My life has been considerably damaged by some really bad decisions. They all have something in common: they involve the unwitting use and exposure to everyday chemicals. There were two decisions in particular that were devastatingly bad. The first one was the decision to use Xanax to mask the symptoms of chemical sensitivity. The second was the decision to use another benzodiazepine to undo the long-term consequences of taking the Xanax. Bright, I know. I’m going to try to tell my story from the point where things began to spin out of control.
In the summer of 2008, I was battling the increasingly severe symptoms of asthma. At the time, I thought I had a lung infection that would just not go away. I now realize that I was experiencing the symptoms of environmental illness. I had become highly sensitized to the chemicals I was coming in contact with on a daily basis.
Not realizing the cause of my increasingly poor health, I bought a laundry detergent that was to change my life. Yes, I know that sounds melodramatic, but it’s completely accurate. This detergent is advertised as an “eco-friendly” brand, and as I was somewhat aware of the environmental issues surrounding the products we use, I bought it. As soon as I opened the bottle I realized that I might have made a mistake. The fragrance emanating therefrom was overpowering. But I powered on and washed all my family’s clothes in the smelly stuff. Soon, our whole house was enveloped in a chemical cloud, and my lungs were beginning to fill will fluid. By the time I realized that there might be a connection between my symptoms and my detergent, it was too late. I had developed pneumonia.
I called my Naturopath and asked for some supplements for pneumonia. The dose of the herb and vitamin combo she recommended was quite large, but I complied thinking it was the only way to kill the infection. I’m a very small person with a very sensitive system. The dose of vitamin A and Zinc that apparently cures the average person poisoned me. I began to feel extremely thirsty all the time. I could not get enough water, ever. I began to urinate enormous amounts of liquid every twenty minutes or less. I got myself in even deeper when I decided to treat the poisoning by trying to sweat it out, speeding up the process of dehydration already begun. After about three days, I felt like I was going to die, so it was off to the hospital. There it was found that I had sweated and peed away all of my electrolytes. I was basically peeing out exactly what I had put in, pure water. I received IV fluids and was sent home.
That is when the real mayhem began. I believe now that I had a severe reaction to the sulfites in the IV fluid that I was given in the hospital. As a result, I began to have the first panic attacks I had ever experienced that were not related to some sort of emotional stress. I also stopped sleeping. I panicked and went back to the hospital, where they diagnosed me with anxiety and sent my home with my first benzodiazepine, Ativan. I had enough for about 5 days. I was so relieved to finally be able to sleep and to calm down that I decided to go to my doctor and get some more magic pills. She wanted to give me some Ambien, but I had heard scary things about Ambien, so strangely enough, I asked for Alprazolam (Xanax), the pill that some of my family members use for anxiety and insomnia. I figured that if it worked for them it would surely work for me, not realizing that Ambien (a “non-benzodiazepine” or “z-drug”) and Xanax are both very dangerous drugs. I was prescribed 1 milligram, much more than the paltry .25 mgs of Ativan I had been prescribed at first. One milligram; it seemed like such a small dose. I wouldn’t find out until much later that one mg of Xanax is roughly equivalent to 20 mgs of Valium, one of the original and very much maligned benzodiazepines.
Xanax hits you like a Mack truck. As soon as it kicked in, I felt very dizzy and could no longer walk. All I could do was get in the bed and pass out. The next morning I was very tired and weak, but happy; so happy! I couldn’t understand why I’d had any reservations at all about taking sleeping pills! Everything seemed good and calm and mellow. Nothing was wrong. The world suddenly seemed like a much safer and nicer place to be. Unfortunately, this state was not to last very long.
My memory here becomes a bit hazy (benzos are amnesic drugs). I believe it was between 3 and 5 days later when I had my first real panic attack, not like those wimpy ones I’d taken the pills for in the first place. This was white-hot terror. It began with a hot flash and ended with me rocking back and forth in utter horror, tears running down my face, finally deciding to take my “sleeping pill” at 5:00 PM because my “condition” had returned and I “needed it”. It follows, of course, that I would need more medication if I was going to have to use the pills for more than just going to sleep. My doctor prescribed two more milligrams to be taken “as needed”, which had me taking the equivalent of 60 mgs of valium.
As it turned out, the more pills I took, the more I needed. Eventually I was cutting them in half and spreading my daily dose of 3 milligrams throughout the day to avoid inter-dose withdrawal and the dreaded panic attacks. Three weeks after my original dose of Xanax, I realized that the pills were making me very, very ill. For the first time in my life, I felt suicidal. I was terrified. I stopped taking my pills, expecting a few nights of insomnia and then a gradual return to health. That is not what happened. What followed cannot even be imagined by a person who has never experienced it.
