I’ve wondered for a long time how I managed to get caught in the razor wire of benzodiazepines. I didn’t sleep for long enough to have me hovering around psychosis — true. My doctor had a dizzy insistence that benzos would resolve the problem — also true. The benzo wire was so low and sharp that I was caught before I realized I’d fallen. How could I have known? But still, the question lingers.
I began to look at everything. My parents both leaned heavy into the space of addiction throughout their lives. And by addiction I mean drugs used as recreation and escape. They both indulged in street drugs: cocaine, alcohol, Quaaludes. Despite the fact that I spent many of my early years in therapy, trying to understand their impulses and how they’d affected me, I wondered if I was somehow culpable. Those little pills that brought brief sleep and then years of torment – did I draw them in? Was there some unacknowledged thirst that came from my bloodline? Much as I dug here, my hands remained empty. I never wanted the drugs. I’d never used drugs for recreation and I didn’t now. There was no desire for escape or a loopy thrill. I only wanted the sleep that had somehow vanished. When the wire came down, swift and clean, I was trapped and I could barely breathe.
After looking at the narrow circle of my family dynamics, I began looking at the wider circle of culture. In looking at culture, I looked at the stories we tell. And by stories, I mean a kind of cultural lexicon – things we say at cocktail parties, in theaters, at work and with our families. I also mean the stories that are reflected to us via pop culture. We’re mirrored here. Life becomes art becomes life. Bill Mahr jokes about Obama’s cool having its origin in Xanax and we all share in the joke. People swap chill pills at dinner parties and at work because in today’s culture, we don’t want the druggy amphetamines of the 1970s, we want the chill pills that have surpassed mother’s little helper with massive strides. My own introduction to benzodiazepines came with this kind of casual delivery years before my doctor prescribed them. A friend offered Klonopin to my boyfriend. He was going through some family trauma and she said that the pills would help. Neither of us had any idea what kind of drug Klonopin was. She called them “Special-K,” swore they weren’t addictive and reached into her purse.
Recently I saw a comic that depicted a harried, wild-eyed woman with the words, “Got Xanax?” underneath. There are innumerable such comics. What they tell us is that the cultural conversation here is predominantly casual – a belief that the drugs of chill are simply “better living through chemistry.” Jokes are made that if someone is too worked up that it’s not just wrong, it’s uncool. And in this day and age it’s cool to be sane, but it’s even cooler to be chill.
This kind of informality in the cultural tide of stories does a number of things. First, it gives us the mistaken sense that these drugs are not harmful. Second, it promotes a kind of spiritual bypass by which we avoid feeling many of life’s most potent, difficult and transformative moments. As benzodiazepines have grown in popularity, there’s also been a popular movement in many New Age and self-help circles that promotes a hierarchy of feeling. Distance and non-reactivity are celebrated. Howls of anguish, anger and altered states are not. There’s a belief that we create our own reality and thus if something bad happens that we’re somehow responsible.
Many eastern spiritual traditions value acceptance and a witnessing self that engages with the world without being trounced by it. I have high esteem for these traditions and what they offer. However, some of the cultural narrative that’s evolved out of the New Age movement has promoted stories that change the flavor of these traditions. I don’t believe that Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, would say that It’s all good. This catch phrase that’s become so popular it’s emblazoned on t-shirts and bumper stickers, promotes the idea that whatever happens, it’s cool. It’s all part of the cosmic plan. If you grieve the loss of your mother with snot coming out of your nose and if you darken the house for weeks, someone should give you a pill to help with that.
The comparison that I’m making here does not in any way detract from the beautiful origins of the New Age movement. As with most spiritual traditions, dilution happens and cultural stories take on a life of their own. What I find fascinating is that our cultural narratives around chill pills and the self-help/New Age movement share something that encourages us to bypass emotions that don’t feel easy or good. We value being chill over other emotions. It’s here that we cut off very deep and important elements of our human experience.
My curiosity about the connection between the spiritual bypass and the chill pill does not give me any easy answers into my own fall into the hell of benzodiazepines. I was prescribed them for insomnia that was beginning to damage my health. What I’m aware of is that my doctor and I both swim in the same cultural waters. I wonder if he’d have believed that they were as benign as he stated if the stories that surrounded us hadn’t promoted this belief? I wonder if I’d have taken them with such trust?
There’s no clear answer, here. But while I practice my meditation and offer profound gratitude to be off the chill pills, I will continue to feel the salves and knives of this world. I will also continue to be part of the culture. My aim now is to create a narrative that celebrates rather than bypasses much of life’s deep flavor. I also hope to inject the idea that these drugs are far from benign. As a friend of mine once said, “There’s nothing more serious than a joke.”
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Melissa Bond has launched her Dear Little Fish Kickstarter, and now officially has adrenaline running out of her ears. Check it out. Send her some happy emoticons — and yourself as well. She’ll send you woodland fairies and a masseuse via telepathy. She’s that good.
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.