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Bruce Barnett's Story

Tranquilliser Terror

The long battle to overcome an insidious addiction

New Idea, New Zealand
August 14, 1995
Story by Kimberley Pater

His 20 years of hell cost Bruce Barnett dearly – he lost his home, his business and was even tempted to take his own life.

In 1966, Bruce Barnett was 44 years old, a fit and healthy businessman with a multi-million dollar television rental business, a staff of 80, stores nationwide and a luxury home in an exclusive Auckland suburb.

But the high-flying businessman, former journalist and public relations consultant was suffering from stress – a wound-up feeling, and a pain in his stomach and chest. He visited his doctor, who prescribed a tranquilliser, the benzodiazepine Valium, assuring Bruce the drug was not addictive.

But that prescription started Bruce on a 20-year descent into hell, an addiction to prescription drugs and a chemically manufactured psychiatric illness he has only just managed to struggle free from in the past few years.

Now, at 71, the once competent businessman has lost everything except the love and support of his family – the home, the business, financial success and is reputation as a top performer are I gone.

Having lost the greater part of his life and survived a horrifying ordeal, Bruce wants justice. He currently has a claim for more than $1 million before the Accident Rehabilitation and Compensation Insurance Corporation for the lost income and expenses after his life was decimated by medically prescribed drugs. For the first few weeks in 1966, the Valium helped Bruce. He felt more relaxed. But then the symptoms returned with a vengeance. The chest pain became clamping, the anxiety rampant.

"I went back to the doctor. He said this was the nature of anxiety and doubled the dose." Within a few weeks, Bruce was on four times the original medication dose.

Out of control

Much later, Bruce would write of that time: "I did not know then that the tranquillisers, the benzodiazepines, re-route your mind as surely as pulling the wrong switch on the train track, or that they stop the mind from encoding properly, and affect rational thought. Nor did I know that they would dull my intellect and memory."

Bruce's life began hurtling wildly downward. He became overwhelmed with sadness and despair. He became full of fear and self-recrimination. Doctors now diagnosed depression, and added antidepressant tablets to his growing medication list.

His business began crumbling. "I couldn't think straight. Everyone started to run rings around me. It sorrowed me immensely. I tried harder and harder, but it was like being on staircase, and the harder I ran, the more the stairs came down. I was being done in at every turn by everybody."

Now his doctor told Bruce he had a disease of the mind, and labelled him as manic depressive. When his mental condition worsened, another drug was added to the cocktail – a barbiturate, sodium amytal. Incapacitated, Bruce stayed in bed.

He says: "By 1975, I knew the problem to be these pills, and I would argue the doctors. But they told me that I was ill and said they were correcting a chemical imbalance, and that unless I took these pills, I would have to go into care. Care means a mental hospital where my civil rights would have been lost.

"I was blackmailed in effect. I don't say it was ruthless blackmail, but it was there. The feeling was that you are an inferior personality. That is what they tell you. You just haven't got the emotional equipment, and this was terrifying, because the whole question of mental illness is a terrifying thing. So if you think you've got it, or someone tells you are sick and that they can keep you out of a mental home by taking these pills, you take them."

Cold turkey hell

Incredibly ill, Bruce decided to stop taking the pills cold turkey. "I just couldn't take them any more, even though my doctor encouraged me to do so."

Seventeen days of sheer hell ensued.

"I couldn't sleep, I had these surging, roller-coaster feelings, terrible anxiety, terrible fears, terrible suicidal feelings." Desperate, Bruce revisited his doctor. "He told me that I was gravely ill, that I couldn't quit the pills and sent me to a psychiatrist." The psychiatrist redoubled Bruce's medication dose.

Bruce's medical notes from that time suggest he "seemed a broken, withdrawn man relying on his huge amount of medication and even escalating his Tryptanol (an anti-depressant) to near fatal levels."

"This went on and on until finally my brain was in such a state that I couldn't work, couldn't think, could hardly walk," says Bruce.

His agony of mind increased. He wrote: "I then began to have thought streams of great ugliness and poisonous intensity. My brain felt as if it had literally gone bad and was festering."

Says Bruce: "Then a worse stage than ever appeared, and they gave me the worst drug of the lot, anti-psychotics.

"Each pill in their turn was bad, but this last drug closes you down. They are just horrifying, and these are what are being used by the system today as the so-called cost-effective way that allows mental hospitals to be shut down.

"These pills slow you down. You can't put things together, so if I was having a conversation, I might know your name, but I would forget it 10 minutes later. Or I'd read a sentence, understand the general idea of what was written, but ask me two minutes later and I'd forgotten."

Only moments after leaving a movie theatre, Bruce would have forgotten what the film he had just viewed was about.

Later he wrote: "My mind was like cottonwool. I was caught in this dark layer of nothing. No ideas came in. Several letters were exchanged between my doctor and the psychiatrist. They bandied around Freudian terms and solemn prognoses, while labelling me for a condition actually caused by drugs. Now they would condemn me to a living death by their future prescribing.

I thought I was nuts

"The medication was driving me to the brink and all the time I thought I was nuts. I grieved for my family. I fought desperately not to disgrace them by topping myself. I counted the days to death. I figure I had maybe 3000 to go and each morning I hung on for one more day."

His family lived around Bruce, coping by adopting the attitude that he was ill. "Poor old chap. They tended to be kind, fix me up with something to eat and walk around me."

