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.
thank you Matt. I saw a video with your story and read what you wrote for Outdoor Magazine a few years ago. I in fact shared them both with my readers. I was wondering how you were doing now…and so were some other people who’d read about you on my blog. There was concern that you were still ill. So happy to hear you’ve found wellness.
This post resonates for me. Especially how you talk about learning to find joy even in the dark times because, yeah, if you don’t do that the only other alternative is ending it all.
I’m at close to 3 years post withdrawal. That followed 6 years of withdrawing from a 6 med cocktail…and much of that time I was sick too. I’ve got a long ways to go…I’m still really sick…but I can now at least appreciate the journey in many ways. This is my life…as you point out. The only one I have.
best to you…thank you for sharing.
This testimony is so important, and I’m glad that a writer with your skills, Matt, has produced it.
Ordinary language, even that of medical diagnosis — “depression,” “anxiety,” “panic,” “tremors,” etc. — falls short of describing the horrors of withdrawal syndrome. But in part of a sentence, you capture so much:
“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….”
and I’m sure this was only part of your journey to recovery.
Thank you for posting this. I look forward to your book. I hope it puts the perils of psychiatric drug withdrawal and the lack of knowledge of the medical profession about it in the public spotlight.
And, that the unimaginable hell will end, eventually — so important for all sufferers to know.
After 8 years, I’m coming to the end (I hope) of my recovery from Paxil withdrawal syndrome myself.
Could you elaborate a little bit more on your own experience? I m 3 years out, after 7-8 years on drugs (mainly Paxil and Effexor,plus a 3-month grand finale merry-go-round on multiple benzos,ssri + Abilify -the drug that literally makes you move forward…)
I’ve recovered completely mentally, cognitive functions are ok, but still suffer direly physically : burning, random pain on the surface of bones, flu-like symptoms, migraines. The symptoms wax and wane but it’s still very hard on the whole. Impossible to work or reengage socially in those conditions. I m 36 and hope it won’t last too long at this point, as i’m still relatively young ; i have the felling, the longer it takes, the greater will be the difficulties to regain a decent social and professional life.
As you can imagine, 8 years of recovery is quite a saga.
I can say at least for the first 4 years, the symptoms were grueling but recovery was gradual but progressive. However, in the 4th year, I made a mistake, I didn’t take care of myself and got myself into a very stressful situation which caused a major setback generating a severe sleep disorder.
I have been recovering from that over the last 4 years.
I’m 62 now; I think younger people might recover faster.
I run a peer support site for tapering and prolonged withdrawal syndrome http://survivingantidepressants.org Please register and share your story with us.
I like the symmetry: seven years on, seven years off. Neat.
Your title phrases, “The Other Side” and “Death Grip” are both apt and evocative. I look forward to more.
My son was diagnosed schizophrenic in 45 minutes four years ago. He is currently on 1200 mg seroquel and most lethargic and lacking energy. I wonder if his negative symptoms are more a result of the medication than the label?? How does he go about reducing and possibly eventually going off the medication?? His visits with the psychiatrist are nothing more than med checks, very little is being done to treat the person instead of the label. I recognize that going off medication is a long process, how do we go about finding a health care professional who is willing to monitor this? Otherwise how do we do this by ourselves?
I want to thank you so much for your incredible writing. I cannot wait to buy your book and I marked the Feb. release date on my calendar. Your words are so eloquent and they truly capture the agony of a benzo. addiction. I tapered off a 3-year-long Xanax & Valium addiction last year using the Ashton Manual in part, and it was one of my biggest accomplishments. I rank it up there with childbirth. Emboldened by that achievement, I am now slowly tapering off the only drug I take for bipolar disorder (lithium carbonate), I’ve been at a non-therapeutic dose for the past 6 months, and I’m doing better than I have in many, many years. As nationally published freelance writer, I am writing a book: “Brand New Brain: My Ultimately Medication-Free Recovery From Postpartum Bipolar Disorder” and very excited about this new life. I also started a Facebook page called Natural Healing for Mothers with Bipolar Disorder. Robert Whitaker’s book “Anatomy of an Epidemic”, Beyond Meds, and Dr. Liz Miller’s blog have all profoundly influenced me to try life med-free. I know with all my heart that I can do it. I look forward to reading your book for further inspiration as my Big Day off lithium will be a little bit after your book comes out: February 21, 2013. Thank you for being a bright light – we need you very much in this world!
Ah, Matt! So sweet. I’m currently 7 1/2 months into what looks like will be an 8 1/2 month detox from 6mg of Ativan. As were so many, I was given my initial dose of 2mg and told that these were golden pills, in no way addictive and that they’d solve my temporary insomnia. Two years later I was at 6mg, highly addicted and suffering interdose withdrawal. I wish I’d known then, what I know now which is that I will get off and I will feel human again.
I’m currently down to 5mg of Valium. I’ve promised myself that with each drop I’ll try to be as present each and every moment, as I can. You’re right, despite feeling like I’m in hell with a headlamp, it’s still my life. When the tremors come, the nausea, the nihilism … I try to dive in and give all of it as much presence as possible. I try not to retreat or curl. It makes things more bearable, it makes me able to care for my children and to be very aware when I’m red-lining and need help.
So, thanks. It’s a horrific and beautiful passage, though none of us would choose it. And you’re right, we choose the way in which we move through. We can buck and thrash, or we can be the animals that we are and relax, go limp if need be. And when we’re really sick, find a bush to lie underneath.
All best. Can’t wait for the book.
Melissa, this is almost a year later ..I do hope that you successfully finished the Ativan taper.
It looks like you crossed over to Valium ..How was that experience?
I am suffering with severe head symptoms especially, trying to taper Ativan. This taper is complicated by a CT of 2 ADs at a Detox Facility this past January.
I am debilitated, and unable to function.
Sadly, I cannot find anyone to help me overcome this nightmare ..:(
Congratulations Matt, for finding your way to the end of the tunnel.
Healing thoughts for everyone ..