I’ve been living with a sense of impending doom for as long as I can remember. When did it start? Was it when I went for a check-up at age 13 and my skinny female doctor poked me in the stomach and said, “Getting a little chubby, aren’t we? Have you tried dieting?” Is this what led to coming home after middle school and scowling into a bowl of carefully counted goldfish crackers until I lost ten pounds in less than a month?
Was it growing up wearing Kmart clothes when my neighbors casually splurged on trips to the mall multiple times a year? Was it my parent’s own anxiety and depression issues they tried treating with medication, therapy, being workaholics?
I don’t think it was simply an external event, more a combo of environment, learned behavior and genetics, but I do recall that there was often a sense of dread in the air—always money or thinness. How to get it, where is it, why don’t I have it.
But deeper than that, anxiety recently has been a background hum as a result of choosing not to ever take medication again. Something called “rebound anxiety” lingers as a result of benzos, the medication I took FOR my preexisting anxiety for years. Those pills do a number on the nervous system. In Europe, they prescribe them for one week, max. The guidelines in the medical journals recommend not prescribing them longer than two weeks or so. Yet my doctors prescribed them for me for about eight years on and off.
For many people, benzo withdrawal lingers for years and years. I had what they call an extremely long protracted withdrawal–I couldn’t even feel joy for nine months after getting off those little yellow pills I relied on so much, only pain. I learned all about the little-known word gratitude as I struggled through, insomnia, nerve pain and a thrumming sensation in my body, heightened awareness of almost everything, memory loss, the ubiquitous brain fog. Like being shot with adrenalin day after day after day, but feeling exhausted at the same time.
“It is more difficult to withdraw people from benzodiazepines than it is from heroin. It just seems that the dependency is so ingrained and the withdrawal symptoms you get are so intolerable that people have a great deal of problem coming off. The other aspect is that with heroin, usually the withdrawal is over within a week or so. With benzodiazepines, a proportion of patients go on to long term withdrawal and they have very unpleasant symptoms for month after month, and I get letters from people saying you can go on for two years or more. Some of the tranquilliser groups can document people who still have symptoms ten years after stopping.” – Professor Malcolm H Lader, Royal Maudesley Hospital, BBC Radio 4, Face The Facts, March 16, 1999.
In spite of this, I stayed off the pills, got freelance work, started writing and doing music again. I wasn’t able to sleep much for almost a year. I had to do something with that time. I remember one day, waking up at 6 or 7am after four or five hours of sleep, thinking, “WTF do I do with the next eighteen hours until I can sleep again?”
These days, it’s the opposite. It’s more like, “How the hell do I work at the library, work on my music, writing, kettlebell/fitness, learning to cook with gluten issues, relationship with my husband, taking care of my allergic paw-eating dog, socializing with all of my new and long-lost friends and find time to read a book with only sixteen hours of the non-sleeping day?”
My how things change. How we adjust.
Anxiety isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. When I used to take anti-D’s, I didn’t care about art so much. I was numb—couldn’t cry, didn’t get too down. It was nice, for a while. Until years went by and I hadn’t progressed in the way I wanted to. As my old rehab counselor said last night when we went out to dinner to catch up, “Art and music are a coping mechanism.”
I said that they are basically the foundation of my sobriety. I know if I seek out pills, I will not do my art. As soon as I numb out the anxiety and lingering malaise, I have no desire to make music. I still write, but not as viscerally. And it turns into more journaling than productive non-fiction essay and poetry writing.
To compound matters, my food allergies (wheat, and/or gluten) trigger similar symptoms, such as fatigue, anxiety and nerve pain.
I am constantly grateful that in spite of being damaged by years of taking prescribed benzos and other health issues, I’m functional. I go work every day. I write. I read my writing in public. I work with other musicians on my songs. I do kettlebell.
The only time I have a problem with anxiety being a fact of life for me, mentally and physically, is when I decide I deserve better and that I want something other than what is.
I can’t have something other than what is. I try very hard to control things—to the point that my friends are like, “Dude, chill. Stop obsessing.” Then I back off, and everything kind of falls away. Then I go back to obsessing.
And sometimes, late at night, when I’ve got nerve pain so bad I have to sleep in a sweater to keep the air and sheets from feeling like they’re bruising my skin, I wish there was a pill to fix me. But there is no pill that will fix me long-term. They all have rebound effects after a time. I don’t want to take that risk. And the pills is likely what caused most of this damage in the first place.
I don’t know many people who struggle with anxiety at this level, aside from my husband, who channels it into work, and my dad. It’s something I’ve learned to live with. It’s better than it used to be after first stopping the benzos, but it’s still there and I don’t know if it will ever go away. Sometimes, after getting off of pills or drugs, people’s nervous systems don’t heal for five years or more. Sometimes, they don’t heal at all.
I could be mad that the substance abuse specialists and psychiatrists who were supposed to be helping me after I stopped drinking alcohol at age 21 prescribed me things that made me worse, but it was my choice to put the pills in my body, to trust that a pill could fix me.
It used to be that I would preach the ills of benzos and opiate replacement therapy like suboxone (which I was on for about a year and a half and had a horrible time with as well) to anyone who would listen. These days, I realize they are all tools, and as much as I think those two particular medications are poison and am scared shitless of them based on what happened to me, I don’t care if you take them. All I have is my own reality. All you have is yours. This isn’t about your pills or my pills or anyone’s pills. Take your pills, if they help you.
Mine helped for a while and then they didn’t, so I got off them. But not without taking extreme actions. My psychiatrist wanted me on them, even though they were hurting me. The suboxone made me sleep 16 hours a night, so he put me on Ritalin. The benzos stopped working so he upped the dose. I tried to taper them myself, but finally, I just went to a rehab and asked them to help me. And suffered protracted withdrawal. And now the lingering anxiety worse than the anxiety I started with, compounded by food and environmental allergies (yay).
I get sucked into these spirals of everyone else is better than me and more successful and has more money and doesn’t struggle with anxiety and body dysmorphia and money issues, and I don’t think it’s true. I think a lot of people are struggling with these things or something similar. And it’s made me who I am today, I can’t change that. I’m more sober than I’ve ever been.
Boy, do I wish I had the money to afford a fancy nutritionist and supplements and a spa therapy every weekend, but doesn’t everyone?
Like most people, I trudge along, have good days and bad.
Like fewer and fewer people these days, I don’t use pills to make modern life more bearable, but I know why people do. I’ve been there. I wanted that to be my answer. It wasn’t. Life to me is, believe it or not, more manageable without them.
“…Writers do not thrive on drugs like Klonopin and Prozac. It takes your soul; it takes your creativity; it takes your love of running home at night and getting out a typewriter or getting out your paper and pencil and writing something that you love. It takes that away. You don’t care anymore. So Street Angel was all about just not caring. And that’s horrible to me. One of the few things that I’ve never not done in my life is not care. And I didn’t care for a long time. The lows for me were probably the last years of cocaine in the 1980s, and the last four years of the Klonopin. - Stevie Nicks