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To hell and back:
A former Niagara woman's
battle with prescription
drugs almost killed her
Now she's spreading the message
The St. Catharines Standard
Niagara, Ontario, Canada
Monday, May 14, 2001
by Don Fraser, reporter
Joan Gadsby had no clue an escalating 23-year addiction to tranquillizers, sleeping pills and anti-depressants was on the verge of killing her. But on February 2, 1990 her house of prescription bottles came tumbling down.
The events described in her 2000 book, "Addiction By Prescription": One Woman's Triumph and Fight for Change", proved a pivotal moment in Gadsby's life.
She'd had a terrible night and violently ended a relationship with a boyfriend. Gadsby was awash in self-pity, thinking about her lost son. She remembered reaching for a beer and swallowing a few pills. It was a habit that was about to run its course.
Soon, the Vancouver marketing executive was on the phone making distressed calls to friends and acquaintances. Her daughter Carrie finally called 911. At about 3:30 a.m. police smashed in the glass panel to her front door. Gadsby was in a heap on the dining room from an unintentional overdose. She wasn't breathing. Emergency crews revived her before she died.
"I was an intelligent woman and had no idea about the long-term effects of these prescription drugs," said Gadsby, who lived in St. Catharines until she was 21. "I just didn't have a clue, I trusted the doctor."
She spent the next three years in a living hell of withdrawal.
"It meant totally rebuilding my health," said Gadsby. "And that had to be done physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It also meant rebuilding my family."
The experience prompted a mid-life turnaround as an international activist against the over-prescription and inadequate monitoring of tranquillizers, sleeping pills and other mind-altering pharmaceuticals.
Gadsby grew up happily in St. Catharines at her family home on old Highway 8. She went to school at St. Catharines Collegiate, where she excelled in track and field.
In 1959, she temporarily left St. Catharines to attend the University of Western Ontario, finishing off her BA at McMaster University. Her family owned a Niagara tourist business, Hi-Ho Camp – some cabins and five acres of land, which burned to the ground shortly after she left the region.
By 1962 she'd already embarked on a career in marketing and moved out to British Columbia with new husband Alan, a former Standard reporter. The two had three children and separated amicably in 1977.
Tragically, two of those children died of cancer. Four-year-old son Derek died from a brain tumour on Christmas Day 1966 – the repercussions of that and her strained marriage sparked her odyssey with pharmaceuticals. The drugs, she said, suppressed her emotions and put her on automatic pilot for two decades.
"My dealing with Derek's death didn't happen until I was off the pills," said Gadsby. "Only then could I cry."
"By the summer of 1967, I had been prescribed two different tranquillizing drugs, one to take as a 'sleeping pill' and the other to take during the day. I certainly never understood that they would impede my mental, emotional and physical abilities in any way."
The book documents her escalating regimen of drugs – Valium, Librium, Stelazine, Serax, Dalmane, Restoril, Ativan. In no time, she'd sunk into an addiction. She angrily accuses her former family doctor of "ignorance, apathy and denial" in failing to stem the flood of drugs. "It made a mockery of my life, my family went through hell."
A high-energy, perfectionist woman, she managed her career as fastidiously as she could. She was also a councillor in North Vancouver District for 13 years in the 1970s and 1980s. Keeping her job performance up to par was a matter of pride and financial need, she said. There were serious bumps along the way, some emotional near-breakdowns and even brushes with the law. She attributes this to the nearly mad state caused by the pills.
After the 1990 overdose, she returned to her family doctor, wondering why she'd been prescribed so many mood-altering drugs for so long. "He simply refused to help," she said. "There's a lack of expertise and medical knowledge by people who should know about the effects of these drugs and how to help people get off them. "The bottom line is I never needed this stuff. Gadsby later sued him, but lost. (She's currently suing her former lawyer who handled that case, for alleged negligence.)
