I know, I know, you’re reading this post’s headline and thinking, “Help them through my withdrawal? I’m the one suffering! I need help, not them.” True, you are doing the lion’s share of hurting, but I assure you that your loved ones are not unscathed by your experience. My coaching clients ask me what they can do to help those who are supporting them through withdrawal feel better. Here are some suggestions that may help you help others, without compromising your own needs for help.
- Let go of guilt. You didn’t do anything wrong to end up in benzo withdrawal. Feeling guilty won’t help you to heal, and may even cause an increase in your symptoms. When we feel guilty about our benzo illness, it can set up an unhealthy relationship with our loved ones. We may feel that we have to apologize all the time or to seek approval in compromising ways. That can be draining for all involved. The most loving response for yourself and for others is to accept that you are in benzo withdrawal, it isn’t your fault, and you are doing the best that you can. Trust that you are healing and that one day you will be healed.
- Don’t over share. One of the most common ways we add stress to our loved ones is to share too much about our benzo withdrawal symptoms. Being obsessed with “all things benzo withdrawal” is a symptom of withdrawal, however, we can do our best to minimize our constant speaking about how we feel. It is important to be mindful of what we share about our recovery process with our young children. It’s easy to turn our children into sounding boards and they may not be emotionally mature enough to handle such a role. It’s probably a good idea to vent fears and frustrations with adults. Sure, we need reassurance that we will recover, and we need to know that we are still loved, still valuable, still worthy, etc., but we can get those needs meet without talking about withdrawal 24/7. If I could go back and change how I got through the worst of my recovery, talking about it less to others would be one of the first things I’d change.
- Encourage your loved ones to take some time off. Compassion fatigue is a very real phenomenon. No matter how much we love someone, we all have a limit as to how much we can emotionally bear. Being a care-provider for someone who is suffering in benzo withdrawal is an exhausting and heartbreaking task. Time off is critical to recharging and renewing.
- Say “Thank you!” It’s easy to forget to express your gratitude to someone who is helping you when you are in survival mode and holding on by the skin of your teeth. Do your best to remember these two words and say them!
- Allow your loved ones their opinion. Not everyone who tries to support you will understand benzo withdrawal. Some people may believe that you are suffering because you are tapering or no longer taking a helpful medication. They may not believe in the dangers of benzos. They may think that you just need to think happy thoughts, or get a good nights sleep, or stop worrying in order to feel better. It’s not worth the stress and strain to continually educate or argue with a loved one who doesn’t “get” benzo withdrawal. You can do them a favor by letting their opinions go through one ear and out the other. One of my favorite sayings is rather vulgar, but it’s apropos: “Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one, and they usually stink.”
- You can’t control what others think, feel, or do. You can’t stop your loved one from feeling the way that they do about your recovery. Sure, you can do your best to minimize their stress, but at the end of the day, you can’t make them stop worrying. Just keep your side of the street clean (I love that A.A. saying!) and let your loved ones be responsible for their thoughts, feelings, and actions.
- Take responsibility for yourself when you can. Wean yourself off of needing so much help/support/attention as you recover. Do the things that you can do, and don’t feel guilty about the things that you can’t.
What’s most important to helping the people who help you is to check in with them from time to time for an honest assessment of how they feel. What do they need? We are so preoccupied with ourselves in benzo withdrawal that we may forget that our loved ones are hurting because we hurt. We may envy their healthy and happy life so much that we can’t see their pain. Or, we may see their pain and feel so guilty for having caused it that we make ourselves and our relationship worse off.
Patience. Acceptance. Distraction. Gratitude. These are the things that can help you to best navigate benzo withdrawal. Hopefully, these things will help you to reduce any negative impact on others who are doing their best to help you.
I’ve always loved the John Denver song, “Back Home Again.” I sang along with it as it streamed on my Pandora station as I made my way back from our family farm in Georgia. Thankfully, no one was in the car with me, so I didn’t hurt anyone’s ears! I drove 2,500 miles in four days. Traveling cross country alone gives one a lot of time to think. It also gives one the opportunity to have to push through the intense wanting for the long journey to end. It’s sorta like benzo withdrawal in that way. There were many times I wanted to blink my eyes and instantly be back home, away from the 18 wheelers rumbling past me on the curvy mountain roads I drove at a snail’s pace. It was a good lesson in acceptance and patience, and self-care, too.
