Social Justice and the Benzodiazepine Death Camp

Melissa Bond
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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 smoke.

She’d smoke.

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.

* * * * *

The Kickstarter campaign for Melissa Bond’s forthcoming book,
Dear Little Fish,” will go live on October 28th, 2014.

29 COMMENTS

  1. Melissa thanks for writing this. I am so glad that you are free, of medication.

    Your story is an inspiration, to many, who are trapped just like you were. And many more who need hope to get free.

    These drugs are very dangerous medications, given out like Candy by psychiatrists and a medical and insurance system that really doesn’t care, if you live or die.

    Please don’t stop writing about this, please don’t stop bringing this information to the public. You will save many lives, and many people from the hell you once experienced.

  2. I started weeping when I read this. My FIFTH year of withdrawal (I was cold-turkey’ed) starts in October. Some days, I don’t know how to go on. I want most to heal. Second most, I want them to stop doing this to innocent unsuspecting victims. Thank you for writing a book. I just want people to care about this because it’s so, so wrong and inhumane. I look forward to reading it, as I have enjoying reading all of your blog entries here on Mad in America. Thank you for continuing to fight for those of us still in the death camp. I can only hope to join you on the other side one day.

  3. I’m so so sorry, putteshoe-how many are lost? Pretty sure I would not be here if not for the internet and the support I’ve found online.

    How sad it that…it is truly hell on earth. No one who hasn’t experienced it can fathom it.

    If I live thru this, if I make it to the other side, I’m going to make a lot of noise.

  4. I also am a survivor of this hellish experience. Words cannot express the darkness that one endures from these drugs. This is a disgusting, horrific, and tragic thing that is happening in our world with little public awareness. We need people to be writing and speaking if things are going to change. Please let me know if i can help in any way. I would be willing to tell my story. Thank you, thank you, thank you! May you light the way for all of us and save some of our children from enduring such agony.

  5. Dear Melissa,

    Thank you, for not only spreading awareness on what destructive power’s these drug’s have but for also giving me hope that I can continue my flight for wellness. Almost 4 month’s off and ìts been nothing short of a living hell. Each day in purgatory for month’s is not for the faint hearted! Ironically it was my faint heart that brought me to the benzo gates of hell.

    Keep shouting hun.

  6. Dear Melissa,
    Thank you for your post and I look forward to reading your book – I applaud you in your mission to take this issue to a wider audience. I am a medic/oncologist and I am deeply ashamed to report that I only became aware of the issue of benzodiazepine withdrawal when my mother became embroiled in a benzo detox nightmare this year. Approximately one month after a botched rapid withdrawal program supervised by an ‘addiction specialist’ (who was deeply unsympathetic to her suffering and blamed her symptoms on ‘anxiety’), she took her own life. She was not depressed – her emails to benzobuddies are testimony to to her desperate struggle to survive against the onslaught of pain and emotional lability she was battling. I am appalled that the medical community continues to dish out these drugs indiscriminately and then barely acknowledges the difficulties of withdrawal – let alone offers any support. And the aftermath is torture for a family like mine. Please continue your fight and to spread the word. Best wishes, F

    • I am sorry about your loss.
      Most so called addiction-ologists. Know very little about drugs, especially street drugs, its sad but true. They just go by what the PDR, or Merck manual says. If its not in there, they don’t know about it.. Having worked as a director of a Detox facility, without a medical degree, I have seen first hand the difficulties that doctors have with these drugs. They don’t give enough time for withdrawal symptoms to subside. And its not unusual for users to come back, to the hospital days after they were thought to be finished, in acute withdrawal… This is something they aren’t usually aware of…

      Currently there are problems with Xanax, and seizures. Even small prescriptions for this drug can be dangerous, due to what appears to be a lowering of the seizure thresh hold. Anyone remember, Halcyon? Their chemically related.

      • Its my understanding that Benzodiazpenes were initially derived from Barbiturates.

        Barbiturates, as a class of drugs have a unique problem with duel tolerance , in that the tolerance to the respiratory suppressant effects of the drug, develops at a different rate than the tolerance to the sedative effects of the drug. In other words. people using the drug developed a tolerance to sedative effects, while not developing a sufficient tolerance to the respiratory effects. The result was that eventually the dose that they had to take to get high was the one that killed them due to respiratory failure.

