Editorial Note: Natalie’s story parts 1 and 2 are by her mother Kristina.
Natalie, celebrating her tenth birthday in 2003, shortly after being prescribed Prozac. Her left eye was starting to show signs of amblyopia, more commonly called “lazy eye.” This adverse drug reaction worsened and was one of many Natalie suffered from unnecessary prescribing. We couldn’t understand how Natalie suddenly developed a “lazy eye.” Today we know: Prozac has unexpected effects on the brain’s vision center.
Our daughter Natalie was a bright, loving and happy child—until age 10. She was emotionally and intellectually mature for her age. By age four she was reading and by age eight had scored in the 99th percentile nationwide on a standardized exam. The school district identified Natalie as “gifted and talented” and placed her in an advanced academics program.
Natalie enjoyed school and excelled. As she transitioned, however, from childhood innocence to a growing realization of the complexities of the world, it became apparent she had an exceptionally sensitive disposition and deep concern about problems beyond her age and capacity. For example, Natalie was alarmed—anxious even—about global warming. She also said she sometimes felt too shy to raise her hand in class or get up to sharpen her pencil.
To help relieve Natalie of mounting anxiety, a close relative, who was also a licensed clinical social worker, recommended therapy. Surprised by the recommendation, I ignored it. However, we decided to try therapy after hearing: “There are images of the brain that show untreated anxiety and depression can permanently change brain development.” In 2003, this information, and the chemical imbalance “theory,” was prevalent teaching in the mental health field. Neither of us knew then that we had been duped.
My children’s wellbeing was a top priority—from prenatal vitamins, to breast feeding to homemade baby food—I strived to promote a healthy start. I would never withhold necessary medical care nor intentionally harm my child’s developing brain. Our military medical insurance covered psychiatry and Natalie’s dad and I chose psychiatry over counseling. We naively thought psychiatrists were better trained to uncover causes for anxiety and develop coping strategies. We never anticipated treatment would include prescription drugs.
Definition of “Thing” (noun): an object that one need not, cannot, or does not wish to give a specific name to.
Natalie, a prolific reader with a witty sense of humor, enjoyed Dr. Seuss. One of our favorite stories, The Cat in The Hat, features odd, destructive characters called Thing One and Thing Two. Uninvited, these “things” enter the house of two children, wreak havoc, and ultimately destroy their home. A similar unanticipated invasion happened to my family, except our true story is a tragedy with no happy ending.
We took Natalie to several doctors with the expectation they would develop a therapeutic, healing relationship with our child. The process and outcome were “things” far different. My family suffered a series of abductions and Natalie was, literally, poisoned by her doctors. First they stole Natalie’s spirit. And in the end they took her life.
Abductor number one: 2003
The psychiatrist recommended Prozac after only a few therapy appointments. She said it was for “OCD-like symptoms,” not for depression. Concerned about the drug, I asked questions and read consumer information from Eli Lilly. The doctor skipped over risks vs. benefits and provided no informed consent. The only Prozac side effect she shared was nausea and vomiting, symptoms Natalie soon experienced. The doctor said it might be caused by Prozac but would likely subside.
At this time SSRIs had no Black Box warning—despite that, years before my child was even conceived, the FDA and drug manufacturers knew SSRIs cause akathisia and death.
Natalie’s personality and happy, compassionate spirit quickly changed. She was increasingly anxious and agitated, withdrawn and apathetic, and developed new fears and obsessions. In mid-2004, Natalie began cutting her eyebrows and had light cuts on her arm from a paperclip. Alarmed, I immediately called the doctor. Her response was to increase the Prozac dose. Twice.
Critical info withheld
What the psychiatrist did NOT do was share the new March 22, 2004, FDA advisory sent to doctors. It warned that SSRIs pose life-threatening risks to children. In October 2004 another mother—a teacher like me who also lived in the Washington, D.C. suburbs—had recently lost her 12-year-old daughter, Candace Downing, to Zoloft prescripticide. After Candace’s family, and many others, pressured the FDA, the FDA belatedly released an SSRI Black Box warning. But we remained unaware.
Had Abductor Number One responsibly shared this new critical info, Natalie’s story would end here. But she did not.
It never occurred to us during Natalie’s “treatment” to ask the doctor if the drug she prescribed was now identified as dangerous. We didn’t think to ask the pharmacists the same question. We wrongly assumed Natalie’s well-paid doctor and the pharmacy was required to provide such critical information. Few consumers could fathom that the FDA allows serious Black Box warnings to be printed in tiny type, buried inside an envelope most consumers routinely discard. Why doesn’t the FDA require large, bold-print warnings on the outside packaging, as they require for tobacco products?
