OP-ED: Benzodiazepines: The next epidemic?

Matt Helfrich
Lower Salford Township
Clonazepam (traded as Klonopin), diazepam (Valium) and alprazolam (Xanax) are among the most sold drugs in a class of widely prescribed anti-anxiety medications known as benzodiazepines. Public health officials warn the pills should be used only in the short term and should never be mixed with opioids or alcohol. (Christine Vestal/Pew Charitable Trusts/TNS)

I was hesitant to share my story, even with my closest friends and family. However, if it can help even one person, maybe it’s a story worth sharing. Nearly 15 years ago, I encountered a moment of weakness during a difficult time in my life. My mom was dying from cancer. I was having anxiety attacks that were making my knees buckle.

It’s tough finding hope and believing things will get better when you have emotional pain, day in and day out, with no end in sight. Desperate for answers, I fell prey to a little white pill prescribed by my doctor that seemingly had a miraculous effect on my ongoing anxiety.

Yet in life, there is no magic pill to solve our problems. A pill is never a miracle. I learned this lesson the hard way.

Anxiety has held me back from true happiness and realizing my full potential. That sobering fact is depressing enough in itself. For 30 years, despite an excellent upbringing and loving family, I couldn’t find the answer to my ongoing anxiety.

In 2004, something dramatically changed that would lead me down an unforeseen, dangerous rabbit hole to dependency. It started with the onset of anxiety attacks that were so debilitating that I had to seek out a doctor for help. The doctor prescribed me with a medication called Ativan, part of a class of prescription drugs called benzodiazepines that are used to treat anxiety disorders.

To my sheer amazement and satisfaction, taking a small dose of Ativan squashed anxiety attacks in minutes. It transformed me from feeling my worst to feeling my best in a matter of minutes. It almost seemed miraculous. It was too good to be true.

My doctor never told me that Ativan and other benzodiazepines cause dependence and addiction that rival, or are possibly worse than, cocaine or heroin. And yet he continued to gradually increase my prescription over the next few years until I was taking six times the amount I had started with in 2004.

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By 2018, I realized I had become dependent. I started having withdrawal symptoms between doses that were far worse than any flu symptoms I ever experienced. I tried to wean myself off the prescription gradually, but became so physically ill that I couldn’t function normally. It led me to a critical decision point in my life — Indulge an addiction and keep taking the prescription, or go through a hellish withdrawal to save my life.

It was time to find out how strong or weak I actually was. On a sunny morning in late June 2018, I drove myself to the ER and begged them for help.

Recovery is not the glorified experience depicted in the movies. And yet it saved my life. It starts with a week in a detox center with limited access to the outside world. You’re cramped into a college, dorm-like setting with alcoholics and drug addicts, many who spent time in prison at one point or another in their lives.

However, there was no distinction between myself and the other patients, even if their presence was court ordered and mine was not. Nor did it matter that I was dependent on a drug that was legally prescribed to me by my doctor. Recovery is recovery.

In addition to safely detoxing off the prescription drug for which I was so dependent, I also learned a lifetime’s worth about dependency and addiction by talking to the other patients and attending NA and AA meetings. I quickly learned that everyone in detox and recovery was suffering from the same problems that I was: depression, anxiety, and fear. The drug of choice may have varied, but the reasons were the same.

State and federal legislators could learn much about preventing addiction and drug-related crime by simply spending a day in detox or recovery, speaking to the victims and understanding why they had become addicted to drugs or alcohol.

My recovery was a true miracle. At the lowest, darkest moments of my life, when surviving a few hours without a pill seemed impossible, the miracle happened. It was a miracle that manifested itself into a reality because there are truly good people — in your community, in your family, through Narcotics Anonymous, through Penn Foundation — who are willing and eager to help. It’s a miracle available to the millions currently struggling with addiction and dependency who, as I once incorrectly thought, do not believe they have the strength for recovery. The miracle is within their grasps, and we are the world that can give them the hope and support to reach it.

My story is not only one of miracles, but also a cautionary tale to anyone being prescribed benzodiazepines by their doctor to “take the edge off” or to treat anxiety. These little pills — more commonly known as Ativan, Xanax, Clonazepam and Valium — are terribly addictive even after one month of use. They might be highly effective in short-term use for anxiety, but they ultimately create the problem they are trying to solve after long-time usage.

Despite this and recent warnings from the FDA, some doctors continue to prescribe these pills liberally. If the past 10 years were known for the opioid epidemic, I fear that a benzodiazepine epidemic is almost upon us, if not started already. Using a pill to drown out your anxiety and sadness is fool’s gold, too good to be true. Don’t make the same mistake that I did.

— Matt Helfrich grew up in York County and now lives in Lower Salfrod Township.