My Drugs Hell
Today, hopefully, she has not had to take a benzodiazepine, because Doodle Kennelly has finally kicked a drug addiction that harks back to the panic attacks she had as an eight-year-old. She has always been crazy, she says, but never really felt she was going mad until she experienced benzo withdrawal. Photography by Sarah Doyle
Truman Capote wrote a scene in his novella Breakfast at Tiffany's that perfectly describes the dread I've experienced since childhood: Holly Golightly: "You know those days when you get the mean reds?"
Paul Varjak: "The mean reds. You mean like the blues?"
Holly Golightly: "No. The blues are because you're getting fat, and maybe it's been raining too long. You're just sad, that's all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you're afraid, and you don't know what you're afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?"
I want to write about the mean reds. The mean reds led me into a drug addiction that took me completely unawares. It crept up on me over half a decade and eventually hog-tied me in a greater state of unyielding fear, anxiety and depression than I had started out in. So please forgive the cliche but here goes: My name is Doodle, and I am addicted to benzodiazepines.
Over the past few years I have written, talked and reflected upon my mental health to the point of almost disappearing up my own rear end. My pontifications were an attempt to convince myself, and others, that nothing could beat me. I confessed to some extremely dark thoughts and behaviour, but all with an air of, "I'm getting better. I have been honest, put my trust in the medical profession and have done, for the most part, whatever they recommend I do, to become and stay well." In reality, though, it was all a bit of a ruse.
I am a very convincing victim. I'm not saying I fake my fear or have conjured up the black dog to get what I want, but I have subconsciously used any small dramatic talents I may possess to get the desired result and response from people. I have rocked back and forth in front of various doctors, saying: "If I could only get some sleep . . ." I have cried and hyperventilated my way through many massive panic attacks, holding out my shaking hands to somehow prove how incapable I was of carrying on even the most basic daily tasks without some sort of chemical support.
I've used classic junkie-speak: "I swear, this is the last time I'll ask, just give me three more months, by then things will have settled down, there's just too much going on right now for me to deal with." Then these good doctors, for every one of them was indeed a decent person and utterly ethical, would look into my eyes, see the dread and exhaustion and, usually sighing, would write me out a prescription for various benzos. Never too many, though, never raising the dose, and therein lies the birth of my addiction.
I didn't know what a panic attack was, the first time I had one. My chest tightened, my mouth dried as if I had some sort of internal dehumidifier on overdrive, my breathing became fast and shallow, the contents of my bowels turned to water and an impending sense of doom caused me to lose all realistic perception of time. I couldn't tell if the world was moving at an unusually fast pace, like an old black and white Buster Keaton movie, or if I was like a horse in a photo finish in a race on the telly, in which I battled for everything, but the ending was unknown and the videotape was slowed down, frame by frame, warped and choppy and in no way recognisably related to the natural fluidity with which time usually flows.
The only way I could deal with these 'spells', as I called them, was to lie down and count at what I assumed was a steady, pulse-like rate until they passed. Sometimes the counting reached well into the hundreds before the physical embodiment of fear abated. Then I would get up, always feeling as if I had been in a brain train wreck, go downstairs, and not mention to either of my parents what had just happened because I was convinced there was something seriously wrong with me, and that if anyone knew, they would take me away from the two people I loved most in the world.
I was eight years old.
That was the start, and the 'spells' got steadily worse. I started to have them in school, though I managed to deflect attention from what I was sure was the demented look of utter hysteria in my eyes by bending over double as if I were a victim of appendicitis. By the time I reached the grand old age of 10, my parents and teachers were becoming concerned for my physical health (these attacks were happening as regularly as most kids were falling off their bikes) and I was admitted to hospital for tests. Of course, in spite of all the X-rays, the blood tests and the urine samples, nothing was found. Nothing physical anyway, though I did hear doctors whispering words such as "nervous" "unhappy" and the biggie -- "anxious". So that was it: I knew what I had and I knew where I got it (both sides) but nobody told me how to deal with it. My parents were going through their own problems.
Fast forward to now with that great superhero power we all possess -- retrospection -- and I understand that the only reaction you can have to an anxious child is to blame yourself, the parent. You tell yourself that if you change your child's environment, they will be fine. It's a strange combination of self-doubt and narcissism, and it's an approach that is absolutely pure of heart and, while naive, admirable. But it wasn't true. It wasn't my parents' fault, of that I am convinced. I firmly believe -- and sorry if this sounds airy-fairy -- that some children are just more sensitive than others, and even the smallest of crises can set them off on a lifetime path of feeling different, and anxious about those differences.
