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By Mark Horvit, Star-Telegram Staff Writer
It’s been eight months since Tonya Brooks sat in an empty bathtub late one night and meticulously dug a gaping hole in her left leg. That was the same week she decided she didn’t want to live anymore and swallowed a handful of pills.
Her family blames the antidepressant she was taking. Whether the medicine was actually at fault may ultimately be determined in court.
Tonya was a 16-year-old high school junior in Pflugerville when her mom became increasingly worried about her behavior. Tonya hated going out alone. She once left a Subway restaurant without picking up dinner because there were kids in the restaurant she didn’t know and she didn’t want them to see her.
So Cheryl Brooks took her daughter to the doctor, expecting a referral to a psychologist. Instead she got a bottle of pills.
After talking to Tonya for a few minutes, the doctor diagnosed her with social anxiety disorder. The answer, the doctor said, was Paxil.
Tonya started taking the drug in January 2004. The dosage was doubled in February, and relatives soon noticed a change. She had become more outgoing and was often away from home. She cut her long blond hair short and dyed it a striking orange-red.
What they didn’t notice was the cutting.
Tonya would stick an Exacto knife into her left wrist, making a deep cut small enough that her watch could cover it. When she did it, she could focus on the blade and forget everything bothering her.
She also started having trouble falling asleep, so her doctor prescribed a sleeping pill.
Tonya began to struggle in math class and became increasingly worried about what her parents would think. One night she came to a dark conclusion: It would be better if she wasn’t there.
She took a handful of Paxil and sleeping pills and crawled into her parents’ bed. Paxil doesn’t pose the same overdose risks as older antidepressants — that’s one of the drug’s advantages. But she threw up most of the night.
Tonya told her parents she’d taken the pills by accident.
A couple of nights later, Tonya grabbed a needle, plopped onto her bed and began probing her left calf. Then she tried an old pair of cuticle scissors, but the blades were dull.
She grabbed a paring knife, climbed into the bathtub in her pajamas and methodically cut out small pieces of her calf.
Around 2 a.m., when she had dug a gash about 3 inches long, she realized there was a lot of blood. She knocked on her parents’ bedroom door, then returned to the bathroom. Cheryl Brooks walked in, took one look and started screaming.
Tonya’s parents raced to the emergency room. The next day they took her to a mental hospital, where doctors took her off the medication. They wanted to try something else, but Tonya’s father refused.
Cheryl Brooks concedes that she didn’t read all the warnings in the package inserts. But the doctor recommended the pills, and the only side effects she and Tonya remember being warned about were physical things, like nausea.
A few months after Tonya attempted suicide and maimed herself, the federal Food and Drug Administration ruled that Paxil and other antidepressants must feature prominent warnings stating that there is a risk of suicidal behavior among a small percentage of users.
The Brookses have hired Baum Hedlund, a California law firm that has represented numerous families in legal action over antidepressants. There have been a series of cases where suicidal behavior has been blamed on the drugs, but some believe they are being unfairly targeted.
Today, Tonya and her folks say she’s doing better. The cutting has stopped, they say.
A stabbing pain sometimes shoots through her calf muscle, as if the needle is still in there. But when the high school senior runs a finger along the thick line of scar tissue, she feels nothing.
Mark Horvit, (817) 390-7087 firstname.lastname@example.org