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Carol Packer's Story
A lesson in polypharmacy and how dangerous
it is to be prescribed drug cocktails
We begin in November 1991 when I am sitting in the doctor’s chair complaining of severe upper abdominal pain.
"Sounds like gallstones," says he, "but as there is a long waiting list I'll prescribe you some painkillers. Take 2x50mg every 3 hours."
This was for Pethidine. Well at the time I did not know it was a highly addictive Opiate and a Class A drug. My doctor never told me or warned of any side-effects. Very soon I was highly addicted and getting through many tablets day and night even when I did not have pain (much to my shame).
My husband Steve noticed a change in me and mentioned about the drugs to the doctor who told him that I could talk them for life.
I became the opposite of who I really am as normally I am outgoing, extrovert, bubbly and a lover of life but after eighteen months of this stuff I had become insecure, feeling very low and withdrawn.
Back to the doc I go and he says I have depression and prescribes an Anti-depressant called Doxepin to take alongside the Pethidine.
Six months later the true nightmare begins. With the knowledge I have now I realise that when all hell broke loose on that July morning in 1993 I had reached tolerance level on the Opiate. I woke with a myriad of new symptoms, I couldn't breathe or stop shaking, I felt terror and just could not function physically or mentally. My husband was terrified too as he didn't know what to do. The doctor arrived and said, "I'm stopping your Pethidine." He did so and I went into cold turkey withdrawal.
Within two days I was seeing a Psychiatrist and a Community Psychiatric Nurse (both of whom had been given a charisma bypass I think!!) and in their great wisdom I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression and immediately prescribed, Melleril, Surmontil, Diazepam and Temazepam.
This cocktail I took for about five months with no let up in symptoms and in fact new symptoms were coming all the time. I was in constant fear and panic, confused and clumsy and developed skin rashes and vision problems and agoraphobia.
Then they decided to stop the whole cocktail dead and put me on Prozac, Oxazepam and Chloral Hydrate. In an attempt to get me out of the house they advised me to attend a mental health day centre two days a week. This was not good for me yet I was so weak I did anything they said. It was awful and it was there that I saw people worse than I ever could imagine and of course then my fear of going mad and getting schizophrenia overcame me and became an obsessive irrational fear.
For the first time in my life in December 1993 I became suicidal and went into Psychiatric hospital for ten days as a voluntary patient. This happened again in April 1995 and on both occasions it was after changes in drugs and going cold turkey from one lot to be put on another.
After two years of going to the day centre Steve and I decided it was doing me no good and after being in the hospital where we were treated like animals I stopped going and I vowed that no-one would ever treat me that way again.
My shrink etc kept telling me to take my pills and to stop going on crusades trying to find out what was wrong with me.
Then in 1998 I had a stroke of luck when I read a magazine article that was about a lady who had the same symptoms as me because of Valium and there were two helpline numbers to ring – one for CITA and the other for The Bristol & District Tranquilliser Project. I rang them both as I was in such a mess because a month earlier my Psychiatrist had discharged me and said I wasn’t to take any more pills and the best thing I could do was to get a job.
Job! I couldn't even care for myself or Steve and our three children let alone go out to work. Yet before pills I worked in a care home and in a school and NEVER EVER had even mild anxiety or depression.
From then on I rang CITA whenever I could and started attending group meetings at Bristol. I was making progress until February 1999 when I had an operation and was in hospital for three weeks. I was given a Valium shot as a pre-med and several times a day had opiate shots. Two days after I was discharged all my symptoms came back very severely which I have been told was a result of having more chemicals before the last lot of withdrawals were over.
I then found the Benzo Group on the Internet and Geraldine and Cindy and that has helped me so much.
People also like Barry Haslam, Heather Ashton and Mary Baker and Josie Hollis have all been through this hell (apart from Professor Ashton!) and survived have given me help advice and comfort. Then there are my dear friends at Bristol and CITA and members of the Internet group all of whom have got me this far.
Altogether I was prescribed 22 different types of psychotropic drugs and cold turkeyed every time. Polypharmacy such as this is so dangerous.