After being rebuffed by her doctor, she went to Vancouver physician, Susan West, who told her she was chemically dependent. Over an agonizing three-year period, she finally threw off the yoke of addiction and alcohol, enduring awful symptoms. "It was a major challenge and I was very frightened."
During that time, she shed 25 pounds and slept as little as one hour some nights. Gadsby suffered hallucinations, stifling anxiety and paranoia. She'd freeze in terror while driving across a bridge, or she'd eye a barge in Lake Huron and become convinced a war was on. To make matters worse, she suffered three car accidents: "I should never have been driving a vehicle," she said.
She says she also suffered memory impairment – something she claims happens to most long-term users of benzodiazepines. Neuro-psychological testing and 18 months of "cognitive retraining" helped her regain most of her memory function. She said she could finally appreciate the beauty of the everyday world.
Ironically, although she was now drug-free, for the first time in her life, she was also unable to work. Gadsby, a marketing manager for B.C. InfoHealth, earned an income of $115,000 per year from all sources. She was forced to go on $42,000 per year disability. All told, the amount of past and projected loss of income and assets since her overdose amounts to about $2.4 million, she estimates.
Through her advocacy and research work, she's interviewed many hundreds, from consumers to officials in medicine, pharmaceuticals and government, and has spoken internationally about her ordeal. In 1994, she was selected as one of Canada's notable women by the Canadian University Women's Club.
Gadsby co-produced a TV documentary called "Our Pill Epidemic"along with Jack McGraw, an award-winning documentary producer formerly of W-5. The show aired across Canada on CTV in 1998.
Though the 1990s would prove a time of rebirth for Gadsby, family tragedy reared its head again. Daughter Deb was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997 and died in Kelowna, B.C. on May 1, 1999 at age 37.
Gadsby writes about the tragedy in "Addiction By Prescription", published shortly after her death. "I had no need of pills to cope with the fear and uncertainty that Deb's disease created, nor did I need them to cope with grief over the loss of my beloved daughter," she writes.
One of Deb's last requests relayed to Gadsby was that her mother get her book out, produce a movie of the week and keep running. She's kept two of those promises. She's working on getting the right people together to produce a second documentary and a movie feature based on her book.
U.S. Actress Sally Field has expressed some interest in turning "Addiction By Prescription" into a movie of the week, she said.
Gadsby is seeking funding for a "multi-stakeholder strategic action plan" to deal with inappropriate drug prescriptions. At this point, she has support from the B.C. College of Pharmacists, she said.
"I'm not saying never use tranquillizers," said Gadsby. "I'm saying stick to short-term use guidelines for these drugs."
There needs to be strict medical and Health Canada directives to ensure responsible use and informed consent with benzodiazepines, she said.
According to spokeswoman Jill Hefley of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, there are many clinical practice guidelines doctors follow when prescribing drugs. But to her knowledge, there are no specific guidelines for prescribing medicines for depression, anxiety and sleeplessness – other than research information provided by Health Canada through the drug companies. There are clinical guidelines for prescribing for chronic pain. "But I don't think benzodiazepines are in that category," said Hefley.
Gadsby said the response from "research-based pharmaceutical companies" has been to ask her if her research initiatives have Health Canada funding. That's something she's working on through groups like the Canadian Mental Health Association. She also called for a full-scale public inquiry by Health Canada into benzodiazepine use and plans to meet with health minister Allan Rock or his designate in Ottawa.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that with Health Canada funding, the pharmaceutical companies may come on side."
Healthy and sober, Gadsby jogs along the west Vancouver sea wall every day, eats well and maintains a support network of friends and family.
"I also have a strong belief in God, which I find everywhere in nature," said Gadsby. "I sincerely believe God kept me alive to carry on this message."
Addiction By Prescription": One Woman's Triumph and Fight for Change by Joan E. Gadsby (Key Porter, 2000), $19.95, 304 pgs. For more information visit www.benzo.org.uk.
Joan Gadsby's Main Page
Benzodiazepines – Time For Action And Accountability
"Addiction by Prescription" (soft cover) Press Release