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A toast to all !

As the date of April 13th 2007 approaches, I feel a need, perhaps even an obligation to give something back to this group. I have lurked here and other support groups in the past, and drew lots of positive energy from the folks who were brave enough to help others despite their own fears of the unknown. I never posted much, so today I opted to post this long message to make up for lost time :)

April 13th 2007 will mark 5 years of abstinence from Clonazepam, a drug that I used sparingly from 1985 to 1997, but then used almost daily from 1997 to 2002. If you do the math, that's 17 years!!

I can definitively say that this addiction/dependence is over. This message is one of victory on my part, but more importantly, one of hope for everyone else kicking this evil habit. If you're reading this, it's because you want to quit, and your personal victory is closer than you think merely by having taken the decision to quit.

Of course this drug was used under prescription and seldomly did I reflect on it's potential dependence, until one day, a run of the mill GP that I saw for the first time for an unrelated medical problem, declined to renew my prescription but for 2 weeks, just to allow me enough time to see a psychiatrist to discuss the risk- benefit of long term use.

But it wasn't until a few months after that when the guillotine really came down. While vacationing in a beautiful setting in the Caribbean, I realized that I could not sleep at night without my Clonazepam, despite the peace and tranquility of my surroundings. I was surrounded by people who loved me, surrounded by vacationers that were happy, surrounded by the best nature has to offer, yet I felt miserable and scared. There was something so terribly wrong with that picture. The subsequent self psycho analysis of my life until that moment was the catalyst to stop the drug and turn things around.

I remembered that GP and his words of wisdom, and knew I had to take action on my own, since most psychiatrists were not adverse to me taking the drug. This is when I began reading about withdrawal and addiction/dependence. What met my eyes at first were words of sheer horror. I began sinking into the abyss of the unknown, with little or no support from the medical community to alleviate my fears.

Ultimately I made the decision to quit. Seeing that I was never on fixed schedule and frequency of consumption, I was uncertain on how to proceed. Perhaps dangerously naïve, I opted to bite the bullet and go for the cold turkey ride (Editor’s note: Cold Turkey is never a recommended way off these drugs, it can be dangerous and prolong the recovery time – please read The Ashton Manual), knowing that every passing day would be a day closer to being free, and thinking that if I ride through hell and hold on tight for a few months I would come out he other side and see the rainbow.

So yes, as you all already know, benzo hell is an awful place to go through. We've all been through it, or are in it now, but I can say with a strong degree of confidence, that this journey is temporary. The journey does not end with a magical door that is hell on one side and Utopia on the other. Rather, it is more like a complex maze of dark tunnels, each tunnel eventually leads you to another with slightly less suffering and misery associated to it, and, it's a bit closer to the exit. Eventually the tunnels become brighter and less complex to navigate out of, and the exit comes quick during this phase.

So at first, upon entry, you will need more time and patience to find your way around. The darkness and unknown invoke fear which in turn hampers your ability to process thoughts in an effective way to accelerate your way out. But as time passes, you develop better navigation skills and you ultimately become able to mitigate the remaining fears until they are negligible.

It reminds me a bit of the movie "Castaway" starring Tom Hanks. Tom is a FedEx employee whose plane goes down in the mid Pacific and he is the lone survivor, stranded on a deserted tropical island. His first days were filled with fear, but as months passed, he had adapted. He created imaginary friends, had learned how to design tools to help him survive etc. He always had the intention of getting out of there, and was determined to do so, but with every passing day he was better able to cope with his situation, until he succeeded in getting out. He devised several coping strategies, some funny, some sad, but they helped him pull through.

So getting back to benzo hell and the maze of dark tunnels……well, that was my personal experience anyway, and from what I have read,  believe it is accurate for many of the benzo survivors. You most likely won't wake up one morning and think your benzo days were all a bad dream. They were real alright. But you will wake up one morning and feel like it will be good, happy day ahead. That's your first cue! Congratulations, the process of healing is on its way. This feeling may not repeat the next day, but don't fret it. It'll revisit you, even if weeks downstream. Eventually, these events will arrive closer together, and the bad days will become further apart.

A message I want to stress is that once in withdrawal, there are two components to manage towards full recovery, and they are equally important. There is the physical, anatomical withdrawal associated with the use of the drug itself, and there is the psychological component of being able to now deal more effectively with new challenges. Remember that very often the reason we went on these meds was to deal with situations that perhaps could have been dealt with cognitive behavioral changes. This is maybe not true in all cases but for certain it is in some.

In my personal experience I put much effort and emphasis on the psychological healing, believing that mind over matter can be a powerful therapy. I imagined that if a Buddhist monk can lower his body temperature by meditation, or, if someone could walk barefoot on hot coals, then this approach may provide some good healing potential if given a fair chance.

Both the physiological and psychological recovery can be daunting tasks, but ultimately you can be victorious in both.

By abstaining from the drug, and at the same time nourishing your physical body with a healthy diet and exercise, you are doing everything in your power to help it heal. On the psychological side, it may require developing a skill set with which you are unfamiliar.

The benzodiazepines rob us of our inherent ability to manage stress and anxiety. They provide the crutch, and as long as we cater to the drug, we believe we are well. Once the drug is removed, especially after long term use, we realize that we have lost our ability to manage difficult situations. We have in essence almost "unlearned" to cope and manage effectively without anxiety and fear.

