Monday, July 16, 2012

The Xanax (and other benzos) dilemma: My story

There was a really good article in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend magazine liftout this Saturday just gone. Unfortunately I can't find a link for the article but it talked about the soaring use of Xanax in Australia as a go to drug to help people deal with the stress of modern life. I know the benefits of Xanax and other benzos. But I also know the downfalls. This is my story:

Anybody who has read my blog for a while (or even just a couple of weeks) would know that I am a sufferer of anxiety. That dreaded condition that makes the human reflex to fight, flight or freeze come on even though there is nothing to battle, nothing to run from and no real reason to be paralysed with fear. That feeling of dread that something bad is going to happen but you're not quite sure what. But it's there. It might even kill you. But it won't.

Anxiety has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I was a severely shy kid. It was horrible. I found most social interactions to be painful and I didn't make friends easily. I spent an enormous part of my preschool and primary school days alone in the playground. And I was at school from 8.30am to 6pm everyday because both my parents worked so they were very long days being isolated.

If they had the Kids Health Check system that the Federal Government is planning to use to test three year olds for mental health issues back in the late 70s/early 80s, I probably would have hit all the markers for childhood anxiety.

There was a child psychologist enlisted in my preschool years to help with my terrible sleep habits and another one when I was in year two to try and find out why I was behind in school. I remember another one in the early high school years, numerous meetings with school counsellors and then a careers counsellor/psychologist just after I finished year 12. None of them helped me but to reinforce the belief that I was defective.

I have always believed, and still do believe, that there is something intrinsically wrong with me, with who I am. It is at the base of my core beliefs. It is the foundation on which I have spent my whole life building layer upon layer of self hate. Paradoxically, I have spent my whole life fighting that belief. Trying to suppress it. Avoid it. Deny it. Kill it. Medicate it. (I know terribly sad, blah dee dah, but I deal with it. Kinda. And some days are better than others.)

This is why, when I got drunk for the first time at 15, I was sold. I found a cure, albeit a temporary one, for feeling like shit. Alcohol and drugs took away that horrible feeling of constant self doubt that lived within me. I created this new Vanessa who was cool and untouchable and did not give a fuck. You can't hurt me, big bad world, because I just don't fucking give a shit.

But I did give a shit. Because after every time I got drunk or high, or both, what I felt when I was hung over and coming down, was 100 times more disgusting than I would have felt without it. The anxiety and self loathing were back with a vengeance. And there began the vicious circle. Feel like crap, drink/do drugs to numb the pain/feel invincible/cool/able to speak to people, then feel like crap all over again. I went on this roundabout for 12 years, until I fell off with a massive thud and none of my old survival techniques worked any more. That is until I found benzodiazepines. 

The thing with benzos is that you don't need to meet up with some questionable character in a back ally to score them. You make an appointment with your GP, get a script, toddle off to the pharmacy and hand over about $15-20 for a bottle of Valium, Halcion, Normason, Mogadon, or...  for Xanax. 

Think before you pop. And always use as directed.

I am not sure about ordering drugs without a prescription on the internet and getting them delivered to Australia, but in the UK it was easy. I paid a shitload once for Valium and Mogadon from some dodgy American site claiming to issue prescriptions from the Czech Republic. And a miracle occurred. These little wonder pills made me feel better. Until they didn't. 

After I was r**** (you know the word I'm censoring here, I just hate seeing it, and I wrote it in my last post and now probably need about three months before I can get the guts to write it again) I was a mess. As you can imagine. (I plan to write about the whole event one day soon. It is important to me that I do. One day. Today I am just talking benzos!) I was living in London at the time and the day after I'd spent 13 hours being grilled and photographed and prodded and humiliated all over again by the Metropolitan Police, I had an appointment to see a GP. I was injured, both physically and psychologically. I still am. Those wounds will never heal. But I digress, like I always do!

So the GP gives me a script for Valium. I went to Boots The Chemist, picked up my little bottle and then dropped by the off license for half a dozen bottles of beer. Half litre bottles, that is. I was numb and floating through my worst nightmare. But the thing with benzos is that they are really addictive. You need more and more of them to get that same zoned out feeling the first one gave you. 

From my experience, prescriptions for benzos are actually pretty hard to come by in the UK. When you pick up your pills from Boots they hand you a leaflet with a very stern face and point out the risks of addiction and the dangers of combining the drug with alcohol. Not that it stopped me using both to stop my mind from going over and over that horrible scene. The story is very different here in Australia. Shall I write about it here, on my blog? Ah, fuck it, I've come this far.

When I came back from England I was here two days before my parents admitted me to a rehabilitation centre for drug and alcohol addiction and chronic major depression and anxiety as well as post traumatic stress disorder. See I'd been very unwell for a lot longer before the assault. It was what sent me over the edge. I was put on suicide watch and stripped of everything I knew: my home, my friends, my job, my drugs, my booze, my mobile phone, my sanity (what was left of it). Thrown into this world of the ever revolving door of rehab. With serious addicts. Serious psychiatric patients. One on one appointments with shrinks, group therapy, urine tests and a strict daily routine of when to get up, when to eat, when to talk and when to get your meds.