Getting through benzo withdrawal takes a lot of patience and acceptance. We desperately want the journey to come to an end so that we can get on with our lives. However, we forget that what we are experiencing in benzo withdrawal IS our life! It may not be the life we particulary want, but it is what we’ve got to deal with. That’s the “trick” to manuvering our way through benzo withdrawal; dealing with what we have on our plate this very instance. We don’t look back at what we had and feel regret, and we don’t look ahead and feel anxious. We live each day in the moment, coping with whatever symptoms(s) we have at the time. And, we practice extreme self-care. We do what we need to do in order to survive another day.
What can you do today to cope with your withdrawal symptoms? Do you go outside and garden (as I did for so many years)? Do you take a walk? A warm bath? Do you call someone who understands and ask them to listen? Do you find ways to distract with creativity? Or, do you find ways to be of service to someone else, so that you aren’t focused on your own suffering? As you decide on what you can do to cope with what’s on your plate today, use these six words as a good tool for discerning the best outcome: “What is the most loving response?” What is the most loving thing for yourself or others that you can do? On my third day into my trip, I wanted to push a bit farther, and cover another fifty miles. But I was tired, and my driving skills were decaying by the second. I asked myself “What is the most loving response?” The answer was plain and simple, “Stop for the night and rest.” My ego wanted so much to keep going, but I knew the most loving thing to do for my brain and body and the safety of those around me was to get off the road and into a warm bed. The most loving response might be contrary to what your ego wants, but that’s okay. We don’t always have to give into the demands of our ego!
Now that I am back home, I’ll be working in the Pacific time zone. The office number is 650 372 5880. Feel free to leave me a message, or to book a coaching session through the new scheduling calendar. I’m still working on my benzo book. Hopefully, it will be out this fall. I’m looking forward to writing more blog posts here to help you cope with your symptoms, and to help you move forward once withdrawal is over. Let me resassure you that we do heal. In time. I was convinced that I would be broken forever. I was sure that my life was over. In so many ways, it’s just starting. Life is so good. Know what else is good? Being back home!
I grew up expecting that I’d get married and live happily ever after, but my marriage ended before happily ever after arrived. I expected that I’d become a best-selling author, but my books never made the New York Times list. I expected to fall in love and remarry one day, but here I am, still single. So many of my expectations in life didn’t happen. Years ago, I’d have sought refuge in a few glasses of red wine at night to soothe my disappointment and resentments. I didn’t have many coping skills to deal with life when it didn’t go my way. Thank God, that’s changed. Now I know how to let go of my expectations so that I can live life on life’s terms and have peace and serenity. I share my perspective in hopes that it helps you to have more peace and serenity too, even in benzo withdrawal!
When we expect life (people, places, and things) to be a certain way, we set ourselves up for disappointment and resentment. We are not in control of most things that happen in life, so it’s pointless for us to pin our happiness on our expectations. That’s not to say that we should become couch potatoes and never have dreams or goals. I’m not saying that. I’m saying that to be emotionally upset over not getting our way isn’t good for us. When we learn to let go and live life on life’s terms, which is to practice acceptance, we have more energy left to expend on the things that we do have some control over.
When I was in the benzo withdrawal I didn’t expect to suffer bad withdrawal symptoms. I didn’t expect to take longer than six months to heal. I didn’t expect to lose my career and my life’s savings. I didn’t expect to have a life that was completely unrecognizable! But that was what I goThe only way to minimize my suffering was to accept that I was benzo sick and I had a long road ahead to recovery. I had to accept my symptoms and get on with my life within my new parameters. I didn’t always do a good job with acceptance; it was a learning curve. But the more I practiced, the better I got. As I learned to let go of my expectations and live my life on life’s terms, I found that I was getting really good at living in the moment. I stopped looking over my shoulder and regretting my past, and I stopped time traveling into the future and worrying about things that had not yet taken place. When I let go of my expectations, I felt more peace and serenity.
