomorrow Edith would walk into that building and demand some answers.