After being put on Clonazepam in her mid-thirties to treat panic attacks, Dr. Jennifer Leigh remained on the drug for 18 years. Without ever deviating from her medical prescription, the award-winning author and psychologist found her tolerance increasing. Her body, used to the medication, was demanding a higher dosage. Instead of continuing the course, Leigh made the decision to taper off. What followed was eighteen months of debilitating withdrawal symptoms so horrific she whispered daily death wishes.
Benzodiazepines such as Clonazepam are powerful, incredibly addicting and prescribed exceedingly often to deal with a number of issues, including sleep disorders. Leigh's blog Benzo Withdrawal Help is a shocking account of her journey and one that has resonated with the millions of worldwide benzo addicts. Realizing how many others shared her struggle, Leigh recently launched the Benzo Withdrawal Help Community. Through it, benzo additcts can connect with Leigh via private messenger to seek support and counseling.
Leigh spoke to Van Winkle's about her personal struggles and daily efforts to help tackle the growing epidemic.
Despite the widespread use of benzos, many misconceptions about the drug remain. What are some of the most common you’ve encountered?
One of the largest misconception is that only people with "addictive" personalities become addicted to benzos. That's not true. For many people, the drug damages the GABA receptors in the brain and body. These changes are what make it so difficult to stop taking the drug. Lower the dose or stop the drug, and it's welcome to hell. People stay on the drug to avoid the horrors of withdrawal.
Many doctors, including addiction specialists, believe that benzo withdrawal lasts only a few days or weeks. That’s false. Yes, the drug is out of the body in a few weeks. However, it can take years for the brain and body to recover from the damage done.
Is there anything else?
One of the most damaging mistakes people make is to trust doctors or therapists who are not educated about benzo withdrawal. Desperate for help, people who want to get benzo free, or are free but suffering in withdrawal, turn to the medical community for help. The problem is most professionals don’t have correct information about benzos and benzo withdrawal so they are not qualified to give advice. More often than not, doctors give very bad advice. In fact, the advice has been fatal in some cases.
Patients and professionals alike often rely on benzos as a solution for mental and emotional problems. Do you feel people are too quick to jump to psychiatric medication to solve such issues?
Yes. But there are reasons why we turn to psych meds so quickly. Only two countries allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise on television: The United States and New Zealand. The media brainwashes us into being pill poppers. We have been taught to "ask our doctors if XYZ medication is right for us."
Our emotional problems are made worse by our growing disconnection from each other because of our reliance on technology for communication. We feel isolated and alone. We need fewer pills and more caring face-to-face community.
Your blog recounts your recovery in a brutal, honest fashion. Do you find that this blunt style often missing from the benzo conversation?
Yes. Even though reports show that 1 out of 5 Americans takes a psych med, there is still a stigma attached. People who are prescribed a benzo may feel that taking it signifies that they are weak or maladjusted in some way.
When people attempt to discontinue the drug and all hell breaks loose, they are often ashamed of the symptoms withdrawal can cause.
Even in some benzo circles, people will talk about their body symptoms in detail, but omit the mental or emotional symptoms. No one wants to appear to be “crazy.” I did my best to convey the truth about my benzo withdrawal experience. It was an emotional, mental, physical and spiritual nightmare that I don’t wish on anyone. The most telling part of my blog is the ten-month gap in posts. The silence says more about the utter horror of benzo withdrawal than any words I could have penned. I fought for my survival and sanity every second of those days I couldn't write.
How has the public taken to your blog?
People write to me from all around the world. They are so relieved to discover that the cause of their problems is the benzo and not them. They are desperate for knowledge and hope. I do my best to give them both. I'm deeply touched by the stories of courage from people struggling to survive and recover from prescribed benzo use. They often struggle alone. Friends and family abandon them and the medical community offers scant help and usually makes matters worse.
Benzo victims need a lot of support that rarely exists. I think people resonate with my blog and the community I am building because I have been in their shoes. I know the hell they are living. I listen. I truly care about them. I want them to survive and one day thrive, just like I'm now doing. People send me gifts and letters, expressing their gratitude. I'm humbled and grateful.
What have your experiences been working with other people in benzo withdrawal?
I have a doctorate in psychology, and I study social neuroscience. I remind people that I'm not a licensed psychologist or doctor. I coach people on coping skills, and I educate them about the recovery process. The sheer amount of suffering I hear is almost unbearable. It's challenging to listen to the depths of people's pain and anguish. My heart hurts for them.
Your website, Benzo Withdrawal Help, has just launched an online members community. Can you talk us through what that means for those out there looking for help?
Colin Moran, a brave benzo survivor, started a free, online forum, years ago. His has been the backbone of the benzo community for a long time. As helpful as it is, I felt that there was more that could be done to help benzo victims. I envisioned a private online community in which people could connect in real time via messaging, VoIP, or webcam. This offers more communication tools.
I hang out in the community every day. I offer online webinars, classes, and events to the members. I invite experts from various fields to visit the community to educate or to entertain. Every morning I post a short motivational video, and I post a permission slip to help members set a good intention for the day
Dr. Mark Brady, Neuroscience Educator, says, "People's brains and bodies need the safety and security of a community in order to rewire and function in healthy ways." Community seems integral to recovery, yet friends and family often find it hard to know how to support someone going through withdrawal. What would you recommend they do?
I suggest that friends and family show up, roll up their sleeves, open their hearts and listen carefully and compassionately. Ask the benzo victim what they need. Listen, no matter how many times they say the same thing, over and over and over. Remind them that their brain and body are healing and that the horror they are living will fade away. Offer to provide food, help with cleaning, paying bills, driving, taking care of children or anything else that they are struggling to do for themselves. Be prepared to care give for the long haul. Benzo withdrawal can last years. It’s exhausting for everyone. But family need to know that suicide ideation is a very common benzo withdrawal symptom. Take it seriously, please.
Read more about the highly addictive nature of benzos and why they are silently pushing more Americans into dependency in Alexander Zaitchik’s article Is It Bedtime for Benzos?