Many of my clients tell me, “I’ll be happy when XYZ symptom goes away.” I used to think like that, too. However, I squandered so much potential happiness by being resentful of what life had handed me that I learned to be happy even with my benzo withdrawal symptoms. I found that one of the best tools for happiness is to practice gratitude. I learned to say “Thank you!” for everything. Yes, you read that right. Everything. I decided that I wasn’t in charge of the universe and I had no way to know what the reasons were for things happening. I decided to let go and to let God as I understand God, be in charge. When I did, I breathed a sigh of relief! No longer did I carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. No longer did I have to control people, places, or things. I could accept the events in my life without allowing them to knock me over. (Translation, I didn’t need a drink or a benzo to cope!)
Letting go of our expectations and allowing life to unfold on its own terms is powerful medicine. Let go of your expectations and the disappointment and resentments that come when they aren’t met. There is incredible power in letting go of expectations. It sets you free to be at peace. And who can’t use more peace in their lives?
The Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
After I got home from the hospital, I was in bad shape. I had been cold turkeyed off of the benzodiazepine I had taken as prescribed. My vital signs were stable so I wasn’t in any physical danger, but the severe withdrawal symptoms were debilitating. Hallucinations, weakness, nerve, muscle and joint pain were my constant companion, as were intrusive thoughts, blurred vision, head pressure, head-to-toe tingling, insomnia, formication and burning skin, just to name a few. I spent most of my time either in bed (or on my couch when I could limp down the hallway) resting. I was in no shape to do anything other than just hold on and get through the days.
After three months, some of the symptoms eased up a bit. At four months off I rented an office, ready to return to my career of coaching. I was far from well, but I managed to buy furniture and decorate the office. I even gave a free talk in order to let the community know I was back in business. A few weeks into my attempt to return to work I woke up to a new symptoms. I had hit the “six-month wave.”
It’s called the six-month wave, however, it can occur between three to six months, or thereabout. Not everyone experiences the wave, but for those who do, it can be unsettling. Just as we are getting used to our symptoms and some of the acute ones are fading, we get hit with new ones, or an increase in intensity, or both. We are terrified that the six-month wave means that we are getting worse, we will never recover, or that our pre-existing issue has been resurrected. If we don’t know about the six-month wave, we don’t realize that it is simply part of recovery. It doesn’t mean anything other than this is benzo withdrawal.
If we can keep our wits about us if we get hit with the six-month wave, we won’t suffer as much. We’ll be able to ride the wave to shore without letting it capsize our belief in our ultimate healing. We’ll find ways to cope with our new symptoms, and we’ll role up our sleeves and practice acceptance, distraction, and patience with every ounce of our being. I turned to gardening to cope with my benzo withdrawal symptoms. I distracted myself as best as I could from the relentlless chemical anxiety that coursed through my veins as well as my other debilitating symptoms. I did my best to accept my lot in life, however true acceptance wouldn’t settle into my heart for a few years. It took me a long time to learn how to let go and let life unfold on its own terms. But every day, I practiced and did my best to learn.
If you are newly off your benzo, please don’t worry about getting hit with the six-month wave. You may experience it, or you may not. Do your best to live in the present moment. Don’t future trip! I share the information about the six-month wave not to worry anyone, but rather to normalize it so that anyone who experiences it doesn’t feel that it indicates something dreadful. It doesn’t. It is just part and parcel of benzo withdrawal. Is there anything we can do to prevent the wave from happening? My hunch is probably not, although it is always a good idea to avoid stress, eat healthy, and practice extreme self-care. Looking back, I wasn’t in any shape to try to start back to work, although I don’t think my attempt was what caused my six-month wave to occur.
If you’ve been hit by the six-month wave, know that it eventually fades away. If you are struggling and you’d like to talk about ways to cope, please feel free to sign up for a coaching session. I’d be honored to listen and to help you find ways to best navigate your way safely through benzo withdrawal.
