Boston Women’s Journal - June/July 2007

The Involuntary Addicts

I am currently treating a woman who one year ago was going through a difficult time in her life. She had a few mild “anxiety attacks” and her General Practitioner put her on a benzodiazapine, the name of the class of drugs that are generally given for anxiety that include Klonapin, Valium and Xanax. She took the drug at the prescribed level for six months, and then when things eased off in her life she tried to discontinue its use. She was on the lowest prescribed dosage, so she was quite surprised to find herself unable to stop the drug. She became much more anxious, dizzy, and hypoglycemic. Depressed and unable to stand strong light, she was stuck in her bedroom. After a few weeks more she developed vertigo, and all of her muscles ached. When she reported this to her GP he said, “Nonsense, just stop the drug, those things are all in your mind.” She went cold turkey on January 1st of this year and called me for help in March.

Though I am pleased to report that things are improving as she she follows her treatment plan, there are still days when all she can do is cry. She offered to let me use her name and home state in this article because she is so outraged by what has been happening to her. She has to have a full time nanny, she can’t care for her children and sleeps most of the day. I am hoping that she will be better by the summer, all she wants is to be able to go on an outing with her children. She is shocked and upset that she was not told that she was taking an addictive drug and that no response was made to her withdrawal. She is now a member of “benzo buddies” an Internet support network for recovering addicts. She is an involuntary addict.

Another woman I am currently seeing lives in a Scandinavian country. We usually associate that part of the world with medical care of high quality. This was not so in her case. She had a migraine episode that made her temporarily blind, was given massive doses of steroids, and was then taken off them abruptly. I received an urgent call from a friend of hers who was alarmed by the woman’s condition. I spoke to her after her admittance to a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt. The doctors put her on a massive dosage of a “benzo” to treat her suicidality. She wasn’t suicidal, the steroids had so disoriented and confused her that she felt helpless and hopeless. In fact she was in a terrific time of her life both professionally and personally. The doctors had used a protocol for another illness and threw her body and mind into chaos. We detoxed her gently, weaning her off the steroids, and she is now back at home and back to her life, working to get her feet under her. She is using herbal medicine for her migraines, and is still on the anxiety meds, but we hope to be able to address this soon. She is a bit shy of western doctors right now.

I was at a wedding reception recently, and at our table was a therapist who in conversation asked what I was currently writing about. I told her about this article and she said “Have you room for another story?” She was treated for breast cancer five years ago, and had been given, as were all the women in her “group”, a benzodiazapine for sleep and anxiety. She said they had just given her and the others prescriptions without asking any history, “like candy”. Her breast cancer was successfully treated, but she found she could not sleep without the drugs. She returned to her doctor and went on a weaning plan and luckily after two months was able to get off the drug.

What are we doing? There certainly is a place for anxiety medication. Many people would not be able to be alive and function without it. Many of you reading this are grateful for the assistance of this drug class, and you should be. But it seems that, especially with women, doctors give them out before seeing if there is anxiety, and measuring how bad it might be. Patients and their advocates need to assess natural alternatives, such as passionflower. Doctors need to inform their patients about the addictive nature of these drugs and let them choose whether or not they want to take the risk.

What can we do? Here is the place where an educated consumer is key. Discuss medications, check alternatives, and monitor your reactions. Work with alternative care providers to seek natural methods to deal with anxiety and other illnesses. Although I am only talking about one type of medication here, I could have written a similar article about many different classes of drugs.

Dedicated to TH for her courage.