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The Midford Daily News
This pill will change your life.
No, really. It will. Just ask Cally Egan. She knows.
“Sun not shining bright enough for you? Here, take this.”
But, for Egan and countless others, the magic pills’ effects aren’t the way they’re depicted in magazine ads. Or TV commercials. Or the way a drug company’s representative made them sound when pitching the product to a doctor.
“It changes who you are. I’m not the person I was before,” said the Milford mother of three. “I’m sure when it’s all said and done, I will be better than I was before, at least that’s what I hope.”
It’s the getting to the “all said and done” that’s been more than she bargained for.
“If I’d known what Paxil was going to do to me, I would have suffered through my anxiety for every day for the rest of my life if I had to.”
She had her first anxiety attack about nine years ago. “I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was having a heart attack. You feel like you’re dying. It’s the scariest thing in the world.” So her doctor prescribed “this miracle drug.”
There are a lot of “miracle drugs” out there. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 118 million prescriptions for antidepressants were written for Americans in 2005.
Egan was given Paxil, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) that was the first antidepressant formally approved in the United States for treatment of panic attacks. Prescribed in varying doses, pills and liquid, it was the fifth most commonly prescribed antidepressant in the country two years ago.
The drug’s manufacturer last year settled a class-action lawsuit filed in connection with its use by children and teens. In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration ordered a “black box warning” on SSRIs, and other antidepressants, about increased risk of suicidal thoughts, particularly in young people. This year, the FDA recommended the age for SSRI warnings be raised from 18 to 24.
“All the things I’ve read, all these kids” involved in school shootings, “were on, or coming off, an anti-depressant,” said Egan.
After she was prescribed the drug, “I came to realize I wasn’t having anxiety. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t anything. … That’s when I realized, all right, I feel no kind of deep emotion and that’s when I decided it was time to come off.”
Which is when things got worse.
“They don’t call it withdrawal, because (drug manufacturers like Paxil’s GlaxoSmithKline) say it’s not addictive. They call it discontinuation syndrome. Which I think is just a fancy name for withdrawal.
“When I first started weaning, I was going way too fast. … I got these brain zaps. Zzzz-tt. You can actually hear it and feel it. … I was shaking for hours. … Your whole gastrointestinal system goes insane.”
Her symptoms are among those commonly reported. In addition to support from her physician, Egan found paxilprogress.org “has been an absolute lifesaver for me.” It is one of several Web sites where people exchange information, including tips on how to cope with side effects and symptoms. “All kinds of questions get asked,” she said, and “somebody’s always on” to offer ideas.
As Egan sees it, and publications including the Journal of the American Medical Association acknowledge, drug companies exert too much influence over doctors.
“They get all this cool stuff from the drug reps. … Drug dealers. That’s exactly what they are.”
Still, “the drug reps are only getting the information that the drug companies are willing to give them.” And doctors don’t always have the time to thoroughly investigate each drug, and who authored the study supporting the medication’s uses.
That’s why Egan has this advice for those at the crossroad she was nine years ago: “If their doctor wants to put them on medication, go online and research it, the pros and the cons. You’ve got to get as much information as you can.
“And always read the inserts that come with the medication.”
If she’d known then what lay ahead for her, “I would have done anything else. Gone for walks. Gone to therapy to find other routes to deal with anxiety. There are so many other avenues to go before you go to medication.”
She still has a few steps in her journey, but her Paxil dose is down to a fraction of her former prescription, and she’s looking forward to what comes next.
“I’m going to do in my 40s what I couldn’t do in my 30s.”
That would be to live life without any pill to change it.
(Julia Spitz can be reached at 508-626-3968 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Check metrowestdailynews.com or milforddailynews.com for the Spitz Bits blog.)