The blissful escape of prescription drugs benzodiazepines helped me cope with depression and anxiety, but my life ended up falling apart around me.
Illustrations: Joe Watson-Price
“You guys seen my bag of Tizzy’s?”
It’s about 3 o’clock one afternoon in Brighton in 2014. I stumble into the living room and blurt out these words to my housemates. Not “Hey guys, how’s it going?” but “Where’s my pills?” I look at each of them sat around the room, their faces clenched. “You don’t remember?” one asks. I don’t.
“She’s gone home by the way, in case you were wondering,” says another, oozing with disdain. Shit, I think to myself. ‘She’ is my partner who was staying the night after traveling the length of the country to see me. The penny starts to drop: I’ve blacked out, again. I see a familiar collage of emotions on the faces of my friends; anger, worry, apathy.
My mates tell me that at about 1am my partner had run downstairs scared to death – because I was convulsing violently and sweating profusely in my ‘sleep’. On my bedside table was a bag of 10-15 red pills, each containing 2mg Etizolam – an extremely potent sedative available legally at the time as a ‘research chemical’.
As soon as they mention “those red pills” the fragments of the night return to me, so too does the creeping blackout dread (“Oh fuck; what did I do?”)
My name’s Dan and I’ve been addicted to benzos for about five years. What follows is an attempt to recollect fragments of my past lost to amnesia for my own benefit, and to serve as a cautionary tale, or maybe something someone out there can relate to. I remember how it all began quite well but it’s everything after that when the fog rolls in that it becomes hard to recall.
Chapter 1: ‘Where’s my pills?’
But what are ‘benzos’? Benzodiazepines are a class of prescription tranquilisers that were once heavily prescribed in the 1960s for anxiety, depression and insomnia. The most well-known examples are Valium (a brand name for diazepam) and Xanax (alprazolam), the latter of which has become notorious for its popularity among young people.
These drugs were eventually found to have serious consequences, including reduced inhibitions and delusions of sobriety leading to risky behaviour and compulsive redosing; addiction; and an exacerbated return of the treated symptoms after abrupt withdrawal.
Withdrawal from long-term use poses the greatest risk, and if not managed correctly it can lead to potentially fatal seizures. In the wake of these revelations, benzodiazepines became more tightly regulated in the UK and alternative antidepressant medications with less abuse potential were prescribed instead. Benzodiazepines are now primarily only prescribed for short-term use.
When your mind is plagued with a near-constant state of anxiety and riddled with depressive thoughts, it’s far too easy to develop a taste for benzodiazepines if you have access to them. It’s then just as difficult to stop yourself when lost in their blissful tranquility – unaware that your life is disintegrating around you with every pill you pop.
“At that point it had all sunk in; I came very close to death without realising it and the first words out of my mouth to my friends who had saved me were “Where’s my pills?”
But back to that afternoon in Brighton: I start to piece the fragments back together. Earlier the previous day, the pills had arrived in the post and after popping two of them, the same old mantra that any benzo-head with recognise started going through my mind: “I’m not feeling anything.” So it was down the hatch with two more, but clearly I was feeling something because I’d forgotten the imminent arrival of my partner.
After that, nothing. I have no recollection of the next few hours beyond a thought loop telling me I’m not feeling anything and lurching over my bedside to eat more pills.
My friends had no idea how much I had taken when they found me. I was apparently vaguely responsive enough that they didn’t call for help. They put me into the recovery position, while my partner called her sister and left to stay with her.
“We don’t want to do this, but we’ve taken them away from you,” my friends told me. Usually I’d flip out at this, but I replied with a solemn nod – they were right. There were 50 pills in that bag at the start of the day.
At that point it sank in; I came very close to death without realising it and the first words out of my mouth to my friends who had saved me were “Where’s my pills?”
Chapter 2: My first taste and the grey market
I should start at the beginning of my story. I’d moved across the country to Brighton to pursue dreams of being a successful musician. Needless to say, this didn’t pan out and led to a long period of working in retail to stay afloat. Eventually I applied to university just for want of something to do.
Once I’d enrolled, it dawned on me that something was wrong with my mental health. I knew there always had been but it’d grown to a point where I felt like giving up. The doctors tried a number of antidepressants with limited success. I wasn’t depressed anymore but I sure wasn’t happy so I gave them up. I figured it was better to feel awful than feel nothing at all.
With city living and university came the inevitable exposure to recreational drugs. My family had prepared me for this because they thought it was better that I knew about these things than to scare me off – like they tried to in school with images of dirty syringes and glass pipes.
Now maybe it’s because my memory is shot, but I don’t remember any kind of warning about benzodiazepines or prescription drugs in general. They were convenient pills that doctors would give you if you needed them, so surely they weren’t all that bad were they?
Back then everything I tried came from the ‘grey market’ – an unregulated marketplace where you could go online and buy all sorts of chemicals designed to be analogues of illegal drugs. It essentially served as a loophole to drug prohibition laws; change a molecule here and add one there – hey presto! A brand new substance carefully labelled “Not for Human Consumption” or “Plant Food”.
One day in the grip of a horrendous panic attack someone gave me a small blue pill – which I later learned was called Etizolam – and within about 20 minutes everything I had been worried about, all of my misery, just melted away. It was euphoric to feel such a sense of relief, to not care about things I should be caring about.
I started to use it regularly in social settings, and with my inhibitions destroyed I became more confident and outgoing. Eventually I was given a bag of them with the label still on it. I went home and with a few mouse clicks I found numerous sources for these wonder pills; 50 Etizolam for £20? 10 Flubromazepam for £5? I could barely contain myself.
