My dramatic and traumatic relationship with a benzodiazepine began eleven years ago when my dear husband, fifteen years my senior, began his journey down the dementia trail. On a routine visit to his geriatric physician, I told her I was having trouble sleeping next to the man I loved knowing that the only ‘cure’ for his advancing decline was death. Dr. A’s immediate response was to take a prescription pad from the pocket of her crisp white smock. “Ativan (Lorazepam)/100/1mg/take as needed up to 3mg per day,” she wrote — with no warnings that if used too long it could cause a disruption in my brain and central nervous system that could take years from which to recover.
During the next four years, three other physicians, an addiction specialist, a nurse practitioner, and one psychiatrist kept refilling the prescription along with other brain-masking concoctions: Remeron, Trazadone, Zoloft and other antidepressants. I was being told my mind was in trouble, when it became obvious my mind was just fine, t’was my brain that was balking at the toxic molecules pouring over it day after day, blunting my natural resources to get through those anxious times.
In 2009, under the sweetest of circumstances — in our bed and without any more than a final “sigh” — my husband died, though throughout those final years, he never lost his Yankee dignity, his acerbic humor, nor the look of the “Yaley” I met in the second half of our lives.
Was I ready for it? Not really, though I knew he was.
Did I feel it? No!
Two years on Ativan at that point took care of that, pretty much blunting all my feelings; yet, in a way, protecting me from the natural grieving process. That came almost three years after I finally got rid of the damn pills. Since my husband’s passage was not the first I witnessed in my family circle, I might have been more prepared for the grieving process had I not been Benzodized.
In January of 2012, after trying to wean myself off the Ativan for months, I incarcerated myself in one of Southern California’s celebrity-friendly thirty-day residential treatment programs, where in two weeks I was rapidly taken off the Ativan with other drugs, while facing an archaic attitude that ALL addictions were the same — benzodiazepines were no different. I even had to go to AA meetings where coffee flowed and cigarettes fumed, or the staff would not let me go to the Sunday night movie with my cohorts.
Nevertheless, it worked. I returned home to Oregon Ativan Free, thinking I had beaten the benzo rap.
Not so, it turned out! Two weeks later, I was plunged into the fight of my life to recover from a Protracted Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS), like Professor Heather Ashton wrote about in The Ashton Manual.
Until the beginning of 2015, I lived 24 hours a day, 7 days a week flu-sick, of a magnitude harking back to the worst morning sicknesses with each of my pregnancies. That was the year I was well enough to act on what was becoming a ‘mission’ — to find the common denominators in benzodiazepine toxicity and protocols to help people withdraw and get on with their lives.
Once I began researching that damn word, ATIVAN, I discovered Malcolm and Heather and Geraldine Burn’s story on www.benzo.org.UK, and began ordering benzo books from Amazon, including Ted Kennedy’s 1979 hearing on “The Use and Misuse of Benzodiazepines.” When I could not even make it to the kitchen, I was on my laptop finding links leading me to what is now a somewhat public role in solving the benzo travesty.
Now, six years post-benzos, I have, to my dismay, become a very reluctant Activist — not a new role, but a more serious one.
Once I learned that I could live so ill for so long with but a smattering of hope that I would ever be in charge of my life again, I took on the ‘depersonalization/deregulation’ symptoms common to benzodiazepine withdrawal, by speaking up to anyone who would listen. Few did.
My story is now told in a forthcoming memoir, REPAIRING THE BENZO BLUNDER: A Mosaic of Recovery — its first printing a gift to those who attended The International Benzodiazepine Symposium last September, something I decided to sponsor once I realized the medical practitioners I trusted did not know a damn thing about a long-term relationship with a benzodiazepine.
With the intention of bringing benzodiazepines out of the shadows and into a full-fledged medical institution, we invited experts in the fields of pharmacology, drug addiction, behavioral therapy, professors, social workers, journalists (Robert Whitaker was our keynote speaker, with a filmed introduction from Professor Lader), filmmakers, and speakers from all over the country; to educate, not castigate or litigate about the appropriate use and historical misuse of benzodiazepines.
Our efforts have produced a fifteen minute video synopsis of what we did here in beautiful Bend, Oregon. Our goal is to expand the synopsis into a full-length documentary.
And me? At this point in this non-linear benzodiazepine recovery process, I am one of the lucky ones. On this side of what I’ve termed “Benzoitis,” unless some major life stress finds its way into my “second brain,” our enteric nervous system, reminding me of the -ICK- of withdrawal, the surging cortisol, the “doom factor” as I used to call it, I am just about as healed as a woman in her seventies might expect from such a devastating ordeal.
My sincere message to those whose vitality and lives have been sapped and zapped by this iatrogenic dis-order: most of us DO recover! And even if it is not without some benzo remnants lodged in our cellular memory, what we learn about our own resilience will guide us to places in our lives we didn’t expect to reach.
HOPE was my key through the arduous path of benzodiazepine withdrawal and recovery. Call it anything you like. Faith? The appearance of that which is not obvious yet? Trust? In your own intelligence to see you through?
As Professor Lader reminded me in 2015, when I met him in London: “Time is the healer!”
I pass that on to any who doubt that power.
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.