I’m going through benzo withdrawal. (For those of you lucky enough not to know, benzos are benzodiazepines, anti-anxiety drugs such as Xanax and Klonipin.)
How I got to this point is a rambling story of fear and insomnia and health professionals who didn’t give me a clue that the miracle drug they were providing me with would eventually hook me into a world of hurt. It took a doctor that I hated for not freely renewing my prescription to make me prove to her and myself that I wasn’t dependent – only I didn’t prove that. I proved that I was too deep in to stop without falling hard. When I began to have slight convulsions, an ER doc, after years of therapists and doctors telling me I wasn’t in trouble, told me I was in serious trouble and could die trying to stop cold turkey.
I was shocked. How had this happened to me, who didn’t drink or smoke, who only wanted to be able to sleep when life exhausted me with fear? How had this happened when I refused to go on anti-depressants, not even trying the Paxil one of my doctors prescribed for me, saying I didn’t want to be on something I had to take every day?
I didn’t take the anti-anxiety stuff every day, only when I was upset and couldn’t sleep at night, or when I was traveling and wanted to calm down and get a good night’s sleep. The problem was, about two years ago I was increasingly upset. I was also increasingly traveling – to wonderful places, amazed that I had become an eager and enthusiastic trekker: to New York City, Prague, a Zen center in the Swiss Alps. I don’t think I would have been so adventurous without medication to give me the comforting notion that no matter what, I would get some sleep.
I wrote a novella based on my trip to Europe two years ago on which my personal life was becoming a painful smear in some of the most profound and beautiful places in the world. During the day, I would stand amidst the flattened sites of concentration camp barracks at Buchenwald, watch the summer sun turn Prague’s ancient walls into orange gold and meditate in a polished hall overlooking Lake Lucerne. During the night my fears would take aim at me from the edges of my experiences; and tormenting failures as a mother, a lover, a band mate, a sister, began to cock their triggers. But I had clonazepam to ward them off.
Increasingly I cried a lot. I was blissfully awed and then sobbing.
Back home, I loved my job. No matter what, I would go to work. Though I cut way back on the sleep meds when I was no longer traveling, I made sure I got a decent night’s sleep by taking a dose the three nights a week before I had to get up early.
My old doctor kept renewing my prescription; I had more meds than I needed until one day there was a shift. Somebody somewhere had started noticing that benzos were big, sneaky trouble. Doctors were being given a warning about freely providing the stuff, and people like me were getting desperate.
Desperation about having access to a drug is the first hint that maybe, just maybe, you’ve got a problem. I was incensed when a new doctor actually told me she was uncomfortable prescribing clonazepam. My therapist at the time even collaborated with me to assure her I was not addicted. And, as I said, I was going to prove it. And to be fair, I think that the professionals who were enabling me believed that I could prove it.
As I tell my students, what’s so great about the scientific method is that it relies on evidence, not faith or myth or wishful thinking. The evidence was clear. I would either spend the rest of my life on a crazy but familiar and comforting benzo dependent roller coaster, or seek serious help in getting off of it.
I’m in the midst of plan B. I am on the last installment of a tapering down program, taking a tiny amount every night. While my body and mind are not shivering in pre-seizure panic, this is not a comfortable time for me and I don’t know how long the discomfort will last or how much worse it will get when I am not even taking the crumbs I am now. The withdrawal symptoms are gnarly and scary, including intermittent panic, chills, sweats, stomach aches and heart pounding. My body has to relearn, if it can, how to navigate stress and fear without an outside chemical to intervene. Yes, there are moments when I feel okay, even good. And I know that my mind is clearer. And yes, there are moments when I want to say, “Fuck it. I’m going back on the stuff.”
Then I ask myself if I really want to ever have to start this process over again.
There are three things that are helping me stay in this battle. One is my meditation practice. Only Zen, in my experience, provides a venue for being calm in the midst of shit while not denying the shit is happening and not even trying to fix the shit. I need that kind of reality, because the desperation around trying not to feel what I’m feeling is what got me into this fix in the first place.
Another critical help is my shrink, a bona fide psychiatrist who knows these drugs and what they are about and gave me a plan. That plan includes talk therapy to deal not just with weaning myself off the stuff but also with the original problems I was medicating.
And finally, ultimately, how could I, how could anyone, try to give up a favorite and beloved numbing device without love? I am most grateful for people who let me love them, who let this rickety soldier rest a while in their lives while waiting to see what her life can be in peacetime. Being let into the world of other people gives me the chance to forget about myself and my dramas. I’d like myself and my dramas to fade away completely, into some life of genuine connection I know is there.
I really hope I get through this, at least just to know I can. And to any who are dealing with similar shit, I’m with you.
I’m going in. Cover me.