My memory of the first few weeks after I stopped taking Xanax is very hazy, like the memory of a really bad nightmare. For the first couple of nights I stayed at my sister-in-law’s house because I knew things were likely to be difficult, and I did not want to subject my three boys to what I knew I had to go through. I threw up all night long. Every morsel of food that I managed to swallow came up within a few minutes of it going down. My skin felt like I had been dipped in a vat of boiling hot oil, like I was being cooked from the inside out. My heart rate was usually between 110 and 140 bpm. I had convulsions, seizures, visual and auditory hallucinations, delusions and severe depersonalization and de-realization (feeling as if I was a different person and that nothing was real). I went 2 weeks without any sleep at all and became very, very suicidal. I had to be watched 24/7. My perception of time and space was distorted. I was angry. I had no positive emotions whatsoever for many, many weeks.
Acute withdrawal lasted for about a month. After that, my symptoms were somewhat less severe, though still miserable. I was always in enormous amounts of pain. The pain in my chest was so bad that it felt like I’d broken some ribs. In fact, I became convinced I had done so somehow, so I insisted on getting X-rays, which showed nothing. Due to the fact that my immune system had basically collapsed, I did develop genuine bacterial pneumonia, for which I had to take antibiotics, and which caused me to cough so hard that I dislocated my ribs repeatedly.
Sleep returned gradually, first 2 hours, then 4, then 6 and 7. I had to sleep propped up with many pillows because of chest and shoulder pain, and because my rapid heart rate made me more uncomfortable and anxious when I was flat on my back. Every night I had to tell myself these words “you’ve slept through worse, you can do it.” And most nights it helped.
One year after my Xanax cold turkey, I was feeling much better, though not completely back to myself. I was left with lingering breathing problems and severe muscular tension. My ability to handle stress was greatly diminished. But I had survived and I was functioning relatively normally. I was immensely proud of myself for enduring and healing from such a horrific experience, and I thought I was much wiser for it. If somebody had told me at that time that 4 years later I would put another benzodiazepine in my mouth, I would not have believed them.
The little blue death pill is how I came to think of the Xanax that I had taken. Who in their right mind would twice take a death pill? Nobody in their right mind. But people in their wrong mind might.
2 years after my near-death experience with Xanax, in the fall of 2010, I began work as a letter carrier for the United States Postal Service. It was very hard work for someone like me, but I was determined. I pushed and pushed until I had well learned my route and my other duties, ignoring all the signs that the job might be too much for me. I pushed through a brutal case of bronchitis worsened by ink fumes, numerous sleepless nights, and despite my misgivings about the newspaper ink coating my hands black, pesticide drift blowing into the open windows of my delivery vehicle, and the extreme stress of working for a sociopathic postmaster.
By Summer, I had reached the end of my tether. Stress induced insomnia had caused me to go to work zombie-tired many times. One time in particular there were consequences. I made a mistake which is considered serious by the postal service. I failed to shake a mailbag to check for any packages that might have escaped my notice, and thus missed an important piece of mail, an express package. For this, I was to be disciplined. This was my wake-up call. It was time to quite and re-group, and fortunately for me, that was an option I had which would not cause my financial ruin.
I am fully convinced now that my time at the Postal Service contributed in large measure to a significant decline in my health. Although I have always been aware that I am highly sensitive to the smell of newspaper ink, I did not know until recently that it contains Bisphenal-A, or BPA, which is an endocrine disruptor. An endocrine disruptor is a chemical that can mimic our own hormones, and thus cause illness associated with hormonal imbalance.
By the fall of 2010, I was experiencing pronounced symptoms of hormonal imbalance, much more severe than I had ever experienced before. By winter, I was so concerned about my symptoms that I felt I must take action. Past experience had taught me that doctors often mean trouble, so I tried to treat myself, with disastrous consequences. My attempts at treating my symptoms drove me into a state of crisis, at which point I decided to once again risk putting my health in the hands of my Naturopath. Her treatments drove me still deeper into crisis. The combination of my already highly sensitized nervous system and the extra stress of almost selling our house sent me into a final tailspin from which I felt I would not be able to recover.
I was not sleeping again. For months I had existed on between 2 and 5 hours of sleep per night, when what I really required was nine. After the house selling debacle, I simply stopped sleeping and went into a state of extreme anguish. I hesitate to call it depression because it was way beyond that. It was agony, both mental and physical. I felt I’d been thrown right back into the jaws of the Xanax beast even though I hadn’t touched a pill in 3 years.
I have an idea about why this became so unbelievably severe. I once read the story of a man who had been through a very difficult benzodiazepine detox. Years later he decided to undergo intravenous vitamin C therapy, and during the therapy, the very same withdrawal symptoms he had experienced years before during his detox returned upon him. I surmise that the detoxification process that the vitamin C therapy initiated liberated drug residue stored in his tissues. This is simply a hypothesis of mine, but if true, it would certainly explain why I felt three years after taking Xanax that I had been thrown back into the deep pit of suffering I thought I had forever escaped. All of the treatments I had attempted in an effort to fix my hormonal imbalance were initiating a massive detoxification process which was simply too much for me to handle all at once.
