During the middle of the worst of it, while I was on a three month emergency medical leave, I put words to a feeling I'd had for weeks.
About four and a half months after my last .5 milligram tablet of valium, I was facing a weekly battery of intensively probing questions about my childhood and the person responsible for conditioning me to suppress expressions of anger. It was intense psychodynamic therapy with the underlying premise that my current emotional lability, depression and anxiety stemmed from a childhood experience of shaming. That someone important in my life taught me to suppress any outward sign of anger, predicated on the famous adage that depression is anger turned inward.
“But how did that make you feel?”
“Can you express what your primary reaction to (whatever life event we were discussing) was?”
“No, that is a rationalization, I want to know how you REALLY felt?”
“Of course you felt sadness at your father's death, but what ELSE? “
“There's something more you felt, wasn't there? Can you access it? This is important.”
“I want you to notice your body language right now. Why can't you look me in the eye? Who taught you that you weren't good enough?”
During the last of the weekly debriefings with my wife after a particularly fruitless and intensive session, I finally found the strength to say how I REALLY felt: “It's like being accused of a crime I didn't commit.”
And that is the crux of what so many people experience when they seek professional help for the overwhelming subjective hell of a brain off its hinges from benzodiazepine withdrawal. Especially if you're more than a month from discontinuation and your taper was a judicious 10% cut a month as mine was. The therapist I saw humored me to the point of accepting that the withdrawal was making things worse. But his approach was firmly rooted in a belief that my problems were fundamentally psychological.
I was supposed to be doing neurofeedback with him. But during the intake he latched on to my emotional insecurity and started digging. Which led to regular talk therapy. It's difficult for me to confess how susceptible I was to treatment suggestions that I knew deep down weren't going to take this pain away. The few who experience traumatic, prolonged misery from discontinuation of benzodiazepines slowly learn to accept that the only salve is time.
But I doubted my own mind, my own own experience, because my already shaky self-esteem was magnified ten fold from withdrawal. I even convinced myself that some good could come out of it. For one, it would show loved ones that I was taking the problem seriously, I was getting treatment. Not just sitting on my hands while fear, paranoia and hysteria festered within. I even felt that it might help me find insights on the cause of the rapidly blossoming self-hatred I felt every day I sat at home not working.
So I went to the therapist for about a month and a half. Throughout, I felt like a naked child talking to an adult who knew things about me that I didn't. I even played a sick game of expressing anger about things that didn't anger me because I knew that's the only way I could make “progress.” The more we talked, the worse I felt, the more I blamed myself for my problems and the more powerless I felt to defend that self-attack. At one point, he accused me of backing away and distancing myself from my real emotions. That was it. No more of this.
As I said earlier, I KNEW what was (and is) wrong with me. Those who have gone through this know. They know because there can be no more profound, yet existentially horrifying, experience. And I say that with 100% certainty despite my relatively inexperienced life.
It's like in Lord of the Rings, when Gandalf the Grey is replaced by Gandalf the White. He tries to explain what has happened to him after falling down into the abyss past Khazed-dum with the ancient Balrog beast. He says, “Time is short. But if there were a year to spend, I would not tell you all.” So much had he been through since he had seen his companions last that he had forgotten his name. His time transformed him into a wholly different person inside yet, by all appearances, he was the same. To the others, only a few weeks had passed, to Gandalf “each day was as long as a life age of the Earth.”
And in a sense, that's how profound of an experience each day at its worst of benzodiazepine withdrawal is for me. On the days the fog of symptoms clear and the mysteriously fickle windows of clarity re-emerge, I am aware just how much I've silently felt and experienced. And sometimes when I see someone I haven't seen while in the throes of withdrawal, it's as if ages have passed since we last spoke, that I must have much to tell them. You just can't go through that and think your own psychology and the burden of the worst of your life experiences could cause your brain to act that way. Not without help.
So here it is more than nine months after my last dose of Valium and I have made incredible progress. As the fabric of my self slowly gets knitted back together, I feel a moral obligation to try to explain that this is a real phenomenon. That, despite the implausibility of such an experience being due to the withdrawal of a prescribed medication (always taken as prescribed and at a low dose); despite the fact that by all accounts, a very, very small number of people experience the mental degradation and existential annihilation of consciousness that I have going off this drug; despite the fact that there is not any clear and conclusive physical evidence that something has gone radically awry in the brain; despite the fact that almost any doctor or psychiatrist you encounter will deny profound symptoms like that could be attributed to a medication; despite everything that my therapist tried to pin as the cause of my problems; despite all of that – I know that my problem was the drug.
One day during a window of normality a while back, I wrote the following message to myself to read when going through a wave of neurological symptoms:
“It's not your fault. It is not your self-esteem issue. It's not your dad's death. It's not your upbringing or your past anxiety. It's the effect from the drug. Believe it. No one can feel like that on their own. It's impossible.”
It's now my turn to try to convince you the reader and hopefully others in the mental health community of the same. The depth of the problem is not in the numbers of people who suffer this (and there are many, many others who do) but the depth of the suffering and the dearth of resources and knowledgeable people out there to help.
So that's why I say this is “clearing my name.” I don't mean that literally – what I mean is that I'm trying to prove that this happened to me from a medication and not from a psychological failing of my own making. That despite the fact that I “have a past record”of mental health issues that include depression and anxiety, I am cleared of culpability for the past 19 months of suffering.
My far-reaching (and far-fetched) hope is that this case could be put before an actual jury of the general public for consideration so that this issue will not continue to create small, out of the way enclaves of benzo withdrawal sufferers forced to communicate with people they don't know for support. These support groups which I have spent time in are both much-needed affirmation of the experience and electric magnifiers of fear. So little consensus on the nature of the process exists that the void often gets filled with misinformation, half truths, and rubbish.
So I hope you find this interesting and I hope you can see the currently unseen – those poor souls trying to survive day to day with a broken mind not of their making. They need help, they need acceptance and they need the jury to rule in their favor.