What Rehabs Get Wrong: Benzodiazepine Detox

By BentFabric 02/05/19
Tunnel of trees with path through the middle

I was first put on klonopin after experiencing panic attacks and night terrors at the age of 23. After a few months I felt I no longer needed the medication, and asked my doctor if I could stop taking it. He slowly and gently tapered me off of it, and in hindsight I don’t recall much of the process at all- because it was painless. In the years following I was put back on different benzodiazepines for various reasons. Agoraphobia, claustrophobia, fear of flying on airplanes or going to the movies, insomnia, restless leg syndrome, tremors, severe anxiety and insomnia, muscle spasms and eventually to treat what was originally thought to be fibromyalgia but instead was long misdiagnosed chronic Lyme disease. The Lyme had attacked my nervous system and I was like a fish out of water. 24 hours a day I convulsed and shook, my legs were restless and couldn’t hold me up at all. I lost the feeling in them, with the exception of electric like shooting pains going up and down and what felt like crawling inside my bones. I didn’t sleep for over 3 weeks until I could see a doctor who, bless his heart, had no idea what was wrong with me.

Being sober at the time meant I came up clean for all substances even though I appeared to be in the throes of acute withdrawal. So he did the best he could, and put me on klonopin. Pretty much right away my symptoms quieted down and I was able to sleep, though I felt guilty for being on a medication of abuse. I was so relieved to be able to sleep and sit still by then I promised myself I would take it as prescribed and managed to do that, even as the need for the medication grew and the doses went higher. After finally getting properly diagnosed I saw many doctors. Not one had a problem with my being on this medication.

As my disease progressed and my symptoms grew worse they were all at a loss as to what to do for me. I didn’t respond to any treatments. My organs started to fail. I reached a point where I was bedridden and unable to ride in a car. I spent all day and night writhing in bed and again, looked just like someone in the throes of acute heroin withdrawal- like the kind you see in the movies. But enough back story. Throughout this time I did as much research as possible when my body allowed it.

I discovered that I’d been poisoned by an antibiotic during a bout of pneumonia. This particular antibiotic should never be taken in conjunction with benzodiazepines. To do so causes a little known condition called Benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome. The only other thing that causes this syndrome is being taken off of benzodiazepines too quickly. Having had much experience with this kind of medication over the years I had never gone off it cold turkey- not until I checked into rehab for opiate abuse as a result of my desperate desire to keep working despite being in constant pain from what was then thought to be Fibromyalgia. As my life fell apart my ability to manage opiates did too. So I woke up 2000 miles away from home in an inpatient facility being detoxed off the many medications I was on, which brings me to the point of writing this.

I was detoxed off OxyContin and 2 different benzodiazepines at the same rate. For the OxyContin I was given subutex. For the Benzos, nothing. No tapering, no nothing. Within a week I was off the opiates- but I spent the following month crawling out of my skin, unable to walk or sleep or eat. My whole body was shaking and to this day I can honestly say nothing has ever been worse or more damaging to my body than that. It comes as no surprise that 7 years later when the Lyme disease took hold of me it mimicked these exact same symptoms. Because the trauma done to my nervous system due to that detox stuck to me- and any time my body is under attack, whether it be from the flu or symptoms of Lyme, the stress of final exams or simple insomnia- my body thinks it’s in withdrawal and acts as such.

When I finally became too ill to care for myself and became permanently disabled my family knew I couldn’t manage on my own- there was just one problem- which was to date there are still no inpatient facilities to care for those suffering from late stage Lyme. The closest kind of structure we could find was- you guessed it- a rehab. I agreed to go because I had no alternative and didn’t want to die. Once I got there I met several people being detoxed off benzos similarly to the way I had been before. One woman was taken off 12 mg of Klonopin cold with no additional support of medications. It’s more than 6 months later and she’s been to the ER more times than she can count. Her entire body is crashing, one system at a time. She has seen doctor after doctor to no avail. Some would say she’s suffering post acute withdrawal- but what I wonder is why this would even be necessary if she had not just been slowly tapered off the klonopin to begin with. I understand this wasn’t something she could do on her own.

But what strikes me about this situation is how Benzos are basically being treated like opiates in rehab situations. Not even- with opiate withdrawal, a process that lasts 3-7 days and is rarely lethal, people are given an opiate replacement medication to help ease the withdrawal and suffering. Not so with benzos. It appears they are regarded much like opiates. That there is a 3-7 day window where acute withdrawal is likely. If you’re lucky you might be given a low dose barbiturate, phenobarbital- for a week, but after that you’re pretty much left to suck it up. And it takes months or even years before the body stabilizes.

So what I don’t understand is why the treatment industry is so far behind where the science is concerned. It’s already been shown that painful detoxes do not prevent relapse. It’s common knowledge that benzodiazepine withdrawal can be deadly and seizure inducing, so why is it that rehabs continue to detox people off of benzodiazepines in the same fashion they would opiates? Not only is this physically dangerous and leaves a person at much greater risk of relapse, but to continue to punish addicts for their addictions is no longer a scientifically viable solution.

I could go on and on about how problematic the rehab industry has become. But far be it from me to try and stop capitalism. The one thing I do know for sure however, is that to put people in physical danger and make them suffer needlessly because no one is making a distinction between opiates and benzodiazepines is just plain wrong, and a lawsuit waiting to happen. It’s needless deaths and relapses waiting to happen. It’s ignorant of the current scientific research, of which there is much, about drug abuse, addiction, withdrawal, brain chemistry and harm reduction. It makes no sense to me that people be forced to withstand torture that causes permanent damage to their bodies in the name of recovery.

So if you’re addicted to benzodiazepines and wish to get off them by all means speak to your doctor and have them help taper you off slowly and gently. It’s a process that takes a while, but I promise the alternative is not something you want.

I do think rehabs can be life savers. I don’t regret my time spent in them. But they need to stop acting like medical facilities from the 1950s. They need to update their thinking and research holistic techniques for detoxing people in safety. So if you or a loved one is needing help I implore you to research the facilities and what methods they use to detox people addicted to benzodiazepines first and foremost. While nothing is black and white here, and everyone is different- the techniques used to taper non addicts off benzodiazepines and addicts off the same exact substances are wholly different, and the time has come for these places to stop inflicting permanent damage and harm to people already broken and suffering.


Join the conversation, become a Fix blogger. Share your experience, strength, and hope, or sound off on the issues affecting the addiction/recovery community. Create your account and start writing: https://www.thefix.com/add-community-content.