Not An Addict, Just Addicted
I never had a drug problem until a doctor prescribed me benzos to treat panic attacks. It worked—and then I got hooked. So am I an addict?
My life is divided now into two eras: the time before benzos, and the time after benzos. The transition came at age 27, when an emergency room doctor gave me a prescription for benzos to treat what turned out to be an anxiety attack. It was really an accumulation of a lifetime of repressed tension, bad relationships, and impulsive choices that manifested that autumn in a terrifying litany of physical symptoms. My life would never be the same.
It was an especially trying year: I had moved back in with my parents after going on a spending spree and burning through my savings. So I worked from home, blogging about reality television. I made just enough money to pay my student loans, with little left over. I guess I was happy to be writing every day, but I felt like a complete failure: back at home, with no idea what was going to happen next.
Then, in the fall, I started to feel dizziness. There were twinges of numbness and tingling through out the day. I can see now, three years later, why my body began to revolt, but at the time I couldn't shake the feeling that death was imminent, that a catastrophic seizure (my favorite catastrophic health obsession) would hit me like a fist at any moment. So I went to my family doctor in late September, and he diagnosed me with migraines and sent me on my way with a prescription for heavy-duty ibuprofen. When I asked for psychiatric medication, he told me that I might get hooked. He said I should just “deal with it.”
The worst part of withdrawal, for me, is the shame that comes with the feeling of being out of control—of letting your body need something so badly that it gets sick.
The symptoms got worse. Two months later—the day after Thanksgiving in 2009—I sat on my mother's couch eating leftover turkey and felt a sensation of shocks run up my leg. I flinched; my face got hot, my heart began to race, and pins and needles tingled my arms. I thought, “It's happening—I'm finally having a seizure.” I made my skeptical aunt and mother drive me to a near-empty emergency room in suburban New Jersey, thinking this was the infamous seizure aura I had read about on so many of the nights I’d spent Googling my symptoms.
When we arrived at the emergency room, however, a young, friendly resident told me that I was having a garden-variety panic attack. She smiled and added, “I get them too!”—as if that was supposed to help. She gave me two Ativan—a type of benzodiazepine—and a prescription for 10 more pills, along with a handout on psychosomatic symptoms. The message was clear: it was all in my head, and this pill was the only thing that could help.
That night, the symptoms were gone, but I felt blunted and numb as the Ativan flooded my symptom with GABA, the chill-out substance that the drug makes your brain produce. I vowed not to take my pills every day. I vowed not to get hooked. This was a standby, an emergency protocol. I would never take a benzo every day.
Unfortunately, that's exactly what ended up happening. Within a few months, I became a regular user, and a year later, I was taking them every day—once during the day and once at night, to be precise. For a while, I took Xanax, prescribed by another primary care doctor who was more concerned about my mild tachycardia (irregular heart beat) than my list of imagined neurological symptoms. I threw out his prescription for a beta-blocker but held onto my precious Xanax, which I would bite in half whenever I felt the tingling in my face, the numbness in my hands, and that impending sense that something terrible was about to strike—what I called “the crazies.” I kept my dose low, thinking this would keep me from becoming an “addict.”
When I met my psychiatrist at the end of 2010, we settled on Ativan as my benzo of choice. I preferred it to Xanax. It felt cleaner and I felt more numb; it also seemed to last longer. I fretted about being a pillhead in my sessions and my psychiatrist, used to hypochondria and anxiety, told me it'd be fine. She said my dose—0.5 mg a pill—was so small there was nothing to worry about.
In my second year of taking Ativan, I would test how far I could make it through the day without reaching for a pill: it was always three or four hours before I began to get shaky. At night, I would either fall asleep and then wake up in a panic, convinced that I was five minutes away from death before reaching for it. Or I would have so much trouble getting to sleep, I’d need to take it for that. Spending the night at a guy's house always meant feeling panicked that I was spooking him by getting up from bed to take a pill. There was real fear, then the fear of fear, and then the fear of withdrawal: a triple threat of fear. Taking those two 0.5 mgs of Ativan became a necessity.
