I’ve written about the dangers of Xanax (alprazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam), and other drugs in a class of drugs called ‘benzodiazepines’. The drugs are grossly over-used by patients, and over-prescribed by psychiatrists, usually for patient complaints of anxiety.
My primary concern over use of benzodiazepines is that when used to treat anxiety, they are more likely to aggravate than improve a patient’s symptoms, especially if taken regularly. Patients develop physical and psychological dependence to benzodiazepines very quickly. Once physically tolerant, patients experience withdrawal symptoms if doses are missed, and generally interpret the withdrawal symptoms as manifestations of their own anxiety disorder. The progression from taking alprazolam or clonazepam ‘as needed’ to taking them regularly is as predictable as any other biological process. And after physical tolerance has developed, symptoms that were once considered manageable become part of an unmanageable ‘anxiety disorder.’
I have learned over the years that the term ‘anxiety’ means different things to different people. The complaint shouldn’t cause doctors to automatically reach for the prescription pad. When asked to describe his ‘anxiety’ in detail, a patient said ‘I will pace around the house, looking for something to do. I will turn on the TV and change channels, but there is nothing interesting. I feel…. restless and bored. I need to get out of the house, but there is nothing for me to get outside to do. I’m like a caged animal. You know— anxiety!’
I responded, ‘you mean you were bored?’
‘No’, he said. ‘Boredom is when there is something to do that isn’t interesting. This is just having nothing at all to do. It makes me uncomfortable.’
There are other types of anxiety, of course. But this particular patient, after leaving my office empty-handed, received valium, 10 mg, three times per day from his general practice doc. And I see the same thing happen over and over again.
Even the patients with ‘real’ anxiety, i.e. fear –based dysphoria, are no better off on benzodiazepines than the bored person in the example above. Benzodiazepines cause amnesia, a function that is useful in the operating room. But amnesia and other cognitive impairments from benzodiazepines prevent people from learning to …
I’m always impressed by the power of our ‘unconscious.’ I realize that people have a range of models for conceptualizing how our minds work; my own combination of education, analysis, and observation has led to an understanding that ‘works for me.’
My conscious mind works in series, holding one or two thoughts at a time and proceeding in a somewhat-linear fashion. The unconscious, on the other hand, is an amalgam of countless processes that never end, epiphenomena of the constant barrage of sensations, emotions, and memories that are sorted, compared, associated, and recorded.
At least that’s how I see it.
The unconscious is not something that can be figured out, no matter how much insight a person may develop. During treatment for addiction I thought that if I could discover my unconscious motivations for using, my desire to use would cease. I don’t see it that way now. Even after more than a decade of sobriety, I am aware that my unconscious mind remains intertwined with the addictive parts of my personality, forever inseparable.
My unconscious mind protects me from unpleasant emotions. Some insights are deemed, by whatever determines my conscious experience, as too painful. But even when I’m not allowed to have a certain awareness, I can sometimes infer what is going on beneath the surface using the clues evident in my behavior.
For example, I’ve been struggling to write for several weeks now, since my dad’s death. I don’t know for certain what unconscious thought or emotion is getting in the way, but I’m aware that something has changed. The ideas that arise as potential topics seem unworthy of my attention and uninteresting to readers. I sit down to type, but the words don’t come.
I can guess what might be going on…. maybe on some level I’m angry that he isn’t reading my posts anymore. Maybe I wrote out of efforts to impress him, and now I have nobody to impress. Maybe I’m just hurt or sad at the loss, and the small child in me is refusing to cooperate. It could be any or all of those things, or …
My dad passed away two days ago, one day after his 89th birthday. It doesn’t feel quite right to post something so personal. But it feels more wrong to write about anything else.
Writing was a source of tension between us in some ways. My perspectives on myself, my parents, and my upbringing have changed over the years, and I tried to share my observations with my dad in several short essays centered around memories from my childhood. The efforts were a mistake. I learned that insight develops in each of us at different rates and in different directions, and my ‘aha’ moments—realizations about how my dad shaped my development— felt to him like criticism. I don’t think he fully realized that I accepted him, loved him, and respected him.
As for my ‘aha moments’, I don’t assume that my realizations and insights are accurate. As my perceptions change over the years, I try to remain open to two alternate explanations for those changes—that with age I’ve learned, through wisdom, to see things more accurately, or that with age my thought process is becoming more rigid and any newfound ‘insight’ is an illusion, a product of that rigidity.
My dad was an intellectual, who read more books about philosophy and theology each year of his adult life than I’ve read in my lifetime. So when our understandings of the world differed, I had to at least consider that my own judgment was off, rather than assume that old age impacted HIS judgment.
