“The world was like a faraway planet to which I could never return.” — Holly Sargis, Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)
I remember the feeling, one of not exactly isolation but otherness. A sense that not only did I not fit in many places where I used to, but also that I lacked the energy to even try — to, like an actor, wear the skin of the old me for an hour or even a few minutes so that others would not feel uncomfortable in my quivering and clearly perturbed presence. I would do it when I had had to, but it was best that I didn’t have to so I could preserve my meager stores of energy for battling the symptoms.
Withdrawal from psychiatric medicines had scrambled not only my interior but also affected my personality or perhaps more aptly, my social interface.
I just … never knew what to say to people. It was like my life was a play and there, up on stage with the hot white lights beating down and the audience hushed in the darkness, I’d forgotten my lines. Or never memorized them in the first place. Or even read the damned script.
People who insisted on lots of eye contact — you know, those intense alpha types — made it even worse, and I’d stutter and stammer and look at my feet and try to find some way to end the conversation and slink off. Situations in which I felt trapped, such as being on the telephone, out to eat, or in professional meetings where you can’t just get up and leave, were the worst. I’d have to dig deep and fight hard to keep up even a politely mediocre level of engagement, so tangled was the labyrinth of confused and fearful thinking that had become my cognition.
This went on for some time: a while, we could say. Many months at full intensity, then fading gradually over the years until I was no longer self-conscious in public, or at least, no longer self-conscious for someone who is by nature taciturn and reclusive.
Many people I’ve corresponded with have reported a similar experience while healing from meds. Not only might you find that some people have abandoned you because your narrative makes them uncomfortable, you might also find yourself in a concomitant “social vacuum” because of the manifestations of your symptoms, which can appear bizarre and inexplicable to an outside observer yet simultaneously so torture you that you are unable to sufficiently mask them.
Still, we all need eventually to rejoin and partake of the world, whether we want to or not. If we don’t, we stagnate; we stay mired in fear. For me, a big impetus was financial: I had essentially nowhere to go, and needed to pay rent and put food in my mouth.
And so, as best I could, I re-entered life. Because I had to.
Different people have different experiences of withdrawal and healing, but one question I’ve heard is, “How do I fill the social vacuum?” or “How do I go about rejoining the world?” Another variant seems to be, “When should I go back to work?”
The easy answer of course would be, “When you’re ready,” but in my experience it’s rarely that simple. Life doesn’t pause or wait for you, and it’s difficult to measure readiness anyway when you’re living amidst symptoms, perhaps unable to gauge improvement except through the eyes of a few trusted others or by, well, getting out and doing the things you’ve been avoiding or that provoke fear.
It’s a tidy catch 22 if I’ve ever seen one: You won’t know if you’re ready to go out to dinner with friends or drive on the highway until you keep that dinner date or gun it down the on-ramp. You just won’t know…until you know. For me, the results were often binary: Either I was comfortable or “comfortable enough” to gut it out, or fight-or-flight would trigger and I’d have a dreadful experience, curse myself for overextending, and have to go home and regroup in a totally demoralized state.
In any case, today I don’t regret any of those initial forays. They were what allowed me to re-expand the boundaries of my world until I was able to take for granted something as formerly terrifying and monolithic as a simple trip to the supermarket.
Ultimately, there was a progression, just like with walking and all the other things that helped me get better. To continue the shopping analogy, I moved from 7-11, to a small local market, to Safeway, going bigger and bolder each time. I remember speaking to my friend Alison about these matters, especially around working, and listening to her sage advice. It had been important for her in withdrawal to get out of the house and back into the world, both to escape being home all day with only the deafening silence and her symptoms for company, but also to feel a sense of purpose and motion and belonging.
So Alison had taken, after her fourth cold turkey off a high dose of Klonopin, a job making muffins at a local bakery that started at 4 a.m. each morning. The early hours suited her, as she wasn’t sleeping much anyway; it was a good time to be out of the house because her symptoms were quieter then; and the work itself was soothing in its predictability, repetition, rhythm, and in how independent she could be, interacting with her coworkers only as much as she needed to or was able on a given day. Inadvertently — more due to life circumstances than anything — this ended up being the approach I took: part-time work with minimal human interaction.
In 2005, as I began to taper off a high dose of benzodiazepines, I’d left my full-time job as a magazine editor despite enjoying the work. I didn’t know enough about benzos at that time to realize that my increasing anxiety was a result of the taper, and so had given up a good job I’d worked toward all my life, believing it to be the source of my stress. I don’t think mine is an uncommon story; I’ve heard plenty of other tales of careers derailed by benzo and psych-med withdrawal.
In any case, for the rest of 2005 as I spiraled down, nearing the zero mark with benzos and being placed on other meds, most often against my will, I managed for all but the three worst months to continue making a living as a freelance writer and editor. This allowed me to work from home. When I was discharged after my final hospitalization, in late 2005, I immediately took on what freelance work I could, to keep my mind active, stay gainfully employed, and not obsess over symptoms.
I would be lying if I didn’t say that some days were better than others; if I didn’t confess that it took a Herculean force of will to keep my skittish eyes and scattered thoughts focused on the page. But in the end I was able, because this much needed to happen or I’d have run out of money.
I also took a part-time job on a construction site a few blocks from my house, working for a good buddy on a crew with three or four other guys. Like Alison’s bakery job, carpentry let me be self-sufficient. Jobsites are loud, chaotic, messy places, and once each guy has his task you generally go off and complete it by yourself or with one other person before moving on to the next, compartmentalized aspect of building.
This job let me be around people in an open-air setting, which helped with the claustrophobic panic feelings I experienced then, as well be self-sufficient in my work and re-strengthen my body. All that lifting, hammering, shoveling, carrying, and nail-gunning made my muscles fire even when they felt like rubber and my hands tingled as if filled with electrified sand. I almost, almost felt “good tired” at the end of the day, and not just flush with adrenaline as per the benzo-withdrawal status quo.
In early 2006, due mostly to opportunity and also the need for health insurance, I took a full-time editorial job while still raw from my ordeal — or to put it more accurately, I was still living the ordeal. It was perhaps here where I waged my hardest fight, having to make myself sit still, be present, and to somehow deal with office drama when I was often out of my skull with chemical terror. There were days — more than a few — where I simply saved my files onto a flash drive and left work early, to finish up in the relative safety of my home.
While some people in the office knew what I was going through, I don’t believe anyone other than a few folks (one of them, fortunately, my boss) knew how bad things truly were. And so, when the demands became too much, I’d exit stage left, marshal my energy, and prepare to return. As I healed, it became easier and easier to be at work; at the same time, being at work made it easier and easier to heal. Being around people in the office environment and also with friends at the cliffs made it easier to be around people in general.
In the end, the effort, as grueling as it was, was worth it. I now “know my lines.”
I’m not sure there is any one cure for filling the social vacuum, but I do believe that we all find a way. For me, so much of it had to be self-motivated and self-guided, or it wouldn’t work. Keeping appointments or doing things at other peoples’ behest often led to disaster. However, if it was something I wanted to do or was curious if I could do again, I often met with better results.
Today, I’m lucky enough to take my freedom to move about the world for granted. It’s hard to conceive of being scared to go to the supermarket so long ago; so outlandish, and so extreme was the experience. But I do remember that things were once this way. Now each time I leave the house, I am grateful.
Matt Samet, a freelance writer and editor in Colorado, is the author of the recently published memoir Death Grip: A Climber’s Escape from Benzo Madness, from St. Martin’s Press. He also maintains a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/mattsametauthor.