In many ways I am lucky I've lost only eight years of my life so far but that's time I've missed with my husband and children that I can never get back. Many others have lost decades. I'm also so lucky to have had such a supportive mum and dad and my three children Melanie, Stuart and Daniel and, of course, my darling Steve who has always been there for me.
Yes, it has put a tremendous strain on our marriage and our finances but we are closer than ever before. Sadly along the way I've lost people who I thought were friends. My mother- and father-in-law thought I was using my illness as an excuse not to work and thought I was mentally ill so they no longer speak to me. My sister and her family who only live down the road said I was different and they don't understand why so they stopped coming round and calling and just pass me by in the street.
My symptoms are easier some days than others but I've had the usual, panic-attacks, fear, depression, anxiety, obsessive fears and thoughts, agoraphobia, confusion and many, many more. If my story helps one person through this nightmare then I shall feel that I have done a small something so please if you end up on these bloody drugs, come off slowly, with support and STAY AWAY FROM CHEMICAL COCKTAILS.
My love to everyone whatever stage of withdrawal you are in.
Carol Packer (UK)
Carol Packer's Story
My story along with many others has a happy ending. Many of my symptoms have either entirely disappeared or have diminished to the point where they are barely noticeable, once in a while they may, for a day or two increase but are nowhere as bad as before and they soon go again. During my withdrawal journey I have been lucky enough to have had tremendous support, not only from my family and professionals, but also people who have gone through this before me. They were there to reassure me and guide me through the frightening physical, emotional and mental symptoms caused by these drugs.
I have also been lucky enough to have found a wonderful GP and he fully understands this illness and as well as using orthodox medicine he also uses many complementary therapies and his flower remedies really helped as does his ability to listen – really listen – to what I was telling him and unlike my previous encounters with doctors he did not treat me as "another neurotic housewife" and that is something I will always be grateful for. I was able to attend one-to-one Counselling sessions and groups at the Bristol Project, and eventually did some volunteer work there. The Project helped me a great deal and taught me so much. It's certain that their help and friendship was invaluable in my recovery.
Many other individuals were always there on the end of the phone for me, friends, counsellors and advisors, including Reg Peart, CITA and Professor Heather Ashton, and, there was Joy, a friend, psychotherapist and counsellor who has kindly put together a web site for me, she taught me how to relax, listened to me for hours, comforted me and helped me regain my self esteem and confidence.
In addition, I found the Internet Site set up by Geraldine Burns a great help, it gave much support and enabled me to communicate and make new friends from all over the globe. It also showed me what a Worldwide problem this illness is, it is a marvellous group full of caring people who do not deserve what has happened to them. I'm grateful to Geraldine and everyone there. Jim Folk’s excellent website also proved invaluable, it helped me understand anxiety, panic attacks and how our nervous system works. Understanding also came from Bronwyn Fox an Australian expert on anxiety and similar related problems.
As each day goes by I get stronger and know that full recovery is only just around the corner. It hasn't been easy and it hasn't been fast, recovery is very up and down but to be free of the constant fear, anxiety, panic, depression, dizziness, unreality and derealisation is wonderful. We must remember that nature doesn't heal in a straight line, that its rather like three steps forward and one back, but, it's all been worth it, as my life now is so much better than it was when I was taking pills every day. Although its not a path I would have willingly gone down it has taught me many things and enabled me to come in contact with the most wonderful, kindest people in the World. I'm living proof that recovery is possible, I'm no braver than anyone else, so if I can do it so can you.
Carol Packer (UK)
INSOMNIA AND FATIGUE IN WITHDRAWAL
by Carol Packer
It is very common both whilst taking benzos and in withdrawal to suffer from insomnia and fatigue. Once again the drugs affect the brain chemicals that help us sleep and although they will eventually start working again, it takes time. Again that old withdrawal enemy adrenaline is at work. Excess adrenaline is still in the blood stream when its bedtime. During sleep the body produces growth hormones which help renew body tissue but these can only work in the absence of adrenaline.
This is a very frustrating part of withdrawal and I wish the answer was easy but we're battling chemicals here so again time is the key. You can do a few things to help yourself but never forget that its withdrawal, not a failing in you and your normal sleeping pattern will return to normal.
Try to stick to a regular bedtime routine.