        Benzodiazepines, were supposed to fix that problem… Unfortunately all Benzo’s seem to create problems with seizures, probably because of their lowering the seizure threshold. Probably by creating some sort of parasympathetic excess…

  7. If instead of drug technicians we had genuine doctors, but then beggars would be driving Mercedes. If the FDA were really what it claims to be, these pharmaceuticals would all be Schedule 1: “Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.”
    Imagine if we had medical schools where persons could learn about human bodies and what to do if they became ill . . . but then we would be imagining a world without corporations. The world is currently set up to ensure the health and well being of corporations. Just look how big and strong they are.
    You would have been far better off talking LSD a few times. Or eating magic mushrooms.

  8. Thank you Melissa!

    Finally, someone who is telling it like it is. I’m ecstatic that I found your blog. I’m in the midst of tapering off this toxic poison. I knew I was losing it after two years of taking Xanax during the day and Temazepam at night. I started taking these meds for insomnia and anxiety while working 60 hours per week while taking care of my ailing sister for a year. She eventually succumbed to cancer last November at age 46. At first the pills worked great. But within 3 months I was coming apart, and I had to continue to function at a high level due to the responsibilities that I had. Force of will! I thought the symptoms I was having were due to stress (and some of them were). Following the tragic death of my sister I kept taking the meds for another 9 months while ending a marriage to an abusive psychopath who cheated on me while I was caring for my sister.

    Before taking these pills I was healthy, athletic, strong, and my friends jokingly called me “Mr. Excitement” because of my passion for life, my fun personality, my career accomplishments and my determination and spirit. After 1 year and 9 months on these meds, I could barely think straight, I was having serious memory loss, I could hardly walk, my vision was blurry, and I was having horrible non-stop heartburn and acid reflux. My right foot felt like it was broken and I hadn’t done anything to break it. The sole of the same foot did and does feel like it’s burned, but it’s not. I have arthritis like feeling in my joints. I completely switched to an organic gluten free diet, I cut out chocolate, sugar, alcohol, fried food, all processed food, added $100’s of dollars of top quality vitamins to my diet, switched to alkaline water, got massage and spa treatments, started an exercise program, prayed like crazy…. and all of my symptoms GOT WORSE BECAUSE I WAS STILL TAKING THIS POISON!!

    That’s when I realized it was the drugs that were making me sick. So I made the decision to taper off three months ago. My doctor would have written me scripts forever. These drugs are evil and the companies that manufacture them are evil as well. And I don’t loosely label something or someone as evil. The doctors that prescribe them long term are simply ignoramuses. The medical industry IS the disease not the cure.

    Benzo’s attack your organs, muscles, and nervous system in a very serious way. You’re better off drinking and smoking weed if you can’t sleep or have anxiety. You would literally be better off regardless of how much and how often you drank or smoked. Not that I’m an advocate of heaving drinking or heavy smoking, but I’m stating a true point of fact learned though experience .

    My doctor is and has been fighting me on the Ashton Method of tapering. She would not switch me to Valium (which as you know has a longer half life), even after I gave her all the education materials and a withdrawal management chart. So I just stocked up on what she was willing to prescribe and started chopping pills to taper. I’m down to 1 mg Xanax per day from having taken 4-6mg Xanax per day and 60 -80 mg per night of Temazapan depending on how sleep deprived I was. I figured it was time to taper off when the drugs were not only making me physically sick and mentally exhausted, but were also increasing my anxiety and insomnia. The last 10 days I’ve been feeling the withdrawal symptoms hardcore. I lost 25 pounds in 6 months before deciding to taper off and another 5 lbs since beginning tapering. Fortunately I’m 6’6″ and was a bit over weight at 260 lbs, so I actually look fit. But I’ve had to force myself to eat extra because the weight kept dropping. I went to the emergency room twice in the last 3 days thinking I had a blot clot in my leg, tetanus, a hiatal hernia, and a heart problem, all the while suspecting it was withdrawal symptoms from the Benzo’s. The clean bill of health that I received from the hospital today after thousands of dollars worth of tests convinced me… it’s the benzo’s. This is withdrawal and welcome to it! I’m probably tapering a little too fast, but I’m so pissed off that the anger and striving to kick benzo’s in the arse is driving me, and I WILL WIN!

    Your story has allayed my fears and strengthened my resolve.

    I’ll be done with these poison pills in 60 days tops, and I’m sure I’ll have symptoms for awhile. But I’m looking forward to contributing what I can to your book drive and to sounding the alarm about this menace. May you and your family be blessed.