Regardless, my parents blamed themselves and their choices. So I changed schools, and then I changed schools again, and again, and indeed, one final time. When the new-school approach didn't work, we changed continents, my mother and myself moving to the States. By that time I had totally withdrawn into my bubble world of perpetual, intangible fear. The anxiety had always had a housemate -- depression. The classic old avian-flu chicken and salmonella-riddled egg scenario. I was unable to distinguish between the depression and the anxiety and had no idea which affliction had given birth to the other, but I learned to cope in a desperate, uninformed way.
Alongside the usual route of self-medication and distraction -- namely self-harm, pre-teenage binge drinking and promiscuity -- I taught myself how to breathe through the attacks, instinctively using techniques I have since read about in the self-help books which are balanced precariously in towers, in a mocking representation of my mental health, all over my house. For a few years, I somehow managed to control the attacks. As a teen I had no responsibilities, my anxiety/depression affected no one else to any great degree, or so I selfishly told myself -- but when, at age 20, I became pregnant with my first child, I could almost feel the adrenaline and cortisol overload in my body crossing the placenta and infecting my unborn daughter with fear. The idea that I might be hurting my child led to more anxiety, and that in turn morphed into more destructively creative and convoluted irrational thoughts. By the time my beautiful daughter was born, I was literally mute with distress.
There are so many situations that can lead a person to take benzodiazepines. There is a reason they are called 'mother's little helpers' -- mothers, and of course fathers, will usually do anything to ensure they are the best parent they can possibly be to their child. And for a while, they helped me to cope. But by the height of my dependence I felt unable to face the school yard at pick-up time. Tolerance to benzos had worsened a branch of my anxiety -- agoraphobia -- to the point where I had to stand in a corner of the school yard, as far away from the other mums and dads as I could physically get, for fear of having to make conversation with them.
These pills could just as easily be called 'lover's little helpers' -- and not in a Viagra-esque way. Heartache often manifests itself as fear: fear of being abandoned; fear of the unknown; the fear of everything you stand to lose when you give yourself emotionally and physically to another person -- I have friends who only take a benzo when they have had an argument with their partner, or have not been called after a one-night stand.
I have other friends who save them exclusively for hangovers.
Then there are people like me, people who set their alarm clock to one hour before their body would naturally wake, so that they can take a Valium or Xanax or any other benzo to avoid what I can only describe as waking into a nightmare. To wake in the middle of a panic attack is one of the most profoundly disturbing sensations I have experienced, because there is no logical external explanation for it. There have been no obsessive thoughts, no arguments, no stressful social situations to deal with as you have been peacefully slumbering away, so to wake with your extremities tingling, your throat tight, having to run straight from the bed to the toilet -- well, it takes its toll on the nervous system when experienced every morning for months or even years at a time. Who isn't going to accept any offered remedy when faced with what feels like the threat of a complete nervous breakdown? Indeed, who wouldn't actively seek out such a remedy?
I did. I sought it, and I got it.
When I was given my first prescription for benzodiazepines, I had been in therapy for years. I had talked, talked, talked my little face off. I took my antidepressants and I practised my relaxation techniques. Yet for some reason I was unable or unwilling to let go of my chronic fear. It was not only interfering with my day-to-day life, it was controlling it, almost stopping it dead. Like I said earlier, I am a convincing victim, and that particular day I put every ounce of exhausted energy I possessed into persuading my psychiatrist to give me something other than the usual antidepressant. I had had enough, there was something exceptionally stressful going on in my life (I have since realised there always is, and taking benzos does not help), and somehow I managed to put the enormity of the situation across in a sufficiently convincing manner, because my psychiatrist wrote some words down on a piece of paper and handed it to me. I brought that piece of paper to the pharmacy, they filled the prescription and, after years of enjoying a pious superiority that I have never succumbed to street drugs, in one transaction, of my own instigation, the seeds of an insidious addiction were sown.
I didn't do my homework on what I was putting into my body. I thought benzos came under the same umbrella as the antidepressants I was taking. I gave myself the usual self-justifying talk of, "Well, if I was a diabetic I'd take my insulin and feel no guilt about it; I just happen to be a depressive with an anxiety disorder, and I must treat said disorder as an illness -- by taking the available medication." But benzodiazepines are not -- I repeat, are not -- in the same group of medicines as antidepressants (and I could write ad nauseam about my experiences of, and opinions on, that other group of 'saviour' drugs). Benzodiazepines bring instant, false and often-much-needed relief from crippling fear, but take them too often or for too long at your own risk, because they are highly addictive. If you are the kind of person who is susceptible to addiction, you will be caught in their very powerful net. When you become addicted to benzodiazepines, and unless you raise the dose as your body becomes tolerant, you begin to experience a condition called tolerance withdrawal. All the symptoms you experienced with the initial anxiety are multiplied, your body twitches, you can't eat, you can't sleep, you obsess over how many pills you have left. In my case, I didn't resort to buying benzos from a dealer, I always stayed within my prescribed dosage and I bought a pill-cutter to make the pills go further. I felt pathetic cutting up those pills: I felt seedy and secretive. But I was afraid -- afraid of how ill I would feel if the drugs were given a chance to leave my system.
