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RIP mother's little helper

The Times · London
February 1, 2002
by Carol Midgeley

Valium, hailed as a wonder drug in the 1960s, is no more in the UK. At its peak, GPs were writing 4.3 million prescriptions a year in England alone

So farewell then, Valium, the "miracle pick-me-up", the "mother's little helper" that anaesthetised a generation of stressed and insomniac British housewives and enabled them to cope with late 20th-century life. The world's most famous tranquilliser is no more in the UK. Roche, the Swiss drugs giant, is laying to rest the white, yellow and blue pills that pushed it into the pharmaceutical super league now that its patent has expired.

Around a million people in Britain rely on these tranquillisers today, and it has helped thousands to overcome anxiety and sleep deprivation. But not all its users will mourn its passing. The so-called wonder drug hailed in the 1960s as a safe alternative to barbiturates - which had claimed the lives of such celebrities as Jimi Hendrix and Marilyn Monroe - is now one of the most controversial prescription drugs on the market.

And there is a vociferous band of people who are determined to alert people to the fact that Valium and other members of the benzodiazepine ("benzo") family can lead to addiction and horrific withdrawal symptoms. In many instances, they say, it can be harder to kick than heroin.

These are people who claim, simply, that their lives have been ruined by Valium. That in the 1970s and 1980s when GPs handed out prescriptions "like sweeties" they were never told about its addictive potential. That they went in complaining of mild anxiety and were routinely handed a "chemical cosh" when all they probably needed was a chat.

Valium arrived in Britain in 1963; by 1970, GPs were writing 4.3 million prescriptions a year in England alone. Evidence that it was addictive was forming, but doctors held faith and by 1979 prescription levels had peaked, with 30 million written for benzodiazepines in one year. Its typical user was stereotyped - wrongly - either as a stressed housewife who became hooked in her suburban home, or as a tranquillised zombie, like the women in the novel Valley of the Dolls.

By the 1980s a backlash was forming and the Committee on Safety of Medicines recommended that benzodiazepines not be used for more than four weeks at a time. Yet repeat prescriptions continued. In 1988, more than 13,000 addicts mounted a campaign to sue the companies that developed and marketed the drugs, but it collapsed in 1994 when legal aid was withdrawn. It remains a highly popular drug; in 1999 GPs wrote 17.5 million prescriptions for benzos.

Roche says it is not unusual for research-based companies to discontinue a medicine after its patent expires and stresses that it was given essential drug status by the World Health Organisation. The reality is that alternative, cheaper, versions of Valium - most commonly diazepam - have been on the market for years and it is no longer cost effective for Roche to make it in Britain. It will continue production throughout the rest of the world.

Valium is still prescribed, though not as routinely as in the 1970s, even for children. Some Catholic girls aged between four and seven who had to run a daily gauntlet of hate from protesting Protestants to get to their school, Holy Cross, in Belfast, were put on it last year to calm their nerves. It will be only a few weeks before supplies run out, but the drug will still be available in the form of diazepam.

Valerie: 'I'm a mental wreck'

Valerie Bell, 58, wishes that she had never laid eyes on Valium. She used to run her own florist shop in Southend, had an active social life and a happy marriage, but she believes that tranquillisers robbed her of her business, her home and her personality. She now refers bitterly to herself as a "dead head".

"I was a mentally stable human being who had a panic attack. I just needed someone to talk to, but I have been turned into a mental and emotional wreck who has lost everything," she says.

It started in 1984, when she was 42; she suffered a panic attack at a friend 's party - caused, she thinks, by overwork and the strict diet that she was on. She paid privately to see a psychiatrist who prescribed a type of benzo drug and an anti-depressant but when she tried to go "cold turkey" a few months later she suffered violent withdrawal symptoms including sickness, hallucinations and an overwhelming sense of "depersonalisation". The symptoms continued for years, during which time she lost her business and was forced to live in a caravan with her husband, Steve.

Valerie was prescribed Valium, immediately recovered and took a new job running an hotel. But by now she was reaching her tolerance levels for the drug and had to keep increasing the dose to remain normal. She would feel fine for a few weeks but then crash. She became bedridden and would sit at home rocking herself, crying and sometimes smashing up the furniture.

When she started taking Valium she was on 7.5mg a day; at her worst she was taking 125mg a day. She has tried to come off it five times but describes the pain as unbearable. Her existence, she says, is a "living death".

"If you are a heroin addict there is plenty of help for you out there but if you are a Valium addict people just think you are mentally ill. It's the cruellest drug in the world."

This week was Steve's sixtieth birthday but Val could only sit on the sofa in their small flat and cry. "God knows how he is still here," she says, "If I can watch the TV, I am lucky. I would give anything to go back to my life as it was. Sometimes I don't know who I am. It literally wipes my brain."

Brenda: 'It was hellish'

Brenda Soderberg, a music teacher from Essex, was in her mid-thirties when she went to her GP in 1977 complaining of mild anxiety. Her six-year-old son was unwell; she was worried, so the doctor prescribed a minimum dosage of Valium, to be taken whenever she needed it.

She took a few, felt better and stopped. Then she hit a downer. During the next few months she found that she was becoming increasingly reliant on the drug, reaching for it whenever she felt low. Before long, she was on a repeat prescription and continued to use it intermittently over the next 12 years.

"It props you up and you come to rely on that. You don't even notice that you're getting hooked," she says. She felt "edgy" and unable to cope without it. There were other strange symptoms, too. Her teeth started to crumble and she felt permanently washed out.

In 1989 Soderberg decided to stop taking Valium. Instantly, she says, she felt "reborn", as if energy were flooding into her body. But then the withdrawal symptoms started.

"I would get the most extraordinary feelings of tension, as though I was about to explode," she says. "All the things that had been suppressed for all those years came bubbling up - it was hellish."

But that was not the worst of it. Seven weeks after stopping she felt an excruciating pain in her heels, like nails being driven into them. The pain continues today despite countless operations and treatments, and though she cannot prove it is a neurological condition linked to Valium, she is angry that she was ever prescribed it.

"I have always been active, horse-riding and climbing mountains. Now I find it difficult to walk. These drugs are causing havoc with people's lives."

Barry: 'My brain closed down'

Barry Haslam, from Oldham, Lancashire, heads a group that campaigns against benzodiazepine drugs. He was on Valium and other drugs for ten years after he had a nervous breakdown in 1976 caused by the pressure of his accountancy exams. The drugs caused him to gain 4st in weight and become violent. If he had not come off them when he did, his marriage would not have survived, he says.

There were lasting effects, however. His career in the accounts department at Manchester University was finished. He says he now has a permanent neurological problem that causes intense pain in his leg and he suffers from intense fatigue and headaches. And those ten years during which he took Valium are now a blank sheet to him.

"I would swear on a stack of Bibles that I have no memory of those ten years up until 1986," he says. "That breaks my heart because my daughters were young and I can't remember anything about that period of their lives. That drug just closes your brain down."

Although Valium is about to disappear, he is still full of anger.

"That drug has been on the market for 40 years, but they still don't really know what it does," he says.

Email Carol Midgley

Original Stories:

RIP mother's little helper
Valerie: 'I'm a mental wreck'
Brenda: 'It was hellish'
Barry: 'My brain closed down'

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