Now this market no longer exists. In 2016, the UK government brought in the Psychoactive Substances Act, which served as a blanket ban for any conceivable substance that had a psychoactive effect.
On the one hand this sweeping ban was probably a good thing, it was far too easy for any idiot with internet access to purchase a large amount of untested alphabetti-spaghetti research chemicals, but on the other hand it was a blunt instrument that simply pushed simply pushing these new chemicals onto the street – without a passing thought for those of us caught up in that web.
All you need to do is walk around the city centre to see the consequences of this ban with all the people abusing synthetic cannabinoids, more commonly known as Spice. Like with Spice, the benzodiazepines market moved onto the street, from grey market to black. Dealers bought up large amounts and pressed them into recognisable pharmaceutical brands like Xanax bars and we quietly sought them out with no-one any the wiser.
In 2015, I heard about the government’s plans to stamp out this market the following year, so I started to regulate and reduce my use. After doing lots of research I found out about the ‘Ashton Manual’ – a guide to withdrawing from long-term benzodiazepine use. I created a rough timetable to reduce my dosage by 10% every month to get myself clean before May 2016 and built up a small stash to avoid the unbearable withdrawal I’d already experienced if I overran.
Ultimately, it was important that I believed I was in control of my problem and to some extent it worked. In August 2015, I graduated miraculously with a 2:1 despite being consistently numb to the world around me. I stopped binging and losing countless nights to the fog of synthetic tranquility and began planning where I would go after leaving Brighton. I couldn’t afford to stay there without any regular work and I felt like I needed a fresh start in a new city.
So I moved to Bristol with the help of friends who were already settled here. Before the end of 2015 I found a job as a temp in a call-centre, a room to rent and started my new life – albeit still carrying my old habits. By sticking rigidly to my withdrawal timetable, two months after the ban on legal highs in May 2016, I had fully stopped my abuse of benzodiazepines. At the time I felt a tremendous sense of pride and integrity – I’d overcome a huge weakness within myself.
But then my depression that had been buried all those years returned with full force. I’d forgotten how to cope with that headspace without the help of some chemical crutch to see me along. Roughly three months later in October, I relapsed.
Chapter 3: Withdrawal and getting clean
It has only been in the past year that I’ve acknowledged this as a problem beyond my control and sought outside help through the services available in Bristol.
I’d managed to keep the extent of my use relatively secret for two-and-a-half years after moving here, maintaining a relatively functional existence and keeping my habit hidden from my new partner. It stopped being recreational and I began to justify it to myself as ‘self-medicating’ my depression and anxiety, while failing to recognise that the pills were only making it worse in the long run.
I’d confided in my partner about my prior use but I lied that I was no longer using and it was no longer a problem for me. Why? Shame I suppose; ashamed at being weak-willed, ashamed at not dealing with my problems the way everyone else seemed to be.
Then there’s fear. Fear that if I came clean about my use I’d lose her and everyone around me. When you hide a drug problem you convince yourself that you can lie forever about it, that you can keep it hidden as long as you need to.
My partner found my stash back in April last year and confronted me about it. Then it finally clicked that I needed help or risked losing everything. I realised how many years had passed since that first Tizzy, how many memories I’d lost, how many opportunities I’d squandered, how stupidly oblivious I was that all my friends were well aware of what was going on but had no idea how to help.
After a long talk with my partner my real recovery began. I spent a few months trying to cut my use again, but with no success, so I searched online for local drug support organisations and found Bristol Drugs Project (BDP).
I must have spent hours anxiously going over in my head what I would say, to what extent I would tell them about my problem. I was terrified of any negative judgement and being rubber-stamped as another junkie statistic, as I’d never come clean about this before.
Fortunately, whoever I spoke to on the phone was very helpful and understanding. They told me they don’t have services to help with benzodiazepine use directly and signposted me to another organisation called Battle Against Tranquilisers (BAT) who have been helping me ever since.
They drew up a reduction plan for me to give to my GP, and it was made clear that I shouldn’t feel pressured to make any cuts to my dose if I didn’t feel ready to do so and that, by law, I was the one in control of my medication.
I’d like to say I’ve been attending my group sessions with BAT every week, but holding down a full time job makes it challenging. Not to mention the palpable anxiety I feel when I think about getting on that bus to Southmead Hospital every Thursday to sit and confront my demons.
One Thursday in late August, I’m on a bus to the BAT support group having just told my partner to “fuck off” while storming out of the flat, seething from the withdrawal. On good days, I just feel blank and empty inside, other days it’s like having a head full of bees.
Why did I say that to her? She called me ‘difficult’ again. I know I’m difficult! Difficult isn’t remotely close to how this feels and I sure as shit don’t need reminding of that by having it thrown in my face – but now I know it’s just the withdrawal talking. Hopefully it’s not too late for sorry.
With the support group, it’s always very cathartic to let it out in the end but very difficult to remember that motivation for attending. It’s been at least two months since I last attended, but I can say with confidence that if I hadn’t gone at all I’d probably be in the same place I was in April, if not worse.
Simply knowing that I have a safe space with other people going through those same motions makes this process easier and I have nothing but infinite gratitude toward BAT and the people who attend those sessions. They give me strength, and strength is a rare resource to find in the depths of withdrawal.
Since seeking help I’ve kept reducing my use with the help of BAT, I’ve come clean to my friends and family, who have all supported me in their own way. I’m also now on a waiting list for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to address the reasons behind my self-medication.
I count myself extremely lucky to have not faced rejection as a result of my poor decisions. As for the future? It’s just a case of taking it all one day at a time and knowing there will be an end to all of this, that it will be worth it to be free of this chemical crutch.