This conversation started on February 21, 2018. Truth was spoken.
Kim how young are you?
Where do you live? And why?
I live in Minneapolis — smack in the middle of “fly over” country. I am originally from Minneapolis and lived in Chicago for many years. It seems everyone from Minnesota always comes back. Family and work is definitely a draw. There’s a strong sense of community, work ethic, arts culture, and lots of opportunity to get involved. Equally important to me is the ability to get anywhere in the country, fast and direct with Delta. I couldn’t live here if I didn’t travel and get out of Minnesota too.
What do you say when someone asks, Kim what do you?
It’s such a funny question because I immediately answer how I make money vs. what do I do for a living which is so much more than a paycheck. I have a portfolio career — a little of this and little of that — spend time as a freelance advertising producer, national drug safety advocate, public speaker, sit on non-profit boards, and I’m a YOGI!!!! Its perfect balance between creativity and purpose.
Creativity and purpose can you explain why that is important to you?
Creativity is about self-expression. I believe all of us come into the world creative and this doesn’t necessarily mean artistic. Somewhere in our lives we lose this thought or start believing life is tough, boring, and have resolved this is just the way life is. In my mind, finding your voice, something you’re passionate about and wanting to express it is really what purpose is all about. It will look differently for each of us. Creativity and purpose are interlinked. Having spent an entire career in advertising, I used to think that only “creatives” or artists were creative. However, I realized, after Woody died, that creativity is really about putting ideas, yourself, and passion out in the world.
My drug safety advocacy was born out of nothing but a knowing that something didn’t make sense about Woody’s death.
Is that answer freelance advertising producer, national drug safety advocate, public speaker, sit on non-profit boards, and I’m a YOGI! the one you want to give or is there another one you would rather?
No, I think I am really blessed to be able to live a life that I have, even if I sometimes spread myself too thin. On second thought, I do wish that I never set out to become a pharmaceutical drug safety/FDA reform advocate. This was something I decided to do after my husband’s death, due to an undisclosed deadly side effect of antidepressants. Sometimes, life’s circumstances delivers us our greatest passions and purposes.
And what perspective do you have on your age?
I still shake my head in disbelief. Age is truly a number when you stay engaged in life, connected to others, follow your passions, and keep your body moving. I feel better now than I did when I was younger. Plus, I love how with age comes wisdom and perspective that I wish I had in my 20s and 30s. Life is truly a gift and I am lucky to be given another day and year. Unfortunately, I had to learn this the hard way after my husband’s sudden death in 2003 at age 37. Trust me, this quickly changes your perspective on age and life. I will never take it for granted.
If you are comfortable, would you like to talk about what happened in 2003?
My life used to look very different back in 2003 than it does today. I was married to my best friend, had a successful career in advertising, and was planning to have a family. However, all that changed with one phone call. On August 6th, 2003, my world came crashing down. I was out-of-town on business when I got a call from my dad telling me Woody, my husband of almost 10 years, was found hanging from the rafters of our garage — dead at age 37. Woody wasn’t depressed nor did he have a history of depression or any other mental illness. Woody was outgoing, gregarious, smart and had a huge personality. He had just started his dream job as Vice President of Sales at a start-up company two months prior and started having trouble sleeping, which is not uncommon for entrepreneurs. So Woody went to see his family doctor whom he trusted implicitly, and was given the antidepressant Zoloft samples for insomnia. His doctor said Zoloft would take the edge off and help Woody sleep. Five weeks later, he was dead. The 3-week Pfizer-supplied sample pack that Woody came home with automatically doubled the dose unbeknownst to him from 25 to 50 mgs after week one. No cautionary warning was given to him or me about the need to be closely monitored when first going on drug or dosage changes. In fact, I was out of the country on business for the first 3 weeks he was on the drug. Within days Woody experienced many side effects like profuse night sweats, diarrhea, and worsened insomnia. He also experienced others like akathisia that were known to Pfizer but not to Woody, his doctor, or his family.