I eventually came to the point where I was in so much mental and physical agony from my exhaustion that I was beginning to have those suicidal thoughts again. This time I’m sure I would not have acted on them. But what I was feeling was so intolerable that I eventually allowed a family member to take me to the hospital where I was admitted to a locked psychiatric ward. This is very difficult for me to tell. As I sit here typing, the tears are welling up for so many reasons: Pride, shame, trauma. It is not okay in our culture to lose control. The psych ward….oh so many negative connotations. I don’t have to explain. You already know. “I’m not one of those people,” I want to say, “I’m different. I didn’t really belong in that hospital. I’m not crazy, I just had insomnia.” But I’m not going to say those things. Every person I met in that hospital was a person like me. They were people overwhelmed, bodies overwhelmed by our toxic world.
The only thing friendly about a psych ward are the other patients. The system itself is harsh and unbending, and you don’t get out unless you comply. I begged to be given anything other than benzodiazepines. In spite of that, on my first night I was handed a little green and white pill with a name that ended in “pam”. I knew what that meant. It was a benzo. I asked the med nurse if it was, indeed, a benzodiazepine, and she confirmed that, yes, it was. I told her that I had specifically asked the man who admitted me to relay to my doctor that I would not be taking any benzodiazepines. Was there anything else? Anything that would help me sleep without causing a brutal addiction? No? Why not? I can’t take that pill!
But take it I did. I was approaching sleep psychosis. I needed to sleep. I had a deadly fear of going one more night without. So down the hatch it went and I went out like a light on the nasty plastic mattress. And woke at two in the morning. Wide awake. So down to the front desk I went to ask for another pill, and down it went too. In the morning, I felt groggy and sick, but once that feeling wore off, I felt great! It was like the first time I took Xanax, everything was roses! I was in a locked psychiatric ward, but I was happy. I loved all my fellow patients, I loved the nice mental-wellness classes we had to attend. I was finally going to get better.
The only problem was that little green and white pill. That had to go. I was not going to fall for that again, no way! I was too smart for that. And thus began a harrowing journey through the nightmare-land of psychiatric drugging. I tried a different pill almost every day, and by the time I was released from the hospital, I felt like I had been through a meat grinder. And I was on Temazepam. Every medication given to me had made me incredibly ill, one of them dangerously so. Every one of them except for the big T.
I knew I had to taper, that much I had learned from my experience with Xanax. I had taken Xanax for a measly 3 weeks, and quitting it cold turkey cost me over a year of illness. I perceived that it had almost cost me my life. Benzos have very few side effects when compared to other psychiatric drugs, but once one of them gets its hooks in you, you cannot just quit.
I was reeling from the chemical merry-go-round I had experienced in the hospital. I felt like a person with Autism. I had to protect myself from light, sound, smells and anything that might cause any kind of emotional stress. Some days I would regularly hide my head under a blanket to avoid stimulation. Even in the car.
I had a plan. Even in my brain-mashed state, I was capable of planning. I decided that I would allow myself to sleep on the 30 mgs of Temazepam for about a week, and then I was going to find a way to taper off of it. It did not even enter my mind that I should stay on, and my doctor agreed. Unbelievable! I had a doctor who understood how bad benzos are! There was only one problem: he did not understand how much damage a fast taper could do. He wanted me off, NOW. He gave me two months and a taper plan that would have nearly killed me. My first dosage cut on his plan caused a cascade of horrific symptoms from which it would take me months to recover.
Fortunately, I found a prescribing nurse at the mental health clinic I had been referred to by the hospital who did not want to see me descend into emotional chaos again and was willing to be my prescriber for a slower taper. And so began a very long process which I have not yet completed. My original plan involved a 6 to 8 month taper. It soon became abundantly clear that if I was going to taper at my body’s own pace, I would not be done in 8 months, or a year, or even 18 months. This taper has been like one of those bad dreams where you’re trying to run away from something dangerous, but you feel like you’re moving through a vat of pudding. Or having to stay very still and quiet to avoid danger when all you want to do is run like a mad woman.
The beginning of my taper, about a year and half ago, was horrific. The first few unwisely large cuts had made me incredibly ill. I always felt like I had swallowed battery acid. I was on fire from my mouth all the way to my stomach. I was not sleeping again. I was in all sorts of mental and physical agony. That began to change after I wisely took some advice I received on a withdrawal support forum and spread my dose out a little. I also slowed my pace, holding my dose whenever the cuts became too difficult to handle. I gradually began to become marginally functional.
It’s never easy. I’ve been sick for two years. But I have abundant hope that I will heal, and that is what I want to focus on always. That hope is based on fact, because I am healing. I now take 3 mgs of Temazepam, down from the original 30, and I continue inexorably on to the finish line. I often have windows of almost total normalcy. I sleep. I drive. I homeschool my kids. The future is bright!