So to sort things through, I wrote. I honestly thought that with enough effort, we would fully understand how we each see things; not that we would necessarily agree, but that we would fully understand each other’s perspective. But I eventually decided that at least for us, differences in our individual perspectives ran too deep for us to completely understand each other— no matter how hard we tried.
My dad grew up during the depression, fought in Germany during WWII, became an attorney on the GI Bill, and worked for the Atomic Energy Commission before settling down in private practice …
I generally write positive articles about the use of buprenorphine for treating opioid dependence, and my articles have been reflective of my attitude toward the medication. The field of psychiatry encompasses more conditions than it does effective treatments for those conditions, and my initial experiences treating people with buprenorphine were strikingly positive.
My first buprenorphine patients were extremely desperate after multiple treatment failures, and they responded to buprenorphine the way a person with strep throat responds to penicillin. Their lives improved so dramatically that I wondered if we needed a new understanding of ‘character defects’; whether the shortcomings should be seen not as semi-permanent flaws, but rather as dynamic, maladaptive personality traits, fueled and sustained by active obsession for opioids— and lessened when that obsession was reduced, using buprenorphine.
I still have a number of those patients in my practice, people who have done very well on buprenorphine and have little interest in discontinuing the medication. As much as I would like to take on a few new patients, I won’t force these people off buprenorphine in order to make room under the cap. They have worked hard, done well, and have earned the right to a medication that helps keep their illness in remission.
But I’ve noticed a change over the past couple years in the attitudes of patients coming for treatment. I’ve been slow to specifically identify the change, but when I do an honest assessment, a clear pattern emerges. To be blunt, young people don’t do as well on Suboxone or buprenorphine as their older counterparts. Maybe they have a harder time accepting the limits to their own mortality; maybe insight requires a longer time to accumulate life experiences. Maybe they haven’t suffered enough consequences. But after starting buprenorphine, instead of tearfully expressing disbelief over the lifting of cravings for opioids, younger patients are more likely to take the effects from buprenorphine in stride and continue to engage in addictive behaviors.
I always consider each new patient’s history of ‘consequences’. I believe that consequences are what eventually spur recovery, providing the patient lives long enough for that to happen—which is certainly not a given with …
A late post tonight, since my new exercise program has pushed my blogging back by an hour or so each night. My suspicions about exercise were correct, by the way; it is much easier to suggest exercise to other people than it is to actually exercise. I’ve been at it since the beginning of the year, and I at least feel a bit less hypocritical.
While I’m on the topic… I’ve received many comments over the years from people complaining that they’ve been taking Suboxone or buprenorphine for X many years, and they have no energy, they feel stressed, they have gained weight, they don’t sleep well or they sleep TOO well… and concluding that all of the problems are from Suboxone.
The problems are the result of other things, including things that tend to occur naturally as our lives become less chaotic and more outwardly-secure. The problems I mentioned above, for example, come from inactivity. They come from thinking that we’ve ‘paid our dues’ at the age of 30, and it’s time to coast in life. They come from failing to seek out challenges, and from failing to do our best to tackle those challenges. They come from letting out minds be idle, smoking pot or watching American Idol instead of responding to the naggings sense of boredom that ideally pushes people to join basketball, tennis, or bowling leagues.
Our minds and bodies are capable of SO much. I (honestly) am not a network TV viewer, but I love the contrast of ‘before and after’ scenes on ‘Biggest Loser.’ People magazine (it sits in my waiting room) had a section a while back about people who lost half their body size, by exercise and dieting. The part I found most interesting was the deeply personal answer that each person had to the question, ‘what was your turning point?’ Each cited an episode of humiliation or shame that lifted the veil of denial, and helped them do what they knew, all along, needed to be done.
We are not all capable of ‘Biggest Loser’ comebacks. But it is important for people to understand that feeling good, physically or …
Message from a reader:
I am trying to determine what my best course of action might be in dealing with protracted withdrawals from a number of drugs, including benzodiazepines.
My history is as follows: I was snorting Oxycontin for about 6 months and went into treatment to stop. Before entering the rehab hospital they put me on Clonidine .2 mgs, Ambien 12.5 mg and Sertraline 50mgs for about 1-2 weeks. Once hospitalized they switched me to Mirtazapine 15 mg, Clonazepam 1 mg and Cymbalta 20 mg., and I was on these for 5-6 months.
I took myself off all three of the last meds over a week or two, becoming free from all drugs. I believe stopping these medications cold turkey affected my CNS. I don’t drink alcohol or smoke pot. I basically stopped interacting with all of my friends to stay away from all drugs and alcohol.
I still feel awful. My primary symptoms are anxiety, depression, foggy-headed and depersonalization.
I have read posts from a woman who goes by username “Polenta,” from a site called benzo buddies, who is nearly 80 and has been in withdrawal for 20 years.
