What your doctors won’t tell you about benzo withdrawal
The Huffington Post recently published one view about benzos. But it’s missing the patient experience. Here’s another view, with a section at the end for your comments, questions, and general feedback. (If you write us, we’ll try to respond to you personally!)
Benzo awareness is coming of age
Alexander Zaitchik shoved the dangers of benzodiazepine into the spotlight with his edgy article “Is It Bedtime For Benzos?” re-published by the Huffington Post, June 25, 2015. I’m over the moon that benzo awareness is coming of age. But the whole benzo story needs to be told, not just the bullet points and interviews from doctors who have absolutely no idea what surviving benzo withdrawal feels like every second of every day.
Trying to learn about benzodiazepine addiction and withdrawal from a doctor’s perspective is like asking a German soldier what the concentration camps were like for the Jews who had the misfortune of ending up in one. We need to hear from the benzo victims themselves. They know the truth. Let’s take a look at the benzo problem from their perspective.
The “Benzos Are Like Cocaine” argument
Zaitchik’s article rests on the argument that benzodiazepines are addictive in the traditional sense of the word. Citing a study done by Dr. Christian Luscher and colleagues at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, and published in 2012, he posits that benzo users crave the dopamine surge that benzodiazepines, like other addictive drugsm cause. Luscher also claims, “Now that we know that it’s the alpha-1-containing GABAA receptor that is responsible for benzodiazepine addiction, we can design benzodiazepines that do not touch those particular receptors.”
He’s moved into fiction here, because he doesn’t know this to be true (for many reasons, and he’s clearly stumping for more drug manufacturing. Let’s not forget that Switzerland is the home of the Valium manufacturer Roche). Luscher doesn’t touch on the problem of what causes the debilitating symptoms that arrive upon tolerance to the drug, dose reduction or cessation. That’s the real story of the dangers of benzos.
The real dangers of benzos
Talk to most benzo users who take the drug as prescribed by their doctor and you’ll hear a much different story than chasing a surge of dopamine. They are trying to stave off what feels like (and could actually be) death and insanity.
Benzo users don’t crave the drug the way one would crave, say, cocaine. They are addicted because the drug causes changes in the GABA receptors (and who knows what else) that cause he following when you reduce the dose:
- extreme anxiety
- paranoia depersonalization
If those nightmare symptoms aren’t enough to make you think twice about getting on a benzo then think on this: Going through withdrawal from benzos can cause pain throughout the body: bones, joints, muscles and nerve endings scream in protest. Still not convinced that benzos are the devils doing? On top of the emotional and physical anguish, benzos cause debilitating problems with:
- taste smelling
- memory, and cognition
Wait. There’s more. The bladder, bowel, heart, stomach, esophagus, uterus, and other organs, and systems can be prey to benzos havoc. Oh, and not to mention auditory, olfactory and visual hallucinations.
Reduce the dose or remove the drug to provoke detox from benzos, and you enter a Faustian world where you will do anything to feel normal. But normal is a long ways away, and there is nothing no pill or potion – that can reverse the damage the drug has caused. The only cure is time. A lot of time. Sometimes years. Benzo withdrawal makes craving heroin look like child’s play. Seriously.
Let’s get the timeline straight, and other truths
TRUTH #1. Benzo withdrawal can take years.
Recovering from the damage that benzodiazepines cause takes longer than the few months cited by Zaitchik’s source, Rev. Jack Abel, a rehab therapist who runs the sleep program for Caron Clinics. Recovery from benzo use can take years. Many, many years.
TRUTH #2. Benzos damage the brain BEFORE withdrawal even begins.
Zaitchik shares integrative medicine physician, Dr. Peter Madill’s, sentiment that if one removes the drug too quickly the brain, “thinks it is being injured ” I’ll go out on a limb and say that the benzo damaged the brain long before the drug was reduced or removed.
TRUTH #3. Stop prescribing benzodiazepines for more than a few days and there is no withdrawal.
Madill wants more research into drugs that can augment the withdrawal process. That seems backwards to me. I’d rather see the time and energy devoted to banning the use of benzos for more than a few days. Stop the benzos and you won’t have a population of people suffering in benzo withdrawal. There won’t be a need for time and energy researching ways to alleviate their suffering.
TRUTH #4. Benzo withdrawal unravels your life.
Madill argues that benzo users don’t destroy their lives in dramatic fashion, say, like heroin or methamphetamine users are prone to do. Benzo users function just fine, usually. We go to work and raise families. But when tolerance to the drug hits and our brains and bodies need more to stave off the horrific withdrawal symptoms, our lives begin to fray around the edges. Reduce or remove the drug and they unravel, sometimes completely. We are often unable to take care of even the most basic of survival needs in benzo withdrawal. Suddenly heroin or meth addicts seem high functioning in comparison. (I know. I lived it. For years.)
TRUTH #5. Benzos don’t just disempower you; they can kill you.
Dr. Jason Eric Schiffman, the director of UCLA’s Dual Diagnosis Program balks at benzos because he believes they create a sense of disempowerment. Feel anxiety, take a pill. You don’t learn to cope with anxiety. I agree that learning to stand up to the bully called anxiety is a grand idea. Schiffman misses the point though. The danger isn’t that the pill will disempower you. No, the very real danger is that the pill may kill you. And if it doesn’t kill you, you’ll wish it had when you start the long and arduous battle of fighting for your life and your sanity when you try to divorce yourself from it.
We’re barking up the wrong trees
Not to sound ungrateful. I’m pleased Zaitchik wrote a gripping piece to bring more light to the benzo problem. I just want the deeper, darker truth to stand in the spotlight along with his arguments.
Benzodiazepines kill people. They can totally obliterate people’s lives when they try to stop taking them. Granted, not every benzo user will experience extreme benzo withdrawal, but a good proportion will. Benzos are dangerous at any dose and even when used for a few days (not two years, as Rev. Abel believes). Poll a group of benzo survivors and you’ll hear horror stories from people who took them for a handful of days, and then took years to heal.
Benzodiazepines destroy lives. That’s the bottom line. For those of us in the trenches healing from their damage, we are busy trying to put our lives back together again from the debilitating emotional and physical symptoms benzo withdrawal causes. Add in the bankruptcy, abandonment, divorce, and homelessness that withdrawal can cause, and you understand our grumbling when the media doesn’t portray the real reasons why benzos are dangerous.
Bedtime for benzos
Zaitchik writes that it’s remarkable that it’s taken so much time for the conversation about benzos to take place in the U.S. I agree. The conversation has been ongoing for decades in the U.K. Dr. Heather Ashton, who for years, ran a benzodiazepine withdrawal clinic, is the leading expert in benzo withdrawal. She is often scorned here in the United States as a “kook.” It’s hard to have a conversation with doctors who don’t even want to acknowledge one of their own. I’m regularly copied on emails that are part of an ongoing legal battle in England with regards to these drugs. The powers that be continue to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the problem.
The benzo problem is hiding in plain sight
Take a look at the people who are suffering through benzodiazepine withdrawal and you’ll see the truth. You’ll see shattered lives. You’ll see people who can’t go on another day and end their lives because the suffering in benzo withdrawal is too much for any human being to bear. You’ll rethink what addiction means. You’ll rethink what the Hippocratic oath means. Doctors are maiming and killing people with the stroke of a pen, and very little is being done to stop them.
We need the truth to be told. Mainstream media needs to listen to another perspective of the dangers of benzodiazepines. Perhaps then more doctors will listen. Perhaps then it will finally be bedtime for benzos.
Photo credit: Pressmaster