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Gurli Bagnall's Story
The Birth of The Bounty Hunters
In her book "Benzo Junkie", Beatrice Faust tells how one of the fears she used to experience, was sustaining some sort of injury that would leave her brain damaged. In the benzodiazepine experience, she said, the thing she feared most, had happened. It happened to me as well.
I had been married for twenty-one years when, in 1975, my husband and I called it quits. It was a traumatic time and I was not sleeping. My friendly doctor prescribed Ativan, a drug that I had never heard of. Thankfully it worked – but only for a few weeks. "Never mind," he said. "We'll simply double the dose." And from there on, it was all downhill.
I lost a home, a teaching career, financial security, friends and much more. I could only read hesitantly and by the time I got to the second line, I had forgotten what the first was about. I carried a dictionary in my handbag everywhere I went, because I could no longer spell, and when I tried to express myself verbally, the brain would not release the words. I am writing things today, that I could not have read, let alone understood, while I took benzos.
Teaching was out of the question and trying to earn a living by other means – any means – was part of the nightmare and I welcomed the times when I felt so sick, I had to stay home.
In 1983, presenting the typical picture of a benzo addict, I sought the help of another doctor. "I'll give you something that's much better for insomnia," she said as she scribbled out a prescription. "Take these with the Ativan." I had never heard of Halcion either. The nightmare continued with a vengeance.
Apart from work where I was considered to be slow, quiet and withdrawn, I lived in total isolation. My home was my refuge. There I closed the door against the world that judged by what it saw, and dealt with my misery as best I could.
In 1985, with no answers in sight, I tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose. In 1986, I feared that I would lose my job and therefore the small flat I now called home, so the doctor prescribed an anti-depressant – Doxepin. It did nothing except make me put on weight fast and my face became so bloated that I couldn't recognise it in the mirror. "Tut tut!" said my doctor. "You really must exercise self control!"
By May 1989, although still very confused, I felt I had to come off the drugs. I raised the subject fearfully with my doctor who, to my surprise, agreed it would be a good thing to do. But I was shocked when she referred me to the drug and alcoholic clinic of the local hospital. "Why is she sending me there?" I agonised. "I'm not a drug addict. All I've ever taken are the pills she prescribed." Exactly!
I only attended a couple of sessions because even in my befuddled state, I realised the counsellors hadn't a clue what they were dealing with. A social worker took me to a TRANX meeting and I met Vicky, a recovered victim, who made herself available for telephone counselling. She has my life long gratitude.
I dropped the Doxepin straight away; the Ativan took four weeks, but that once-a-day low dose Halcion tablet took me another five months during which it was substituted with Valium for "easier" withdrawal.
In the three years the doctor prescribed Doxepin, my weight had increased by 50%. I now know that excess weight gain and facial oedema are the adverse effects of that drug.
Symptoms of toxicity, withdrawal and post-withdrawal are listed in some medical journals but they are only words. Nowhere are they translated into terms that reflect the human suffering.
In those early days, I learnt that whatever frightening crisis arose (and they came thick and fast), my chances of surviving each event were greater if I rode it out at home alone, for during the first year of being drug free, I nearly died three times due to medical intervention.
During this period I drew a lot of cartoons. They took the dignity from those who claimed respect, but who deserved only contempt. It gave me something to laugh at and helped to defuse the anger.
In 1991, a specialist diagnosed the ongoing post-withdrawal syndrome as the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I'd never heard of that before either, but he acknowledged it had been triggered by the benzos. It didn't take long to discover that this diagnosis was like jumping from one very hot frying pan straight into another.
This poorly understood disease has had many names – such as Yuppie Flu which is as trivialising as the CFS. Currently, there is a move afoot to use Myalgic Encephalomyelitis as the official title but that is hotly contested by certain people – particularly within the psychiatric community. They want to claim CFS and all those who suffer it, as their exclusive property.
The WHO categorises it as a disease of the nervous system which, in the benzo context, is no surprise. Nevertheless, just as the medical establishment denied iatrogenesis, so most still deny the disease simply because they do not understand it.
In the early 90s, I started to fight back. It was very much a case of fighting for my survival for I no longer had the income to service a mortgage and meet the added expenses associated with my health.
I submitted a claim for medical misadventure to the ACC (Accident Compensation Corporation). During my long and traumatic dealings with them, my medical records were misrepresented, my sworn statement destroyed, attempts to intimidate and obstruct were regular strategies, the drugs and their uses were re-categorised and more. If I hadn't already learnt the lesson, I learnt it now – to a very large section of the medical community, ethics and the Hippocratic Oath stand for nothing.
I won the battle but at great cost to my health. And even then it did not end for the ACC is very fond of such phrases as "disentitle the claimant".
To date, I have lost twenty-five years of my life. I am housebound and need home help. How well, I sometimes wonder, would the perpetrators handle that which they inflicted so casually upon others?
The Reason for The Bounty Hunters
In the early 90s, the media in New Zealand picked up on the UK debate about whether or not to ban Halcion. Our medical profession was outraged that such a thing should even be considered and the media was castigated for alarming people who took the drug. The establishment in NZ, came up with a brilliant measure which they obviously thought would please everyone. They banned the high dose tablet but kept the low dose, overlooking the fact that those affected, would simply double up on the number of tablets they took.
Amongst all this nonsense, one high profile professor of psychiatry suggested it would be a good idea for people to stop taking Halcion and he recommended the up-coming long weekend as the ideal time to do it. "The first night, you won't sleep at all," he said cheerfully. "The second night won't be much better, but by the third night, you'll be so zonked out that you'll sleep right through!" Presumably, to return to work as fresh as a daisy on the fourth day.
Worse still, was the doctor to whom I read the riot act about eighteen months ago for expressing the opinion that benzo addiction was in the same category as addiction to shopping.
It is frightening that such ignorant people are first, legally entitled to prescribe dangerous and toxic substances and second, having caused the damage, are unable to differentiate between a psychiatric disorder, and behaviour symptomatic of brain damage.
The Birth of The Bounty Hunters
It took two years to write "The Hit Mob", an account of my dealings with the ACC, but I was not able to find a publisher. It is, of course, a controversial subject and one that sounds bizarre to people who have never experienced anything like it. But I also believe I was too close to the trauma at the time of writing. I needed to be able to step back and look at the picture objectively.
When I got to that stage, I decided to write a novel, a thriller if you like, based on the facts of benzodiazepines. I felt it might have more general appeal in that form and still get the message across.
Californian based, London Publishing, specialises in producing electronic books and they accepted The Bounty Hunters for publication.
The Bounty Hunters Ordering Details Gurli's Reply to the BMJ Gurli's Cartoon Page
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