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Author’s Note: the opinions expressed in this article are not intended as a judgement of anyone’s choice to take psychiatric medication, simply an offering of my own perspective and experience, with deepest compassion for anyone also suffering from mental illness.
I was first prescribed a benzodiazepine (aka “benzo”) at the age of 18, with absolutely no knowledge of the devastating effects this drug would come to have on my life.
I was given a prescription without proper informed consent, during a five-minute appointment that led to a a quick trip to the pharmacy. I trusted my prescriber to have my best interests at heart, and she probably did.
At the time, I wasn’t even aware that I had complex PTSD, nor that I had ever been abused (or that I had also been re-traumatized via domestic violence). I’d spent my entire life in a state of severe dissociation as an act of utter survival. My view of the world was always from outside of my body. I was restless, anxious, and desperate for relief.
This seemingly innocuous little pill, at the time, felt like an utter miracle.
All of a sudden I was finally at peace.
I could relax and everything felt okay, probably for the first time in my entire life. I remember remarking how beautifully the sun was shining as clouds drifted through the sky. My body was (albeit synthetically and temporarily) out of the fight, flight, or freeze mode it had been stuck in since before I could speak.
I quickly became (unknowingly) dependent and, eventually, suffered a nervous breakdown that led to my first suicide attempt. I attributed it to other life events, but later came to see how instrumental this little pill was in helping to deteriorate my mental health, and many of my dreams and ambitions along with it.
This is when I learned that something within me was broken, that my body chemistry was wrong and abnormal, and that I would need to be on meds forever or face certain death (said my psychiatrist). This was also the day I became a victim of the mental health system. The day I bought into the narrative that I would always need something outside of me to survive, that I was powerless over mental illness.
On the flip side, it was also when I began to pursue a new concept, which up until that point had been completely foreign to me: self-love. To this day, I can remember sitting on the floor with tears pouring down my face at 19 years old, reading Louise Hay, because no one had ever told me I was supposed to love and approve of myself. All I had been taught was self-hatred and shame.
Fast forward about five years, to my next severe mental health breakdown. After a deeply traumatic event occurred, my childhood wounds were ripped wide open and exposed to the light. Horrific trauma memories of sexual abuse, buried up until that point for survival, flooded my psyche.
The tempest of C-PTSD that ensued completely debilitated me. I wasn’t even able to finish my last semester of school until two years later, let alone work. It was all I could do to function and keep my fire going, but the will to survive persisted within me and, fortunately, I never let it fully go out. Many others aren’t as lucky as I am.
Out of sheer and utter hopelessness and desperation, I once again went back on a cocktail of psychiatric medications, including Valium. I was in survival mode, fighting to find the will to live. Like many of us, I thought that medication would help me get a leg up so I could save my life.
In hindsight (20/20), the opposite was true. My health took a mysterious turn for the worse and I ended up with a slew of chronic health conditions that my doctors were struggling to explain. I became debilitated by severe chronic pain from more than nine different illnesses, out of thin air, at the ripe old age of 27.
After a second stint in residential treatment, I had what I can only describe as a spiritual awakening. I was practicing Yoga Nidra and Kundalini at the time, and I remember waking up. It was the first time I realized that I was (and always had been) whole.
I understood that the perception of being “broken” was one that had been projected onto me, by my trauma lineage and the world around me. I also found the faith that I could, eventually, fully heal and thrive. That everything I needed to do so was truly within me. It would be many more years until I integrated this awareness into my present reality.
It’s also when I began to do something fundamental that all the mental health advice I’d received had cautioned (scared) me against. In an utter act of rebellion, I began to follow my inner voice.
Guided by my intuition and health science background, I researched alternative ways to end the extreme pain I was in, both physically and emotionally, which turned out to be inextricably linked to my chronically taxed nervous system and the all the pills that were destroying it.
It wasn’t just “all in my head,” as psychosomatic illness has been so wrongly reduced to. I was experiencing true and real physiological side effects of the medications I was on. All compounded by the trauma I had survived.
Further, it became clear (even to my therapist) that the meds were also blocking my ability to do the deep work I needed to heal from C-PTSD. They were keeping me in a state of emotional numbness that blocked out all the good in my life, along with the so-called bad.
I eventually put myself on a Paleo-type diet, and found that I had more energy and clarity than I’d ever felt before. I utilized every tool I had in my carefully cultivated self-care arsenal to taper off of over 10 medications. Notably, meeting all of my thoughts, feelings, and emotions with love, especially the negative ones.
