There once was a story of 3 glamorous women who cured their woes by swallowing colour-coded pills.
“Take 3 yellow ‘dolls’ before bedtime for a broken love affair; take 2 red dolls and a shot of scotch for a shattered career; take Valley of the Dolls in heavy doses for the truth about the glamour set on the pill kick.” (from Valley of the Dolls film publicity)
Valley of the Dolls was the best-selling book of 1966. Fifty years later, little has changed in our desire to medicate and manage anxiety and insomnia. What has changed is the drug of choice. While Valley of the Dolls centered on Barbiturates (eg. Seconal, Nembutal), they have now gone out of fashion. Benzodiazepines eg. Ativan, Xanax, Klonopin, Valium has become the staple – it’s the little black dress in the pill cabinet.
As opiates have become our modern day grim reaper, it’s easy to overlook the lesser known crisis of benzodiazepines.
The Canadian Centre of Substance Abuse reported that in 2013, approximately 11.5% of Canadians were using prescribed sedatives (including benzodiazepines). The rate of use is higher in senior citizens. In the United States, it’s estimated that doctors write out over 50 million prescriptions for benzodiazepines.
Benzodiazepines and Barbiturates work on the GABA system. If you were to stimulate your GABA system, it would feel like you have a thick blanket on to dampen your nervous system and absorb any sign of excitability. You would feel comfortably sedated.
Benzodiazepines have largely replaced barbiturates over the years. Not only do they combat anxiety and induce sleepiness but they can also control seizures. Although Doctors prescribe them for short-term use, they can fall into a predictable cycle as other drugs: what starts off as giving relief can turn into dependency.
What Goes Down Must Come Up
If you try pushing an inflatable beach ball under the water, it will inevitably and forcefully pop up out of the water. Pusing down anxiety is great until that anxiety rebounds.
The challenges of benzodiazepines reads like a grocery list:
- They are potentially addictive
- The more you use them, the more you need them
- The longer you take them, the more chance you’ll feel withdrawal symptoms (anxiety) even while you are still taking them
- The real challenge is coming off of them
Try Saying Goodbye To Your Little Friend
Saying goodbye to your benzo is not easy and will likely leave you feeling anxious.
Short-term side effects can include anxiety, irritability, headaches, dizziness and insomnia.
Over the long-term, protracted withdrawal can induce withdrawal symptoms such as depression, gastrointestinal issues, insomnia and cognitive impairment continuing for months and sometimes years.
Symptom Rebound can also occur where anxiety symptoms return and are higher than the original levels of anxiety.
This is an example when coming full circle is not a good thing.
A Therapist’s Experience
In my practice, I have come face to face with the harsh realities of benzodiazepines withdrawal. It has been written that It is more difficult to withdraw from benzos than it is from heroin (Malcolm H Lader, 1999). In my experiences, I believe this to be true.
“And though she's not really ill
There's a little yellow pill
She goes running for the shelter ” (Rolling Stones)
In the ‘60’s it was “Mother’s Little Helpers” and today it is benzodiazepines.
Our desire to medicate our discomfort is a constant which can be patient and/or Doctor driven. The majority of clients I have worked with who are struggling with benzodiazepine dependency were prescribed these pills by their Doctors.
You will find benzodiazepines by prescription at a Doctor’s office near you in a lovely array of colours including peach, blue, white, yellow, green. But buyer beware: in spite of their promises, the nightmare often begins when the pill kicks in and you think you are starting to feel better.
Tanya works with multiple addictions and has supported many clients in their efforts to taper off benzodiazepines.
Vancouver Benzodiazepines & Z Drug Support Group: