She Watches Eli Lilly at Midnight

Perhaps the endless crush of headlines and hyperlinks had simply left her nerves permanently garbled.

From the rooftop of a cheap hotel stained with weather and time, a woman gazes across the city at the global headquarters of Eli Lilly & Company. She sits in a rusted folding chair that somebody dragged up here long ago, her body jackknifed with her elbows on her knees as she watches the red Lilly logo glowing on the horizon, a florid cursive mark that is probably Mr. Lilly’s signature although it looks rather dainty, better suited for a brand of low-fat cookies or department store perfume than a major pharmaceutical manufacturer that profits from tinkering with people’s souls. She stares at this chipper red signature for hours, watching it like a television show, waiting for a signal or a sign.

She did not know what she expected to find in Indianapolis, only that she felt compelled to climb up to this rooftop and sit in an uncomfortable chair next to the exhaust of a prehistoric ventilation unit, where she watches Eli Lilly’s headquarters sleep through the night while she pieces together the things she wants to tell the people who work inside. Silhouetted against the dark, the compound’s staggered slabs of concrete and glass look like the nation’s brain stem, quietly discharging the chemicals that modulate its moods. Her journey to this rooftop was patchy. Yesterday she was pacing her kitchen in Dallas and now she is here, the heat and rattle of the interstate still in her bones after a mad fifteen-hour drive without sleep because she suffers from moderate to severe insomnia, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic attacks that crash upon her like cold waves. Doctors have been telling her that she needed medication for years, starting back in 1996 when she drove herself to the emergency room because she believed she was having a heart attack, stroke, and losing her mind all at the same time. The doctors said her neurotransmitters weren’t broadcasting the right signals, that her receptors weren’t receiving. This is when she began imagining her brain as a mesh of radio waves, a landscape of antennas with faint concentric circles pulsing through the nighttime murk of her thoughts. Perhaps it was inevitable that she would end up on a rooftop.

Trembling hands. Racing heartbeat. Blurry vision. Paresthesia of the limbs. The doctors recited these symptoms to her in liturgical tones, but they did not talk about the frightening sense of self-consciousness, the crackle of her noisy head, the painful awareness of the sides of her face or the shadow of her nose, the overheated sensation of feeling too alive which, oddly, led her to worry that she had died, that she had become a ghost—at which point she would hyperventilate and pull at her hair until a nurse administered a blessed intravenous drip of an Eli Lilly product. The hospital released her with clean blood work and a referral to a psychiatrist, which she tossed in the trash. Others might be depressed, but not her. She raised two children 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 emergency room, however, she finally called the number on her sixth referral slip and made an appointment. She expected to answer questions about her mother or decipher sexualized ink blots. Instead, the psychiatrist used words like ‘depersonalization’ and ‘hyper-vigilance’ and, twelve minutes later, handed her a prescription for twenty milligrams of another Eli Lilly product. “You boiled my soul down to dopamine and serotonin like I’m a goddamned chemistry set,” she whispers to Lilly’s name on the horizon.

She decides not to bring a weapon tomorrow. So long as she is polite and reasonable, they will speak with her.

Born in 1838, Eli Lilly served in the Civil War as a Union colonel. He was captured in Alabama and held as a prisoner of war. After his release, he settled in Mississippi and attempted to run a plantation until his wife succumbed to malaria. Reeling from her death, he returned to his hometown of Indianapolis and opened a pharmacy, throwing himself into developing gelatin capsules for the effective administration of quinine, the alkaloid that cures malaria. In an age of useless and oftentimes dangerous tonics and elixirs, Lilly’s rigorous scientific approach quickly distinguished his medicines and made him very wealthy. Recognizing the potential for the abuse of his products, he pioneered the practice of prescriptions and advocated for the federal regulation of pharmaceuticals. Powerful men encouraged him to run for governor, but he shunned politics in favor of charity, feeding the poor and investing heavily in his city’s infrastructure.

By all accounts, Lilly was a good man, as was his son Josiah, who rushed medicine to the victims of the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake in 1906 and standardized the production of insulin in 1923. Twenty years later, Lilly’s grandson introduced penicillin and in 1953, he developed secobarbital, the red devils and dolls that claimed the lives of Judy Garland, Jimi Hendrix, etc until it was pulled from the market in 2001. Today it is used for euthanizing horses and livestock. In 1972, Lilly’s researchers discovered a new chemical that had a therapeutic effect on patients suffering from inner agitation by modulating the levels of serotonin in the brain. When it was brought to market in the 1980s, Prozac revolutionized the treatment of mental illness and became a pop-culture phenomenon. Today Eli Lilly & Company makes billions of dollars selling pills for erections (Cialis), kicking heroin and opiates (Methadone), futzing with the pituitary glands of cows (bovine growth hormone), and, of course, depression (Cymbalta and Prozac).

After nine weeks on Prozac, her panic subsided yet she felt tamped down and muted. Rich purple rings appeared beneath her eyes because sleep was fitful due to vivid nightmares (side-effect #12), her hands trembled constantly (side-effect #7), and she no longer thought of herself as a sexual being (side effect #2). Although Prozac kept her from climbing out of her skin, she feared it was rearranging her soul. Rocking in the folding chair, she wonders if her panic attacks were a perfectly rational response to the modern world. Perhaps the endless crush of headlines and hyperlinks about gunshots, terror alerts, and celebrity temper tantrums had simply left her nerves permanently garbled. Maybe she should take up meditation and go vegan. Yet she also sensed that her internal weather went beyond diet and habit, the way each morning she woke up feeling like a neglected character in somebody else’s movie, unable to brush her teeth or fix a glass of water. 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? And there was always the reassurance of numbers: Nearly 12% of Americans eat anti-depressants every day. She’d met with eight different shrinks in five years and each of them had immediately recommended Prozac or one of its descendants without explanation—but what could they say? How do you measure inner agitation? This is why she decided to skip the doctors and go straight to the source. Eli Lilly & Company must have hard drives, file cabinets, ledger books, and instructional films stuffed with information they weren’t sharing with everybody. Information that might answer her question once and for all: Was she a human being with a soul or a chemistry experiment?

Tomorrow she will walk into that building and demand some answers.

This story was featured in The Future Past exhibition curated by art+space on the grounds of the Central State asylum in Indianapolis. The original version of this story appeared in The Manufactured History of Indianapolis, a collection of fables produced as part of a writer’s residency sponsored by We Are City.

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