RED HOOK, New York — When Gogo Lidz first went to a child psychiatrist in eighth grade, she got a one-word diagnosis — adolescence. The second time, when she was a sophomore in high school, she wasn’t so lucky.
“During my first session, the doctor wanted to screen me for ADD, so he started asking me, ‘Do you make careless mistakes? Do you get sidetracked? Do you have trouble following through on things?’ ” the 22-year-old recalled. “And I started going, ‘Yeah, yeah, all of them,’ because I felt like he was talking from my playbook.”
In hindsight, she realized, “Everyone makes careless mistakes, everyone gets sidetracked.” She said she shouldn’t have agreed so easily because the next thing she knew, she had a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder. At first, she was told to take Ritalin.
It’s become a common story for kids growing up in America these days: If you have trouble concentrating in school (and especially if your grades have dropped), you’re a candidate for an ADD diagnosis. But as it turns out, Gogo didn’t have ADD — she was bipolar. Instead of making her better, the increasing number of prescription drugs she was given made her progressively worse. So now Gogo is writing a book, tentatively titled “Life on the Pharm,” about what happened to her, as a cautionary tale.
“I feel like my story will help other people know what’s going on,” she said. “The point of my book is not to portray me as a victim, but to raise questions about what these doctors are doing, because there are a lot of people who trust doctors with their lives. Doctors are supposed to make you better, pills are supposed to make you better. People don’t think that maybe it’s making you worse.”
Granted — and Gogo is the first to admit it — not everything was the fault of her doctor. Rather than asking questions when she didn’t understand his instructions or warnings about possible side effects, she would nod dumbly as he used phrases like cyclothymia (mood disorders) or acute dystonia (muscle spasms). It made no sense to her, so she didn’t think that consuming alcohol and marijuana might blur the line between symptoms and side effects. At times, it was hard to tell what drug was causing what reaction. Over the course of five years, her doctor responded by prescribing her even more medication — Metadate, Dextrostat, Dexedrine Spansules, Adderall, Adderall XR, Stattera, Effexor, Zyprexa, Ambien, Abilify, Lexapro, Lamictal, Provigil, Wellbutrin and Cymbalta. If that list sounds as confusing as it looks, try to imagine the effect it had on Gogo’s system.
“I felt like I was going from being near-sighted to having X-ray vision,” she said. “At first, it made it so much easier to do work, but after awhile, I just started losing weight rapidly. I wasn’t able to sleep. I would get angry all the time. I was getting incredibly manic. I was driving everybody nuts. I’d become a tweaked-out whiz kid in one sense, and in the other, I was sort of like a monster.”
Nothing was helping. The anti-anxiety drugs made her anxious; the sleep aids made it harder for her to sleep; the anti-depressive drugs made her depressed, even suicidal; and the anti-psychotic drugs made her psychotic. And then there were the hard-to-ignore physical side effects. Four weeks into her second semester at college, she took a muscle relaxant for menstrual cramps and had a near-cardiac arrest, thanks to the drug’s interaction with her prescribed stimulant Adderall XR. She had to be taken, unconscious, to the emergency room. (The following year, Adderall XR was temporarily taken off the market in Canada due to the risk of sudden death.)
Still, she didn’t question the prescriptions or her doctor. Her psychiatrist had warned her to stop taking the drugs if she became manic — but he didn’t define the term, so she didn’t recognize the symptoms. “I had a roommate who used to be manic, and I thought, ‘Well, I’m not like her, so I must not be,’ ” she said. “But it’s a different definition than what I now see that it was.” Manic for Gogo meant it was hard for her to keep still and even harder to stop talking. By the end of the day, she’d curl up in bed and cry for a long time. “I felt like killing myself,” she said.
So she tried. Twice. Unable to control her impulses, Gogo overdosed on painkillers and slashed her wrists with broken glass. “I was just on a roller coaster of manic episodes and depressive episodes,” she said. “If I thought of something, I’d have to do it. I thought of killing myself, like, 10 minutes beforehand. It wasn’t something I had planned for days. It would just be, ‘This is what I’m doing now.’ I didn’t think it through.”
Yet her psychiatrist didn’t rethink his diagnosis. Instead, he sent her to wilderness therapy in Utah, then an aftercare rehab program in Southern California (at a cost of $75,000); even though she wasn’t an addict, he thought the treatment would be beneficial. “They tried to psychologically break me down,” she said. “They wanted me to say I was a drug addict, and no one believed that I wasn’t. I would tell the truth, and they’d be like, ‘You’re lying, you’re a drug addict.’ So then I’d say, ‘All right, I’m a drug addict,’ and make up some story about abusing the drugs I was prescribed, and then everyone would be like, ‘Good job.’ ” This, despite the urine tests that continued to show negative results.
Now Gogo thinks that her doctor sent her to rehab to cover up his mistake of overprescribing her amphetamines and antidepressants. Once she sought a second opinion in rehab, the psychologist realized Gogo was actually bipolar and that the drugs she was on were the wrong treatment — the exact opposite of what someone who is bipolar should take. “I’d been stuck in this Catch-22,” Gogo said. “I went through this giant ordeal, which made me crazy, and finally I was vindicated. If it had been caught earlier, I wouldn’t have had to go through all that.”
About to finish her senior year at Bard College in upstate New York this fall, Gogo first shared her story earlier this year in an article for New York magazine called “My Adventures in Psychopharmacology.” The piece led to the book, which has a tentative May release date. It also made her the poster child for the mental-health care reform movement, since her experience exposes the need for more evidence-based medicine, patient/doctor face time, monitoring of side effects and consumer education about psychiatric treatments.
“I’m not anti-prescription, I’m not anti-drugs,” Gogo emphasized. “It was just that I had blindly put my faith in my doctor for years. I just assumed he knew what he was doing — he’s a doctor, you’re supposed to trust a doctor.”
More than anything now, Gogo has learned to trust herself, to know when something just doesn’t feel right, and to get the right kind of help. “Who I was then is not who I am now. I’m better now.”