Will I fully heal? Does everybody heal no matter how far out they are? This Polenta woman says she knows of people who are as far out as her, or farther. My big question that plagues me is whether these people recover mentally? I’m aware there are physical and mental symptoms; I only suffer from mental symptoms. Polenta said in another post that Una had said there were people out even farther out who recovered, even a person 25 yrs. out. I’m wondering if that person was like Polenta and suffered from mental issues and still recovered to have quality of life.
Would I benefit from starting a low dose of an antidepressant and then tapering very slowly off to help stabilize my CNS? I greatly appreciate any advice that you can offer me. I’ve been in a lot of pain these last couple years and believe that someone with your professional and personal experiences can help me find some answers.
I hear similar complaints frequently. Just today I saw …
Please review my prior post, as my comments will refer to an email in that post.
There are many directions that we could take as we review that message. My overall impression, as I read the letter, was of a person struggling to accept the reality of his condition. Over and over, the person repeated the same behavior, starting Suboxone, stopping, and thinking this time will be different.
One thing I’ve learned as a psychiatrist, more than anything, is that change is difficult, and rare. The writer ends with the thought that maybe this time will REALLY be different. I have no idea if it will be, and for his sake, I hope it is… but unfortunately, the odds are that history will repeat itself.
Hi, you probably answer this quite a bit. I’ve been depressed for as long as i can remember.
Ive been on the ssris, snris, amphetamines and methylphenadate but none of these have worked as well as opiates. (Certainly short term,I don’t take for long periods of time). But have you ever used suboxone or oxymorphone for depression?
Depression is probably a broad term, for what may be multiple conditions. For example, some people become depressed almost as if it is part of their nature— they will get episodes of depression even when everything in life is going well, in spite of good marriages, healthy children and an absence of significant baggage from the past– at least baggage that is visible.
Other people will present with depression that has developed after a series of blows to their sense of self or self-worth— after a health scare, job loss, divorce, death of a child, or perhaps from carrying around guilt or shame from abuse that occurred during their childhood.
Does it matter whether the depression is more like the first or the second category? I think so, but I have no proof that my perception is accurate. I will see different responses to medications by people with different types of depression, but I’m always challenging that perception, realizing how easy it is to be ‘fooled by randomness’, to copy a phrase from a book title.
In my experience, the second person is more likely to bounce back, providing the negative onslaught eventually stops. But the people in the first group are more difficult to treat, especially if the depression becomes part of how a person defines him or herself— as it is very difficult to change self-perception.
I appreciate the feedback to my last post. I had no doubt that the thoughts expressed in the original letter would ring such a chord, as I hear similar comments on a daily basis. For people new to my blog this week, please review the letter in last week’s post, as that is where I’m starting today.
I had the same ‘love at first site’ reaction to opioids described by many people who become addicted. My addiction began with a relatively weak opioid — codeine —but I still remember lying in bed as the effects of the substance drifted over me, easing the life-long depression that I had long accepted as ‘just how things are.’
I should make clear at this point that I do not mean to recommend that depressed people take opioids. Unfortunately, every bit of relief that I found from opioids had to be paid back, in the form of sadness, loss, and despair. There is some possibility that medicine will find a way to tap into the powerful mood effects of opioids at some point, but we are NOT there now.
For people who are thinking ‘I’m smart—I’ll find a way to tame the beast,’ I can only plead that you look beyond that feeling of uniqueness. I was a pretty smart guy too. But a PhD in neurochemistry, honors in medicine, and board certification in anesthesiology offered no protection against addiction. If anything, that advanced knowledge made me more difficult to treat.
I have been a recovering addict for 12 years. I was addicted primarily to Lortabs (active ingredient is hydrocodone) and Ultram. I was never an extreme user but I was consistently trying to modulate my feelings and feel better. I also have been battling BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) for a very long time which appears to be my primary issue. I have been married for 17 years and let’s just say our relationship is difficult due to my inability to be present and emotionally and psychologically sound.
As with most other addicts, I distinctly remember the first opioid I took, even though I don’t remember my first sexual experience. The opioid made me feel unlike I had ever felt– like I was “normal” in a way, and happy, which was unusual for me.
Since I quit using 12 years ago I have only had a few days, yes, days, where I have truly felt good, and that was after intense work with someone for hours and hours at a time to help me get through an intense emotional roller coaster ride. I will feel “normal and happy” for a few hours or maybe a day and then I feel the despair creeping back in. I cut my thumb the other day and the first thought that I had was, I wonder if this injury will be sufficient enough to allow me a Lortab? I just never feel right without an opioid in my system.
I have been researching drugs available to help me. I have tried many different antidepressants which were never helpful. I am wondering about a small dose of Suboxone (maybe 2 mg/day) which I have read may decrease some of the problems associated with BPD. I have been reading that persons with BPD have shown to have an opioid deficit and that 40% of those with BPD are addicts.