Shortly, before he died, I found Woody curled up in fetal position on the kitchen floor, holding his head like a vice, crying, “Help me, help me. I don’t know what is happening to me. I am losing my mind. It’s like my head is outside my body looking in.”
Did what happen make any sense to you?
From the beginning, Woody’s death made no sense to anyone who knew him. Everywhere I turned, all the so-called experts and suicide support groups were telling me Woody must have been depressed. But in the deepest part of me, I knew something didn’t add up. Why would a guy who loved life take his own life? Woody went from not being able to sleep to experiencing head outside of body, horrific nightmares, and extreme crying fits. So we started digging into the only thing that made Woody change during this extremely short period of time. Zoloft. Woody and I never once questioned the drug. Why would we? Zoloft is FDA approved, samples given by his doctor, and was advertised and sold as safe and effective. Ironically the day Woody was found our local newspaper ran a front page story about the UK finding a link between antidepressants and suicide in teens. Plus, the coroner asked if he was on any drugs and of course the only drug was Zoloft. She took the bottle and said it might have something to do with his death.
Are you looking for truth?
My journey for the truth has taken me to the FDA, Congress, the courts, and the media. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that Woody was not an isolated case or “anecdotal”. Most people have no idea that the FDA held hearings on Prozac and its link to suicide and violence in 1991 – 13 years before the FDA eventually put black box warnings on the drugs for children in 2004 and young adults in 2006. It’s unthinkable how many deaths could have been prevented had warnings been put on antidepressants in 1991. In the legal battle for Woody, we were able to get confidential internal Pfizer and other drug company and FDA documents made public that showed they knew about the risk of suicide, violence and NOT to speak of questionable efficacy, but failed to tell the public. I hand delivered these documents to the FDA, members of Congress, and the media. It’s hard not to do something when you have seen these documents in black and white with your own eyes AND you have the experience that I have had.
These documents speak for themselves. Lives were being destroyed.
Lives are being destroyed. How do you feel about that and is that motivation to keep fighting?
I get emails from unsuspecting families almost daily that learn after the fact about the dangers of antidepressants and other psych drugs. They are angry that they didn’t know BEFORE something happened to their loved one. People’s lives are being traded for the almighty dollar. It is heart breaking and it fuels me to keep going. I almost feel like it’s my responsibility to do what I can so that no one else has to experience this painful loss. It is my goal that people pay attention to these issues BEFORE it’s too late.
15 years is a long time to be fighting?
I can’t believe it’s almost 15 years after Woody’s death, and we are still having this debate about antidepressants. In some ways, I think the situation has gotten worse. There are a lot of powerful, commercial self-interests to protect in the current mental health model. All of this is going on behind the scenes while the average, every day person like Woody, goes into their doctor and trusts that they are being given a drug that is “safe and effective.” I will never forget a few days after his death –falling to my knees in our basement, grabbing at my heart, crying out to God, “Take my pain and use it. It does me no good.” Little did I know what I was about to embark on. My husband’s death led me to my advocacy to help spread the truth about the dangers of antidepressants and other psychiatric drugs.
It was too late for our family. BUT if just one family was informed, then Woody’s life and death made a difference.
Have you ever thought about quitting?
There have definitely been times that I have felt like quitting. Sometimes it feels I am banging my head on the wall and no one cares. I will never forget the FDA Ad Comm meeting where we were reviewing a new drug for Parkinson Psychosis. The clinical data was flawed from the beginning and felt like risks outweighed the little benefit from the drug. So I voted my conscience with NO. Of course the rest of the members on the FDA panel voted for the drug despite the evidence and the drug was eventually approved by the FDA. I left this meeting in DC really discouraged, thinking why do I keep doing this work – no one cares that there will be people who will die. Fast forward two years later after the FDA approved the drug, I receive a call from CNN wanting to talk with me about this drug and why I voted NO. CNN was investigating the high amount of deaths (750+) reported to the FDA since the Parkinson psychosis drug came on the market. This is why I can’t quit, because lives are at stake. I need to continue to speak truth to power.
