Some folks decide not take their medications. I was one of them. Big mistake.

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“Drugs don’t work in patients who don’t take them,” former surgeon general C. Everett Koop once said. It reminded me of how vexed I became when my father swore that he’d taken his blood pressure meds but had actually spit them into the toilet — which he forgot to flush, and which is where I found them.

That afternoon, with Dad’s systolic blood pressure at 180, in the danger zone, I had to call 911.

“We’re sending out an ambulance,” the operator told me. “He’s a likely candidate for a major stroke.” The paramedics rushed to the apartment and confirmed the dangerously high reading. At that point, Dad confessed what I already knew: He hadn’t been taking his blood pressure medication after all.

As for my mom, I heard her tell the same baldfaced lie to her doctor time and again. “Mrs. Petrow, you’re not smoking, are you?” “Of course not,” she’d tell him. And then once home she’d go to her desk and pull out a deck of cards, as though intending to play solitaire. There were no cards, only cigarettes in the box. It bothered her not a whit that she lied outright to her doctor about her single biggest health risk. And yes, she was hiding her smoking habit from all of us.

My parents were hardly ­outliers.

People are notorious for fibbing to their doctors, and for not following their instructions. Studies have shown that, among older folks, 20 to 30 percent of all prescriptions are never filled and nearly half of all drugs for chronic conditions aren’t taken as prescribed. Among those who do take them, they typically take only half of what the doctor prescribed, if they remember to take them at all. Sometimes they (or I should I say we?) will use an old prescription or borrow someone else’s — without telling the doctor.

All kinds of reasons exist for this lack of compliance. Some of us just don’t believe in taking medications, even for serious illness. Others believe we don’t need to take them if we’re feeling okay, or that they’re just too costly (and let’s be honest, depending on your health insurance, they can be prohibitively expensive).

Some of my own friends confessed to me that they are among the noncompliant — and don’t tell their doctors that they’re not following the prescriptions. A colleague blamed his memory:

“I used to forget my blood pressure meds, but I started feeling buzzy headed, so I’m more careful now.”

Then she stopped taking her anti-seizure medication and had a stroke: “I hated being confined during the immediate stroke recovery and didn’t ever want that again, so I always take my anti-seizure meds.”

That’s a tough way to learn this lesson. This lack of compliance (or what’s also called adherence) can be deadly, totaling about 125,000 lost lives a year and as much as 10 percent of hospitalizations, ­according to some estimates.

Yes, I challenged my father to be more truthful with his doctors, acting as though I were a paragon of virtue, or of adherence, in this case.

“You’re only hurting yourself by skipping doses and not telling us,” I lectured him. Self-righteous when it came to his medication regimen, I paid scant attention to my own mixed compliance record. At 63, I have a pharmacopeia of drugs in my medicine cabinet: Lipitor, Zetia, Niaspan, and baby aspirin; I take all of them every night, as prescribed by my cardiologist, for cardiovascular disease. I also swallow a daily ­Lexapro (for depression). And when needed, I’ll pop a blue Sonata (for sleeplessness) or Klonopin (for anxiety), which — depending on the dose — come in many pretty colors: blue, yellow, white, green and orange.

Whenever my doctors have asked me if I were taking all my medications, I’ve answered, “Yes.” I wanted to be seen as a good patient. I did not want to be judged. But in reality, at the end of the month I’d skip days to stretch out an expensive prescription.

For instance, all those heart drugs cost me hundreds of dollars a month combined. “What real difference could a short drug holiday make?” I’d say to myself.

When I confided this to a friend, she admitted one of her drugs costs $477 per month, so she’d skip a week at a time. Another friend told me that her father stretched his blood pressure meds by taking them only every other day instead of every day. It was a great little money-saver, until he died of a massive — and what she thought was likely a preventable — heart attack.

Experts say that it’s not uncommon for people to act as their own doctors, for instance halting a medication for a while to see whether they’d feel differently. And if they don’t, they may stop taking it altogether. The problem, they say, is that for some conditions like high blood pressure or heart disease, the consequences may not show up at first — or for a long while, but then could be life-threatening.

I understood that, but I also thought I knew my body well enough to avoid any serious difficulties if I wanted to tamper with the dosage of my daily antidepressant. Like many people who take SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which include Prozac, Zoloft, and Lexapro), I’d begun to experience sexual side effects that can wreak havoc in the bedroom.

“It can affect desire, arousal, and orgasm,” says David Hellerstein, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. I had some issues in that department already, and I didn’t need another. So, without consulting my doctor, I cut my dose.

The only way I can describe what happened is this: Several days into my self-prescribed reduced dose, a trapdoor opened in my mind, and I fell into the darkest hole of depression. Sure, I’d previously read online that when medications like Lexapro are suddenly stopped, you can experience “very serious emotional and physical symptoms.” But I never expected to have just about all of them: anxiety, agitation, panic, suicidal ideation, depression, irritability, anger, mania, and bizarre sensations like brain zaps, pins and needles, ringing in the ears and hypersensitivity to sound. And it never occurred to me that a mere reduction, not a full stop, would trigger this cascade of emotions and side effects.

I called my doctor, who told me to go back to my previous dosage right away. It took me two weeks to regain my mental equilibrium.

I now understand what drove me — and drives countless others — to nonadherence. Taking four or five pills every day reminds me of my chronic health conditions. When I look at myself in the bathroom mirror, I see a healthy and vigorous guy. When I open the medicine cabinet, however, I see someone who has heart disease, suffers from depression and anxiety, and often can’t sleep.

“Medications remind people that they’re sick. Who wants to be sick?” a friend with heart disease says he told his doctor when asked why he wasn’t following doctor’s orders. And it’s not like an antibiotic that you might take for seven or 10 days; these medications are often for life.

Having witnessed firsthand what can happen when you play doctor on your own life, I now have a seven-day pill organizer to keep me on track. When I’m tempted to skip doses, I remember that I’d find myself face-to-face with the incriminating evidence — the pills I should have taken — the next time I open my organizer. At the very least, it’s a reminder. So, too, is the stroke my dad nearly had when he lied to his doctor about taking his blood pressure meds.

So here’s my note to self: From here on out, I will remember that my doctors have something I don’t — a medical degree — and that being honest with them is what’s best for me in the long run (and makes it more likely that I will have a long run).

Adapted from “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old: A Highly Judgmental, Unapologetically Honest Accounting of All the Things Our Elders Are Doing Wrong,” by Steven Petrow. (Kensington Books)

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