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Hooked on Valium for 34 years
September 29, 2003
by Nick Cannon
As Andrea Mackenzie gazes at her coffee table, she sees the only thing in her life that's ever truly beaten her. Perched on the table is a silver packet containing tiny pills of diazepam, better known as Valium. It's a legally prescribed drug which she's taken almost every day for 34 years-and she's as addicted to this drug as any junkie is to heroin.
'These pills cheated me of my adult life,' says Andrea, a 53-year-old mum of three. 'I don't know what it's like to be lively. I always feel grim.' Diazepam is part of a group of tranquilliser drugs known as benzodiazepines. It's not an antidepressant but a muscle relaxant and sedative which tends to induce a sensation of numbness. Back in 1969, when Andrea started taking 'benzos' as she calls them, they were hailed as a wonder drug and doctors prescribed them freely for anxiety-related problems. At the time, Andrea was just 19 and studying at teacher training college. She initially saw her GP about a bad back.
"I've been hooked on these pills for 34 years... I don't know what it's like to be lively - I always feel grim. I feel cheated out of my entire adult life."
Andrea only went to see her doctor for a bad back...
'I mentioned I was feeling a bit stressed and low, He just said that if I took these pills, I'd feel better. I was still in my teens and didn't question anything.'
It's hard to believe Andrea's still taking the pills 34 years later, or that several different GPs continued to prescribe them to her without a break. But that's exactly what happened. Andrea can't easily recall her conversations with her doctors - or how she felt about continually taking the pills.
'Taking the pills just became part of my daily life, like brushing my teeth. I can't remember the quantities I took,' admits Andrea, who lives in Cornwall. 'Back then, doctors weren't really aware of the long-term damage these drugs could do. It was easier to continue giving me the prescriptions than to try to help me get off them. It was the same for millions of others.'
At first, the drugs made Andrea feel more relaxed and gave her a sense of well-being. 'Because they didn't make me feel ill for many years, I never questioned why I took them. But they made me too docile to question anything anyway. I'm now angry that doctors were so blasé about prescriptions. I'm sure drug companies kept them in the dark though.' Andrea is, even now, in a perpetual state of numbness.
The pills have suppressed her emotions so much that little can be deciphered from her blank expression. She admits that she doesn't know what reality is truly like. She can't even remember what she was like at 19. 'It's an invisible illness-you look OK, so no one knows you're suffering. Extreme emotions are obliterated. You don't get very down, but you can't feel elated either. The pills stop you from dealing with problems like grief and bereavement - and if they're not allowed an escape route, those emotions come out in a different way.'
For Andrea, one effect has been a lack of motivation throughout adulthood. Getting ready in the morning is an effort as I'm constantly tired,' she says. 'I'm better if there's a purpose, like if I have to go out. But even a train trip takes up so much mental energy, it exhausts me.' Andrea also has poor concentration, co-ordination and cognitive skills, 'I can't cook. Measuring out ingredients and timing things are just too much, so I live on microwaved meals.' The cumulative effect of the pills has been devastating - although Andrea only realises this now.
'I let my life drift, never thinking things through properly or doing the sensible thing. I get fed up very quickly. I gave up on a teaching career at 21, and I've even moved houses on a whim.' Andrea's marriages also faltered - she's been divorced three times. The pills induce a sense of boredom with everything, so I never put any enthusiasm into relationships. My feelings were always, 'It's not working, I'll just look for the next thing.' A new romance was the one thing that could bring me out of my cloud, but it never lasted. 'I put every ounce of my mental energy into being a mother to my kids. How they've ended up so well adjusted, I'll never know!'
Andrea says that she got on with caring for her children, now 32, 30 and 20, almost robotically, because she had to - she raised them alone for 10 of the last 34 years. 'Having a tranquillised mum must have been hard,' she admits. 'I just couldn't be the sort of mum who showed excitement, or found the enthusiasm to take them on a spontaneous outing. I did all the essentials and they never lacked love, but my tiredness affected everything. Discipline sometimes went out the window.'