How do you deal with the pain of things getting worse and not better?
Well, first of all, I am really happy that I have a strong faith and sense of purpose. Many times I have to throw it out there and just trust. Pray, meditate, and go to YOGA. My yoga practice is so important to me. For some reason I can let it all go on the mat. Breathe deeply and be in the present moment. I wish it was as easy in life “off the mat.” I also think that when things are getting worse, it fuels me to do more, although there are days that it would be easy to just give up and go back to my old life. But the reality is, I can’t go back to my old life. I know too much and have lived the experience.
Your old life. is it even possible to go back if you really wanted?
Interesting you ask. I always say I would love to go back to my old life, but with the insight I have in my new life. The reality is that I can’t go back in time, none of us can. But I hope that I can honor the past with the learning and wisdom that came with great pain. I often wish that I could have been the person I am today for Woody back then. But the reality is that it’s not possible. My transformation came because of this heart shattering loss. It changed my view on life and what really matters. I believe Woody would be extremely proud of who I am today. He was always my cheerleader and thought I was way more capable than I was. But his death changed and inspired me to get out of my comfort zone and not be afraid to speak my mind and fight for what is right. I guess this is how I honor my old life.
Woody’s death inspired advocacy which is also the greatest form of compassion. Why is it so important to you help other families?
I’m the accidental advocate. I never set out to do this work. However, when you have experienced the loss that I have and you have seen the documents and power of self interests putting profits before lives, I feel compelled. I don’t want other families to experience what we did. No one should ever have to ask afterwards, “I wish we would have known.” Every time there is another mass shooting or I get another email from people who lost their loved ones to suicide without knowledge of drug risks, it first breaks my heart and then I realize my work is NOT done. I believe God gave me gifts and life experiences like my professional career in advertising that set me up to do this important work.
Although Woody is not here anymore, I can feel his spirit all over this important advocacy to make sure his death left the world a better place.
Accidental advocate. It’s not an accident that you have been standing toe to toe with a Goliath for 15 years. Has it transformed into a purpose?
Without a doubt, speaking truth to power has turned into my life purpose. Looking back, I was driven out of grief and making sense out of something that should NEVER have happened to our family. However, as time went on and the more I learned, I realized that I had to do this work. I need to be the voice for those who can’t speak any more and those whose loved ones were taken from them. It was like an onion, the more layers that were peeled back, the stinkier it got. It didn’t feel like it was an option to quit. I believe God has given me the ability to speak out and opened doors that I would never have thought possible. I just kept the faith that I was doing important work. Although many people in my life were nervous for me to take on Big Pharma and FDA, I didn’t really feel the fear. There are times that I probably should have, but I always said that when you have truth on your side, you don’t have anything to fear. Like the Talking Heads song, I often shake my head and think how did I get here. I could NEVER have imagined this being my advocacy focus before 2003. Now, there is no question that its part of the tapestry of my life.
You said you didn’t feel the fear, but you should have. Why were people in your life nervous for you?
People were just trying to protect me, especially since I was in deep grief. They didn’t want to add more potential salt to the wound if I failed or didn’t succeed. However, I also believe that many people were giving advice through their own lens of fear. Going after the big powerful Pharma is very daunting and most people would never take this on. I was this way before Woody died too, but obviously his death profoundly changed me. I really had nothing to lose by trying. I remember reading “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho shortly after Woody died and realized our lives are full of Naysayers – people telling you no or be careful or you won’t succeed out of their own fears. Unfortunately fear is a huge and powerful force that keeps us from realizing our true potential and power.
Why does truth kill fear in your opinion?
Truth is a deep knowing in your heart that no circumstance can take this from you, especially if you already lost something so great. There is a confidence that comes with truth on your side. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel fear, but you face it despite it. For me, Woody’s story has NEVER changed. I have never had to wonder if I crossed my T’s or dotted my I’s, like the drug companies constantly have to. Their story is always changing and the facts don’t add up.
