How we got here.
So. A little bit of background. Nine years ago George W. Bush was president and I had anxiety. The two aren’t connected but back when I worked in the home theater department of the Better Purchase and the U.S. was in the middle of the Great Recession, I went to a doctor to see what could be done about the anxiety part of this introduction.
I have a history of depression and I have been in and out of therapy and off and on various medications throughout the years. In 2008 I had a decent job, a decent relationship and a pretty swanky apartment if I say so myself, but I also had a pervasive worry that I couldn’t shake. I knew it was time to see someone about my situation because things weren’t adding up.
I started traditional therapy and began working with a psychiatrist to prescribe something. Therapy was what it was and, after a blood test to check out my thyroid, the doctor started me on some amount of Wellbutrin XL and Xanax. Eventually I got to a point where I took 300 mg of Wellbutrin in the morning and another 150 in the afternoon. I took 1 mg of Xanax first thing in the morning and then every four hours after that. It took us a little bit to get to that magic cocktail so let’s say I was on that for the next eight years.
“Anxiety? I have anxiety? Well now that you mention it, it does feel like I have anxiety. These pills definitely make me feel better. I can tell you that much. In fact, sometimes they make me feel awesome.”
The above quote is paraphrased and was never actually said to anyone nor was it ever in fact spoken out loud. That was the situation though. Looking back at it with what I know now, two presidencies later, I bet I felt pretty fecking good.
I moved on from the Better Purchase to a desk job and then I moved on from that desk job to a better desk job in another city. The original prescribing doctor retired and I started seeing a nurse practitioner who was content to keep writing the same prescriptions for me because I was doing so well at life (from all outside measures.)
About a year ago the afternoons started getting really difficult. Then the mornings got rough too. I could play it off at work but my parasympathetic nervous system had become a deadly accurate clock. I was due for one milligram of Xanax at 11 a.m. and I could tell you when it was 9:30 without looking at my watch, my phone or the lower right hand corner of my computer. I was due again at 3 p.m. and at 1:30 my brain would impolitely ask “are we going to do the fight thing or are we going with flight?” This is a very strange question to be asked in an office situation when there isn’t an active shooter situation. (There has never been an active shooter situation at my work. There have been many forced, awkward small talk situations though. It’s a real epidemic.)
I figured that was a situational thing and went on with my life, albeit while being worried about a growing number of largely implausible things. Then the nurse practitioner disappeared for unknown reasons. I received a rather terse letter from the practice informing me that she no longer worked there, my prescriptions would be honored for the following ninety days and that I should really find someone else to take care of things. A friend recommended her general practitioner and I thought things would continue uninterrupted.
I saw the GP and it turns out 4 mg of Xanax every day is kind of a lot. They were happy to continue my Wellbutrin prescription but refused to deal with the Xanax. It definitely wasn’t their circus so there is no way those could be their monkeys. Going forward they didn’t want their name associated with any monkeys and further, they were ill-equipped to deal with anything simian in nature.
I looked through my insurance website to find a specialist but couldn’t get in for four or five months. I made the appointment and looked up what would happen if I stopped taking the Xanax. As it turns out two of the biggest side effects of suddenly quitting Xanax are seizures and death. Neither are ideal. I left several voice mails pleading with the GP’s office assistant and faxed them every bit of medical history that I could find. I was one step away from slipping a handwritten note saying “Please give me drugs” under their door when they finally relented and said they would write the prescription until I could see the psychiatrist.
Then something bad happened. I had what I am calling “a massive depressive incident” one Friday that had far-reaching consequences. I spent the rest of that day as well as the following day consistently, persistently and vigorously drunk. I went to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that Sunday. I don’t think I’m an alcoholic in general but I do think it had gotten to be a problem and was making me a giant dick. I knew I needed to stop and those people are the experts on stopping.
Thankfully my employer has a help line that will find doctors and practitioners for you. (There are so many people practitioning in the American health system.) They found people who could help, would accept my insurance and who had appointments readily available. It was an absolute Godsend.
They connected me with a pretty good therapist and someone who had the requisite degree to prescribe drugs. I was hoping the latter would give me an extended release anti-anxiety medication so I wouldn’t bottom out between doses anymore. The guy with the ability to command pharmacists looked at the medications I was taking (4 mg Xanax, 450 mg Wellbutrin just to remind you — it’s been a while) first said that Klonopin had a longer half-life but that I needed to get away from benzodiazepines completely. Remember, suddenly quitting Xanax (or any benzo) could cause a seizure and / or permanent rigor mortis. The best thing to do in this situation is to gradually reduce the dosage of the benzo until there is no more dosage.
The first step to this, he said, was to start taking 1 mg of Klonopin every time I took a Xanax. Of the people who have read this far, a few have just snorted. If they were taking a drink, they probably just did a spit take and need a napkin. (If that was you, don’t use your pants.) This technically-a-doctor’s first step to get me off of benzodiazepine was to effectively double my dose of benzodiazepine. I realized this on the drive home because I am a super genius.
I filled the prescription and took the Klonopin. I did this because, frankly, I knew it would be a good time. I took one as soon as I got home because if this was going to be a party, it might as well start straight away. I knew the overall dosage was ridiculous so of course I went to the internet to see what to do. If the man I’d just seen was a professional, it’s in mock quotes. He was a “professional.” I found a message board that seemed knowledgeable so eventually I followed their advice, which I won’t bother to repeat here.
