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 the IV solution given to me was pure saline as opposed to Ringers solution, so it had no potassium. So the only electrolyte that got replaced by the rehydration therapy was sodium. I’m sure I was in desperate need of potassium. Severe potassium deficiency can cause panic attacks and insomnia, which is exactly what began happening to me as soon as I returned home from the hospital.
Terrified and clueless about what could be causing this, I went back to the hospital, where they diagnosed me with anxiety and sent my home with my first benzodiazepine, Ativan. They prescribed 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), not realizing that Ambien (a “non-benzodiazepine” or “z-drug”) and Xanax are both potentially 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 milligram 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.
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”.
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 a friend’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, the pneumonia I had only partially treated came raging back much worse than it had been before. I had to take antibiotics. Killing the infection 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.
Incredibly, about 4 years later I actually did take another benzo after being hospitalized for insomnia-induced depression. But this time I was a bit wiser. Not a lot, mind you, just a bit. I at least was aware that I would need to taper off of it and must not go cold turkey if I valued my life.
The beginning of my taper 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. I again experienced the utter horror of derealization and depersonalization. I was so dizzy and exhausted from insomnia that I couldn’t drive. I was bedbound for weeks.
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. As I got lower and lower in dose, I began to feel more and more stable.
By the end of the taper, which took an incredible two years, I was much healthier and almost completely functional. It’s been about 7 years since that time. Unfortunately, I cannot report that I’m back to normal. I’m mostly happy and functional, but I am much more prone to insomnia, anxiety and depression. I am much less resilient and more susceptible to life stress than before I ever took a benzo. I don’t know if this will ever change.
Here is what people need to understand: out of control benzo withdrawal can have severe, lasting consequences. Neither of my withdrawals were handled properly by my doctors. The first was an extremely dangerous cold turkey, and the second started out very badly because of the foolish advice of my doctor, who wanted me to complete my taper in two months. If I had listened to him, I would have been almost as sick as I was with the first withdrawal. Fortunately, I wised up in time to save myself any more agony and found a prescriber at a mental health facility who was willing to allow me to taper at my own pace.
Learning to taper is not effortless. It takes skill and knowledge. If anyone reading this needs to taper off of a benzodiazepine, I recommend carefully reading the Ashton Manual, which can be downloaded for free from the internet. From it you will learn the basics of what benzodiazepines are, what they do in the body, and how you can safely taper from them. Then present this manual to your prescribing physician. If he/she is not willing to help you taper safely, which unfortunately is incredibly common, find another doctor. It could mean your sanity or even your life.
I’ve never been comfortable with the anxiety label. We seem to excuse someone for feeling fear or anxiety in situations of extreme stress or danger such as war or imprisonment. But when anxiety is an ongoing part of life, it is pathologized, stigmatized, and medicated.
Why? Seriously. It’s not as if our society is all roses and daisy fields. It’s sick, shut down, demoralized, and often cruel. For someone who is born sensitive with a desire to live honestly and authentically, this world can be a torment. That’s not pathology, it’s a normal reaction to a sick situation. That is what Daniel Mackler tries to convey in this video. His words are the story of my life.
My raw throat is closing, my heart racing, and my head fuzzy from the fumes emanating from my dear friend. She knows I’m very sensitive to chemicals.
“I stopped wearing perfume a long time ago after I found out that it makes some people sick,” she says.
What do I say?
What I’m thinking is this:
The fragrance in your laundry products is just as toxic as any perfume you would spray on. In fact it can be even more problematic because there is no way to control the amount of fragrance that ends up on your clothes and it is very difficult to ever get it to wash out. All of your clothes and linens are now drenched in it, so there is no way for you to decide to be “fragrance free” for a day so you can come visit me without making me ill. The companies that sell laundry products have been progressively ramping up the amounts of fragrance in their products because they know that it is not how well the product works that sells it, but how it smells. As a result, the products we have now are far more toxic and irritating than they were in the past. But this has gone practically unnoticed by people like you because you have become so accustomed to living in a cloud of chemical fumes that your sense of smell has become dulled. So you can’t tell that at this very moment your clothes are outgassing enormous amounts of the sick-making fragrance that you think you are not wearing. And now I’m sick.
