In May of 2008, I sat in a Boston hotel room, lounging on my King sized bed with its navy blue, pinstriped duvet. A bright red chair sat near the window. Everything was neat and clean and there was an unbelievable expanse of floor. I was eight months pregnant with my first child and I was at the Neiman Conference on Narrative Journalism. The world felt alive and bright and full of possibility. I was in heaven.
That first morning, I walked to what looked like a mile-long conference room. Anne Hull and Dana Priest, journalists from the Washington Post, were giving a talk about how they broke the story on the horrid conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I don’t know if you remember the stories, but Hull and Priest received a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the unjust treatment of wounded Iraq war veterans at Walter Reed Hospital. The men, she said were “afloat on a river of painkillers and antipsychotic drugs.” Each morning, they were expected to rise at dawn for formation, though most of them were snowed under by benzodiazepines, opiates, alcohol – anything that would push Iraq and the pain away. The work of these journalists evoked a national outcry. Light was shed and reforms were made.
Hull told us that she broke the story by standing outside Mologne House, a four-story hotel behind the hospital that became a holding tank for hundreds of wounded soldiers.
She’d hang out near the magnolia tree that was the spot for smoke breaks. All the soldiers smoked there. All day long, men came on two legs or one or none. Hull kept packs of cigarettes in her jacket and when someone came out for a smoke break, she’d offer them one.
They’d talk. It was simple.
Soon, she was inside, being shown around. After four months of getting to know many of the soldiers at Walter Reed, Hull started writing. The neglect was profound. PTSD was rampant, as were suicides and overdoses because of the abundance of medication and alcohol. Hull and Priest exposed the needless suffering of these wounded soldiers –men who could barely speak they were so fogged in with medication and despair. These journalists threw open the doors and let the light in for the world to see. They talked to the men and wrote with brutal honesty. By doing so, they changed things.
What I didn’t know at the time was that just a year later I too would be snowed under and would fight an invisible war of my own. I was a young journalist and poet and I’d never taken more than a few Ibuprofen in my life. But, after the birth of my son, I became pregnant again. A hormonal tsunami hit and I stopped sleeping. Completely. After a few weeks I was hallucinating. The world was an agony I could barely tolerate. I walked to the grocery store because I didn’t dare drive. I sobbed in the bathroom because my arms and head burned as if I was buried under steroidal bees. My worried nurse midwife put me on Ambien CR, which I took every night for the duration of my pregnancy. I began getting four to five hours of sleep a night and still, I’d often break through the pharmaceutical haze to wander the house half-cocked and ready to bolt from this world.
I cold turkeyed the Ambien CR when my daughter was born. I’d never been told that this was a bad idea. With Ambien’s close relation to benzodiazepines, I was at risk for seizure. This, I didn’t know until much later. And the withdrawal was so tinged with caring for a new baby that I simply attributed the continued insomnia, muscle spasms and despair to mama fatigue. I plowed through the snow. Three months after my daughter was born, I went to see a new doctor. I was given a new prescription, to be taken nightly for as long as I needed. By July of 2009, I was up to 6mg Ativan nightly. I was snowed under. Six months later, I’d lost twenty pounds and was falling regularly – in the kitchen, down the stairs. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t read. My children would hold their arms to be held and at times I couldn’t pick them up. It wasn’t until months later, deep in withdrawal tolerance that I realized my slide into disability was caused by the drugs.
I spent the entirety of 2012 withdrawing. It felt like being dragged into Persephone’s underworld. Muscle spasms gripped me at night like the jaws of a pit bull. I lost more weight. Electric shocks would hit, stealing my breath. Despair was a deep well and I was in it. It went like this for months and months. It seemed interminable.
And now, over a year later, I am out. The benzodiazepine death camp feels like a horrific dream. I think often of Hull and Priest and how they saved some of the men at Walter Reed from being medicated into oblivion. I think of social justice and of the innumerable people who are still snowed under. Many have written to tell me their stories and to ask if I’ve made it out, if I can hold my children. My answer is yes, and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to keep these stories close and try to throw the door open to let the world see.
As soon as I could write I began Dear Little Fish, the book that is, for me, a call for social justice. I nearly lost my life to these drugs. Many still struggle. I’m writing my book to throw open the doors. Like Hull and Priest, I want to expose the profound injustice that’s a dark shadow of our medical system. These drugs are not benign. These drugs do not relieve suffering if used long term. These drugs are a Faustian bargain and we are losing a generation of people in the deal.
I am writing my book as a long arm to reach those who are still in the benzo death camp. I’m writing it for those who are outside looking in. I’m writing it for those who don’t even know it exists. In the spirit of Hull and Priest, I’m writing to say, Look, goddamnit, look at this suffering. We have to do something. We can’t turn away.
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The Kickstarter campaign for Melissa Bond’s forthcoming book,
“Dear Little Fish,” will go live on October 28th, 2014.