Andrea took diazepam through her pregnancies. By the third, doctors knew that it could cause abnormalities in unborn babies. Through sheer determination, she managed to get down from 8mg diazepam a day to 1mg, although she couldn't kick the habit completely. 'Thankfully all my babies were fine, but just imagine if something bad had happened,' she says. After having her third child, Andrea had postnatal depression and took her children to stay with her parents in Sussex.
'I'd only been there a few weeks when Mum dropped dead from a heart attack right in front of me. I was hysterical for days and I've never really got over the trauma. I was soon back on higher doses of diazepam. The pills seemed like a comfort but they also stopped me grieving properly. I don't think I ever really cried for Mum and I know I should have.'
To Andrea, this is the crux of the problem. 'All your emotions get bottled up - but they don't go away. They have to come out in different ways. For me, it's been the paranoia and drift in my life.' By the 1990s, Andrea had given up working with her third husband at his wholesale business, as the stress got to her. In 1992, she had a breakdown.
'For a few years life was grim. My marriage broke down in 1994 and my older kids left home, so I felt lonely. Therapy helped me deal with things like my mothers death, but I've never fully recovered from the breakdown. I still have panic attacks and my social life has dwindled.' Surprisingly, it was only in the late 1990s that Andrea finally recognised diazepam was probably the underlying cause of her problems. 'I suppose I was always too numb to realise. Only a few doctors ever weakly suggested it 'might be wise' to stop taking the benzos. But they kept prescribing them, expecting me to wean myself off them.' Andrea now lives on benefits, but she does voluntary work for charities such as MIND.
'I couldn't do a paid job - the pressure would be too much, But voluntary work gives me a purpose. Distraction is a good thing. Her biggest help is a group called First Steps To Freedom, which she found on the Internet two years ago.
'It's been invaluable. It's run by people who've suffered crippling anxieties, including benzo addicts. I have a number of 'text-buddies', who text me with messages of support. One woman sends a message every night. It gives me a feeling of reassurance and strength.'
Only in the last year has Andrea felt able to make a serious attempt to wean herself off the pills with guidance from her GP. 'I'm now down to 5mg a day. I'm hoping to be free next year but I don't know if that's possible. I still have bad days where I feel panicky and drained. But now I've got some support, I'm more confident of success.'
How could it happen? Dr Alan Maryon Davis says 'Benzo tranquillisers are used to treat people with severe anxiety or sleep disorders in the short term. The chronic lethargy and addictive effects of long-term benzo use weren't widely known until the late 1980s, after which doctors were advised to keep courses to no more than four weeks. Many repeat prescriptions are probably still given because weaning existing long-term users off their medication can be extremely difficult, as they often experience insomnia, acute anxiety and panic attacks and are desperate to bump the dose up again. This is where support groups are so valuable.'
How could it happen?
Dr Alan Maryon Davis says 'Benzo tranquillisers are used to treat people with severe anxiety or sleep disorders in the short term. The chronic lethargy and addictive effects of long-term benzo use weren't widely known until the late 1980s, after which doctors were advised to keep courses to no more than four weeks. Many repeat prescriptions are probably still given because weaning existing long-term users off their medication can be extremely difficult, as they often experience insomnia, acute anxiety and panic attacks and are desperate to bump the dose up again. This is where support groups are so valuable.'
According to the campaigning group Beat The Benzos, there are 1.2 million benzo addicts in the UK. It wasn't until the late 1980s that some of the dangers were formally recognised. But despite warnings, GPs still write out 17 million prescriptions per year for benzos. Manufacturers say they shouldn't be prescribed for more than four weeks, but they're routinely prescribed for years on end. While there are a few local voluntary organisations, there's no organised nationwide support programme or appropriate government policy on benzos. As a result, there's little understanding of the symptoms produced by the drug or the difficulty of withdrawal.
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