Starting in 1957, the shelves of American pharmacies were stocked with a new anxiety relief drug that would eventually become one of the most widely prescribed drugs of the next century. Known only as Librium in the beginning, today names like Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, and Ativan are almost household words and are among the top 100 most popular prescription drugs in America. Benzodiazepines are in a class of drugs known as central nervous system depressants. Overactive nervous systems stimulate heightened anxiety levels that lead to chronic stress disorders, and a host of other psychological and physical conditions, like insomnia. Benzodiazepines offer temporary relief— at a price.
One common purpose of benzodiazepines is the prevention of seizures. The muscle-relaxing properties of “benzos” work as anti-convulsants. This is because benzos go to the GABA part of the brain, otherwise known as the gamma-amino butyric acid transmitter. This transmitter is like a school crossing guard that catches neurons running through the brain and tells them to slow down. Benzos increase GABA activity, effectively catching more neurons and telling them to calm brain function.
Multiple placebo-controlled studies have shown that benzodiazepine drugs are effective. However, these drugs are also highly addictive. The form in which they are taken has an effect on the level of addiction danger. That is why benzodiazepines are split into categories: short-acting and long-acting.
Short-acting benzodiazepines are in the body for a short time. This helps a patient relax from short-term bouts of hypertension and anxiety. The side effects of short-term benzodiazepines include vertigo, tremors, nausea, depression, and confusion. Long-acting benzodiazepines accumulate in the bloodstream and are used to treat long-lasting and complicated hyperactive neuron transmissions. Long-acting benzos in high doses carry an increased risk of dependence and addiction. Side effects can include mood swings that range from hostility to euphoria and back again. Muscle relaxation may be accompanied by muscle weakness and reduced coordination.
“You can’t be clean while living dirty. You can’t run with the same people, keep secrets or be dishonest with yourself. You can’t be at the bar and expect to not drink. My counselor told me, ‘You may not have taken your last pill, but you’ve taken the last one you will enjoy,’ and he was right on the money. I know where the next pill will lead, and it’s not pretty. I am not going back there.”
—Jeff, former Klonopin/OxyContin addict, who shares his story with Heroes in Recovery
Benzodiazepines should never be taken outside of their intended use. When a doctor prescribes these medications to those who have a legitimate need outweighing the consequences of possible side effects, they should monitor the use of the drug closely. Tolerance is likely to develop after a six-month period, and the prescription will likely need to be adjusted.
Most people who abuse benzodiazepines use them in conjunction with other drugs, including prescription opioids and heroin. As many as 15 percent of heroin users report using benzodiazepine prescriptions with heroin for at least a one year period. Other drugs are often combined with benzodiazepines in dangerous ways, and alcohol and benzo abuse together is common.
Most benzodiazepine addicts get their drugs by prescription, but many obtain them by purchasing someone else’s prescription. Sharing prescriptions is illegal, even with family members. Leftover pills can be returned to the pharmacy where they were purchased or many communities offer drug disposal programs a few times each year.
Stopping the use of long-action benzodiazepines without gradually decreasing the dosage is extremely dangerous to one’s health, as it can result in hyperactivity and seizures. The potency of the drug that has been taken will greatly determine the withdrawal symptoms that are felt. Professional assistance should be enlisted when attempting to stop using these drugs so that advice can be given on how to safely step away from the medications.
If you or a loved one uses benzodiazepines and you think drug dependence is developing, look for the following symptoms taken from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence:1
- Loss of control over substance use
- Taking risks to obtain a substance
- Experiencing relationship issues as a result of taking a substance
- Secrecy regarding substance use
“Addiction is a disease that requires ongoing, permanent vigilance,” Jeff says at Heroes In Recovery. “I know I must stay humble and aware of the fact that I am powerless. I can’t do whatever I want and stay in recovery. I know it’s important to keep going to meetings and working the program, and I intend to do just that.”
Finding Help for Drug Addiction
Integrated treatment is available for benzodiazepine complications and addiction. Medically supervised detox, along with medications and therapy, can help the person struggling live a life free from addiction. If you or a loved one struggles with substance abuse, we are here for you. Call our toll-free helpline at 269-280-4673 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about available treatment options.
1 Wilcox, Stephen. “Signs and Symptoms.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. N.p., 19 Dec. 2016. Web. 10 July 2017.