Now Bruce developed another horrific symptom, tardive dyskinesia. His tongue moved ceaselessly in his mouth, his lips could not keep still. It felt as though electric currents were running through his tongue. It was a side effect of the major tranquilliser Melleril.

"I went to the doctor, who said it was age. Some people are crippled by tardive dyskinesia. This is known as the Oakley shuffle because of the limbs being effected. I've seen videos of people with it and their lives have been destroyed."

Bruce's salvation began when he read a simple sentence in a newspaper. A Hamilton woman, Anna de Jonge who runs a patient advocate group, was speaking out about addiction to prescription drugs. Bruce managed to find her number and call.

"She said two things to me – that this was not my fault, and, secondly, not to trust the doctors. It was like a revelation, like God spoke to me. I cried when I got off the phone. At that stage, she was the only other person who believed the drugs were causing my problems. Other people thought I was obsessed.

"She advised: 'You can be picked up by the police for being confused and for wandering. You can be put into an institution and forcibly given the same drugs you have had. Get off the drugs and recover. Stay away from doctors and psychiatry. They are not your friends.'"

Anna kept feeding Bruce information and encouragement. "She kept sending information that showed, pure and simple, that if you take benzodiazepines over a period, you will become addicted. That is the quality of these things.

"This is the terrible problem, you see. It's chicken and egg. You go to the doctor well or relatively well and they give you pills to take, then you are sick. Then they tell you that you were sick to start with."

This time, Bruce stopped the pills for good. "I threw away all the pills and went through absolute hell." He stayed awake for 50 hours, then passed out for an hour, then another 50 hours and another hour's sleep.

It took four years to fully recover. He had no support other than Anna.

"None at all. But I was just so mad at my doctors. In spite of my condition, I realised what had happened to me was terrible.

"I also had this intuitive feeling that one day all this would make sense. So I held on and gradually things got better."

He wrote of the time: "The recovery was fragile but constant. The barriers surrounding my mind were dismantled. Ideas began magically to create themselves. Objectivity and rational thought came back as a tide. First a little, then a small wave and then full flood."

By 1990, Bruce had recovered enough to write of his ordeal. He approached the Medical Council with a complaint, explaining what had happened to him. He discovered ACC had removed doctors from personal liability and approached the corporation for compensation.

"This is the part of the story I would never have believed," says Bruce.

"I went to them in the sure and confident knowledge that it stood in the place of the doctors, that I had the right as a citizen to go to them and say this is what has happened to me. Here are the facts. Before this I was fairly successful. I became unsuccessful, I was destroyed, I lost everything, and then I started to fight back.

"At that point, if I'd gone to the ACC and they had said: 'Sorry old chap', and given me a few thousand dollars, I would have gone away happy. No one would have known what I had found out about these drugs."

He wrote: "The drugs had almost destroyed my motivation. I was getting old, and confrontation was the last thing I wanted, but what I'd discovered was monstrous." His six-year fight began. His doctor refused to hand over medical records, and each step in the ACC red tape had to be waded through laboriously – the administrative committee, the review officer, the appeal authority – until finally Bruce got the chance to have his case heard before the High Court. His claims of loss of enjoyment of life and loss of income related expenses were dismissed.

Medical misadventure?

"I became unsuccessful, I was destroyed, I lost everything."

A psychiatrist at Auckland University gave Bruce one of his first breaks. His report totally exonerated both the doctors and Bruce, but added that there was the possibility there had been medical misadventure.

"That was enough to get me the decision that an accident had occurred. That was the key to whole thing," says Bruce. Eventually, in 1993, Bruce was paid $10,000 for loss of enjoyment of life and received another $7000 late payment fee.

He decided to pursue the loss of earnings claim. He could prove that he was employed and what his income had been, and a psychiatrist's report could prove the date from which Bruce could no longer work.

"So the deal became when did doctors know benzodiazepines were addictive? But the documented evidence on this was confusing," Bruce says. "Another problem is that every case has to be treated on its merits by the claimant. You can't rely on precedent."

"Say you gave up work in 1982, a report may be produced saying that doctors didn't know until 1989 that the drug was addictive. Another person might give up work in 1980, but ACC might say the doctors didn't know until 1985. So how do you prove what the doctors should have known?"

Bruce began hunting down old copies of the New Ethicals catalogue, the prescribing manual for doctors which lists all the adverse reactions to different drugs. He couldn't find issues earlier than 1980 at the medical library.

On impulse one day, Bruce returned to the medical library. An assistant took him into the basement, where back issues of New Ethicals were stored. There, in a 1974 copy of the catalogue, under adverse reactions to benzodiazepines, Bruce found the one word he was looking for: ‘dependence'. He had finally found proof that the drugs were addictive. Bruce photocopied the page, and sent it to the ACC. But his claim was still turned down.

At the next step of his appeal, Bruce invited a newspaper along to the proceedings. "This was getting serious. I wanted it out in the open."

Now Bruce's case is to be heard in the High Court. "Frankly, the money is not what is driving me, says Bruce. "The vital issue is when you go to the doctor, you do not expect to be made ill. I don't blame them for the earlier prescribing, but at some point they had to know I was addicted.

"I just want my rights," says Bruce. "I don't want to be nasty about it. If they are stupid enough to take all legal suits away from doctors, it's not my fault.

"I'm grateful in a way. It's illogical, but at this stage in my life, I'm in better shape mentally from having to sharpen up my mind to fight this nonsense. And I'm thinking about all those other people out there. No one is helping them."

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