At this point I’ll tell you why I’ve started this account, both in terms of something to sign into and a story to tell. Through all of my searching I have not found anything on the internet that matches my situation. I’ve found people who’d both been prescribed or otherwise obtained various benzos and were trying to taper off of them but I found no truly applicable advice.
This account is not applicable advice. I am absolutely not telling you to do a single thing other than to read Jonathan Carroll because he’s very good. (I say start with After Silence.) I’m writing this to get it out, to put something on the record (as it were) for someone else to see and to give my hands something to do and my brain something to concentrate on rather than the withdrawal I’m experiencing.
I knew taking Klonopin and Xanax together in general (especially in those amounts) was not the best idea anyone has had. I also knew that taking them would make quitting smoking very easy and a “doctor” did tell me to take them that way. (I was right, by the way. It’s been almost three weeks since I’ve had a cigarette.)
Luckily I never cancelled the appointment I’d made with the “real” doctor some months prior. After quitting cigarettes I started a tapering regimen that I’d worked up based off of the message board and then ran by my pharmacist. The message board thought it was wonderful and the pharmacist stressed the importance of seeing my doctor. I counted down the days until that appointment. I made up an excuse to see the doctor-in-name-only in order to get a prescription that would last until that real appointment. He wrote the prescriptions as well as a Xanax tapering schedule that looked ridiculous to me as a newly-minted expert on the subject (I’d read things on the internet.)
Eventually the day came and I sat opposite the real doctor as he read the questionnaire I’d filled out in the lobby. I knew when he saw the list of medications I was taking because his eyes bulged out of his head. “…and that is why I’m seeing you,” I said with no other prompting.
I showed him the tapering plan that the the fine-I’ll-call-him-a-doctor-this-time had drawn up and he said “This is insane.” (I was right!) I showed him the tapering plan I had come up with and he said “This is insane.” (I had a schedule where I was taking some amount of something every two hours in order to avoid between-dose withdrawals.) “If I were to take the amount of benzo you are on now I would be asleep for a week.” I was going to work and doing finance.
The conversation we had was a bit odd in that in addition to addressing benzo addiction he also explained alcoholism, the appeal of heroin and then went on to compare and contrast cocaine and crack. Yes, this is the doctor I trust and whose advice I had always planned on following to the letter. While odd in the drugs it covered, his advice was sound: you don’t get someone off one drug by telling them to continue to use that same drug.
He told me to stop taking the 150 mg of Wellbutrin in the afternoon. I was using a lot of it and the morning dose should suffice. Because I wasn’t enough of a walking pharmacy already, the this-is-the-last-time-I-will-mention-the-quack had also prescribed 50 mg Zoloft for the morning, which the real doctor said to continue.
He told me to stop the Xanax. He told me to stop the Klonopin. I told myself not to freak out. He wrote a prescription for Librium (a different benzo) as well as Gabapentin (an anticonvulsant.) He prescribed fifty Librium pills at 25 mg, which is a rather large dose. I was to start with four Libriums a day for five days. After that I would take three for five days. Then two for five days and one for five days. Finally I would take zero for the rest of my life.
That’s the idea.
It was very easy to stop drinking. I have had two Guinness in my refrigerator this whole time and haven’t cracked them yet. I get urges to drink when I’ve had a bad day or get angry or sad but even if I felt alcohol were available to me, I know now these are not reasons to drink.
It was pretty easy to stop smoking because I was medicated to the point of no analogy. Plus, I do use electronic cigarettes with a gradually reducing level of nicotine. (My therapist advised to not give up smoking during this stressful time and I had no problem ignoring him because I am He-Man and my will is made of stone.)
I thought quitting Xanax would be easy. It hasn’t been. I didn’t even think I was going to have to quit Xanax. I hadn’t even thought Xanax was a problem. I thought the doctors would simply tweak my prescriptions and that would be it. But here I sit, addicted to something and on a reduction that needs to be monitored. Something for which some people go into month-long detox programs. Something that will give me physical withdrawal and whose absence will give me an indeterminate amount of side effects. (I’ve already experienced some of them. I’m not sure if it feels like going down the first hill of a roller coaster or more like being stabbed through the sternum. I’ll get back to you.)
That is why I started this. Writing is cathartic. Abstracting it takes my mind off the craving. My will isn’t actually made of stone but I am strengthening it. Relapse isn’t an option here.
And maybe some time in the future someone else will Google and find this. Maybe it will be closer to their experience and they’ll find the story of a ghost with a pseudonym to comfort them. I feel for you, futureperson, hypothetical though you may be. Xanax, Valium, Klonopin, Ativan… All of it.
This is where we started. Today was the fifth day I took four Librium, which makes tomorrow the first day I will take three Librium and the journey really begins. I had a breakdown last night that I will tell you about later and even right now I wish I could take another pill.
But I won’t.
For whatever reason and through whatever circumstances, I was prescribed into being an addict. I don’t like that term. Rather, I don’t like the fact that term accurately describes me right now. I won’t lie though; I do like the vision I have of myself on the other side of all this. I like the idea of a Clara Diaz who has overcome such an obstacle — a pseudonymous person who used every tool at their disposal to become better.
PS: I now have a Twitter account @chloradiaz