Do not exercise or have excess caffeine 4 hours before going to bed (this will stimulate your system).
Do not get into the trap of worrying about not sleeping as this will make you agitated.
Have a warm bath and a cup of chamomile tea before bed.
Instead of lying there worrying try this simple exercise: Make a mental list of all the furniture in your house and where it is. Walk through your house in your mind, change things if you want to, move the furniture around. Then do the same with your parents or friends house. This exercise focuses your attention and creates effective distraction.
Tiredness is another very important part of withdrawal and you can feel completely exhausted, in fact many people are misdiagnosed with M.E. which when through withdrawal miraculously disappears! It is hard to cope with but please keep moving, do not lay around on the bed or settee even though you feel like it. This symptom like all the others is a direct result of the action of the drug on your body and will leave. Drink plenty of fresh water, eat a healthy diet to keep blood sugar levels even for energy and take walks. Rest in between and as time goes by your withdrawal exhaustion will leave and your natural energy and zest for life will return.
ANXIETY / FIGHT AND FLIGHT IN WITHDRAWAL
by Carol Packer
A lot of our withdrawals are caused by the effects the drugs have directly on our brain and nervous system. Most of you have heard of the 'Fight or Flight' response, which is the body's reaction to any threat real or imaginary. This response can be turned on by too much stress, fear and, of course, drugs. A large part of withdrawal feelings are anxiety and panic sometimes to unbearable degrees. Always remember this is not you but the way our bodies and brains react to these chemicals and withdrawal from them. It has been scientifically proven that anxiety and therefore adrenaline levels in withdrawal can be up to 6 times higher than normal so its no surprise we feel terrified. These levels of adrenaline will return to normal but it takes time. The drugs knock out our own stress coping chemicals in the brain and so in withdrawal we have to wait not only for the drugs to leave our system but for our own chemicals to begin working properly once again and of course the speed at which this happens is different for everyone.
As soon as extra adrenaline and cortisol are released into the bloodstream several changes take place. Our breathing rate increases to give the brain and muscles more oxygen, the heart beats faster so you get palpitations, blood pressure rises, you sweat more, sugars and fats are released into the bloodstream to give extra energy, our muscles go tight and tense and our mouth goes dry. Originally this system was to keep us safe and we either fight the danger or run from it and therefore the excess adrenaline was soon used up and we returned to the normal relaxed state. This is more difficult in withdrawal due to the higher levels of chemicals and we often feel too tired or anxious to do anything. I know it's so difficult but we must try to get rid of some of this adrenaline. I don't mean running around the block but gentle exercise, even walking up and down the stairs a few times or gentle aerobics (if you can), anything sensible to use up the adrenaline, yes even sex, apparently that's one of the best ways!!!
Of course when we feel this way any extra stress even minor will cause our nervous system to react. This is normal in withdrawal, eventually you will be able to cope again. It is easy at this time to try to ease the dreadful feelings with excessive smoking or drinking or even the odd tranquilliser again, but PLEASE RESIST this as it will slow down your recovery and prolong withdrawal.
Another feeling you may have when you have excess adrenaline etc is anger (this can be frightening if you are normally a placid person) and you can also become very irritable and agitated, tearful and have obsessive thoughts and irrational fears and phobias.
Overbreathing can cause many symptoms also, so if you can find a good book or teacher so that you can learn to correct the breathing this will help a great deal as this will enable your body to relax and regain its equilibrium whilst calming your mind so that your anxiety and its related symptoms will disappear.
I know first hand how frustrating it is to be told to learn breathing and relaxation but please try – even if it's only 5 or 10 minutes a day to start with. It does work but not overnight. Visualisation helps too if you can do it. Remember not to get too frustrated if the effects are not as good as you hoped as these things will begin to work better the further you get from the drugs so stick at it. Keep telling yourself this is all caused by withdrawal and will leave but time is the main healer although you can help it along by learning as many self-help techniques as possible. I wish I could tell you a certain date that you will recover by but we are all different. Our body chemistry is individual to us and our circumstances are different but what I can tell you is that provided you stay away from any mood-altering substances, YOU WILL RECOVER from the side effects and withdrawal symptoms these drugs have caused.
Carol Packer (UK)