With little fanfare and even a glance at the calendar to confirm it, I realized as I sat down to write this that December 5 marked the seven-year anniversary of the last time I took a benzodiazepine tranquilizer. I had been prescribed the pills for a “panic disorder” starting at age 21, and took them daily from 1998 to 2005 as a “prophylaxis” against anxiety, in ever-escalating doses as prescribed. My final dose was, I think, a quarter-milligram of lorazepam, administered on the fourth-floor Affective Disorders Unit of the Meyer Psychiatry Building, at the Johns Hopkins Institute in Baltimore. I have not taken any since.
My history with these tranquilizers as well as with other psychiatric medicines (and substance abuse) is long and convoluted. I won’t bore you here with the gory details. Suffice it to say that my big problem was always benzos, and that my world unraveled like a cheap sisal doormat as I struggled to taper off clonazepam in 2005, a struggle so profound I ended up in three different hospitals, given diagnoses of bipolar disorder and major depression, and placed on countless other psychiatric medications, which only made me sicker and prolonged the agony of the post-benzo washout and recovery.
Lore has it your body renews all its cells every seven years, so by that metric I suppose I became a whole new me on December 5. Great, and very reassuring—it has often been a slugfest to get here.
What I’d like to write about on this blog and what I know the chemically imprisoned me of seven years ago would most wonder is, what is life like on the other side? That is, how does it feel to live free of psychiatric medications and the shackles of any attendant diagnoses after years of dependency, both on the drugs and the system? And perhaps more importantly, how did I persist through the hell of withdrawal and reintegrate into the world in a meaningful way, all the while with no guarantee that it might ever happen? In my conversations with other people living similar stories, that’s often one of the first questions that comes up: How did you do it — how did you get better? (And I am better, almost completely so!) And of course, “Will I get better too?”
The easiest answer and the first one I turn to is also the simplest: time. I did my research, realized it would likely take months and years — not weeks — for my brain and nervous system to normalize to something resembling a baseline state, and I made my peace as best I could with a time span then ultimately unknowable, even as I craved nothing more than its end. Even as I prayed for a fast-forward button on my very life so that I might wake up some magical, sun-soaked morning no longer paralyzed by a swarm of profound and horrific symptoms.
But time is only half the equation, because the true crux is what you do with that time. There is no fast-forward button on life, and I don’t believe there should be. Why treat your stint on Earth, even the darkest hours, like slogging through an eight-hour shift at some crappy, low-paying job? The benzo sites I visited would offer guidelines for healing — 18 months, three years, varies among individuals — that I at first clung to as goalposts and almost as doctrine, practically X’ing off days on the calendar. But it was the wrong approach. As I learned, to truly get well, I needed to utilize and even “enjoy” those bleak, mirthless months, weeks, days, minutes, seconds, and microseconds of psycho-spiritual hell, because I simply had no clue when they would end.
This was still my life, I was still getting older, time was still passing at its pace, and the world was still moving on. Never mind that, hermetically sealed within my bubble of med-withdrawal insanity, I often felt like the character Holly in Terence Malick’s classic 1973 film Badlands: that “The world was like a faraway planet to which I could never return.” Even in the throes of reality-shattering symptoms like depersonalization and derealization, I still needed to live in the moment and learn from this experience lest I fall prey to the same mistakes that had brought me here.
I was still me; this was still my life.
As I hope to explore more thoroughly in future posts, I took proactive steps to reclaim normalcy. Upon deliberately leaving behind the doctors and the hospitals, I wrote my own discharge plan, since theirs — a chemical straitjacket of manmade molecules — wasn’t working for me. At a glance, the things that helped the most were distraction; forcing myself back into physical and intellectual form coupled somewhat paradoxically with ample rest (remaining physically and emotionally still); avoiding stress; and cultivating empathy and an awareness of my plight and how it temporarily redefined my role in the world. I hope to share deeper and more anecdotal specifics as this blog matures, because it was through these experiences that I became me again, almost like an actor learning to inhabit a new role.
Finally, I’d love to reassure anyone reading this or in benzo or anti-depressant or anti-psychotic withdrawal hell that it does get better, and that I have healed much more than I ever thought possible. At my darkest hours, I certainly lacked all faith. Sleeping two hours a night, vibrating constantly like a half-busted refrigerator, barely able to converse or make eye contact, sweating, sheathed in muscular rigidity, panicking, too weak and fatigued to exercise, too distracted to read even a simple magazine article, I remember thinking the pain would never end. But it did.
Consider that: A big anniversary, the seven-year one, came and went and I barely even noticed. That more than anything should be proof that even the worst of basket cases, myself included, eventually do improve.
Matt Samet, a freelance writer and editor in Colorado, maintains a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/mattsametauthor and has detailed his story in a memoir, Death Grip, available February 11, 2013, from St. Martin’s Press.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.