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The Northern Echo
November 22, 2002
by Barry Nelson

"Taking more drove me out of my mind. I was
paranoid and had many days off work."

According to reports, more than a milion Britons are addicted to benzodiazepine tranquillisers. Health Correspondent Barry Nelson talks to one of the victims.

Colin is articulate, intelligent, reads four books a week and is a member of the high IQ club, Mensa. But until recently, this former teacher was in his own personal living hell, unable to think straight and suffering from a list of mental and physical side-effects as long as your arm.

Colin is quite certain who is to blame: Doctors and the drug industry.

"My life has been totally ruined by mind-altering drugs prescribed by doctors" says Colin Downes-Grainger, who lives in Redcar. "With what I have learned recently about the effects of diazepam and antidepressants, I now know that the bizarre and painful symptoms I have suffered throughout the last 30 years were caused by the drugs themselves."

Colin is supporting a national campaign called Beat the Benzos, which aims to highlight the dangers of over-prescribing benzodiazepines and is calling for tougher regulation. The campaign was relaunched at the House of Commons earlier this week to coincide with an Early Day Motion from Selby MP John Grogan, calling for tighter implementation of prescription guidelines by GPs and more help for patients addicted to this family of drugs.

Despite official advice to family doctors that drugs like Diazepam can be habit-forming if taken over a long period, the Beat the Benzos campaign maintains that many GPs fail to follow guidelines, creating more and more involuntary addicts.

The campaign claims that every GP probably has 150 tranquilliser and anti-depressant addicts on their lists. Despite years of publicity about the dangers of over-prescription, the campaigners believe that many doctors are still handing pills out like sweets.

So far as Colin is concerned, after 30 years on various combinations of tranquillisers and anti-depressants, the father-of-three is finally surfacing and returning to the real world. By sheer will-power - supported by his wife Christine - he has managed to gradually reduce his intake of tranquillisers so that he is now taking a fraction of what he used to swallow every day.

"It is extraordinary that so many people are still taking these terrible drugs when all the evidence suggests that psychotherapy is a better long-term treatment for anxiety," says Colin, who can recall seeing doom-and-gloom TV documentaries warning about tranquilliser abuse more than 20 years ago.

"I am now on 0.75mgs of Valium, I used to be on 40mgs a day plus anti-depressants. Because I have gradually weaned myself off these pills, I feel I have got my brain back. I can think again."

While some of the more extreme side-effects of benzodiazepines have receded, Colin is still afflicted by problems. "I still get weird pains all over my body and my feet and hands burn. My lips are always swollen, so much so that I sometimes find it hard to speak."

"I haven't slept properly for years, I typically go 35 to 40 hours without sleep and then sleep for 2 - 4 hours because I am totally exhausted."

Colin, who hasn't been able to work as a teacher for many years, traces all his problems back to the visit he paid to his GP when he was training to be a teacher in London in the late 1960s. "From childhood, I was overly self-critical with no sense of personal worth," says Colin, who was brought up by an 'unloving' adoptive aunt in the North-East. "I went to my doctor about my unhappy state and from the time he gave me a course of Valium, I was screwed."

When the young couple returned to the North-East for Colin's first teaching job, he continued to receive Valium on repeat prescriptions.

"I did not have a medical problem. I was just in the wrong type of job and in the worst possible type of school for someone with my personality," says Colin. To handle the stress when the monthly Valium prescription was used up, Colin started drinking.

I can see now that the stress I was feeling was magnified by the repeated periods of withdrawal from Valium that I went through each month," he says. It was only at the very beginning that Valium had a calming effect on his mind. "After that they made me feel worse and I had even less sense of personal worth than I started with," says Colin.

He claims that his doctors never emphasised that it was vital to stick to the stated dose, let alone use them for a limited time. "Taking more drove me out of my mind and I know when I resigned my job in the late 70s, it was as a direct result of being on these tablets. I was paranoid and had many days off work." A final attempt at restarting his teaching career foundered in 1985, when he retired on health grounds.

After carrying out research on the Internet, Colin firmly believes the drugs should never have been licensed for use by family doctors. "There was no long-term study of prescribing patterns and the GPs themselves received no training."

In a letter sent to Health Secretary Alan Milburn and their local MP Vera Baird in support of the campaign, Colin and Christine make two practical suggestions which they believe could help to rein in the continuing problem of over-prescription of benzodiazepines.

"The Government should stop assuming that doctors can be relied on to follow the best professional advice for each patient. We suggest the Department of Health creates a simple reply slip system," the couple say. Whenever new drug guidelines are issued, GPs should sign a slip to say they have received and read them.

The other innovation which could help, say the Downes-Graingers, would be to invite reports on side-effects from the patients themselves. At present, there is no mechanism for checking whether GPs are reporting side-effects. Accepting reports directly from patients would begin to redress this balance, say the couple.

The Downes-Graingers hope Colin's story will help the Health Secretary understand "the pressing importance of redressing the balance of power between profit-making drug companies, GPs who operate with almost no supervision or system of quality control, and patients."

For Colin, the outlook is more hopeful than for decades, but he is bitter about the wasted years. "I feel more in control of my life. I can utilise my IQ of 138, reading four books a week, forming opinions and tackling all sorts of projects that have been neglected for 20 years."

But it has all come rather late for the couple, who are hoping that future generations of patients will be spared Colin's torment.

For more information visit the website: www.benzo.org.uk

Media Archive · Beat The Benzos Campaign 2002

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