Your pain has done good, what would you say to people who are suffering and how to use it and not let it swallow them up?
I believe we all have our version of “Woody” in our life – whether it’s a death, breakup, job loss, problem with your kids, bad hair day, etc… we get a choice of how we react to a situation that we didn’t necessarily choose. Obviously one must grieve “what was”, but then it’s about accepting “what is”. It doesn’t mean you have to like it, but it’s about accepting what is NOW.
I always say… Are you a Victim, Survivor, or Thriver? We get to choose.
Can you share how you accepted Woody’s death?
At some point after you go through all the stages of grief, you have to accept what happened. I always tell people it doesn’t mean you have to like what happened, but when you accept what happened, it starts the healing process. You are no longer fighting your reality, playing with illusions and stop asking why. We may never get an answer why something happened. There is a peace that comes with acceptance of “It is what it is.”
What are your honest feelings about the pharmaceutical companies. the FDA and congress?
Before Woody died, I don’t think I ever gave it much thought. I just trusted the doctors and assumed that FDA approval meant that drug was safe. However, after Woody’s death, I went searching for answers and was shocked at what I learned. You can learn more by following the money trail than reading lips of politicians, doctors, FDA, etc. Once you start peeling the onion, you realize how insidious the industry is. There is a great imbalance between the everyday person and the healthcare industry. Healthcare is a BUSINESS and we are customers. It’s all about selling sickness.
Selling sickness. Very powerful. Do you have any thoughts about the spiritual sickness our modern society might also have?
I love the phrase Selling Sickness because it’s how the medical industrial complex has capitalized on human emotions. For starters, I would like to see the conversation change from mental health to focusing on mental well-being. Mental health implies a “sickness” model. The current narrative of the medical model is that untreated “mental illness” threatens the safety, security, and health of the general public. Therefore, we need MORE treatments, often from a quick-fix pill. It’s time to infuse a little healthy skepticism into these powerful, mind-altering psych drugs. Like… do pills actually solve or change the stressful situation, experience, or trauma that lead to the sadness and anxiety? They don’t change anything other than numb ourselves to the pain and discomfort. Maybe our depression and anxiety is actually trying to teach us something? Maybe we need to embrace the pain and sit with it? We will never know if we mask the pain and not do the work to discover the lessons. Spiritual, mental pain of the heart is real. As humans we try to run as quickly from feeling it. However, growth comes from pain and realizing you made it through. I truly believe there is power in the questions. Society needs to start pushing back and asking, “what if LESS is actually MORE?”
When you speak in front of congress, is Woody there?
Without a doubt. I will never forget when I testified in the US Senate and Senator Ted Kennedy was the chair of the Senate HELP (Health Education Labor Pension) committee. Woody loved to tell jokes about Ted Kennedy about his flirtatious ways. Ironically, Woody loved to talk politics and knew every one of the senators on the committee like Orrin Hatch, Hilary Clinton, Obama, etc. I felt him sitting right next to me at the witness table, smiling down, proud that I finally got involved. From the beginning I have felt Woody’s presence and believe he’s helping from the other side.
I believe physical death is NOT the end of our connections.
After Woody’s death did you battle depression? If you did how did you get through the toughest moments?
I am not sure I battled depression, per se. I was devastated because my husband died suddenly. My life, as I knew it, was torn to shreds. I remember thinking in those early days, “will I ever laugh or smile again?” I truly never thought I would. I had so many amazing friends and family that surrounded me. In addition, I really came to lean heavily on my faith too. Grief is like a long, dark tunnel through the mountains. You can’t go around it or over it, you must go through it. Heartache is real. You have to feel it and eventually you see a pin hole of light and as you go forward the hole gets bigger and bigger until you are through the grief. It never truly goes away. You learn to live with another reality. A new story. Many times during my David and Goliath advocacy and even today when I am feeling afraid and alone, I lean on a visual gift God gave me. During Woody’s memorial service, my brother-in-law and I were standing on the edge of a boat on Lake Michigan, ready to scatter Woody’s ashes. All of sudden, I looked down and right in front of us was a red book floating by in the water and on the cover, in gold lettering, were the words, “The Holy Bible.” I will never forget this for as long as I live.