Morning and night we all lined up to the little nurses' window to collect our little cocktail of antidepressants, anti psychotics, mood stabilisers, sleeping tablets and anti anxiety medication - whatever your individual file said you were taking. And then there was the PRN (Prescribed by Registered Nurse) Valium for between times when you felt the withdrawal process was too hard to deal with and the anxiety got too much. That first time in hospital, every time actually, I felt like a dirty little drug seeker begging the nurse for another tablet. Anything to take away the reality of where I was and how I got there, and who I was suppose to be.

Once I'd done my three weeks, I was out the door clutching a script for antidepressants and mood stabilisers but the Valium was stopped. They don't send drug addicts out into the real world with benzos. I was raw. Just a shell of a person. My soul was broken. I had no idea who I was any more. I had nothing to use to mask the feelings of loss and despair and fear. Nothing was left but anxiety and the deepest, blackest hole of depression. And that little girl of 15 who hated herself.

I lasted five months before I was back again, at another psychiatric facility, and unfortunately one that wasn't really equipped for addicts. All the other rehabs in Sydney were full. This place didn't have the same security as the other place. They didn't check your bags and other personal items and they didn't routinely drug test you after every trip outside the hospital. I knew one elderly alcoholic who was in there to dry out but had a bagload of methadone tabs in her cupboard. Um, hello?! Methadone? I swapped her one for an oxycodone.

I was sharing a room with an alcoholic/benzo addict/self harmer. Not fun. But she introduced me to doctor shopping and we were using all our 'spare time' to go to doctor's appointments around Sydney asking for all of the above mentioned benzos. Xanax was actually the hardest to come by, but it was possible. With the right story. My story.

So I spent two months in a psych ward on approximately the same cocktail of drugs that killed the awesome Aussie actor Heath Ledger, while chugging back energy drinks to stay awake through the fugue. Not once do I remember there being any talk about the dangers of benzos or of other prescription drugs while I was there. No one told us about withdrawing off them. And to be honest, I didn't really think about it.

My room mate and I eventually got found out and kicked out of the hospital. My parents had had it with me and kicked me out of home. The cheapest accommodation I could find was a room above a pub in a seedier area of Sydney. I had my stash of pharmies from the doctors that I knew around the hospital but that was it. The seedier area doctors knew about drug seeking benzo addicts and did not prescribe them willy nilly. I waited for up to three hours once, in an unknown doctor's surgery, only to be told they couldn't give me anything. And then I began to come down.

I had no idea what was happening to me. I had diarrhea and vomiting, cold sweats, headaches, cramps. I felt dreadful. For days. I had no idea why. I didn't put two and two together. I found out much later that withdrawing off the huge amount of drugs in my system is what did it.

I could have died.

But I didn't and my tail of woe doesn't end there but my abuse of Xanax and the like did.

Obviously I wasn't a normal everyday case of Xanax dependence like the article in the weekend's SMH talks about. It was a little bit more extreme than that. And I take full responsibility for what happened to me because of my doctor shopping. But I truly think that there needs to be better controls on how these drugs are prescribed and managed. Because while on one hand benzos can take away that feeling like you're going to die from anxiety, on the other it can kill you with kindness.

Please, if you suffer from anxiety and have an addictive nature, avoid benzodiazepines. There are other medications now that can help that are not addictive. And of course there is therapy which has since helped me so much more than that little purple pill ever did.


If you do need assistance these sites maybe helpful:
Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia
Beyond Blue
Black Dog Institute


Joey said...

Wow thanks so much for sharing. That's an amazing story and it's very courageous for you share it with everyone.

BUSH BABE said...

Wow... amazing read. COngrats for coming out the other side. I do hope that people starting on this path read this post - very powerful!

The Babbling Bandit said...

Thank you very much for the comments. I really hope no one ever falls into the benzo hole like I did.


Gina said...

That was a very real and very courageous post. Good on you for being able to be so honest. It puts a different light onto what look like harmless little pills to help people through a rough time.

Deb said...

Wow! Shocking, compelling and brave. Thanks for sharing.

(And I don't mean shocking in a negative way - more the surprise / wow factor! You've come a long way!)

Anonymous said...

A remarkable story. Well done for making it out the other side. Hoping for more better days ahead.

Cathy said...

wow, that must have taken a lot to write all that. I know people who suffere terribly from anxiety but thankfully, they've been able to manage it with medication and not let it spiral out of control. Having said that, I know any day can still be a struggle for them. I'm glad you emerged from that dark place. From reading your blog, it really sounds like you've turned a corner. You're writing your story, verbalising it (for the first time other than to yourself) and you're beginning to own it. That can only be a good thing xx

Rachel @ TheKidsAreAllRight said...

Just read this V and again, such a powerful piece, like so much of your writing. Thanks for sharing your experiences so openly. x

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