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My medication made me a gambling addict

The "miracle" medication that was supposed to relieve these women's debilitating illness has had unexpected side effects which have ruined their lives. Now, they're fighting back.
My medication made me a gambling addict

Pat Galea was so relieved when her doctor diagnosed her restless leg syndrome. After years of suffering sleepless nights, chronic exhaustion and stomach-churning anxiety attacks, she had finally found a medication which allowed her to rest.

“It was wonderful,” she says. “It was such a godsend to have a full night’s sleep.”

Connie Gafa felt the same way. When the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease began to stiffen the vibrant grandmother’s petite body, she was prescribed the same medication.

“I loved it, I felt like I was normal again. I wish I could still have it.”

Yet Connie can’t because, for both her and Pat, the medication that changed their lives has also destroyed them. Along with 120 other victims, Pat and Connie have joined one of Australia’s largest ever medical class actions against drug companies Pfizer and Aspen Pharmacare Australia.

The plaintiffs claim they were not adequately warned that medication they were prescribed to switch off the physical symptoms of their illness, known as “dopamine agonists”, could also switch on the pleasure-seeking part of the brain which prompts behaviours such as pathological gambling, sex addiction and compulsive shopping.

For both Pat and Connie, the tiny tablets they relied on every day to relieve the crippling symptoms of their illnesses triggered gambling addictions which ultimately sent Pat to jail and almost cost Connie her life.

“I wanted to kill myself,” Connie says. “There were days I thought the only way I can stop this is to hang myself. I was so ashamed of what I was doing and I had no control over it.”

“We weren’t warned about the side effects,” adds Pat, who spent a month in jail after being caught shoplifting to feed her pokie addiction. “If I’d known what this medication could do, I never would have started taking it.”

Pat Galea, 61, was a happily married mother of three with a successful career in finance before she began taking what she thought was the perfectly safe drug, Cabaser.

The initial doses were small, but Pat’s symptoms worsened, so her medication was increased. Along with it, came an insatiable urge to gamble.

“I gambled every day,” she says. “Sometimes I’d sneak out at night when everyone was asleep and go to the pokies.

“On the nights my wages went into the bank, I’d get out of bed and go to the casino and wait for my salary to present in my account. Then I’d spend the night gambling and sneak home early in the morning and go back to bed. My pay would be gone before daybreak.”

Pat’s marriage fell apart. She lost her job, her car, frittered away every dollar of the divorce settlement she received from her husband and was stealing money from her children.

At her lowest, she began shoplifting, returning the goods to the store after she’d stolen them so she could collect a cash refund, which she would use to play the pokies. She was eventually caught and spent a month in jail.

A few years back, Pat’s GP saw a story on the ABC’s 7:30 Report which revealed that the US Food and Drug Administration had found a strong association between dopamine agonists and obsessive pleasure-seeking behaviour, such as increased libido and gambling addiction. He called Pat straight away.

When Pat stopped taking the medication, the desire to gamble immediately stopped and she has not been near pokies since.

“It was like a fog lifting — the old me was returning,” she says. “But then I really had to come to terms with what I’d done. It destroyed my life, my marriage, my children’s lives. It was hell, absolute hell.”

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