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How Addiction Changed My Mind (in More Ways Than One)

Editor's Note

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, the following post could be triggering. You can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

I remember the first time I was given a benzodiazepine — the first time I put that sweet little tablet on my tongue and felt it dissolve together with the awful, debilitating anxiety, which had consumed me since my mom’s suicide.

It was the first time I’d felt any kind of peace in what seemed like forever. It was around two months since that dreadful day. First, in the immediate aftermath, I felt my heart break, and then later, I felt my mind literally split in two as it struggled to process the reality of what had happened.

Now, I found myself inside a secure mental health facility, over 100 miles from home, riddled with insomnia, grief and the worst anxiety you could imagine. Every day felt like a hopeless battle to silence the thoughts of suicide and painful images which had scarred my psyche since that horrible day when my sister found her, and life as we knew it was lost.

In the following days and weeks, I couldn’t even relax enough to watch a film — a simple pastime which I had taken for granted before the unthinkable. And sleep was out of the question, a basic luxury I no longer deserved.

Every day was spent doing whatever I could to try and switch off, to find a moment’s peace. But it seemed like a lost cause, an impossible dream. My brain was well and truly broken and I found myself thinking the unthinkable — that maybe death was in fact the only solution.

So, you can imagine my relief when I was taken to a facility and given that tiny, angelic tablet after having a panic attack on the first day I arrived. It was 6 p.m. and I was standing in the canteen among the other patients when I felt the terrible anxiety bubble up inside me to the point where I tensed up in terror. I dropped my dinner tray (tomato-based pasta) all over the cold, hard floor. A nurse came to my aid armed with a benzodiazepine and that was it.

Within minutes, I felt myself cross over into a state of relative bliss. I felt an incredible sense of calm wash over me like some kind of strange magic, and I felt better than I had for a very long time. For the first time in what seemed like forever, I was able to actually sit and savor a meal without sickening anxiety savaging the experience (even if the food wasn’t much to write home about).

Afterward, I settled on a sofa in the communal area of the facility with my fleecy blanket wrapped around me, feeling content, warm and more peaceful than I thought was possible (under the circumstances).

There was a popular film playing I’d seen many times before: “Back to the Future.” I never really understood what all the fuss was about with that one, but this time I was watching it through a very different filter and enjoying every second.

That night, I was able to escape thoughts of my mom, and the relentless nightmare I’d been stuck in since her suicide. The best part about that evening was that I slept like a baby … soft, heavenly bliss.

The next day I had an appointment with the on-site doctor who started me on an antidepressant which also works for anxiety and encourages sleep (apparently). But it wasn’t like the benzodiazepine — the little tablet which seemed to completely slay my demons in one fell swoop.

I’d had a taste and my eyes were now wide open. I didn’t understand. Why couldn’t I just have the benzo every day? I asked the doctor. It felt like a lifeline and worked like a charm — a miracle drug which could give me my life back and more … a subtle high which I couldn’t ignore.

It was then I learned the truth, that this wasn’t an option — and for good reason. This stuff was strong, and it was addictive. The specific benzodiazepine is an anti-anxiety medication/tranquilizer which came with a warning — to be used sparingly in one-off situations. It was a prescription drug which could change the chemistry of your brain very quickly and leave you craving more as your body adapted to its new appetite. And this was something I found out the hard way.

I stayed at the hospital for three weeks, and on occasion they let me have the benzo if I kicked up enough fuss. I’d be at the nurse’s station at three in the morning begging for them to give it to me, just so I could go to sleep and catch another break.

When I left, they sent me on my (not-so-merry) way with five tablets of the benzodiazepine (plus my antidepressant, of course). I felt like I’d been given five pieces of the most precious treasure, five lovely little lifelines just for me. However, they didn’t last long back home as I devoured them one by one to get the peace and the sleep my brain was starving for.

Of course, once they were gone, the relentless anxiety and insomnia returned with a vengeance and continued to drain me of my will to live. I was looking into suicide again as a very real and valid option — the ultimate escape.

But now there was this other thing, too. A craving to feel that sweet little tablet on my tongue once more — the thing that made it all go away, if only for a while. I longed for the lovely, warm feeling it gave me, and that was what I wanted at whatever cost.

I made a visit to the doctor and was denied, much to my dismay. It just wasn’t something that was usually prescribed out of hospital settings, I was told. “The benzodiazepine was very  addictive.” I knew this of course, I’d been warned before, but the devil on my shoulder pushed it away with a pitchfork.

On my second visit to the surgery, however, I met a different doctor, a younger one who sympathized with my situation and what I’d been through. She awarded me 30 tablets and a sympathetic smile as she sent me on my way. I couldn’t believe it. I felt as though I had won the jackpot! At last, I could have a bit of peace back in my life — and satisfy my craving once more.

I told myself I’d be responsible with the tablets, taking them only as and when absolutely necessary. I’d nibble off tiny portions with the aim of making them last as long as possible.

But, to me, this stuff was like candy to a baby and nothing was like putting a full one on your tongue and feeling it disappear like magic (along with everything else). Before long, I was taking a quarter every other day, which turned into half and then a whole tablet every, single day because, you know, it was nice (and way better than feeling miserable). Plus, I could stop whenever I wanted, right?

Wrong.

