Niamh Horan: 'Irish mothers and grannies are great for having a stash of something somewhere'
Users point to our dysfunctional national relationship with alcohol as they defend their casual use of prescription drugs, writes Niamh Horan
Published 17/01/2016 | 02:30
Most of us are in agreement that to unwind over a glass of wine or beer is one of life's little luxuries. For some, it helps to relax in company, for others, it heralds a good night's sleep.
So what happens when we use prescription pills for the same purpose? And why is middle-class Ireland so reticent about our dirty little secret?
The Rolling Stones called them 'mother's little helper' and bottles of anxiety and anti-depressant medications are in one-in-every-two homes in Ireland. They are passed between family members like contraband.
We have an ageing population and research from other countries indicates that the older we get, the more likely we are to self- medicate with prescription rather than listed drugs.
Interestingly research also shows that the wealthier the patient, the more likely they are to be taking prescription medication. Louise* (34) began taking Valium after it was prescribed to her to alleviate a fear of flying.
She says: "I had to go on a long-haul trip three years ago, I got a couple to calm my nerves before take off. They worked fine and then I was left with a bottle. So when I came back and things were getting on top of me or I had a really stressful day, I took one and found they worked and it just went from there."
'Benzos' (Benzodiazepines) and 'zimmos' (zimovane) have become the drug of choice for many of Ireland's middle class. And there is no shortage of reasons.
"I prefer it to alcohol," explains Louise. "It relaxes me. It gives me a nice gentle buzz. I don't really care about the stuff that's going on around me when I take them.
"Things that would normally leave me feeling highly strung, I take a Valium and I'm able to shrug my shoulders and say, 'f**k it'. And if I need a good night's sleep, I'll take a couple more."
She says she is not worried about her use, believing she has the dosage under control.
"I wouldn't say I do it the whole time - maybe once a month, twice max - but it has definitely crept up into becoming more of a regular thing. But I know not to start taking it every day. If you're clever about the amount you allow yourself, I think you can get by okay."
Describing the feeling it gives her, she says: "I hate to use the word 'numb' because it makes it sound like you're some junkie, spaced out of it, but that's not the case at all. It just takes the edge off things and it brings me huge relief in a situation that otherwise might overwhelm me. We all take painkillers - well this is emotional pain relief of sorts."
Michael* (32) uses it the day after he has had a hard night on the town. "It's the best thing I know of to beat 'the fear', that feeling of dread the morning afterwards," he says.
He describes how he usually swaps prescription drugs between his mates after consuming harder drugs, such as cocaine or ecstasy.
"I'd just ask if they had a couple of sleeping tablets or 'downers' on them to level myself out." He also uses them when the stress of work is getting the better of him.
He believes the Irish have a double standard to prescription drugs in light of our relationship with alcohol.
"I don't know why there is stigma around it. We have a hypocritical view of these things.
"Alcohol is a drug, it is addictive, it has been abused by most people I know at one time or another and yet when it comes to prescription drugs people can be very judgemental and get on their high horse about it. But I don't see the difference. If anything, the only difference I see is positive: I don't suffer from a raging hangover the next day or do anything stupid when I take them. At the most, I'll just fall asleep."
Ciara* says it's not uncommon to pass drugs between friends. "Sleeping tablets are a big thing - just once a week or so - to get a really good night's sleep.
"I have called a friend up and said, 'Hey, remember you mentioned you had some of those sleeping tablets? Any chance I could grab one or two off you tonight?' Then they'd usually give you a couple more to keep you going."
Aidan* (30) says: "Irish mothers and grannies are great for having a stash of something somewhere. I've gone home to see my mam and she'd ask in a really concerned voice if I am okay and then she would press a tray of tablets in my hand and tell me to get a good night's rest.
"It's like anything else; when I was in my teens, she'd prefer me drinking at home under her watchful eye and when she sees me now and I feel like everything is getting on top of me, she hates to see me like that and would prefer I would take something legal, with her supervising, than go and get hard drugs on a street corner or somewhere."
Clodagh* (31) agrees, saying her mother regularly brings home a strong anti-histamine that doubles up as a sleeping tablet, from trips to Spain. "It's a lot easier to get some good strong prescription drugs over the counter over there," she says.
Gearoid* (36) says he came across the 'buzz' of prescription drugs in his 20s, while on a holiday in Thailand.
"I was sick and my friends went out and met this American who gave them some. They came home buzzed up after a night of drinking too and I thought, 'This is great' and we ended up bringing some home with us.
"Then one of my mate's dad died and we took his bag of pills, morphine and that. We just got out of it. I wouldn't really do it any more since I got married.
"I take a sleeping tablet every night for headaches, I've been taking it for the past two years. It's a mild anti-depressant too that was prescribed for headaches. But I find it very hard to wake up in the mornings. The kids know not to come near me."
* All of the names have been changed to protect their identities.