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DRUGS DESTROY A LIFE
January 16, 2003
by Rachel Tiffen
A Lifetime Forgotten: Long-time benzodiazepine addict Michael O'Loughlin received first prescription for benzodiazepines at the age of five. He is angered by what he found in his medical notes.
Half an hour after I'd met him, he'd forgotten my name - a common occurrence according to benzodiazepine addict Michael O'Loughlin.
Mr O'Loughlin, 51, was prescribed his first minor tranquilliser at the age of five or six - or so his mother tells him.
A lifetime of addiction to benzodiazepines stripped him of his memory, reduced his concentration levels to nil, and earned him the reputation as a "trouble-maker" among family and friends.
Mr O'Loughlin contacted the Christchurch Star after reading about Rangiora resident Ernie Becker's 26-year addiction to Rivotril (clonazepam).
He doesn't remember why he was first given benzodiazepines, in fact he doesn't remember the last 40 years of his life, but he does know neither he, nor his family, were warned of the side effects. A severe bout of measles aged five may have started it all.
"It was the worst case of measles the doctor had ever seen, it was in his mouth and everything," his mother said.
He had an extremely high temperature and was the never the same afterward.
"He changed from a dear, little boy to a strange, excitable boy."
She suspected the high fever caused inflammation of Mr O'Loughlin's brain - or encephalitis.
His changed behaviour prompted a visit to the doctor, and he was put on Librium (or chloradiazepoxide).
At least a year after starting the drug, Mr O'Loughlin was diagnosed with epilepsy.
His mother was reading him a book one night when he "started to go strange, with eyes staring and mouth running".
However, her son's behaviour was not conducive to epilepsy, she said.
"He would shake people's hands in the street like a grown up man, not a little boy. Well, epilepsy doesn't do that to people."
Mr O'Loughlin was prescribed a myriad of minor tranquillisers throughout his life and has tried to overdose three times.
One hospital report, obtained recently under the Official Information Act, said he had been given "virtually every anti-epileptic drug with only partial relief".
Yet still the benzodiazepine prescriptions kept coming.
Mr O'Loughlin is now down to 4 mg of Rivotril (another benzodiazepine) a day.
He tried coming off the drug when living in Australia, after reading of its addictive powers in a doctor's surgery pamphlet.
His GP agreed, but failed to warn him of the effects of withdrawal.
Coming off the drug cold turkey, he entered a hallucinogenic world, where buildings seemed closer together, bright lights terrified him, and the confined quarters of a shopping mall sent him running for the open air.
Back in New Zealand Mr O'Loughlin asked his neurologist to take him off the drug.
"Don't rock the boat now," was the reply. "You'll be on these for the rest of your life."
Mr O'Loughlin's neurologist could not be reached for comment.
Hospital reports from 1975 and 1978 show his blood contained 170 molecules of clonazepam per litre of blood (mol/l), despite a recommended therapeutic range of 80-150 mol/l.
Doctors' notes written in 1978 demonstrate Michael's concern about his medication:
"After discussion with Dr*** I have advised him to increase his (Mr O'Loughlin's) clonazepam to 10mg daily, that's two tablets in the morning and three at night."
The notes said the dose could be increased further depending on the presence of side affects. If the greater dose did not control his "fitting", he could be taken off clonazepam and put on phenobarbitone - a barbiturate.
Mr O'Loughlin said 10mg was enough to put anyone on their ear. His step-father once took 2mg of the drug by mistake and was unable to walk for two days, he said.
Nowadays, Mr O'Loughlin has a part-time job and is trying to piece his life back together. He still struggles to concentrate for periods, and forgets people he regularly sees. He cannot remember anything about his father, who passed away years back.
"There has been a lot of strife in the family since I have been on this medication. I'm trying to rectify it now and let them know that it wasn't me - it was due to my medication."
Mr O'Loughlin said GPs and pharmacists should be legally obliged to warn patients of the side effects of medication being dished out.
Benzodiazepines (also known as minor tranquillisers) were reclassified as Class C, controlled drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act 2000.
International medical guidelines say the drugs should be taken for no more than four weeks, to prevent addiction setting in.
Addiction support groups say those hooked on the drugs group could suffer impaired memory and concentration, an inability to respond to everyday life normally, depression, loss of balance, impaired motor coordination, mood swings, irritability and outbursts of rage.
Last year 42,355 people were prescribed the drugs.
Prescription numbers for the past four years were as follows:
- 2003 - 508,267
- 2002 - 511,253
- 2001 - 514,090
- 2000 - 522,376
This compares to 533,170 prescriptions ten years ago. The mid-90s saw an increase in prescriptions again, with numbers peaking in 1995 at 545,827.
Some of the trade names for benzodiazepines are as follows: Librium, Nova-Pam, Valium, Stesolid, Pro-Pam, Diazemuls, SS/EFP, D-Pam, Valrelease, Alupram, Solis, Altensine, Evacalm, Isoma, Unicomnia, Nitrados, Surem, Nitrados Nitepam, Serecid, Somnite, Serepax, Benzotran, Ox-Pam, Nobrium, Ativan, Lorzem, Lorapam, Dormonoct, Tranxene, Rivotril, Frisium, Hypnovel, Dalmane, Euhypnos, Restoril, Normison, Somapam, Halcion, Hypam, Trycam, Noctamid, Loramet, Rohypnol, Lexotan, Centrax, Xanax, Anxon, Paxipam, Paxam.
Mr Michael O'Loughlin
14 Airdale Place
Christchurch · New Zealand