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Des James' Story

My Experiences with Ativan

I am a man aged 55 and I am happily married to the woman I met when I was aged 20 and we have four grown up children and four wonderful grandchildren. It is amazing that my wife is still with me as I was not a very nice person during my years of benzodiazepine and alcohol addiction. I have always been a very religious man though some of my deeds have not been very Christian. I became very aggressive and paranoid when I was addicted to benzodiazepines and alcohol.

I was put on the benzodiazepine Ativan in 1978 by my doctor for anxiety. The initial dose was 1mg 3 times per day and I took this dose daily for the next 2 years but little did I realise they were addictive.

In 1981 for the first time in my life I became unemployed and I did not try to get back into work. This was unusual for me as in the past I would always find a job somehow. I would literally walk round businesses and factories until I found a job. During the autumn of 1981 I could not get a repeat prescription from my usual doctor for my Ativan tablets. I can't remember the exact reason why – he was probably on holiday. Anyhow, a doctor whom I didn't normally see refused to give me my usual repeat prescription and the outcome was that I went into severe withdrawal. I literally thought I was going insane. I could not sleep, the ceiling of my bedroom would go round in circles, I was too weak to walk or do anything. I could not even watch television and my mind felt like rubber. I had never felt like this in my entire life. My wife rang the doctors and a couple of psychiatrists came out to see me but they could not figure out what was wrong with me. Nobody realised that I was going through a severe withdrawal from Ativan and neither did I!! After four days of hell on earth a doctor came out and prescribed some Ativan at more than twice the original dose I had been on – 2.5mg 3 times per day – and my withdrawal symptoms subsided.

By 1989 I was well and truly addicted and I was addicted to alcohol as well. I was in a mess. I had become paranoid and aggressive and I had not worked at all since 1981. I had given up trying and I still didn't fully understand the nature of my addiction to Ativan. I used to carry a supply of Ativan with me wherever I went just in case I got stranded somewhere without my supply. I also had stockpiled a few hundred tablets because my deepest fear was that my supply would be stopped again. I remember that somewhere around this period I was getting pain in my shoulders when I moved my arms above my head or too quickly. I saw my doctor who thought I had an ailment called 'frozen shoulder' which I think was some kind of arthritis. The medication he gave me was useless. It did nothing for the problem. Since I have been off benzodiazepines I have had no problems with pain in my shoulders.

During this period in 1989 I came across newspaper articles and books which alerted me to the fact that I was addicted to Ativan and I recognised many of the symptoms others had suffered in myself. I learnt that after taking benzodiazepines over a long period our bodies become dependent on a certain level of the chemicals being in our cells and when that level is not maintained we experience withdrawal on a daily basis. I also discovered that Ativan was one of the worst benzodiazepines to withdraw from, so now I knew what had happened to me in 1981!! (A book that helped and inspired me to keep going through my withdrawal period was called 'Alive and Kicking' by Peter Ritson.

In 1990 I saw my doctor and a psychiatrist and I agreed to go into hospital to attempt withdrawal from Ativan and alcohol. They reckoned it could be done in a relatively short period of 3 to 4 weeks, and they promised to wean me off by cutting out Ativan completely and giving me a substitute, Valium 5mgs 3 times per day, and some other drug to help me stop craving alcohol. I was also put on incapacity benefit this year by my doctor as the job centre could not understand why I was not attempting to get a job. In my life prior to taking Ativan I had always been in employment. I did suffer from social anxiety and general anxiety and bouts of depression, but up to becoming addicted to Ativan I had always managed to stay in employment as I had my wife and three children to support.

I stayed in hospital just 2 days because on the second day at around 9pm in the evening I could feel myself going into severe withdrawal. Visions of what happened in 1981 came back to me and I realised that If I was to survive this nightmare I would have to terminate this attempt at withdrawal. I discharged myself and ordered a taxi to take me home 8 miles away. When I arrived home I took my Ativan and it was sheer heaven – the transformation was astounding. One minute I felt like I was dying, the next the awful feelings left me.

The next day I made my mind up to withdraw from the tablets and alcohol doing it my way. I was disgusted with the psychiatrist for only giving me a substitute of 15mg of diazepam daily for the 7.5mg Ativan per day I had been taking. After long study of this subject I found out that 1mg of Ativan is equal in strength to 10mg of diazepam, so according to these figures I had been taking the equivalent of 75mg per of diazepam. That is why I am so disgusted with the medical people. They get you addicted and then they can't even figure out a reasonable dose to help a person withdraw. The psychiatrist gave me only 15mg of diazepam to replace my 75mg, then they expect you to have faith in their latest SSRIs. They say these are not addictive yet there are many reports of people being addicted to these too. I will never trust what any doctor or psychiatrist says on these matters, period!! I have came to the conclusion that some doctors and psychiatrists are irresponsible and incompetent at their jobs and don't realise the damage these drugs can do to people or the difficulty of withdrawing from benzodiazepines such as Ativan.

From 1990 to 1994 I slowly weaned myself off Ativan and I stopped my alcohol intake and I gave up smoking cigarettes too as I was determined to conquer all my addictions now!! To come off Ativan I initially cut my dose in half from 7.5mg to 3.75mg and then I cut down gradually every couple of months or so until I got my dose down to 1mg. Then I would grind a 1mg tablet into powder on a tile and divide the powder into 8 parts and take away 1 part every few weeks or so until I was down to virtually nothing. Even so I was experiencing withdrawal on this small amount and in the back of my mind I was always expecting the severe withdrawal I had experienced in 1981 to return but it didn't. Eventually I decided to substitute 5mg of diazepam in place of my tiny bit of Ativan dust because, psychologically, I could not bring myself to stop all benzodiazepine intake abruptly even though the amount I now took was so small. Once again I thought the severe withdrawals of 1981 would return with a vengeance, but no, for the first time in approximately 15 years I was Ativan free but not yet benzodiazepine free. So next I weaned myself off my small dose of diazepam. Eventually the time came when the dose was so insignificant that I decided that I would go without any benzodiazepines and what a day that was!! Once again I half expected my severe withdrawal experiences of 1981 to return again but what was amazing to me was that they didn't. So at last I was FREE FROM BENZODIAZEPINES and also by this time I had conquered alcohol and my nicotine habit.

My period of withdrawal, doing it gradually, was approximately four years and it is one of the hardest things I have done in my life. There were times when I was going through withdrawal that I wished I had never been born and some of the symptoms were very difficult to cope with. I did have the support of my doctor and as I was not working I was on incapacity benefit. I could not have come off Ativan if I had been working as I am not a strong enough person. Those who have conquered their addiction whilst working must be walking miracles. I have managed to conquer my addiction through withdrawing very slowly. I have read about people who have come off Ativan relatively quickly but they were unable to maintain their benzodiazepine free status for very long because of protracted withdrawal symptoms afterwards and the pain made them return to their addiction. I think the way that I withdrew is the safest as I did it very slowly. Each time I cut down I would get withdrawal symptoms but I would wait for these symptoms to pass before I cut my dose again.

Since conquering my addiction to benzodiazepines/alcohol/nicotine I have been doing therapeutic work. For a few years I did voluntary work for the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. This was very enjoyable and helped me to try and get back into some sort of normal life patterns and build some self confidence. At the present I am still doing therapeutic work but now I teach classical guitar from home to whoever wishes to learn. This as been very rewarding. I have helped others learn to play guitar and it has improved my self confidence and self esteem quite a good bit too. I am about to make another big step shortly as I plan to come off incapacity benefit and get into working fulltime.

I hope my experiences may be helpful to others who are battling with addiction to benzodiazepines. I don't blame benzodiazepines for all of my problems. I do suffer from social and general anxiety and I did have bouts of depression before taking Ativan. But before taking Ativan I was definitely not inclined to be a heavy drinker of alcohol and I was always a very hard worker in spite of my personal problems.

Looking back I think now that Ativan turned me into a zombie and heightened my problems. In fact you could say that I have been robbed of a good 20 years of my life by irresponsible prescribing of prescription drugs by doctors. They did not monitor my first 2 years on Ativan nor the years that followed after they increased my dose. Surely it was the doctors responsibility to tell me of any dangers of addiction. I took this medication in good faith and I have suffered terribly because of their incompetence.

Des James (UK)
April 2001

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