If I were to list all the physical symptoms of benzo addiction and withdrawal, I'd be here for days, so I'll just say this: combine your worst stomach bug, flu, vertigo, chronic fatigue and serious hormonal disruption -- and you might get an idea of how tolerance withdrawal manifests itself physically. And I don't want to scaremonger here, but there are experts in the field of benzodiazepine addiction who believe, through years of observation and research, that the physical and mental withdrawal symptoms from benzos can be protracted -- in other words they can go on long after you have weaned yourself off the drugs. (I cannot stress how important it is to undergo the process of tapering off benzos under medical supervision: never go cold turkey -- you run the risk of seizures and other very scary consequences). Bottom line, if you are not careful with these powerful drugs, you become a junkie.
It doesn't matter how low the dose: if you take these drugs for longer than the recommended time, you run the very real risk of dependency. I was on an extremely low dose, I never went above it, and I still ended up in the fetal position.
It wasn't until one morning last year when I woke up feeling as if I had a noose around my neck that I realised how much trouble I was in. I'm not speaking metaphorically: I had the very real physical sensation of choking. You know that feeling you get when you are about to cry? The lump in the throat that is unexpressed sadness or fear? Well, I had that to the power of 100 almost constantly for months. The only time it went away was in the first hour or two after taking a benzo. When I mentioned it to my GP, fearing in all my paranoid hypochondria that it was something sinister -- a tumour -- he pointed out to me that the symptoms of a tumour are not eased by a tranquilliser. I had developed a condition called globus hystericus. It was, to me, the final straw.
I have always been neurotic, a depressive, whatever you want to call it. But I have never felt like I was going mad. That is, until I started withdrawing, through tolerance, from benzodiazepines.
I started doing research. There was no Google when I was a child and every day I thank the great god of technological advancement that there wasn't, because self-diagnosis is a dangerous thing. In this case, however, it was very clear what was wrong with me, and I had to find a way out. I spent days on the internet, trawling through the various benzo support groups. I read my exact story in other people's words a hundred times. Some were in a far worse position than I. Some were on 20, 30 or even 50 times the dosage I was on. Some had been reduced to buying benzos from dealers. Some had lost their homes, their children, and, ultimately, the will to live. The advice given was always the same, though: "Go to your doctor and ask for help. Don't do this alone." So that's what I did.
Again I held out my shaking hands, again I went through a panic attack describing how I felt. This time, however, it was not with the intention of obtaining a prescription; I sat there and asked for help. I admitted to being an addict, and I was treated with the greatest respect and kindness that I could have ever hoped for. We worked out a tapering plan. First, it was important that I switch to a long-acting benzo (namely Valium), as it doesn't leave the body as quickly as some of the others and that makes it easier to slowly reduce and eventually quit. The doctor gave me a fixed schedule and I tried as best I could to stick to it. I had a few hiccups along the way, but . . .
Today I have not had to take a benzodiazepine.
Life has not suddenly become any easier. I am a single mother of three girls. I am trying to carve out a career at an age when most people are well established in their chosen professions. I fall in love, and I have my heart broken. But there is nothing I have gone through or will go through that hasn't been dealt with by a million souls before me. I don't want to be in a drugged haze while I live this life. I want to feel it, every beautiful, painful step and fall I take in it.
I hope that I will continue to learn and understand what causes western society and, more specifically, western women so much angst and ennui, insecurity and fear. I would love to think that maybe I could even help people a little. I don't know if I will, but even helping one person would be enough to make it all worth it. So I will keep writing about depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, and everything else we call western self-indulgence, while admitting that these are all undoubtedly a reality in many of our lives. That said, I'll be damned if I will let it be more than my job any longer. My goal is to expose it all, leave it out on the concrete, exposed to the elements so it can be stared at and understood, then walked away from and left to shrivel up. I will turn my back on that which I have accepted, expressed and exorcised. I will allow myself to feel a little bit of peace, maybe even a lot.
At one stage I had 17 self-help books lying beside me on the bed where my ex-husband used to sleep. One evening my middle daughter, Hannah, who is 13, came in and wisely removed them, replacing them with her collection of Harry Potter books, saying: "I think these will do you a lot more good than those, Mom." She was right, it's time to embrace and explore the magic in this world. Free from fear.
Photography by Sarah Doyle
Assisted by Cait Fahey
Styling by Liadan Hynes
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Shot at The Morgan Hotel, 10 Fleet St, D2, tel: (01) 679-3939
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