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Prescription Drug Abuse and Mental Illness

Story Of Hope By Joanna Nicholson

Growing up, trouble began after being hit by a car at the age of 12. I suffered a concussion that left me missing the memories of three days of my life. I made a great recovery, didn’t break any bones and barely had a scratch. The real damage was to the inside of my head, to my brain. There were no obvious signs of problems however. I was always an A student, played classical piano from a young age, had many friends and had a great memory. None of this changed, but mood problems began about this time.

My family was upper middle class, we wanted for nothing and was a bit neurotic and chaotic. However, the perfect storm of puberty, traumatic head injury and environment, brought on the first of many issues regarding mood. I suffered first from anorexia and bulimia, beginning my love of drugs with a then diet pill, OTC, called Dexatrim. The drug is no longer sold, but was an appetite suppressant and worked well, or not so well. Many years fighting with my family over this disease still did not properly alert anyone that there was a brain problem. In the 90s, we still knew and understood less about mental illness then we do now.

This period in my life also was the time when anxiety and depression took hold in a more serious way. I was constantly up and down; going from being a University dropout, to an entrepreneur that successfully moved to Florida to begin a new life. For this reason, no one quite knew what to make of me. For a while I was a mess, but then things would go great until the next bout of problems.

Looking for a solution to this unbearable sadness and anxiety, I went to a psychiatrist to figure out what was going on with me. I described my symptoms to a “T” and was diagnosed with Depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I was prescribed Xanax and Zoloft at first. In the beginning, the Xanax worked fabulously. But then, just like so many other stories, it began not to work. The anxiety would come back and I was put on more and more Xanax.

Over the years I’d changed psychiatrists about 3 times and each of them layered yet another drug on top of the ones I was taking. By the “end of the road”, I was on Xanax, Ativan and Valium, Adderall, Pristiq, Zoloft and Lamictal for a while.

Life spiraled out of control and at my worst point, ten years later, I was taking over 10 times the normal dose prescribed for these medications. They kept not working and I began to take more and more. My obsession with benzodiazepines (benzos) took hold of me and I found myself thinking about them constantly, snorting them, buying back up supplies on the internet and stockpiling these medications.

Every day was a nightmare of crying, terrifying anxiety and sense of doom. My life had shrunk down to almost nothing. I lost my home, my business and my long time boyfriend. My family was at their wits end with me and my sister was terrified. No one knew how to help me. I knew something was wrong, I said it all of the time, but no one could figure out what was wrong with me.

Finally, in June of 2011, I was arrested for DUI. I was drinking heavily on top of all of the pills and had begun playing with Opiates. The day before I was arrested, I was cleaning a friend’s house for money and stole some vicodin from their medicine chest. This was an all time low for me. When the police searched my car and purse, they found Xanax from the internet, vicodin and Valium in my possession. I was also charged with possession of a controlled substance.

I was thrown in jail and spent 2 days there. I went through court and was put on probation. I still couldn’t get my life under control and I failed to satisfy the requirements for my driver’s license. The license was suspended and I still drove with the suspended license.

I was arrested a second time, when pulled over for speeding. The police determined I didn’t have a valid license and took me again to jail. This time however, i’d violated my probation and was in such legal trouble.

I spent 8 days in jail that time, where I was forced to detox cold turkey from all of the medication I’d been on. Everything, including the depression medications I had been taking for the past 10 years. The detox was a living horror. I couldn’t see, I could barely hear what anyone was saying and I couldn’t remember simple things like the words to my favorite songs, phone numbers, or what the details of my life were.

I realize now that i could have died in jail, or had a seizure at least. Despite my pleas for help regarding the withdrawal from benzos, no one would acknowledge me or help me there. This is a whole other issue, but no one in the jail gave a crap about my health or survival.

I was determined to live when I was there. I felt like I was on a roller coaster, on the drop over 200 times in a row. I counted the “cycles” in an attempt to not go insane. I was put in the “medical” section, which I thought was a place that could help me, but instead, I learned it was a cell locked with an aluminum/steel door with just a tiny window. No one ever came to check on me or listened when i called. I sweated through my orange jumpsuit over three times and no one would give me even a clean one.

While counting these cycles I was having, I began to notice that the sets were becoming smaller. I distinctly remember counting 183 and at that point I believed they would eventually stop. AFter each set, I would finally fall asleep, only to wake up to another set. I didn’t know what time it was, what day it was or what was to happen to me.

On the 4th day, I was aware enough to know that I’d have to pretend to feel better in order to get out of this solitary confinement. I truly felt like I could die in there and no one would know until they found my dead body. I decided I would not let this happen. I told the nurse, although barely able to hear myself over the ringing in my ears, that I was much steadier and felt clear of mind. It was such a lie, but I lied well enough to be released back to the regular area of cells. At least there, I could read, talk, and try to get my head from spinning.

The anxiety was a nightmare. I rocked myself to find some solace and by the grace of the universe, I was in a place where i could take as many showers as I wanted. I took a shower at least once an hour in order to get my muscles to stop seizing. I still don’t know now how I didn’t die or go completely insane. My will to get out of there and to get better was my only thought. I gave myself survival goals of 20 minutes in order to stay sane and alive.

I was released to the care of a rehab center as part of a plea agreement my lawyer made on my behalf. When i got to rehab, I could barely sit still, and i felt like an alien in my body. I would hit myself in the face with my own hand because I barely had any sense of coordination.

It was in rehab, that I finally was put with an amazing psychiatrist who diagnosed me with Bipolar Disorder, Rapid Cycling. No other doctor had ever even suggested this as a diagnosis. As a result, my doctor explained that the meds for depression, as serotonin reuptake inhibitors, were actually causing me to cycle even more quickly from mania to depression at lightening rates. This was the underlying cause of the nightmare my life had become. I was prescribed appropriate seizure medications Lamictal and Trileptal. These worked along with Gabapentin, Abilify and Doxepine.

Slowly, I began to feel a little better and recognize myself. this recognition however, was so slight and I still felt like an imposter in m y own body. When I was released from rehab I had the daunting task of relearning how to live without Xanax, pain pills and alcohol.

I didn’t know how to sleep without drugs, and spent night after night writhing in pain, exhaused yet unable to sleep on my own. I would break down and cry, wondering if this would last forever and agonizing over what i’d done to myself, and what was done to me by bad doctors.

The one thing that never wavered, was my determination to get better. I had always wanted to get better, to feel better, but had been led down the wrong path for over a decade. My current psych. said that bipolar often goes undiagnosed for an average of ten years; I was the poster child. I made daily goals for myself, like walk for 5 minutes, then 6,7,8, etc. