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ROBERT JONES' STORY
from the 1995 VOT Newsletter
I was prescribed Valium in 1983 as an aid in attempting to stop smoking cigarettes. I became addicted. I decided to try and get off it in 1990. I took a 3 month sabbatical from work to do this. I was advised (by a doctor) to just stop abruptly. I had several attempts at this, once staying off Valium for 10 weeks, but failed. I have no family, and had no friends local to me at that time – i.e. no support. I took myself off to a 'therapeutic community' in the West Midlands. This is a general purpose clinic following the teachings of an Austrian mystic Rudolph Steiner; it is not a psychiatric clinic, nor is it a drug treatment centre. The people there are well intentioned and mostly harmless. Unfortunately they have two medical doctors whose understanding of psychoactive allopathic drugs is limited.
I eventually persuaded them that I needed to withdraw from Valium slowly. They persuaded me that it would be a good plan to take Largactil (200mg/day) and Anafranil (chlomipramine) - a tricyclic antidepressant 150mg/day - to help "ease the pain" and "provide extra inner space" with which to engage in their artistic therapies (painting, sculpture and eurhythmy). At no stage had I exhibited any symptoms of psychosis, nor did they think that I had. They appear to regard these drugs as innocuous and almost 'herbal'. They assured me that these drugs had few side effects and no serious ones; they mentioned only 'increased photosensitivity' and 'difficulty in micturition'. It is well known amongst experts that these two types of drug should not be mixed as their side effect profiles are very similar; in any case such polypharmacy is regarded by many as a very bad plan – the side effects are worsened and the actual 'therapeutic' effects become more unpredictable.
I ended up paying them a serious amount of money and staying for 18 months. I became too ill to leave. Although I did finally get off Valium I regard the price as being way too high; I'm scared that I have been permanently damaged by Largactil. I would not do this again. Basically I almost died. I started out not being particularly depressed, certainly not 'clinically'. I ended up profoundly despairing. I very seriously contemplated suicide. This was a direct result of the two drugs I was given. I was hardly eating, yet became two stones overweight and was growing breasts. Once again these are common and expected side effects of Largactil; the two doctors were unaware of this connection even the latter is listed in the British National Formulary as 'gynaecomastia'. I was unaware of this connection; I trusted them and their 'clinical judgement'. It cost me dearly.
When I finally stopped the last half milligram of Valium these other drugs were also stopped abruptly. They then packed me off to a drug rehabilitation unit run by a fundamentalist Christian ex pig farmer and his family. This caters for opiate and amphetamine addicts, who have often come straight from prison, and, in the main, have never had jobs. I was treated, as was everybody, as a cross between a criminal and a very naughty boy. Their 'treatment strategy' consisted of manual labour coupled with an attempt to uncover some evidence of childhood physical or sexual abuse – in every case. Their world view was not overcomplicated; they believe that every single word in the Bible is the literal and absolute truth and that anything at variance with this is probably the work of the devil: yoga, for example, is the devil's work.
Many times I was told with a glare that I was an 'addict'; this supposedly to explain my situation. I believe that during my time at the clinic and subsequently at the rehab unit I was in the middle of complete insanity. I was very frightened and latterly became quite institutionalised. I don't believe a Monty Python sketch could have devised a more bizarre scenario. When I began to surface from the clubbing caused by the drugs and to question the wisdom of what was happening to me I was told that I was 'arrogant'. The clinic and the rehab unit were entirely unconnected; they knew nothing in practice about each others operations. The latter seemed quite unable to appreciate the possibility that my state of disarray – basically fear and anxiety – may have been directly and entirely caused by 'medications' given to me by the medical profession and which I took in good faith: i.e. an 'iatrogenic' problem. After 20 weeks I had surfaced sufficiently from my drugging to appreciate that I was in a very inappropriate place and I left; that was the best decision I had made for quite some time. I have since been recovering.
During this time the crippling dysfunctionality directly caused by drugs was interpreted variously as some sort of spiritual crisis and/or as being indicative of characterological deficits: as I became progressively more debilitated at the clinic the good doctor advised me that I was 'crippled in thought, word and deed' by my 'acquired addictive tendencies'; he was never able to explain exactly what this was supposed to mean. In retrospect it's very clear to me that I was, in fact, crippled by polypharmacy – Largactil in combination with Anafranil given to someone who was already addicted to Valium and trying to stop. Largactil, especially, quite simply disables a person: that's what it does. There is, of course, no guarantee that simply because a person is taking such drugs that they do not have a preceding or entirely separate illness, dysfunction, neurosis, 'emotional problem' or whatever. I would argue strongly that there is no way of identifying any such problem whilst a person is taking such drugs; they completely confuse the issue.
I am extremely angry at what happened to me. I believe it is a complete disgrace. If I can help to prevent something similar happening to even one other person then maybe some good will have come from my experience. I used to believe that grown men and women, bright enough to get a medical degree, must have some minimal understanding of drugs they prescribe, and that they must have sensible level of 'clinical judgement'.
Someone who is withdrawing from a benzodiazepine drug may well find themselves in a very vulnerable position. It can be very tempting to take the advice of a medical person who represents themselves as an expert. I used to be reasonably bright. I have a first degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Systems Analysis. Also I think that in some ways I am quite a durable character. These people, however, fooled me. Don't make the same mistake!
If anyone offers you any of these drugs I would suggest that you check it out for yourself. A good book about how to get off benzodiazepine drugs is (1); summaries relating to antipsychotic drugs can be read in (2), (3) and (4) below. These can all be obtained from a local library (via the inter library loan facility), or the ISDD (Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence); Breggin's book is available from 'Mind Publications'.
If a medical person suggests to you or a loved one that antipsychotic or tricyclic antidepressant drugs are safe and would be good for you I would urge that you show them extracts from (2), (3) and (4) and ask them to explain to you whether they have had sight of this information before, and, if they have, precisely why they ignore it or disagree with it.
I am willing to expand on any of the above if it will help someone faced with making a choice about whether to accept these 'medications'.
I would also be very interested to hear from anyone who has taken an antipsychotic drug for a significant length of time who feels that they have recovered. This bit is personal; I'm scared that I've been permanently damaged and I'm looking for some optimistic feedback.
Shirley Trickett, 'Coming off Tranquillisers and Sleeping Pills – a Withdrawal Plan that Really Works', 2nd. Edition, Thorsons, 1991.
Martindale, 'The Extra Pharmacopoeia', 1993, Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain.
Andrew C. Bishop and Garfield Tourney, 'Antipsychotics' – chapter 7 from "Toxicology of CNS Depressants", Ed. I.K. Ho, CRC Press Inc., Boca Raton, Florida.
Peter Breggin, 'Toxic Psychiatry', Fontana,1993
THE USE OF ANTIPSYCHOTIC DRUGS IN ATTEMPTING TO RELIEVE
SYMPTOMS OF BENZODIAZEPINE WITHDRAWAL
by Robert Jones
HEALTH WARNING! This note is intended as a warning about the dangers involved in taking antipsychotic drugs. These drugs used to be called 'major tranquillisers'; they are also sometimes referred to as 'neuroleptics'. They have been used by psychiatrists since the 1950s to control the symptoms of serious mental disturbance, amounting to insanity. This is termed 'psychosis', the most common manifestation of which is called 'schizophrenia'.
There are a number of antipsychotic drugs; they are very similar in their actions and their effects. The oldest and most common is called 'chlorpromazine'; its trade name in this country is 'Largactil' and in America it is called 'Thorazine'. These are the drugs that were given to Jack Nicholson's character in the film 'One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest'; they are the drugs that were used in Russia to 're-educate' soviet dissidents; this is the 'medication' that a large number of psychiatric patients seem so unwilling to take. The terms 'chemical cosh' and 'chemical straight jacket' refer specifically to these drugs.
People who are dependent upon a benzodiazepine drug (diazepam, lorazepam, temazepam etc.), and who are attempting to withdraw, and who are experiencing difficulties in so doing, are sometimes persuaded to take an antipsychotic drug by a well intentioned member of the medical profession in order to ease the pain of withdrawal. This is a very bad plan.
The idea is that these are old drugs - tried and tested; that they have anxiolytic properties; are 'non addictive', with few problems on withdrawal, and are safe - with few side effects and no serious ones. The only truth in this is that they are old drugs. Many people regard their use over the last 40 years as scandalous and indicative of the low esteem in which psychiatric patients are held. They are not 'addictive' in the sense that people do not exhibit appetitive behaviour towards them. Unlike diazepam and temazepam they are not sold illicitly on the streets; street drug users don't want them because they make them feel bad rather than good. There is, however, a significant withdrawal syndrome associated with these drugs.
They have multitudinous side effects, many of them serious and some of which can be fatal. This is not contentious: the pharmaceutical companies themselves admit this. In the short term they commonly cause a movement disorder closely resembling Parkinson's disease (this is usually regarded as reversible). In the medium to long-term they commonly cause Tardive Dyskinesia (T.D.). This is a profoundly disfiguring and disabling condition which is regarded as permanent. The British National Formulary suggests that this occurs 'rarely'; my reading of independent research (that not sponsored by the pharmaceutical companies) suggests that more than minimal T.D. occurs in between 20% to 60% of long-term users of this drug. The definition of 'short term' varies between 2 weeks and 6 months depending on whom you read.
The idea that they can help ease the pain in withdrawing from a benzodiazepine drug is very misguided. They are a completely different class of drug; in principle they cannot do this. The notion of introducing such a toxic chemical into a nervous system already compromised by a benzodiazepine is very strange. A very simple contraindication in this context is that they lower the convulsive threshold - sometimes actually causing fits. Once again this is not contentious. It is well known that there is a possibility of epileptic seizures when withdrawing from benzodiazepines, especially if the withdrawal is rapid. For this reason alone the prescription of an antipsychotic drug to someone withdrawing from a benzodiazepine drug is a dangerous practice. I believe that the only defence for this very dubious practice is one of ignorance. Some doctors appear not to understand even the basic facts concerning the drugs they are licensed to prescribe.
There seems to be a broad consensus now amongst people who have been addicted to benzodiazepines and recovered. Also amongst many professionals who are specialists in the field of drug addiction and recovery. Firstly it is that the withdrawal syndrome associated with benzodiazepines is arguably the worst of any mood altering drug - including the so called 'hard drugs' such as heroin. This is largely because of its duration. Secondly that withdrawal must be gradual. Unlike withdrawal from opiates or alcohol benzodiazepines should not be discontinued abruptly. They should be tapered off slowly at a pace that is comfortable for the person concerned; this may take months. Thirdly that there are measures that can be taken to help ease the pain: in the overwhelming majority of cases these measures do not involve using other drugs. Antipsychotic drugs are particularly unhelpful.
These drugs do not induce tranquillity, except possibly in the nursing staff. They often have quite the opposite effect sometimes inducing profound agitation; once again this is not contentious: the manufacturers admit this. They are very effective in controlling disturbed, violent or 'odd' behaviour. They do this by attacking vitality and, effectively crippling a person. They are very, very unpleasant drugs.