Fear can show up while we are still on our normal dose of a benzo, tapering, or off completely. Fear, anxiety, paranoia, panic, terror, etc., are common benzo withdrawal symptoms. Why? Because the drug damages our GABA receptors. GABA is an inhibitory (calming) neurotransmitter. Without the proper amount of receptors available to interface with GABA, we are left in an excitatory state; in other words, we’re anxious. We are also in pain, unable to sleep, tense, etc. Without enough working GABA receptors, the world can often feel like it is a very scary place. Many of us in benzo withdrawal assume that our fears are our pre-existing fears and phobias coming home to roost (that’s usually incorrect) or we worry that we’ve acquired new fears or phobias. I couldn’t walk past any knife, hammer, screwdriver, etc., without having a very scary intrusive violent thought complete with a visual image. It was dreadful! Even petting my sweet cat Sam would send an ice cold jolt of terror through my body. (I never figured out what that fear was all about!) My main emotion during my recovery from having taken a benzodiazepine as prescribed was fear. The good news is that once our receptors recover from the damage the benzo caused, we go on to find that our old fears are non-existent and that the new ones that popped up in withdrawal fade away. That’s something to look forward to, but what do we do until we arrive at recovery?
The tools I used to get through the fearful days were these:
- This is NOT me. Remind yourself that the fear you feel now is not emanating from the real you. It is due to damaged GABA receptors; therefore, the fear isn’t real. It’s my favorite definition of fear: False Evidence Appearing Real. I had to tell myself over and over again, that what I was experiencing wasn’t “me” and that it would one day go away when my receptors healed. It’s exhausting work to have to constantly tell yourself that what you are feeling (or thinking) isn’t who you truly are and that one day it will go away. However, this is the work we have to do in order to navigate our days with less suffering.
- Look the other way. In other words, distract! I gardened every day for years. Being outside in the sun, amid my flowers, helped me to take my mind off of what I was thinking or feeling. It wasn’t a cure, by any stretch of the imagination, but it did help dampen the amount of my suffering.
- Turn towards. Instead of running away from my fears, I learned to lean into them. I came to accept it as any other emotion. I learned to go about my day and do what needed to be done no matter what I felt. If I was afraid, I did what needed to be done while afraid. Fear couldn’t hurt me. It was uncomfortable, yes, but It wasn’t dangerous in an of itself. Eventually, the cycle of fearing fear broke, and I was left with a backbone made out of titanium. Not much ruffles my feathers these days, which is pretty amazing given that I was an anxious person pre-benzos.
- Acceptance. Practicing acceptance is a powerful panacea for all of life’s hardships. When I stopped complaining to every person who would listen, and I accepted that withdrawal was going to take some time, I stopped suffering so much. The more I fought the cards that had been dealt me, the worse off I was. Acceptance allowed me to navigate my days with some degree of grace and dignity. Acceptance allowed me to find more patience, which I sorely needed.
Benzo withdrawal eventually comes to an end. It is not a permanent condition. The fear you feel today will not stick around the rest of your life. It is here only because of your damaged GABA receptors and they are healing. If you scraped your knee, you’d trust the healing process. Trust the healing process of your brain, too! While you are healing, do your best to rise above the fear and get on with your life as best as you can, knowing that the “fire” you find yourself in at the moment is forging you to be as stronger than ever before. You are being transformed, my friend. Please hold on! It’s worth it. Life after benzo withdrawal is incredibly sweet and precious.
I tried a lot of things to heal from benzo withdrawal: meds, vitamins, acupuncture, neuro and biofeedback, massage, juicing, going vegan, going paleo, ditching gluten, sugar, caffeine and junk food. I ate purple foods (someone said they had a healing “vibration”), tried cleanses, positive affirmations, prayer, meditation — the list goes on and on. Nothing that I tried “cured” me. Not. One. Thing. I felt hopeless and helpless. You could say that I hit rock bottom. At the time, I thought it was the end of the world. It wasn’t. Rock bottom was the turning point for my way out of the mess that my life had become in benzo withdrawal.
I used three steps to climb out of the darkness of my self-pity, fear, anger, and resentment. The first step was to admit that I was helpless over withdrawal and that my life had become unmanageable. It was a hard thing to admit because I wanted to believe that I was in control. Admitting that I wasn’t in control went against every cell in my body. However, I knew, deep down, that I was indeed, helpless. I couldn’t control what was going on in my body or in the world around me.
The second step was to come to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to “sanity.” My peace and serenity in life weren’t going to come from me; they were going to come from something greater than myself. I call that something God. You can call it whatever you like. Every day, I spent time getting to know God. I bared my heart and soul to God in conversations. I also looked for God in everything; people, animals, plants, weather, the seasons, etc. After awhile, I felt less alone. I knew that God was always with me.