One could argue that anxiety and panic are physiologically based, and therefore constitute a clinical disease, manageable by medication alone. No one knows for sure, and it could very well be that the symptoms are rooted in neurotransmitter malfunction. But the truth remains, and several studies have shown this; that cognitive therapy is equally effective to drug therapy when treating conditions such as depression and anxiety. So my point is, regardless of the source of the problem, a solid cognitive restructuring can go a very long way in providing relief. Don't underestimate it, and don't skimp on it. Try to do it under professional guidance. Find yourself a therapist that you can trust, and that believes in your mission. Do it as religiously as you would take your medications to treat a serious condition. It doesn't provide a quick fix, it's not cheap, but it does provide a long term solution. Reading and self learning is good, but a good psychologist will take all your lessons learned and put them in the proper perspective for your life circumstances, further boosting your recovery efforts.

I suppose much of what I'm writing is motherhood to some readers, and that's ok. But if I could reach out to just one reader who could walk away and re-direct their energy into a positive healing force, then I have succeeded.

This is my experience, and indeed is not canned for all to copy. I was very skeptical at first about "soft" science, about talk therapy. I too opted for homeopathic and soft chemical substitutes to ease the withdrawal. I went to many a naturopath to try things like SAM-E, or St John's Wort, thinking these would relieve without causing unnecessary damage. They didn't help me. If anything, they discouraged me, especially when they weren't helping. I began realizing that this approach was in effect an extension of my dependence, i.e. I needed another crutch to help me recover.

The first sign of relief began several months after withdrawal when I tried acupuncture. It was a bit scary at first, but I was blessed with a Chinese doctor who had just moved here from Beijing. After about 2 months of treatment, I could feel a day here and there that was less frightening. I was becoming encouraged. In parallel with this, I began reading about cognitive restructuring and again was blessed with a very bright psychotherapist. He supported my mission and he was capable of challenging all my fears with rational arguments against them. The neurological re-wiring had begun.

It was hard work no doubt. Changing the way you think or altering your belief system is difficult at the best of times, never mind when you're down for the count. You must trust the process. The changes are insidious and gradual. Measure yourself over a 3 month period or so, not weekly.

But if I had to single out the most significant indicator of prognostic outcome, for me, it came down to having a support system. Being surrounded by people who can relate to your suffering is paramount. This can be a challenge indeed since family members can easily become frustrated with the continuous fear expressed by people in withdrawal. Equally, they are not equipped to respond to and adequately treat your symptoms. If you have a spouse, parents or children that can, you are blessed.

Essentially, what I'm trying to say here is that some soul searching, some spiritual healing can accelerate the process. At least it did for me. Try and re-ground yourself to what really matters to you in your life. I had a life long passion to want to learn a musical instrument. So one year into withdrawal, I figured what the heck....what do I have to lose? I became absorbed by the passion and day after day passed. Each day that I was learning something new, I was forgetting about my fears. Fear was being replaced by feelings of accomplishment. Today, you can't tell the difference between me and Jimi Hendrix :)……kidding!!

I maintained a high paced management job throughout my ordeal. I approached my superiors and openly discussed my issues, further relieving the burden of guilt from me. I was fortunate in that they understood my situation and allowed me the time and space to adjust as required. Today I am still employed by the same company and have advanced further. Although this sounds like a classic picture of success, there are some key learning’s that I have made thanks to my experience.

There is a lot of truth to the saying "If you're caught in a rat race, then you too must be a rat"…..or something to that end. Western culture and its many societies are doing very little to help the bigger problem of stress management. In contrast, it is effectively creating it or adding to it at best by setting ever increasing expectations. Removing stressors is imperative to a full recovery. Easier said than done, I know :)

So in conclusion, to all my brothers and sisters out there, don't let go. I don't consider myself bionic, and I am made of the same flesh and blood as the rest of you. My point being, I would consider my experience the rule and not the exception to recovery. The desire and courage to abstain is half of your victory. In a kind of twisted way, I am almost grateful to have survived this experience. I am so much more appreciative of the things I have today. Little things I took for granted while on benzos are now perceived as a gift. I truly believe I am a better and stronger person because of my experience, and although I wouldn't wish it on anyone, it did provide a positive outcome in the end. The flowers are brighter in color, food tastes better and the wine even better.

It has also created an internal control mechanism for stress management. In other words, when my system starts getting revved up beyond my stress threshold I stop and pull back as opposed to forging further ahead as I used to. This learned coping skill has allowed me to remain within my comfort zone. Over time, you will slowly begin to increase this internal threshold of stress, and your life will return to normal.

On April 13th 2007, I plan a discrete celebration to welcome year number six. With good food and friends surrounding me, I promise to raise my glass and toast each and every one of you out there for your courageous journey. Some of you are embarking on this journey by car, others by train and even others by plane. But the truth of the matter is, we will all arrive at the same sunny destination, just at different times. We are all unsung heroines and heroes, true warriors of a battle that remains transparent and non existent to many, even medical professionals.

 Never let anyone underestimate your courage!!! Good luck to all!




Disclaimer:  The information contained in this website was not compiled by a doctor or anyone with medical training. The advice contained herein should not be substituted for the advice of a physician who is well-informed in the subject matter discussed. Before making any decisions about your health or treatment you should always confer with your physician and it is always assumed that you will do so.

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Last updated 21 July 2020