You can’t go around it, over it, you must go through it. That is hard, really hard. Do you think most people takes pills to avoid the through?
Its way easier to numb our grief and emotions. No one likes to hurt and heart pain is so real. We have to sit with the pain as hard as it is. Eventually with time the pain comes less acute and you see that you made it through. Numbing comes in many forms. I know after Woody died I went shopping and bought 10 pairs of shoes at Nordstrom. (Yes, I love shoes!!) The sales guy was paying attention to me and I momentarily forgot my heartache and had a glimpse of feeling like my old life. So I bought all 10 pairs. The next morning I woke up and saw all these boxes in my living room. I sat with the question, “Why?” So I drove back and returned all but 2 pairs of shoes. It was a little embarrassing and I told the sales clerk that it numbed my pain for a fleeting moment. If we don’t do the hard work, the grief and pain is still always lingering at the surface. Pills, shoes, alcohol doesn’t take away the issue. We still need to face it.
You believe physical death is NOT the end of our connections, can you elaborate on this thought and how it informs how you live on this side?
I definitely believe that physical death is NOT the end of our connection with our loved ones. They are all around and are trying to speak to us. Signs are everywhere. Our loved ones come to us in dreams and visits when you are ready. I have had all my grandparents that passed come to me shortly after their deaths to tell me something. Woody has visited on many occasions and delivered some important messages. I also believe they show up in different gifts of nature. Maybe its cardinals, beautiful clouds, the whisper of a soft wind. For me, its butterflies. I literally see them everywhere. I still feel like Woody is working with me from the other side. At the end of the day, whether its true or not, it has helped me live as fully as possible.
If you feel comfortable can you share how Woody has visited and the messages he has given you?
There have been many visits by Woody over the years. However, the most profound were in the beginning, shortly after his death. The first one took place in our house. Woody was at the kitchen table with his hands around his head crying like I have never seen before. He kept telling me how sorry he was to have caused all this pain, but to trust him. There’s a purpose for all this pain and I would understand it eventually. Ironically, this was a couple of nights before my sister-in-law went to a medium in Chicago where Woody appeared and told her that there would be a lawsuit, but it wasn’t about money. His wife (me) would be leading a movement. This was only a week after Woody’s death so a movement wasn’t even on my radar.
The second one happened a couple of months after Woody’s death. It was a bright, colorful and happy place as if we were in heaven. Woody and I were driving in a red convertible on windy country roads with green, green grass and a bright blue sky. We were just enjoying the day and he looked over and said, “I need you to be happy and go on living life. You will love again.”
With each visit, he gave me messages that I will carry with me until the end of my life. I feel really lucky that I was open to receiving these messages.
If the universe allowed you to sit face to face with Woody, what would you say to him?
Well, this always gets me choked up.
There are so many things that I would want to say to Woody. For starters…
“Thank you for always loving me.
Thank you for always believing in me, when I never believed in myself.
Thank you for the gift of life that came through this most painful experience. I feel more and love more openly because of you — If only I could have been this person when you were alive.
Thank you for still guiding me from the other side.
Keep sending me the butterflies!!!
If the universe allowed you to sit face to face with woody, what would you want to hear from him?
Thank you for continuing to love and honor me and our life together.
Thanks for being brave and speaking up, although I know you never liked to rock the boat.
Thanks for living my life motto of
“Not going to judge my life on my career or how much money I make, but by my family, friends and leaving the world a better place.”
Thanks for not closing off your heart to love and life.
Kim Witczak producer, advocate, public speaker, YOGI.
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