The third step was perhaps the hardest. I had to relinquish control. I had to give my will and my life over to the care of God. I had to ask God for help in doing that, as I wanted to be in charge, even though my life was pretty miserable with me at the helm. When I was able to let go and let God, as the saying goes, my life turned around. I felt peace. Serenity. Harmony. I no longer had to control people, places, and things. I was able to accept life on life’s terms. I no longer fought my benzo withdrawal symptoms. I stopped feeling sorry for myself, and I got on with living my life.
I also stopped asking “Why” (which kept in stuck in the problems), and I started asking “How” and “What.” How can I serve God today? How can I serve others? How can I be most useful? What is the most loving response to everything? What can I do to take good care of myself? Self-pity dropped away and a new emotion coursed through my veins: satisfaction. I was at peace.
If these three steps look familiar to you, it is because they are the first three steps in Alcoholics Anonymous. They are the foundation for recovery not only from any type of addiction, but from emotional angst, drama, self-pity, fear, and other “ills of the soul.”
My benzo symptoms didn’t miraculously go away when I took these steps on a daily basis. But my relationship with them changed. They no longer destroyed my happiness. They didn’t obliterate my serenity. I stopped fearing the symptoms or fearing what would become of my life. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I was in the care and comfort of God as I understand God. I wake up every morning with a grateful heart and a sense of wonder. Life is incredibly good, no matter what is going on around me. I have learned how to let go and to let God. It’s an amazing freedom. I want this freedom, this peace and serenity, for you
I’d stand in the kitchen and crush my one-milligram clonazepam tablet and carefully put it in the water I had measured. I was doing a liquid titration, which made me feel like some crazy chemist. The counter was littered with beakers and syringes. If a stranger had popped in, I am sure they would have thought that I was a drug addict, not someone desperately trying to get free from a drug that they had taken only as prescribed. I’d plunge they syringe into the water and pull out what I wasn’t going to ingest. “Take that, you beast!” I’d say as I squirted the liquid from the syringe into the sink. I was the boss, not that stupid pill. I’d show that damn pill who was in charge. No way was it going to win.
Of course, in the end, I did “win”, but that pill whooped my ass for a long time, which brings me the title of this post: Getting Benzo Free Is A Dance. For those of us who treated it like a contest, where we pushed our willpower all over our taper, going too fast because we were damned and determined to “show that pill who was the boss,” we paid a price. Those who took their time and listened to their body, and didn’t let their egos get tied up in the process usually fared better.
A dance with a partner is a cooperative endeavor. There’s a leader, sure, but the leader takes cues from his or her partner. It’s not an “It’s my way or the highway,” situation. We can be the leader in withdrawal, but we’ve got to take cues from our body. We’ve got to listen very well and honor what it is telling us. We’ve got to respect that the pill we are trying to get free from is powerful. We’ve got to untangle ourselves from our benzo gracefully. We don’t fight it. We gently work our way free.
If I could go back and retrace from of my steps in benzo withdrawal, I’d redo my taper. Instead of trying to bully my way free, I’d dance. I’d ever so gently untangle from the clonazepam I took for so many years. I wouldn’t view my taper as a “fight”, something I had to prove, something I had to “win”. I’d see it for what it was, a chance to practice extreme self-care and love, and to be kind and compassionate with myself. Fortunately, I learned how to do those things once I was off. I guess it’s better late than never, right?
Dance. Don’t fight your benzo. Gracefully untangle yourself. Lead, yes, but listen to your body. There is no rush. You’ll get free. In time.
My friend was on his way over to take me to dinner. My floors were dirty, so I hauled out the Dyson. As I pushed the vacuum into the hallway, something happened to my vision. I saw what could only be described as jagged zig sag lightening bolts in the center of my vision. WTF? I thought to myself. I turned off the vacuum and sat down on the couch. I put my palm over each eye, testing my vision. Sure enough, the jagged zig zag appeared in both eyes. Inside of the zig zag were lines that moved, like waves of water. I couldn’t see through the zig zag. It blocked my vision. Am I having a stroke? I wondered.