What I say is: “Oh well, everything makes me sick now. Don’t worry about it.”
Because I love my friend.
But the truth is that my friend is putting herself at risk. Just because she does not have obvious symptoms as soon as she smells laundry detergent or other chemicals does not mean they are not affecting her. She has chronic health problems that could very well be related to the toxic personal care and cleaning products that she uses, but she will never be able to discern that this is the case unless she purges her home of all toxic chemicals so that she knows how it feels to breathe clean air.
So how loving is it of me to avoid telling the truth? I avoid it to keep the peace. But meanwhile my friends suffer and I suffer. So here it is. The truth:
Laundry detergent and fabric softener is not harmless. Neither is anything else that has chemical fragrance added to it. You may not have sprayed perfume on this morning, but that lotion on your hands is pungent. And your hairspray even more so. Your fabric softener-impregnated clothes compete with your lotion and your hairspray to create a toxic soup that makes me choke. And it’s terrible for you too. Now you know.
Next comes the inevitable question: then what can I use? Everything has fragrance. Well no, not everything. Most things. Yes, it’s hard at first to switch to a more natural and non-toxic lifestyle, but it can be done. And once you’ve got your routine down, it becomes second nature. Following are some links to guides on how to choose healthier products:
Environmental Working Group’s consumer guides: consumer guides
Debra Lynn Dadd’s list: Debra’s list
Wellness Mama’s tips and recipes for a non-toxic home: Wellness Mama
Whenever I hear that a friend is having a new baby, I’m happy for them. But I also cringe, knowing that the baby will probably be exposed to large amounts of toxicants in things like new paint and carpet in the nursery, scented laundry and personal care products, and cleaning chemicals. Here are some good, practical suggestions on how to reduce your baby’s chemical exposures and prevent illness.
Young women need to listen to the canaries
I’m in my 60s now, ten years into my second marriage, and my wife and I have six children between us. We are at a stage in life when our children are having babies and our friends and relatives of the same age are also becoming grandparents. When we hear the exciting news – that we’re expecting a new grandchild – the combined feeling of joy and excitement is hard to describe, which helps to suppress the unspeakable worry; that the baby might be born with less than good health. And we have good reason for concern, because developmental disorders now affect one in six children.
Some people blame the increase in ASD…
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It is a horrible fact that we can read in the daily paper, without interrupting our breakfast, numerical reckonings of death and destruction that ought to break our hearts or scare us out of our wits. This brings us to an entirely practical question: Can we–and if we can, how can we–make actual in our minds the sometimes urgent things we say we know? This obviously can not be accomplished by a technological breakthrough, nor can it be accomplished by a big thought. Perhaps it cannot be accomplished at all. – Wendell Berry, The Jefferson Lecture
So can we? Who really can wrap their heads around the collective and massive agony of a planet gone mad? And even if we could, would we be capable of the herculean effort that it would require to correct the situation? Do we even know how? And even if we did, how many people would care enough?
And is it even up to us? The Bible says that it isn’t:
I well know, O Jehovah, that man’s way does not belong to him. It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step. – Jeremiah 10:23
So what does God really expect of us? Do we just stand by and watch as the world goes up in smoke?
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”+37 He said to him: “‘You must love Jehovah* your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul* and with your whole mind.’+ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 The second, like it, is this: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’+ 40 On these two commandments the whole Law hangs, and the Prophets.”+ – Matthew 22: 36-40
So, although God promises to step in and handle the things that we cannot fix on our own, he has always expected people to show love. Most of what destroys and hurts people and other living beings is behavior that is the opposite of love. We can, as Gandhi so famously said, “be the change” we wish to see in the world as we wait patiently for God’s intervention.