What was wrong with me?
It was a question that haunted me on the deepest level. It haunted me before I took my first Klonopin tablet at age 26. It haunted me while I was on Klonopin. And it haunted me more than it ever had when I withdrew from Klonopin at age 28.
But it was a question that had haunted me long before my nightmare of Klonopin use and withdrawal.
As a teenager I suffered on-and-off bouts of severe depression. My mom took me to a psychiatrist, who used my answers to short questionnaires to diagnose me with a different form of depression every few months. With each new diagnosis, I got to try a different drug. Prozac and Luvox gave me side effects. Lithium took away my creativity and sense of humor. Finally, Zoloft seemed to subtly help without any side effects. I was on it from age 14 to 23. I had several bouts of severe depression even while on the drug. But I could function.
I was all too familiar with the haunting feeling that there was something deeply wrong with me, something no one could help me with, something ephemeral that could never heal: a chemical imbalance, as my mom and psychiatrist labeled it.
I stopped taking Zoloft at age 23 when I got help unearthing what was actually wrong. I saw a very gifted counselor and psychologist whose relationship with me and insights helped me see the many things that had bothered me over the years. I got to feel them, grieve them, understand them, and process them. My depression left and did not return.
At age 26, when I thought mental disturbance was a thing of the past, something else became wrong… really wrong: I was unable to sleep.
I had my first “real” job counseling college students. Some stressful aspects of my job led to increasing anxiety, snowballing into severe insomnia. I did not sleep for five days. The Urgent Care treatment center near my job prescribed me Lunesta and then, when that didn’t work, Ambien. Ambien also didn’t put me to sleep, so I finally decided to visit my family doctor, who prescribed me 2-4 milligrams of Klonopin per night.
Someone had told me to stay away from “benzos.” But my doctor said he needed to give me something that would “knock me out.” By that point, I was willing to try anything to be “knocked out.”
I soon developed a fear of benzo dependency and began scheming about how I might get off the drug down the road. I imagined that, when I was ready, it would be a simple matter of finding a less habit-forming drug that would enable me to get off the Klonopin.
The Klonopin sure did knock me out. For six months, determined to forget all about insomnia, I chose never to go a single night without Klonopin.
Finally I was ready to unearth the truth of whether I could sleep naturally again. What I didn’t know was that I was in for a very harsh “awakening.”
It was time for the college students’ summer break, and, for the first time in months, I decided not to swallow the 2 milligrams of Klonopin I’d been taking nightly. Instead, I took Trazodone, a drug my doctor said would help me transition off Klonopin.
After I took the Trazodone, my body felt quite heavy, as if I were loaded with concrete and sinking continually down through my bed and my floor. I got nothing close to a good night’s sleep.
Throughout the summer, I tried Trazodone many times, hoping the result would somehow become different. But the more I tried it, the wider awake it left me. I once took it for three nights straight, even doubling the dose, but didn’t sleep a wink and felt quite wired. I also began experiencing the effects of a “cold-turkey” discontinuation of Klonopin: I heard ringing in my ears and broke out into a rash. The nightmare had begun in earnest.
I had no idea what was happening to me; when I’d asked my doctor if I could discontinue Klonopin abruptly, he’d said yes.
The only thing I could conclude is exactly what I had come to believe once before, as a teenager: something is very, very wrong with me.
The students came back from break, my stressful full-time job resumed, and I was back at square one, taking 2 mg of Klonopin nightly. Soon, though, my sleep became light, and I began waking up throughout the night. My doctor had initially said I could take between 2 and 4 milligrams Klonopin per night, so I increased my dose from 2 to 3 milligrams. At 3 milligrams, I found that I could sleep soundly again. But deep within me, I was not at rest. Something really was very wrong—I just didn’t know what it was, when exactly it had begun, or how I could fix it. But I was determined to find out what it was. After nine months on Klonopin, I began a journey of relentlessly trying everything under the sun to get a good night’s sleep apart from Klonopin. The plan was simple: go without Klonopin on a given night and try something new. If I could find anything but a benzo to put me to sleep, I could at least believe that there was a possibility for me to be free from benzo dependency.
I tried counseling, holy oil at church, journaling, hypnosis CDs, lavender under my pillow, many vitamins and minerals, mineral salts, herbs and herbal tinctures, yoga poses, melatonin, over-the-counter sleep aids, sunlight, exercise, warm baths, and light therapy gadgets. I tried odd-sounding psychological remedies I discovered on the internet that involved repeating mantras, rolling my eyes backwards, and tapping various body parts. I called up a guy who did “muscle testing” of his body to get answers about my condition and then used magnets to pull out the troubled emotions of his clients – all without ever meeting them face-to-face.
