Friday, February 24, 2012

Benzos-- On My Soapbox

I hate benzodiazepines. HATE them. This class of drugs (what we know as Ativan, Xanax, Klonipin, Librium, and Valium and various others) was introduced in 1961 and sold to the medical community as "safe." Doctors then naturally begin writing prescriptions left and right and we are now learning that benzos are NOT safe. I speak from my own personal experience in working with addicts as well as from scientific research and statistics. I see people almost daily who are struggling to overcome addictions from various substances but cannot overcome the final hurdle of benzos addiction because doctors continue to hand these drugs out like candy.

Let's just lay out the facts. First of all, the manufacturers of benzos do not suggest that this drug be used longer than two weeks. Second of all, we know that long term use leads to increased tolerance (requiring more of the drug to feel any benefit), physical dependence, and dangerous, potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms when one tries to stop taking the drug. We also have statistics that support the fact that most people abusing benzos are typically combining their benzo with another substance, usually alcohol or opiates. This is a deadly combination.

Here are some important statistics. In 2006 the Center for Disease Control reported " Poisoning {drug overdose} is the second leading cause of injury death overall, and the leading cause of injury death for people aged 35-54 years, surpassing both firearm-related and motor vehicle-related deaths in this age group." Of these "accidental" deaths, 17% of those were related to the misuse of benzos. In 2009 in Washington state alone, benzos were indicated in 20% of accidental deaths, higher than alcohol (17%), cocaine (15%), meth (5%), and heroin (2%). Even in 1986 the well-respected National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) completed research that indicated those who were depedent on benzos alone had a mortality rate 3 times higher than a control group being treated for similar mental health issues without a co-occurring benzo addiction. When the benzo addiction included the use of alcohol or other addictive drugs, the mortality rate jumped to 6 times higher than the control group.

I sat with a seventeen year-old girl this week who was begging me for benzos. She understandably wants relief from anxiety and has learned from our culture that the most efficient way to do that is to pop a pill. It breaks my heart. I also work with various other adults who struggle with enduring the withdrawal symptoms of benzos and most of them require multiple inpatient hospital stays throughout the year. Long-term benzo use has been shown to lead to an INCREASE in depression and anxiety. The abuse of this class of drugs has become a social problem, a menace to society, a bomb dropped on families, and ultimately kills.

This anger has been stewing in me for many years and the recent death of Whitney Houston really sent me into a tailspin. We do not yet know the autopsy results for this artist, but we do know both alcohol and three different kinds of benzos were found in her room. It doesn't take large volumes of these two combined drugs to cause significant depression of the central nervous system and cessation of breathing.

I believe Whitney Houston was clean from illict drugs and, thus, convinced herself she was "sober," because she was "just taking" the various benzos being prescribed to her. How do we expect people to stay clean when they are having addictive substances prescribed to them by the very people who are supposed to be helping them remain healthy? NO ONE with any history of addiction should take benzos... period. Whitney Houston should never have been given those medications. She believed she was sober and well. Our culture is ignorant to the dangers of benzos and I believe this prohibited the loving friends and family around her from knowing that the path she was on was a deadly one.

If you are taking benzos or know someone who is, these are the signs of benzo dependence (from

1. Tolerance to the medication, to the extent that the patient needs to take more to achieve the same effect; more marked when used as sleep aids, less common when used intermittently for anxiety.

2. Withdrawal begins when the medication is discontinued – may lead to taking other drugs to relieve symptoms.

3. Taking a higher dose or a more frequent dose outside of a physician’s advice. This includes taking the medications for problems other than they are prescribed for.

4. An inability to stop or excessive anxiety when considering stopping.

5.Preoccupation with acquiring more medication or another prescription – usually to meet increased need because of self-administering a higher dose.

6. A drastic change in habit or lifestyle, such as skipping social engagements or ignoring responsibilities because of the medication or the effects of the medication – embarrassment and lying may be associated with this.

I believe we should lovingly confront those we love who we know are abusing or misusing their medications. Had someone done this for Whitney Houston, we might still have her today. Please know that tapering from benzos should be done under the guidance of a doctor, due to the potential severity of symptoms. Let's wise up about this very dangerous class of drugs and spread the word that it is not acceptable to take benzos for months or years on end. We have to become intolerant of doctors who have become legal drug pushers and push for tighter regulation of this class of drugs.


  1. I love that you're on your soapbox! I have an anxiety disorder. As long as I can remember I've had social anxiety issues. Sometimes I feel like it would just be so easy to pop a pill and forget about the world for awhile, but my anxiety of not being in control of myself makes that not happen. How strange is that?! Anyway, I'm glad I've found you. I'm going to make it a point to go and read your posts over the next few days. Thanks so much for blogging!!

  2. Thanks, Miranda. I realize that this blog post will upset a lot of people. Anxiety disorders can become crippling and I also have the compassion to understand that anyone using ANY kind of substances just wants relief from their emotional and physical pain. Anxiety can be managed through other valid and effective means.

  3. I agree by experience. Withdrawal effects are real. There are other pills out there for anxiety but take a while (maybe weeks) for their effects to kick in.