I sat through dinner a bit on edge. I wondered what was going to happen next. Would the vision disturbance get worse, or signal a serious health issue? Finally, a few hours later, my vision cleared up. The zig zags disappeared. I could see normally. My health anxiety faded and I got on with my night. Speaking to others in benzo withdrawal, I determined that the crazy vision disturbance was caused by an ocular migraine. They are fairly common in benzo withdrawal. They can be scary if you haven’t had them in the past, or know what they are. I haven’t had one in years now, and hopefully they are a thing of the past, like most of the other benzo withdrawal symptoms.
I receive quite a few emails from people wondering what is going on when they get similar symptoms. I am not an M.D. so I can’t diagnosis anyone, but I can suggest that they see a doctor to determine if they are having ocular migraines. Like all the other weird symptoms we can have in withdrawal, it’s always best to have serious conditions ruled out. Ninety-nine percent of the time our symptoms are not dangerous. They are mostly annoying.
Other vision symptoms in benzo withdrawal are blurry vision, double or triple vision, and processing disorders. For many months, I saw the world through eyes that felt as if someone had rubbed vaseline across them. I couldn’t see sharp, crips lines or definitions. Everything was hazy and out of focus. I frequently saw double and sometimes triple. I had a thorough eye exam which showed nothing out of the ordinary. My eye doctor knew nothing about benzo withdrawal, which wasn’t a surprise. In time, my crisp vision returned and the double vision faded away. Processing disorders can include a wide range of symptoms. For me, my brain felt as if it lagged behind what my eyes “saw.” I wasn’t able to see things smoothly. I processed sensory input as though I was watching frames of a move. Everything felt pixelated and jerky, as if a was looking at a piece of film going by. I had a hard time describing this particular symptom. It made me feel uncomfortable and I am grateful that it didn’t last too long.
Like other symptoms in withdrawal, vision symptoms clear up as your brain recovers from the damage the benzo caused. You won’t have to cope with visual disturbances forever. Feel free to share your visual symptoms with us and let us know which ones, if any, have cleared up for you.
I’ve always been a runner. Not the jogging type, the get-the-hell-away-from-emotional-pain type. I panicked in a lot of situations — my heart rate would go through the roof as my mouth dried up like a prune, making it difficult to talk, and my legs turned to jello. I turned to alcohol to help smooth out the rough edges of the end of the day. That was my exit strategy until a doctor handed me a prescription for clonazepam.
I didn’t know that the benzo I took as prescribed was slowly causing chemical brain damage. I didn’t know that I would spend well over a decade in tolerance withdrawal. Nor did I know that I would battle for my life to get free from the drug and to heal from the damage. By the time I was benzo free and healing, I had lost my career and my savings. I lost friends and family, too. Looking back over the wreckage caused by my taking a benzo, I wish that I had known how to turn towards the things that frightened me; to let life unfold without me having to attempt to control it. I wish that I had learned how to step into the unknown and to be comfortable with my vulnerability. Running away didn’t solve anything.
Having to get through benzo withdrawal gave me the opportunity to learn how to walk into the unknown and to be okay with my emotions; with my vulnerability. Without the ability to take a pill or to have a drink to ease my uncomfortable feelings, I had no choice but to turn towards the things that frightened me. I had to accept life on life’s terms. There was no way of running away from benzo withdrawal. I came to understand that I had virtually no control over anything. I couldn’t even control my thoughts or what was happening in my body. That was incredibly scary, but it was the turning point for my healing.
Becoming comfortable with the things that scared me — the unknown, is perhaps the greatest thing I’ve done for my recovery. I no longer need to try to control anything. I step out into the unknown knowing that I can trust that I’ll manage, no matter what happens. I’ve stopped running. My life is fuller now. I’m living it deeply, feeling all of my feelings, even the ones I used to want to anesthetize. My hunch is that you too are learning how to step into the unknown and to be okay with life on life’s terms. Soon, you’ll look back on the chapter of your life marked Benzo Withdrawal and you’ll see how far you’ve come. You’ll see how brave you are now, how strong you are in your ability and willingness to be vulnerable. Like me, you’ll be incredibly grateful that you are no longer medicated and sick. Life will take shine so brilliantly that you’ll wonder why in the world you ever wanted to run away from it. You’ll step into the unknown and be just fine!