It was a dangerous cocktail which only one prescriber (out of the many I’d seen) finally noted could have easily caused me to stop breathing and die at any point in time. It was a miracle I had survived the medications I’d been put on, let alone what they were doing to my body and psyche.
Even more miraculously, my entire body healed rapidly and I was filled with hope. Unfortunately, I still hadn’t healed my old belief systems and I fell back into the cycle of abuse. I was still trapped in learned helplessness and victimhood. I simply didn’t know there was any other way to operate.
And so, after leaving another traumatic relationship, I found myself truly desperate for relief and went on benzos again. This time, instead of the Valium I had taken off and on, as prescribed, for many years (with a long half-life), I was given Ativan (with a short half-life). This was the beginning of my true awakening to the effects of this seemingly harmless medication on my health.
Unbeknownst to me, within just a couple of weeks, my body had become dependent on the Ativan. I never once abused it. This is simply the nature of the drug, one that prescribers seem to overlook as this pill is doled out in record numbers for daily long-term use all over the United States. As documented in the recent CNN special, the rate of overdose has also drastically risen.
I eventually realized what was happening and began to do my own in-depth research on the drug. What I found was shocking: benzo tapering and withdrawal is often more difficult than heroine or opiates.
All of the puzzle pieces fell into place and I realized that I had to get off of this medication with a slow and safe taper if I was going to survive. Or else, I’d face terrible, protracted withdrawal symptoms, which I realized I had been experiencing for the better part of a decade.
Unfortunately, the rate of suicide in benzo patients is alarmingly high: more than double that of non benzo users with PTSD. There are also a host of other unbearable psychological and physiological effects of long-term usage and dependence (which contribute to that statistic). Most of which healthcare providers are barely aware of, or simply refuse to acknowledge. It’s much easier to shift the blame to the patient, many of whom are simply shamed and dangerously cut off of the drug when they ask for help.
I’ve experienced this firsthand during my taper, when I chose to check myself voluntarily into a psych ward for suicidal ideation (I was simply trying to keep myself safe). While there, I was placed on a full two-week involuntary hold (usually reserved for people who have attempted suicide or are in psychosis). I was brutally ripped off of Valium and told I was just making it all up, that benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome wasn’t even real.
I was also told, by a kinder member of nursing staff, that three patients had severe seizures because of this antiquated policy. I watched as two older patients, who had been on benzos for decades, completely deteriorated and went into states of psychosis and hallucinations from being cold-turkeyed by their doctors. All while some not-so-nice nice nursing staff laughed in my face and told me that it was “all in my head.”
When I finally got myself out of that nightmare (by being coerced against my will to take anti-seizure drugs), my nervous system was in such a state of shock that I couldn’t even type a single sentence to tell anyone I was still alive.
It took me several months to stabilize, which included reinstating the benzo so I could taper slowly and safely. It was so unbearable I couldn’t leave my house during that time—the hell I was in was so painful, it’s hard to write about to this day.
It wasn’t until I found holistic psychiatrist Kelly Brogan’s work that I finally felt validated in my experience. From there, I was able to gather up the strength to make the radical changes I knew I needed to my diet and lifestyle. Changes that helped me begin to heal deeply as I continued on a painful and debilitating daily micro-taper off of this devastating drug.
I rapidly came out of my extreme agoraphobia, physical pain, and psychological torture, and began to live again. I still have three months left in my benzo taper, a process that will end up taking almost two years from when I first began. A process that includes a minimum of one to two years to fully heal after finishing the taper. But I am filled with hope and life and purpose, and most of all, self-empowerment.
While my progress seems like a miracle in comparison to what most of my fellow benzo suffers are going through, it’s not actually unique. The best part is that, as I took back my power from the fear-based medical system, all of my dreams and passions came back to life as well. I sit here today grateful for life and filled with joy to be living it, no matter what arises.
I’m not here to tell anyone what choices to make with their mental health or well-being, I trust you to do what is right for you. I simply want to spread this message to those of us who have been injured by psychiatric medications or feel hopeless about our diagnosis and treatment: I see you, I hear you, and I believe you.
You are not alone. It’s never too late to get help or take a different path, even if it’s the road less travelled. I believe in you as I believe in myself, and my story is a living testimony that we can take charge of our own mental health and heal for good. It may not be as easy as just taking a pill like we may have been promised, but it is possible.