I went into rehab in 2000 to deal with an addiction to methamphetamine. I shared my room with a woman in her sixties or seventies who’d once been an Olympic athlete. She was in for an addiction to Klonopin, which is a benzodiazepine—in the same class as Valium, Xanax and Ativan. She’d been prescribed Klonopin for anxiety, and took it according to her doctor’s instructions. When we met, she’d been taking it every day, as prescribed, for 21 years. But long-term benzo use can take a toll on the brain and the body, and now she had to stop.
At this particular rehab an addict would spend one week in detox to get through the medical withdrawal and then move to the recovery house, where the furniture was wood instead of metal and you could bring your own bedding. Detox usually took a week or so but my roomie had been there for months. I remember her sitting on the edge of her bed, staring out the window. I came to expect the sight of her hunched back and gray head when I’d come into the room. After so many years on Klonopin, the doctors told her, they couldn’t yet find a way to get her off of it and stabilize her medically.
At the time, I was also taking Klonopin, but I didn’t want to deal with it. I felt like I needed to focus on getting off the methamphetamine. I convinced the facility to let me go in only for the meth and ignore the Klonopin problem. They agreed. I wish I’d been more educated.
In the early ’90s, I was misdiagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, for which benzos are extremely effective. I was given Klonopin, and I never once deviated from the prescription. When I learned the diagnosis was incorrect, I tried to get off the drug but was unable to do so—the withdrawal was awful. I figured I’d deal with it later. I felt sorry for my roommate, but I thought it unlikely that, as she cautioned me, I’d end up stuck on benzos for 21 like she was. When I left rehab, I gave her a gift: my treasured quilt I’d purchased in Guatemala and that still seemed impregnated, somehow, with sugar cane and wood fires. She’d admired it, and I thought it would please her, having something comforting and beautiful as she sat in that sterile place and waited for her body to heal.
When I started seeing a new psychiatrist not long after, I told him I wanted to get off the Klonopin. It took a full year and a romance with phenobarbital, a barbituate precursor to Klonopin. But I was finally free.
Or so I thought. In truth, I had just begun another battle with benzos. These days I take Xanax. I’ve tried to get off of it, but Xanax withdrawal makes Klonopin’s Trainspotting withdrawal seem comparatively delightful. After so much consistent use, my neurotransmitters are highly reluctant to do without benzos, so I continue to take them—for no medical reason—until I can clear my schedule enough to engage in Xanax warfare. As of 2012, I’ve been taking benzos for 20 years.
There’s a lot of talk about Xanax these days: I just saw it on Inside Edition (it was on in the background, I swear). And last week, New York Magazine had an excellent cover story on benzos that should be required reading. There are bound to be people—average folks, prescribing psychiatrists—who say worrying about benzos is a big fuss over nothing. So what if you take a Valium before you get on a plane once or twice a year? I’ve even said that myself—I know my situation isn’t the norm.
But as long as people are talking about benzos, I’ll throw in my two cents: If a doctor recommends them for you and you don’t have a major anxiety disorder, think carefully before you get the prescription filled. Two important things to keep in mind: 1. The pills will work, exquisitely. 2. That’s the problem.