One of the most life-changing events in my life was stepping into a psychiatrist’s office, hoping to find relief from my anxiety/panic attacks. That encounter changed the course of my life. Clonazepam, the benzodiazepine I was given, worked remarkably well. I couldn’t have been more pleased. But as the months went by, the benzo began to show its darker side, the side that my doctor never warned me about. I hit tolerance. I needed more of the drug for it to be effective. Without raising the dose, I experienced what is known as “tolerance withdrawal.” I stayed in tolerance for the next seventeen years, getting progressively sicker. I sought the help of numerous specialists: cardiologists, neurologists, gastroenteritis, urologists, and internists. None of them could diagnose my laundry list of symptoms, so I turned to chiropractors, acupuncturists, and energy workers. They didn’t help either. No one looked at my chart and said, “Jennifer, your bladder pain, heart palpations, weakness, fatigue, cog fog, insomnia, anxiety, panic, dizziness, hyperacusis, period issues, burning spine, nerve pain, formication, muscle pain, gastro problems, eye pain, head pressure, sensory overload, are from the benzodiazepine you take.” Instead, I was told I had chronic fatigue, Lyme disease, stress, and anxiety. One doctor went so far as to tell me I was a “neurotic housewife.” (I didn’t go back to him.)
I can’t recall how I discovered that benzos can cause a chemical brain injury. (I never heard about it while earning a doctorate in psychology. In fact, I never heard anything negative about psychiatric medication while in grad school.) But I remember being happy to finally have some answers as to why I’d been unwell for so long.
My journey to get benzo free was filled with just as much bad information from doctors as was my time on the medication. I didn’t know then that most of the medical community is grossly uneducated about benzodiazepines. I trusted my doctor and was tapered too quickly, up-dosed, and eventually cold-turkeyed. I truly don’t have the words to describe the living hell I was trapped in for so long after my cold turkey. If you read my early blog posts, you’ll get an idea. But the most telling aren’t the words I wrote, but rather the months-long silence when I didn’t post anything. I was barely holding on, getting through one moment to the next.
During those brutal months that stretched out into years, I searched my soul for the answer to the question, “Is this who I was before benzos?” I’d sit for hours and try hard to remember my pre-benzo anxiety and panic. Certainly, they couldn’t have been as horrific as what I was experiencing, could they? Surely I was never this sick. Some days I’d have a grip on something close to rational thought, and I knew that my symptoms were from BIND, benzodiazepine-induced neurological dysfunction. Other times, I’d shiver and shake in my bed, certain that the tortuous symptoms were my pre-existing ones and that without a pill to swallow, I was doomed to live a miserable life of pain and suffering.
As my brain and nervous system slowly recovered, the BIND symptoms faded away. To my surprise and complete delight, my pre-existing anxiety and panic disappeared as well. What I experienced during BIND was not the “old me.” It was “me in benzo withdrawal/BIND.” If you are being tortured by the question, “Is this who I was before benzos,” know that the answer is most likely “NO!” Benzo withdrawal/BIND doesn’t “unmask” our old issues or even possibly new psychiatric conditions (but some doctors may try to convince you otherwise). Benzo withdrawal/BIND creates its own constellation of symptoms. Those symptoms can plague people who never had any psychiatric problems and were put on a benzo for a sprained muscle.
I don’t often revisit my benzo recovery journey. It was too painful. However, this morning I curled up in my swing chair as the clouds settled down over the peak of Mount Diablo. Sipping my decaf latte as the birds sang, I thought about how tortured I was by the idea that my benzo withdrawal/BIND symptoms were who I was unmedicated. Those indescribable, horrific BIND symptoms had nothing to do with who I was. They were about the brain damage that had occurred. Brain damage that thankfully reverses itself.
Stepping into the psychiatrist’s office decades ago was one of my most life-changing events. It forced me to go on a journey of deep discovery and healing. Very few things will ever match the impact that day had on me. Looking back, I am grateful for the journey. I’ve discovered that I don’t need a pill or a drink to manage my emotions. I am whole. I am happy; content with who I am. Along the way, I learned how to love myself. Now twelve years sober and eleven years benzo-free, life is an incredible adventure filled with so much light and love that some days my heart can barely contain it all.
Keep healing, my friends. You will recover. Benzo withdrawal/BIND is but a chapter in your story— a season that will slowly give way to a new season, a brighter, happier, healthier one. You’ll see.
From my heart to yours,