By Kim Witczak
My life used to look very different back in 2003 than it does today. I was married to my best friend, had a successful career in advertising and was planning to have a family. However, all that changed with one phone call. On August 6, 2003, I became a widow. Woody, my husband of almost 10 years, was found hanging from the rafters of our garage. He was dead at age 37.
Woody wasn’t depressed, nor did he have a history of depression or any other mental illness.
Woody was outgoing, gregarious, smart and had a huge personality. He had just started his dream job as vice president of sales at a start-up company 2 months prior and started having trouble sleeping, which is not uncommon for entrepreneurs. So Woody went to see his family doctor, whom he trusted implicitly, and was given samples of the antidepressant Zoloft for insomnia. His doctor said Zoloft (sertraline) would take the edge off and help Woody sleep. Five weeks later, he was dead.
The 3-week Pfizer-supplied sample pack that Woody came home with doubled the dose from 25 to 50 mg after week 1. No cautionary warning was given to him or me about the need to be closely monitored when first going on the drug or dosage changes. In fact, I was out of the country on business for the first 3 weeks he was on the drug.
Shortly before he died, I found Woody curled up in the fetal position on the kitchen floor
Within days, Woody experienced many side effects, like profuse night sweats, diarrhea and worsened insomnia. He also experienced others, like akathisia (restlessness and an inability to stand still) that were known to Pfizer but not to Woody, his doctor or his family. Shortly before he died, I found Woody curled up in the fetal position on the kitchen floor, holding his head like a vice, crying, “Help me, help me. I don’t know what is happening to me. I am losing my mind. It’s like my head is outside my body looking in.”
We calmed him down and he called his doctor, who said you need to give it 4 to 6 weeks for the drug to kick in. Woody lasted another week.
From the beginning, Woody’s death made no sense to anyone who knew him. Everywhere I turned, all the so-called experts and suicide support groups were telling me Woody must have been depressed. But in the deepest part of me, I knew something didn’t add up.
Why would a guy who loved life take his own life? Woody went from not being able to sleep to experiencing head outside of body, horrific nightmares and extreme crying fits. So we started digging into the only thing that made Woody change during this extremely short period of time. Zoloft.
We Never Questioned the Drug
Woody and I never once questioned the drug. Why would we? Zoloft is FDA approved, samples were given by his doctor, and was advertised and sold as safe and effective. Ironically, the day Woody was found our local newspaper ran a front-page story about a study in the UK finding a link between antidepressants and suicide in teens.
The coroner asked if he was taking any prescription drugs – the only drug he was on was Zoloft. She said she needed to take the bottle with her, that it might have something to do with his death.
My journey for the truth has taken me to the FDA, Congress, the courts and the media. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that Woody was not an isolated case or “anecdotal.” Most people have no idea that the FDA held hearings on Prozac and its link to suicide and violence in 1991 – 13 years before the FDA eventually put “black box” warnings on the drugs for children in 2004 and young adults in 2006. It’s unthinkable how many deaths could have been prevented had warnings been put on antidepressants in 1991.
In the legal battle for Woody, we were able to get confidential internal Pfizer and other drug company and FDA documents made public that showed they knew about the risk of suicide, violence and decided NOT to speak of questionable efficacy. But they failed to tell all this to the public. I hand-delivered these documents to the FDA, members of Congress and the media.
It’s hard not to do something when you have seen these documents in black and white with your own eyes AND you have the experience that I have had. These documents speak for themselves. Lives were being destroyed. It was too late for our family. But, if just one family was informed, then Woody’s life and death made a difference.
I can’t believe that, almost 15 years after Woody’s death, we are still having this debate about antidepressants. In some ways, I think the situation has gotten worse. There are a lot of powerful, commercial self-interests to protect in the current mental health model. All of this is going on behind the scenes while the average, everyday person like Woody goes to their doctor and trusts that they are being given a drug that is “safe and effective.”
Kim Witczak is an advertising/marketing communications professional with over 20 years of experience for a variety of industries as well as non-profit/advocacy campaigns.