Bonnie Leitsch died on Prozac and lives to talk about it.
The Louisville, Ky., woman says the anti-depressant caused her to take a suicidal overdose of pain pills. Now she runs a national telephone hotline for other Prozac survivors.She's talked to more than 350 people, all questioning the side effects of Prozac, the country's best-selling depression medication.
Anchored by medical studies, psychiatric experts say only a small segment of Prozac users develop suicidal or violent thoughts. But the controversy steams up talk shows such as "Donahue" and "Geraldo" and boils in newspapers ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the Ogden Standard-Examiner.
Leitsch ticks off recent calls:
There's the woman from Alabama who took a baseball bat to her daughter's boyfriend's car; the farmer who backed his pickup truck over his prize-winning bull.
There's the man who went out to get a haircut before his wedding but killed himself instead; the Salt Lake woman who is mourning her husband's suicide.
"When you're on Prozac, you don't care," Leitsch says. "You could kill anybody. You could do anything and you have no con-science."
But Cindy Steenblik, 35, of Rose Park, tells a different story, more representative of the majority of Prozac users.
For Steenblik, the green-and-white pills rescued her from a personal hell.
Steenblik appeared a superwoman: active in her church, successfully juggling motherhood and volunteer duties. At home, she struggled with great pain, later diagnosed as chronic pancreatitis. She was anorexic, a compulsive perfectionist. She didn't trust people, and she didn't have any close friends. Over the years, she consulted doctors who didn't believe her complaints.
She prayed to die.
She tried other anti-depressant medications. They seemed to softened her fury, but Prozac calmed her depression. "It's the first time in my life I can honestly say I trust people. The anger is in control."
This month, her prescription ran out and she couldn't get it refilled for 10 days. After the fifth day off Prozac, she felt the anger and the paranoia creeping back. "I thought: `I don't ever want to feel that again.' "
Leitsch, who founded the Prozac Survivors Support Group, has heard stories like Steenblik's, too. But that wasn't her experience. And she believes the possible danger of a drug so often prescribed needs more attention.
It's not just Prozac users who are at risk, Leitsch says. Also vulnerable are innocent bystanders who might be the target of a drug-induced rage.
Prozac users keep calling Leitsch. She's heard of patients with liver problems, former alcoholics who revert back to earlier addictions. Others report a breakdown in their immune systems. After a year of listening to emotional phone calls, she's rarely surprised.
The stories sound strikingly similar, and they usually include this caveat: "I can't believe I did that. It's just not like me."
For Leitsch, her trauma started in the summer of 1989. She went to her doctor complaining of an earache, depressed by the death of her daughter. Her doctor prescribed Prozac because Leitsch was anxious about caring for her elderly father while working full-time. The new pill was supposed to be a "pick-me-up" with no side effects.
For six weeks, Leitsch hardly slept. She became aggressive; she began to swear. She couldn't pray and stopped going to her church. A teetotaler, she craved alcohol and sugar. She gained 60 pounds. "I had weird thoughts like pouring coffee on my hand, putting an ice pick through it."
On Father's Day weekend, Leitsch hosted youths from her church at a slumber party. By Saturday afternoon, she was too exhausted to make the caramel icing for her husband's cake.
Her husband was outside mowing the lawn when Leitsch swallowed a bottle of pain pills, "without reason or rhyme."
"I was sitting there waiting to die, just as casual as I was eating an ice cream sundae. And I thought: `Gee, this is taking a long time.' "
That's when she swallowed another bottle of pills.
"Just as sure as I am sitting here, I could feel my life just a-draining out of my fingers. And I thought: `I want to have a last word with my husband.' "
At the hospital, Leitsch was pronounced dead. She became violent when emergency workers revived her. When she awoke, she found herself connected to a res-pirator.
"I thought I had been captured by a motorcycle gang, and they were torturing me. I had tubes everywhere. Then some smart-alecky doctor came over and said, `Didn't you know? You died.' "
She became hysterical, so a psychiatrist doubled her dose of Prozac. While still in the hospital, she suffered audio hallucinations, carrying on a conversation with a man she thought was on the other side of a vent in her room.
She and her husband went into counseling. She lost her short-term memory. She developed a massive goiter on her throat; spurs on her feet. She has spent about $10,000 on her medical problems.
She believes all her troubles spring from one source: Prozac, the wonder drug.
She tagged her problems to the capsule only after she read a report published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. It warned about possible "persistent, obsessive and violent suicidal thoughts" in a minority of Prozac users.
Leitsch recognized her own symptoms and took herself off the drug.
Now she devotes her time to telling other people about Prozac.
She thinks the Federal Drug Administration didn't require enough tests before approving the drug and that the drug's marketer, Eli Lilly and Co., is too greedy to listen to problems.
Company officials say there is no evidence from clinical trials to prove the anti-depressant has a suicidal track, that such stories are just anecdotal. Controlled drug tests prove just the opposite, says Ed West, Eli Lilly spokesman.
And there's this: Some 30,000 Americans were committing suicide every year before Prozac was introduced. Suicidal thoughts are a symptom of depression.
But those arguments don't silence Leitsch. She invites anyone who doesn't believe her story to invest just a couple of hours answering her phone.
She suffered through withdrawal when she stopped taking the drug, including severe leg cramps and shaking, but she hasn't tried to kill herself since.
"I'm so thankful to be 49," Bonnie Leitsch says. "Every birthday I've had since Prozac I feel is a miracle. These are all freebies."
Introduced: December 1987, Manufactured by Eli Lilly & Co., Indianapolis.
Cost: About $1.50 a capsule, $50 a month.
Sales: Expected to be $1 billion in 1991.
Users: more than 3 million people worldwide.
Effects: Anti-depressant that the manufacturer also wants to market to help treat bulemia and obesity. The drug is "activating" - giving patients more energy - with few of the side effects of earlier anti-depressants, such as heart-rhythm disturbances, dry mouth, drowsiness and a drugged feeling.
Adverse Reactions: Experst say the drug helps 60 percent to 70 percent of patients. A small percentage of Prozac patients suffer mild side effects including anxiety, agitation, headaches, nausea, insomia and lack of sexual desire.
The Controversy: Since last summer a flurry of civil lawsuits have been file against the drug's manufacturer, because people say the drug altered thsier personality, causing them to do violent things or attempt suicide. One major case will be litigated in Kentucky circuit court. In September, the son of Joseph Wesbecker filed lawsuit against Eli Lilly, saying Prozac sparked his father's killing spree. Wesbecker shot 20 people at a Louisville printing piant in 1989, killing eight before turning the gun on himself. A murder cause in southern Utah may hinge on a Prozac defense.