Societal Stigma of Physical Dependency

Veering slightly off topic from my previous article, I felt compelled to share with you all a personal experience I had yesterday- and how it revealed some ugly truths about both my own previous bias, and something that is a prevalent attitude in our society.

I won’t discuss details, point fingers or play the blame game. However, during my six month stay in the USA I was over prescribed a class of medication called benzodiazepines- most commonly used for anxiety, seizures and in some cases a muscle relaxant. They have the potentiality to cause tolerance, dependancy and addiction in a proportion of individuals.

Although I am not psychologically addicted to this medicine, I unknowingly became physically dependant upon this medication. And there began the hell.

Despite still suffering from tremendous anxiety given my ongoing trauma throughout the years, upon returning home I quickly realised this medication was not helping, and that it was also affecting my coordination and balance- rendering it utterly incompatible with a sport such as Futsal. Therefore, I decided to stop taking it.

I felt fine for around twenty four hours and didn’t think anything of it. Until the next day, I woke up with physical tremors, a sky-high heart rate and massive anxiety. Then, I put two and two together, took my Clonozapam and voilá! My system levelled out again. A few days later, just to be sure, I again stopped the clonozapam- unfortunately this time I was driving at 70mph on a motorway and had to pull onto the hard shoulder. It was my belief that had I not chewed my pill at that vital moment, I would’ve experienced a seizure.

That’s the moment I realised- I was one of “them”! I was an involuntary addict. A slave to a prescription medication. Something I always ignorantly believed myself to be immune to given my perfectionistic tendencies, athletic, driven nature and strength of character.

Despite having always had lots of compassion for people suffering from addiction/ dependancy, I had always had an insidious underlying belief that it couldn’t happen to me- I just wasn’t “that type”.

I’ll cut out the past two months and fast forward to now. I ended up getting in touch with a local, council run addiction and dependancy organisation that liase with family physicians and provide ongoing advice and emotional support for people withdrawing from any substance- whether illicit or prescribed. I have to say, they have been fantastic and I’m extremely grateful for their help and support.

We found a very slow tapering programme that would mean me switching over to a different benzodiazepine- diazepam (due to its longer half-life, it makes the process a little smoother).

This protocol was devised by Professor Heather Ashton, who is an expert in the field of benzodiazepine dependancy and how to safely withdraw from each one.

I had developed quite a tolerance and was starting from the equivalent of 40mgs of diazepam- a pretty high dose! I am now in the middle of my programme and down to 24mgs.

Despite support and empathy I received from the addiction organisation, unfortunately, the same can’t be said for my NHS practice. I had a meeting initially with my doctor, nervously and shamefully mumbling my problem and handing over the proposed withdrawal programme from my support worker. He reluctantly agreed to it, however I had the impression he did not trust me and therefore only agreed to two- weekly prescriptions (understandable). He also insisted my support worker fax a letter before I’m allowed to pick up my prescriptions. I understand this is a controlled substance and I’m glad we are aware of the dangers of this class of drug now in Britain.

However, obtaining my prescriptions has not been easy. I’ve been fobbed off, lied to and basically treated like a “junkie” by staff working at the practice.

Yesterday was particularly humiliating. I was due my next prescription, feeling good about reducing another 2mgs. I called in the morning and they reassured me the doctor would have my prescription written for 2pm. I showed up at 4 to give them a little bit of leeway.

Baring in mind, a lot of psychiatrists and scientists maintain that benzo withdrawal is a harder task than heroin withdrawal. See link for more info on benzo withdrawal

Therefore, this is yet another unfortunate battle I did not want to be facing. But nonetheless I was doing just that, albeit an awful experience at times. So I wasn’t feeling full of the joys of spring when I showed up at my GP practice to greet the receptionists who just looked at me, rolled their eyes and puffed out their cheeks.

“Hi, my name is Leanne Skarratt, there should be a prescription here for me?”. Three surrounded me and scorned, “it’s a locum doctor today, he hasn’t had a chance to look at the faxed latter and probably won’t get it done today- so you won’t have any over the weekend”.

Sitting there laid back in their chairs with a blasé attitude, smirking as they told me, I was ready to explode. I somehow managed to remain polite. “Sorry, but this is not just a medication you can stop taking abruptly. It’s potentially a very dangerous thing to do. I’m out of tablets and should’ve taken my afternoon dose an hour ago. Can you please emphasise the importance of this”. ‘Okay- we’ll have a word with him and call you’.

Safe to say, I left that room feeling 10cm tall, like a pathetic junkie. Just like the people I had once viewed as perhaps a little lacking in the willpower department. Life, once again it seemed was teaching me a powerful lesson. This time about individual prejudice that spreads and even seeps into our health “care”, and other institutions.

I did not trust that I would be called back that day. Therefore I called my mother. She showed up and we staged some sort of sit-in protest until they finally got the doctor to look at a faxed letter they had received a full twenty four hours before regarding the urgency of me being out of medication.

As I sat there with the staff looking at me as though I was a piece of shit, I had a thought…

If this was medication for diabetes, or epilepsy, would I have been treated in this manner?

My strong guess is most definitely not.

Those who demonstrate the determination to successfully plough through painful withdrawal, whether from alcohol, cigarettes, heroin or anything else deserve all the respect, assistance and encouragement from our NHS.

All of the statistics out there show that people who end up developing addiction and dependancy often have underlying mental health issues. I was never once offered any support for the reasons I was actually taking those drugs.

This once again proves that people suffering from (and trying to overcome) mental health conditions face the additional battle of stigma, judgement, fighting the medical system itself, and a dire lack of funding for mental health services in this country.

These problems can happen to anyone. They don’t pick and choose. It doesn’t matter about your level of education, socio-economic status or other factors. Human frailty is a universal condition- an element of our inherent nature, and should be treated with the utmost compassion and respect.

Bottom line…

Never look down on a person unless you are helping them up.