None of these remedies gave me a minute of sleep.
Then there were other drugs to try. I was so optimistic that I would find a non-benzo drug to put me to sleep. My eyes became tired as I scanned my computer screen for hours, reading reviews of various sleeping pills. I learned of all the classes of sleeping pills and was determined to try at least one from each class.
I could already cross benzos off that list.
Getting my hands on sleeping pills wasn’t difficult. I didn’t trust my family doctor enough to tell him my dilemma, so instead I again visited the Urgent Care treatment center nearby work. I saw at least three different physicians during my many visits. I told each one that I could not sleep and needed to find a drug other than Klonopin. I would tell each one what drug I wanted to try next based on my internet research. They wrote me the prescriptions without much conversation. One by one, I obtained Elavil, Doxepin, Seroquel, Rozerem, and Vistaril. I had already tried Lunesta, Ambien, and Trazodone.
To my growing dismay and panic, none of these drugs put me to sleep. Some had intolerable side effects. The failure to find a drug to replace the Klonopin magnified my sense that something was very wrong with me.
At that time of deep confusion and despair, I discovered for the first time, while reading online, a condition called “benzodiazepine withdrawal.” I learned that the action of a benzo on brain receptors replaces the brain’s natural activities. The result? The brain doesn’t kick back in and start doing what it is supposed to when someone stops taking a benzo. The brain takes time to resume its natural functioning. During one’s time in benzo withdrawal, the natural GABA activity that allows relaxation, sleep, and a sense of well-being is not functioning. According to my personal study, an average duration in benzo withdrawal is six months.
It was the first time in my Klonopin journey it occurred to me the problem might not be inherent in me. The problem might actually be the Klonopin.
Convinced my very life was at stake, I made the firm decision to get off the stuff once and for all. If I got off Klonopin, I might, just might be normal again someday. I learned online that abruptly discontinuing Klonopin was dangerous, even potentially fatal. That explained the strange symptoms I had experienced when going three days without it the previous summer. It also explained why I had been wide awake every single night I had gone without it, no matter what else I had tried.
I learned I needed to get off the drug very slowly; I would have to get a compounded pharmacy to mail me each month’s supply of four bottles, each week’s capsules containing 5% less Klonopin than the previous week’s. I told my family doctor I preferred to get off Klonopin slowly via a compounded pharmacy, and, in spite of his odd facial expression, he proceeded to write me my last prescription for a slow taper.
I was optimistic about tapering slowly off. I hoped my brain would adapt to the gradual withdrawal of the drug and that, by the end of the five-month taper, my natural sleep would come back. In addition, I was purchasing expensive supplements from a drug recovery program that promised benzo withdrawal would be more manageable if I followed their supplement program.
I had no idea what was in store for me.
During and after my Klonopin taper, my very worst fears were realized. I experienced a hell worse than I ever imagined was real. I cannot adequately describe my experience in words. I did not feel human. I did not believe it was possible for me to recover. I was convinced I would die.
And, worst of all, the fear that something was inherently wrong with me came back full force, stronger than it had ever been. I believed my life was officially over and that it would someday end in suicide.
But I am happy to tell you that I did recover from Klonopin withdrawal five years ago. I wrote my entire 307 page story in my book Klonopin Withdrawal and Howling Dogs: Maybe it was God.
Since recovering from Klonopin withdrawal, I have become and remain certain that there is nothing wrong with me.
I can tell you the things that have been wrong: Lack of proper nutrition, continuing in unmanageable stress, being at spiritual, emotional, and mental unrest, and being in unhealthy relationships. I have learned to eat a lot of nutrients, especially when stressed, and to avoid the many dangerous additives in the standard American diet. I have learned to take probiotics and eat organic greens. I have learned to remove myself from situations that are detrimental to me physically, emotionally, or spiritually. I have learned to discover and resolve the things that are actually bothering me. I have learned how to relate to others in a healthy way.
Of the things in my life that have been truly wrong, chemical imbalance was never one of them.
The message and practice of psychiatry told me there was something inherently wrong with me, and, more particularly, with my brain. It said that I needed a drug, and when the drug was damaging me, it inferred that I was the problem.
I have never been happier, healthier, or more productive that I am now, and being drug-free has been indispensable to that happiness. Though not everyone has my story, I do hope I can encourage others who are plagued with the fear of something chemically wrong with them. I also hope my story can be an encouragement to those who are or will be suffering from withdrawal from a tranquilizer or other psychiatric drug. Total healing can be waiting on the other side.
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.