One day, I decided to take a day off from the tablets just to prove to myself I wouldn’t fall into this trap they all talked about. In the back of my mind were always those unwelcome warnings of addiction. But that would never happen to me, of course not. I just wasn’t the type.

However, I was, and as for falling into the trap, I soon discovered I already had. The days when I forced myself not to have a tablet were in agony, and I’d find myself at work unable to function or even take a decent breath at times. I’d stare into the bathroom mirror at lunch, tense and twitching with anxiety, unable to entertain the idea of joining my colleagues in the lunch room. I was alone and all I could think about was taking another tablet. It was the only way to get relief from the horrible withdrawals I realized I was beginning to feel.

So, I simply caved in and popped another pill. That was it. I couldn’t believe it. Sweet little old me — the shy, innocent one who’d always been such a “good girl” (and probably thought about things way more than anyone ever should) — she was now an actual addict. As if I thought things couldn’t get any worse, life had now taken an even darker turn for me.

I’d hole up in bed watching YouTube videos recorded by others who were also caught in the web of benzodiazepine addiction, but were in much deeper than me. I watched as they shared the reality of their situation, of going through the most terrible withdrawals and trying desperately to claw back their lives. It was terrifying and I could feel their pain as they described the relentless hell they were living in, popping dozens of pills a day, just to satisfy their cravings. It was clear these poor souls were there at the bottom of a deep well where no one could hear, and no one even cared to look. I was just clinging onto the sides for dear life, desperate not to slip down any further.

I knew I had to end my brief love affair with my benzo or risk ending up like these people. It would be painful, but I knew it would be more painful in the long run if I fell down any deeper.

“Once you’re at the bottom, it’s very hard to get back out,” warned the poor YouTubers, desperate to be heard, and to stop others from falling into the same awful trap.

The withdrawals were painful, I’m not going to lie. I was fighting a battle inside my brain, which left me with debilitating nausea and tension in my head for well over two weeks. I spent a lot of the time in bed, but held onto the fact the pain was only temporary, and in the end, I would be free. Day by day, it got easier as I weaned myself off the tablets, until finally I felt like I had the strength to pull myself out of that well, and stand once more on solid ground in the clear light of day.

It was then it dawned on me. I needed to find something else if I was going to stop myself from slipping back down. Something to keep my anxiety at bay, and my sanity on the straight and narrow.

I visited my doctor who prescribed another an antidepressant/anxiety medication which I later read about on the internet. Reviews seemed to suggest it had a high level of success at giving hopeless people their lives back, and allowing them to smile again. The best part about it was it wasn’t addictive. It sounded nice, and I needed to believe in something, still struggling under the weight of all my grief.

I’m happy to report within days of taking the new medication, I began to notice a lift in my mood and my anxiety began to fade into the background, no longer center stage. Finally, after about a week came the smile, and then the laughter, which I thought was lost to me forever. I was able to reclaim parts of my life — like enjoying a film again and most importantly, sleeping.

It was around this time I also found meditation, something which helped bring back power and control to my life; and more importantly, the sense of peace I had been searching for. The healthy, natural serenity which came from inside myself and not a synthetic tablet.

Meditation has opened my mind to a new way of thinking, and my brush with addiction taught me how easy it is to fall into its arms when life crashes and leaves you helpless in the wreckage.

Before my experience, I had no time to entertain those hooked on
alcohol, and no compassion for those who wasted their money on toxic cigarettes. Self-sabotaging “losers” who stuck needles in their arms time and time again … why the hell would anybody do that?! The answer, of course, lies in that very sentence. Not always, of course, but deep down, I don’t think anybody really wants to become an addict. Sometimes, awful circumstances and experiences outside of our control can cause a person to reach for something to numb the pain, to escape from their own personal hell for just a little while. A lot of the time, we’re guilty of seeing an addict and writing them off as someone who took the “easy” option — threw their lives away for a quick fix. But behind every addict is a person with a story, a story sometimes so awful you might not even be able to bear listening to it.

“Ignorance is bliss,” I’ve heard it said, but some don’t have that luxury.

At the end of the day, what many addicts are looking for is just that — ignorance and bliss — an escape and a way to numb the pain as they dwell deep down in that well they stumbled into when they were at their most vulnerable. Many people are happy to ignore the cries and turn a blind eye to their misery, their ugly, unsightly struggling as they get trapped in an endless cycle of torture and momentary relief. They get dehumanized, looked down on and dismissed as people who don’t deserve a second glance, let alone a lifeline, a ladder or even just someone to listen. Deep down, isn’t that what we all want?

“You get what you deserve in this life,” some might say. Only, that’s not true. Sometimes you don’t. Life really isn’t that black and white, and neither is addiction.

A little piece of advice from someone who fell into it, albeit briefly. Be the one brave and selfless enough to look over the edge of that well and meet the eyes of those who’ve hit rock bottom, without judgment and disgust. Look down on the person, but only to help them up, and if you don’t have the strength to do it yourself, then send for help. Listen to their story with a kind, compassionate heart. Show a little humanity to those who’ve lost their way, for whatever reason, without simply writing them off as “wasters” who are beyond help, for they are the ones who need it most.

My brush with addiction changed my mind (in more ways than one), it’s true. To addicts and all the outsiders who judge them so harshly, it’s never too late to change yours, too.

Original photo by author

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