For many months I’d watch the clock on the wall read eleven then twelve…one…two…three…four…five. Finally, as the little hand crept towards six a.m., I’d drift off to sleep. If I were lucky, I’d sleep for four hours. But more likely I’d wake up after two or three hours. I survived on little sleep for a long time. Once my bedtime corrected itself to a more normal hour, I suffered from waking up every forty-five to ninety minutes, usually in a state of panic or terror, struggling to breathe and engulfed in pain, tingling or burning. Awake and suffering through the dark hours that everyone else was enjoying in dreamland, I moved through my life like a zombie. I was sure that I would never sleep normally again; I was permanently ruined. Fortunately, like most of my fears of lifelong damage, it wasn’t true. My sleep finally corrected itself.
Insomnia is a classic benzo withdrawal symptom (If you’ve avoided it, count yourself lucky!). No matter how hard we try to fall asleep, or to stay asleep, we can’t make it happen. And that is part of the problem. We try too hard! We worry about sleeping, and that creates an even more “sleep adverse” emotional state. Like all benzo withdrawal symptoms, insomnia is best dealt with by practicing acceptance. The less we worry about it, the better our chances of relaxing and (hopefully) falling asleep and staying asleep.
Benzos downregulate GABA receptors, which means we don’t have the hardware to “calm down.” Until our receptors repair themselves (and they will), we have difficulty relaxing our thoughts and bodies. We have a hard time falling/staying asleep. Once we are more healed, our ability to relax in thought and body, and to sleep, returns.
Many people try supplements or other drugs to help them sleep in benzo withdrawal. Melatonin, an over-the-counter remedy helps some people greet the Sandman. It’s usually chosen because it is a naturally occurring substance in the body. However, we have to keep in mind that melatonin is a hormone. In some countries, it can only be obtained with a prescription. (Just because something is labeled as “natural” doesn’t mean that it is without consequences.) I tried melatonin and had a bad reaction to it, while others take it and find it helpful. You’ll have to do your research about its action in the brain/body and experiment with it to see if it helps you.
Some people find that an over-the-counter or prescription strength antihistamine helps them to sleep, while others turn to sedating psych meds. Remeron, Trazadone, Seroquel, Lunesta, Ambien, Elavil, and other drugs have been prescribed to people in benzo withdrawal for relief from insomnia. All psych meds (and the “Z-drug” sleeping pills) remodel the brain and may have a withdrawal syndrome. I tried Elavil for a few days, and Remeron as well, and I am so glad that I didn’t take them for more than a few days. (Both made me feel awful and neither helped me stay asleep for more than two hours.) It is, in my humble opinion, better to find other ways to sleep than to take more psych meds. Remember, we are suffering in benzo withdrawal because of a psych med!
I know how hard it may be to face the day when you’ve not slept well. I know what it is like to stare into the long dark hours of the night for weeks and months on end. It can be demoralizing and create a lot of fear that we are never going to get well and be “normal” again. We have to hold onto the knowledge that other people suffered from insomnia in benzo withdrawal, and they eventually were able to sleep. We will too, in time. We can cope better with insomnia if we let go of our expectations of sleep and live courageously in the “unknown.” We can’t control most of life and to let go and accept the mystery of each unfolding day and night is empowering. It can help us worry less and embrace life on life’s terms.
Most of the things I worried about or feared in benzo withdrawal never came to pass. I recovered, eventually, and life went on. Not only am I in a better place emotionally than I was pre-benzos, but my sleep is also better. Benzos change the architecture of sleep. For close to eighteen years, my sleep had not been what it should have been, no matter how many hours I snoozed. Now benzo free and (mostly) healed from the damage the drug caused, my sleep is more restorative, and my dreams are vivid and beautiful. I wake up ready to face the start of a new day. At night, I eagerly slide between my linen sheets to fall into a luscious slumber.
Make peace with your insomnia. Don’t let it worry you. It will get better. Do your best to fill the long hours of your nights with something that distracts you. I read, watched movies, played video and word games, and wrote in my journal. Sometimes, I laid in the dark and closed my eyes and rested as best as I could. I’m not saying that it was an easy time in my life. It wasn’t. It was hard. But like all the other challenges in benzo withdrawal, it passed. And the crazy thing? I’m a much better person for having traveled the rough and rugged road of benzo withdrawal. I’ve got coping skill for all of life’s hardships and heartaches that I never had before. You will too, once you are more healed.