Clearly communicating Black Box warnings wasn’t a priority then and isn’t today. The number of consumers suffering from akathisia, the adverse drug reaction that often precipitates fatal harm to one’s self and others (prescripticides) is greater than reported. Yet, organizations such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention still don’t adequately communicate Black Box warnings and never even mention akathisia.
The lost summer
Still left in the dark, we continued “therapy” and the doctor’s drug of choice. The close parent-child relationship we enjoyed with Natalie was disintegrating. She now viewed us as “mean and unfair.” Natalie also lost her ability to participate in physical activities. Her fifth-grade diary reflects she felt uncoordinated, “couldn’t catch a ball,” and was often “the last person picked” for sports teams. This was significant given that Natalie previously showed excellent fine motor skills and happily out-climbed friends at the rock climbing wall.
Natalie’s doctor started offering new diagnostic guesses. They included borderline personality disorder, emotional lability, OCD and manic depression. She diligently updated her charts, but didn’t update us with new Prozac information. Natalie’s symptoms were far more serious than her original presenting symptom of anxiety.
Desperate—and not knowing better—we continued to trust the doctor. The doctor continued to trust her drug rep and their treatment: The psychiatrist could not consider that Natalie’s evolving symptoms were the result of the doctor’s own pharmacological interventions.
In early summer 2005, Natalie was directed to “take a medication holiday” to see how she does without Prozac. Despite that information was available to doctors stating SSRIs should be slowly tapered, Natalie’s doctor provided no such direction.
Unless one is a sadist who equates fun with a 10-day stay in a mental hospital, following the doctor’s advice was far from a holiday. Days after stopping Prozac, Natalie flatly declared, “Mom, I would kill myself if I could. But I know I can’t, so I won’t.” During my frantic drive to the hospital, I was terrified thinking my 11-year-old daughter might jump out of the van along the way.
Abductor number two: 2005
The hospital conducted an interview and asked Natalie to share her feelings. She wrote: “I wish I could stop thinking about wanting to kill myself.”
We didn’t want to leave our daughter in the care of strangers, but there seemed no choice. Natalie showed little emotion and appeared to view us distantly. She shook uncontrollably. I requested extra blankets before tucking her in bed because I thought Natalie was cold. The hospital wouldn’t allow us to stay by Natalie’s bedside.
We didn’t know Natalie was suffering from Prozac-induced psychosis and Serotonin Toxicity. The hospital doctors didn’t know this, either.
Abductor Number Two, the hospital psychiatrist, called to declare Natalie needed more drugs in addition to restarting Prozac. I said I first needed more information about Risperdal before approving. I was, therefore, labeled a problem parent. Hospital records sharply criticized me. Despite being told that Natalie’s doctor had abruptly stopped Prozac, the hospital falsely charted patient had been “noncompliant.” It was soon apparent the social worker believed Natalie’s suicidality was likely caused by Natalie’s mom and “family dynamics.”
Not fully realizing Natalie’s first psychiatrist had caused Natalie’s deterioration, I called her about Risperdal. She provided little information. I then pleaded, mother-to-mother: “Would you give your child Risperdal if you were me?” The psychiatrist, who was also a trained lawyer, coolly replied, “I don’t answer hypothetical questions.” She did, however, state Natalie would benefit from daily therapy with her.
Ten days later, we left the hospital with no informed consent, no Black Box warning info, and no acknowledgement that Prozac could have even possibly caused Natalie’s life-threatening symptoms. But they didn’t leave us empty-handed: Risperdal was thrown into their cauldron.
Natalie spent her sixth-grade summer taking two dangerous drugs for an illness she never had. We were told if she didn’t take the drugs, she might again become suicidal. The doctors’ potions turned Natalie into a lethargic zombie. By September, Natalie’s 11-year-old body had changed from a petite, thin girl into that of a pear-shaped, woman. Natalie was quite distressed to see her now fat body covered with permanent, Risperdal stretch marks.
We discontinued the drugs and thought our family would soon return to normal—the way we were before we came in contact with psychiatry.
Rollercoaster of withdrawal: 2005-2009
We never fully got our daughter back. Our innocent little girl was damaged in mind, body and spirit. Suffering long-term adverse drug reactions, Natalie also faced the stigma of being mislabeled “emotionally disabled.” She tried to joke about it, saying “I went from gifted and talented to special ed.”
Nevertheless, Natalie strived to live a full life. During middle school she went on trips, earned good grades, attended camp, etc. But periods of normalcy were interspersed with periods of prolonged “depression” and anxiety. We did all we knew to do to reclaim Natalie’s happy spirit. She started talk therapy with a social worker in private practice. Unfortunately, this counselor was unfamiliar with tardive dysphoria, which is antidepressant-induced chronic depression. As were we.
Continued in Part 2.