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Oldham Chronicle
July 29, 2008

Two years ago, Oldham pioneered the country's first withdrawal service for addicts of legally-prescribed benzodiazepine drugs. Forward thinkers at Oldham Primary Care Trust decided to fund the project, provided by Oldham's Alcohol and Drugs Service, at doctors' surgeries and health centres. Chronicle reporter Janice Barker spoke to one man who is now turning his life around as he beats the benzos...

When Stephen Kay sought help from his doctor after suffering sleepless nights he was grateful for the prescription which helped him... at first.

But he came to regret it because for 30 years he has been addicted to temazepam, a short-acting benzodiazepine drug.

It is normally prescribed to patients who have difficulty sleeping, or occasionally, to reduce anxiety.

A normal dose is between 10 and 30 milligrams, but at one stage Stephen, who is now 56, said he was taking 80 to 100 milligrams.

"It was like living in the clouds," he said. "I would wake up so tired and all I wanted was for the clock to go round so I could have my next dose.

"It began when I used to work in hospital on night shifts. I had a very inconsiderate neighbour, so I saw a doctor about helping me to sleep."

Although the temazepam helped at first, he soon got used to it and needed more and more.

He said: "They soon get a grip on you. My working life was cut short and for 30 years, I have not led a normal life."

His reliance on the drug led to a vicious circle.

"If I fought the sleep then I would be up whizzing and buzzing and only get about four hours' sleep."

Stephen, who also suffers from emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), was so concerned about his state of health that he managed to wean himself down from his highest doses of temazepam but suffered from nausea and became paranoid about going out anywhere.

Now, his life has changed after he was introduced to Suzanne Atreides, from the Alcohol and Drugs Service, now called Oldham Addiction Dependence Solutions.

Oldham Primary Care Trust, which provides doctors, dentists and other front-line care, has contracted her service to offer benzodiazepine withdrawal at GPs' surgeries across Oldham.

The 60,000 scheme is the country's only withdrawal service for those addicted to legally prescribed drugs.

Stephen met Suzanne in February and hasn't looked back.

His GP, Dr George Duru at the Cannon Street Health Centre, Oldham, asked Suzanne to help some of his patients. Stephen was one of the first.

Stephen said: "This is the best thing that has ever happened to me.

"Without Suzanne, I would have been on them for the rest of my life. We seemed to click right away and she is easy to get on with and not pushy.

"She explains what is going on and tells you what to expect. If I feel there is anything I can't cope with I can get in touch with her.

"Rather than drugs ruling my life, I am taking control of the tablets. I used to leave the health centre to go to the supermarket but I was too shattered. Now I can do it and walk up the hill to the bus stop, and I feel like I am getting my life back on track."

Sharp or sudden withdrawal from benzodiazepines is dangerous and can lead to convulsions, tremors and shakes. But Suzanne assesses each patient and helps to gradually reduce their doses in a safe and controlled way.

For Stephen, she switched him to another benzodiazepine, Diazepam, the effects of which last longer, so that he could reduce the dosage gradually and is now down to 15 milligrams over the day.

Suzanne is wary of any possible side effects, and is bringing him down to comfortable levels, but Stephen's aim is to come off them completely.

As well as counselling, Suzanne offers acupuncture, a treatment which Stephen says has been very effective for him.

She said: "We are empowering people to come off tablets.

"It is a slow and steady regime, patient-centred, done at their own pace.

"The fact that doctors refer patients to us, and patients have a lot of trust in their GPs, makes it easier.

"Some are not going to be able to come off, the old or the frail, but everyone needs an assessment.

"You see so many changes in people - women start having their hair and nails done, people start using buses, memory revives - it is like a cloud has been lifted."

Suzanne's service is now helping 316 patients, including 12 from Dr Duru's list, with another 40 at Cannon Street waiting for help, but her contract expires in March, next year.

Margaret Burgess, practice manager at Cannon Street, drew up the list of patients who could benefit from Suzanne's counselling services. She said: "We would be very sad to lose the service, it is invaluable."

With a part-time colleague, Maureen McQuin, Suzanne deals with addicts from five GP surgeries in Oldham but it's estimated that there are more than 5,000 prescribed drug adddicts across the borough.

In 2005, the Commons Health Committee heard that there are likely to be 1.5 million benzodiazepine addicts nationally.

Alan Higgins, director of public health for Oldham Primary Care Trust, said: "The Trust invests close to 60,000 per year in the Oldham benzodiazepine withdrawal programme. We intend to continue to commission a service to meet the needs of Oldhamers."

Barry Haslam, from Uppermill, the founder of Beat the Benzos, whose tireless campaign to help addicts led to him advising the PCT when it agreed to fund the country's first withdrawal service, said: "I'm pleased the service has been set up - I just wish we could find more money to put into it."

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