Panic attacks came and went; two were bad enough to land me in the ER again. Every time, nothing was ever wrong with me. It was all in my head. Those strong panic attacks, where my hands would go numb and the entire world spun out of control around me, made my dependence seem worth it. Every Ativan I took meant keeping those feelings of catastrophe far away. Every pill I took would keep me safe not only from losing control, but also the fear of losing control.
But there was no escaping the fact that I was—am—dependent. Throughout the past three years, I’ve never been without a bottle of Ativan. I’ve rationalized it because the most I've ever taken in one day is two milligrams of Ativan and that was only once. I’ve never gotten high or had fun the way I hear other people do. I’ve become that mythical dependent pill popper—not an addict who has to scam doctors but a person with a legitimate health problem, a real prescription and a doctor who trusts me.
But no matter what you wanted to call it, what I had—what I still have— is a habit. Like smoking, like drinking coffee, like a glass of wine at the end of the day. Most shrinks are careful to tell you that there is a difference between addiction and dependence, but the body doesn't care. Withdrawal is withdrawal even if you were a good girl who didn't “abuse” her medication. Your brain only knows that it's used to getting its fix every morning at 11 and every night at 1, and now that fix is gone.
I never experienced a real withdrawal until October of last year when I spent two and a half days without any Ativan because I’d forgotten to call in a refill. At this point, I had been taking a daily Ativan for a year and spent another year rationing out bottles of Xanax. Like I had for so many nights, that Friday, I took my 0.5 mg of Ativan before I went to sleep. I woke up the next morning to empty bottles. It was the weekend and my psychiatrist wasn't around so I spent the whole time curled up in bed, getting what psych med users call “brain zaps”—little jolts of electricity hitting your brain.
My hands and leg shook. Twitchy, I returned to my old standby: obsessing about seizures. But this time, I had a legitimate reason to worry since seizures are one of the major risks of cutting off a benzo cold turkey. In an act fueled by what can only be called Crazy Person Science, I kept a bottle of wine by the bed, figuring that the wine could be my replacement Ativan. I took shots of it throughout the day, feeling simultaneously worse and better; a bit buzzed, but still dizzy. My body would not be fooled.
While I certainly don't advocate my behavior, it just shows how desperate I was to get that blunt feeling—to, essentially, stop feeling so anxious and terrible. I was terrified to leave the house, terrified to fall asleep, terrified to do anything. When I was finally able to get a refill, I opened the bottle on the subway, took the pill out and slipped it under my tongue. Twenty minutes and one milligram of Ativan later, I was completely relieved. I was safe again.
I write this essay with one lone Ativan sitting in a pillbox in my bag. One hundred and nineteen others were once in the pillbox; about 10 of those were cut in half at the beginning of the month when I decided that it was time to taper down. Last month, I went from one milligram to .5 to .25 in the span of about 10 days.
A few days ago, I stopped taking Ativan entirely. I am in withdrawal once again. The worst part of withdrawal, for me, is the shame that comes with the feeling of being out of control—of letting your body need something so badly that it gets sick. I can't talk about my withdrawal with anyone. It makes me feel like an addict. But does it even matter whether or not I am? The body and brain doesn't know and doesn't particularly care. It wants what it’s used to.
For right now, all I can do is ignore how awful I feel and get through the day. All the physical symptoms are back. There's the shaking—sometimes my fingers, sometimes the sides of my mouth. There's the burning in my fingers and jolts of pain shooting up my leg. The dizziness that kicked this all off is back. I wake up in a panic in the middle of the night, once again consumed by a fear of seizures.
But there's some good news, too. In between all of this, I'm waking up from the fog of being essentially tranquilized for over two years. I'm starting to have glimpses of what life was like before I ever became the kind of person who had to slip a pill under her tongue on the subway.
But still, the single pill remains in my bag. It's there in case I need it.
Maria Diaz is a writer based out of Oakland, California. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including xoJane, and she currently dissects reality television at RealityTea and WetPaintTV.