Healing from the damage caused by taking a benzodiazepine doesn’t happen linearly. It’s not like recovering from a bad cold— each day getting a bit better, a bit brighter, after the peak of the infection. Healing comes in what is known in the benzo community as “windows” and “waves.” Windows are times when the symptoms are either milder, more manageable, or non-existent. (There is no hard and fast definition of what a window is; everyone decides for themselves what a window feels like to them.) Windows can last for a few hours, days, weeks, or even a few months. Waves are times when the symptoms have either returned, increased in severity, or the addition of new ones has occurred after a time of feeling better.
It’s frustrating to have symptoms suddenly intensify, or to experience the addition of new symptoms, or to feel better, and then to have it all come crashing down on you—thrown back into the snake pit. We don’t know the cause of all waves. Still, we do know vitamins and supplements— vitamin D, vitamin B, magnesium, fish oil, and gabaergic supplements or herbs are known to cause a worsening of benzo withdrawal symptoms in many people. Alcohol is another culprit. Marijuana and CBD products have been known to cause waves for some people, as well. Caffeine, preservatives, MSG, food colorings, additives, and sugar can spike benzo withdrawal symptoms. Some over the counter medications or prescription drugs can bring on a wave as well. We don’t have to ingest anything to cause a wave as stress can trigger an increase in symptoms, too.
Frequently, we won’t know what caused a wave to occur. We may attribute it to something we ate or drank when in truth, there is no way to pinpoint the cause. I believe that waves happen as a part of the healing process and are not always caused by something we have done. It is interesting to note that there are times when a wave is more apt to occur: around six months off, and again at yearly anniversary dates. Not everyone will experience “the six-month wave” (it can occur between 3-9 months off), but those who do are often frightened that it means they are getting worse. It doesn’t. It only implies that healing is taking place and that windows and waves are a part of the journey. It is unclear why the 12, 24, and 36-month anniversary dates can be prone to waves, but anecdotally, we know this takes place for some people. It’s essential to avoid worrying about a wave occurring as that only increases the strain on our already vulnerable nervous system. We can, of course, avoid those things that the benzo community has agreed can be the cause of wave. We don’t need to be hypervigilant but use common sense. We can also do our best to reduce stress in our lives.
When a window does appear (Oh glorious day!), we may jump back into life too quickly and tire out our not-yet-healed nervous system. I know it can be incredibly frustrating to feel well enough to do a few normal activities—but we do well to take things very slowly until we know we are more healed. If a wave rolls in after a nice window, especially if the window has lasted a few days or weeks, it can be devastating, I know. It can feel as if the “benzo beast” will never leave us alone. Just when we think we have opened the door to recovery and are stepping out, it grabs us by the ankles and yanks us back in. “No fair!” we may cry. And, of course, it isn’t fair, but what about benzo withdrawal is? We must shrug it off to the best of our ability and keep going, knowing that one day, we will walk out the door, and no wave will come crashing to shore ever again.
What can we do to cope when a wave comes along? First, remind yourself that waves are a normal function of healing from a benzodiazepine. A wave doesn’t mean that you are getting “worse” or that you won’t ever heal. It doesn’t mean that God is punishing you, or that karma is catching up with you. It merely means that your nervous system isn’t yet healed and that healing is still taking place.
Next, we can engage in coping mechanisms that we know are effective in benzo withdrawal: distraction, distraction, distraction! Add a measure of acceptance and patience, and we can weather the waves with far less suffering. The best distraction activities are those that take your mind off of your symptoms. Usually, if you use your hands in an activity, your mind will follow. Learning a new skill is an excellent way to engage your mind—watch YouTube videos to learn how to play an instrument, draw, paint, knit, or try a new recipe even. Yoga, stretching, swimming, and gentle walking are also good ways to take your focus off of your symptoms. Word or math puzzles, brainteasers, sewing, knitting, are also good distractions. You may need to try a handful of activities until you find some that engage you enough to be considered a real distraction.
Acceptance goes a long way to helping us not worry about being in a wave. When we understand that our symptoms are from a hyper-excited nervous system and that they are not in and of themselves indicative of any dangerous illness, we are more able to relax and allow our nervous system the best chance to heal. Of course, if you are concerned about any symptoms, please seek medical attention. In this time of the pandemic, you may need to connect with a medical professional in a different way than you are used to, so please call ahead and find out their current protocol.
Patience is another good coping skill. Yes, benzo withdrawal can feel as if it will go on forever, but it won’t. Even if you are 100% sure that there is no evidence that you are healing, you are indeed healing. Healing takes place so quietly and in such tiny little increments that you often can’t see it until after it has arrived. But it is happening, nevertheless.
Dealing with friends and family in benzo withdrawal has always been challenging for some and add a wave to the mix, and it’s even more challenging. Other people may not understand why you were able to cook dinner last night or enjoy a movie and laugh, and today you are bedbound and in sobbing for no apparent reason. They can’t understand that your recovery seems to be on a merry-go-round-roller-coaster. People may accuse you of being lazy or avoiding responsibilities or attention-seeking. It’s hard to hear judgment at any time, but in benzo withdrawal, it’s very hard, Add it the stress of a wave, and we can feel helpless or hopeless. We need to realize that people who haven’t experienced benzo withdrawal don’t understand windows and waves. Their response isn’t about us; it’s about them. Reach out to someone who does understand and receive some comfort and understanding. Do you best to educate others about the windows and waves of benzo withdrawal and then let it go. You’ve done your best.
It’s critical to remember that waves are a normal occurrence in healing from the damages a benzodiazepine has caused. They do not signify anything other than a healing journey. Waves are not an indication that you will have protracted withdrawal symptoms (symptoms after 18 months off a benzo) or an inability to heal. Some benzo veterans feel that waves are evidence that our nervous systems are doing deep, deep healing. It felt that way in my healing, as every time I got slammed by a big wave, my baseline improved.
The current pandemic has caused added stress in life. Please, take good care of yourself. Incorporate the four cornerstones into your life: Eat right, move enough, stress less and love well. Eat a whole-food plant-based diet. Get enough gentle exercise. Reduce your stress and learn to respond better to stressful events, Learn to love well—forgive others. Forgive yourself. Be kind and compassionate to others and yourself. Accept that you are on a mighty healing journey and tuck some patience in your pocket to take along with you. Take too, my love and respect. Know that I have walked in your shoes and know the depth of your suffering. In time, I healed. I know that you will, too. Keep going, even if it means donning your wetsuit and riding the waves. They will, in time, fade away and it will be smooth sailing!