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Betting Her Life

Barbara Hermansen found happiness and fulfillment as a North Shore wife, mother, and lawyer—until she started taking a prescription drug for a neurological disorder. Then a trip to Las Vegas set off a crazed gambling addiction that almost brought her and her family down.

Photo: Kate Schermerhorm

(page 1 of 4)

She burned with shame in the harsh light of the barren room, reality spilling around her like coins spattering from a slot machine jackpot. She had been here for hours now, lying on a bed without springs, looking through blinds without cords. She had handed over her belt and her shoes, along with her pens and pencils and her hairbrush. Her open door left her exposed to anyone walking by.

Her eyes ached from a day of sobbing, yet when she looked around, tears flooded them all over again. Was this really happening? she wondered. Is this really me?

Her husband, Bob, had already put up with so much. A wife who committed suicide would merely add a final crushing chapter to the past four years of heartbreak. During that time she had emptied their bank accounts, borrowed tens of thousands of dollars, and maxed every credit card. When she had thought her life couldn’t get more degrading, she had gathered jewelry and hocked it for a few hundred dollars. She had lied about it all-where she had been, what she had done, the amount of money she had lost, now reaching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. She had confessed and relapsed so many times that her promises rang as empty as the family’s bank accounts. And for what? To sit mesmerized before a flashing, jangling machine, punching a button over and over, praying for a jackpot that wouldn’t come.

That was the incomprehensible part. It was all so out of character, so out of the blue. It was as if a demon had seized control of her mind and was pulling levers to destroy her for sport. Before, she had been a trial lawyer at a well-known Chicago firm, a decent and generous mother and wife who was approaching 50 years old. She and her husband had built the kind of storybook North Shore life that made places like Winnetka so desirable. She was a churchgoer and a soccer mom who lived her life according to a strong moral code. Willpower. Fortitude. That’s how life was lived. For proof, she needed merely to look to her father-who had quit smoking cold turkey after 43 years.

Now everything she thought about herself had changed. She had become a liar, living a double life, behaving in just the sort of repulsive way that had once been so easy to judge. And no matter what she tried, how low she had sunk, she couldn’t stop. Why? The answer, she thought, was obvious. She, Barbara Hermansen, was simply a bad person. She looked in the mirror. A hollow-eyed woman in an open-back hospital gown and gray booties stared back.

She could see why they were treating her like a crazy person. She looked crazy.

As she lay back on the thin mattress-under suicide watch in the psychiatric care unit at Evanston Northwestern Hospital-she felt the hot tears of her shame come once more. And once again, for the thousandth time, the millionth, her mind spun like the pull of a slot, trying to land on the answer to a bigger mystery than any dealer’s hole card: What has happened to me?

 

Ten years earlier, long before thoughts of suicide, before she had felt possessed by a demon, Barbara Hermansen’s biggest worry, her only real worry, was the worms. Not actual worms. But little nerve tremors that wriggled and spiraled up and down her legs every time she lay down to go to sleep.

Night after night she would lie in wait, hoping against hope that they would spare her. But within an hour, they would arrive, creeping under her skin like creatures in a B horror flick, making her shift and thrash in bed, until finally she would rip back the covers and storm downstairs. She would lie on the floor or ride an exercise bike until she was exhausted. Finally, around 5 a.m., the worms would go away-at least for the night-and she would lapse into a couple of hours of sodden sleep, sentenced to another groggy morning hunched dead-eyed over coffee. She tried not to complain. How could you, with a life so richly blessed?

Born in a small town in Nebraska, Barbara had been an excellent student and a championship swimmer before coming to Chicago to teach and ultimately earn a law degree at Northwestern University. She had joined one of the city’s top firms, Schiff Hardin & Waite, where she eventually became a partner. In 1990, she married another Schiff Hardin lawyer, Bob Wilcox-a product of Harvard and the law school at the University of California at Berkeley-and they moved to Winnetka. With their two children, Ben and Katie, the family now lived in a graceful old colonial that had been owned by Bob’s parents.

So she felt fortunate. But she also felt tortured by her sleeplessness. “It was so hard getting up in the mornings,” she recalls. “I would wake up and my first thought would be, When can I get back to sleep?”

Desperate to find what was wrong, she sought answers from the Center for Sleep Disorders at Loyola University Medical Center. There, in 1996, a neurologist named Thomas Freedom finally put a name to her misery: Barbara was suffering from a neurological malady called restless leg syndrome. The condition, which is said to affect up to 12 million Americans, usually appears at night, and in aggravated cases makes it almost impossible for the sufferer to sit or lie in one position for more than 30 seconds or so. Movement alleviates the symptoms, but also creates the most debilitating consequence: severe insomnia.

Dr. Freedom told her that a class of drugs initially manufactured to treat Parkinson’s disease had recently shown great promise. Dopamine agonists, as the drugs are called, promote the presence in the brain of a natural body chemical called dopamine, which in turn calms muscle movement-hence its effectiveness against the “worms” of restless leg syndrome. Dopamine also influences feelings of pleasure and reward. Dr. Freedom explained that the side effects of the drugs were few when they occurred at all-nausea and lightheadedness in some people, dry mouth, hallucinations, involuntary movement, and sudden sleepiness in others. But with Barbara’s initially low dose-.05 of a milligram a day-the doctor said he doubted she would have problems.

The revelation thrilled her. Could a little pill really cure a problem that had tormented her for so many years?

Of the three most popular dopamine agonists, Mirapex, Requip, and Permax, Dr. Freedom wrote a prescription for Permax, a medication made by Eli Lilly and distributed by Valeant Pharmaceuticals. That night Barbara swallowed the pill, then crawled under the covers about midnight. When she woke up and looked at the clock it was 3 a.m. “Three hours might not sound like a lot,” she says. “To me, it was a miracle.” As Bob slumbered, blissfully unaware of the breakthrough, she burst into tears.

 

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