The Undrugging of Annie (Part I)


It is a large, square, clear plastic Rubbermaid container with a blue-rimmed lid, and it is full of pills.  Red pills, brown pills, white pills.  Capsules and packed powder.  Round and oval.  Large, medium and small.  Gray pills, yellow pills, blue pills.  Half a gallon of pills.

            I take it to Dr. Ghaly, the psychiatrist and acupuncturist, and he looks aghast.  “What is this?” he cries.  “What is this?”

            “These are all the pills I was taking when I stopped taking pills,” I tell him.  His eyes wide with amazement, he grabs the container and races out of the room.  When he comes back, he tells me he went to weigh it.  There are two and a half pounds of pills.

            I take them to Dr. Cohen, the psychologist and hypnotherapist.  He looks at them awfully and says, “Where did these come from?”

            “When I came home from the hospital,” I say, “I took the bottles full of all the pills I was taking.  I put the bottles in a basket, the basket in a bag, the bag in a carton, and the carton in the closet.  Last week I needed the basket to plant pansy seeds, so my aide emptied all the bottles into this container.”
            I take the container to Dr. Wechsler, the chiropractor and ayurvedic practitioner.  “Who gave you these?” he asks.

            “The doctors,” I say.  “These were all prescribed by physicians.  I was taking them all at the same time.”

            “What are you going to do with them?”

            “I dunno.  Maybe sort them out by color, layer them in an apothecary jar—strata of disaster, you know?—then permanently seal the apothecary jar and put it on display as testament to—well, to something.”

            I take the lid off, pick up handfuls of pills, and let them slide through my fingers.

            Dr. Wechsler looks sick and cries, “Don’t!  The toxins will be absorbed through your skin!”

            In 1974, a neurologist, a pastor, and a social worker with terminal cancer formed “Alethea:  The Center on Death and Dying” in Syracuse, New York.  Their avowed concerns were that Americans were denying grief or treating it as pathological, and that there was a need to develop a healthy acceptance of a normal mourning process.  I participated in a lengthy course to train grief counselors.

            On Thanksgiving Day, I went for a walk before dinner and mailed a letter to my beloved—a Marine Corps fighter pilot—saying that I would join him on base as soon as I could make arrangements.  Before he received the letter, his plane crashed.  He ejected but his parachute did not open.  I missed the last Alethea meeting because I was in New York City burying my heart, my soul, my hope, my future, my everything.

            Several months later, I went to the neurologist complaining of fatigue, lethargy, and lack of spontaneous movement.  He said I was depressed and had a history of what he called “endogenous depression.”  He dealt with the depressive phase of my mourning by prescribing drugs, specifically, the antidepressant Elavil.  When the prescription ran out, I would call his office.  Around seven o’clock the next morning, he would wake me with a phone call.  We would talk for a few minutes, then he would mail me a new prescription for a thirty-day supply, with twelve refills.  We did that for several years, then I moved on to a psychiatrist who prescribed more drugs.

            I was handed from one psychiatrist to another, each altering the antidepressant prescription, until I ended up with Dr. Jenifer Rich.  She continued the drugging.  I was a good girl, and totally committed to the idea that my life depended on drugs.  One day in group therapy we were asked what three things we would want if we were stranded on a desert island.  I was the only person who said I wanted my medication.  I was a believer.

            No matter what was done in the way of therapy or antidepressants, I continued to cycle through what was now called major depression, severe and recurrent.  There were occasional suicide attempts and several hospitalizations each year that would last four or five days.  I went to the National Institute of Mental Health and they recommended a monoamine oxidase inhibitor.  Dr. Rich went to a conference and the chief of psychiatry at Stanford University recommended a combination of lithium and an antidepressant.

            I took 1500 mg. of lithium every day for seven years, plus an antidepressant and such other drugs as Dr. Rich ordered.  When it reached the point that I was getting up four or five times every night to urinate, I insisted—against Dr. Rich’s wishes—that she refer me to another psychiatrist for evaluation.  He recommended that she do the kidney function tests that she should have been doing every six months, but had never done.

            I was diagnosed with nephrogenic diabetes insipidus (NDI), a rare incurable kidney disease that is usually caused by bad doctors prescribing lithium.  NDI causes urine output to increase—in my case, the increase was five times normal.  I quit the doctor and the lithium.

When I went to the next psychiatrist, it turned out I also had cardiac irregularities caused by the lithium.  When I went to the lawyer, I discovered that dozens of my other physical complaints, ranging from shortness of breath to my fingers turning black, were side effects of the lithium.  I saw three lawyers and each refused to take the case.  One said that in our county, juries hated malpractice suits and liked psychiatric malpractice suits even less; another said that my case would only settle for about $70,000, “and, frankly, we were looking for a windfall.”

            The treatment for nephrogenic diabetes insipidus is DDAVP, which costs $10,000 a year, and hydrochlorathiazide (HCTZ), which causes potassium depletion, so I took DDAVP and HCTZ, and got hypokalemia.  Potassium supplements were added to complete the drug package.  (To be continued)

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About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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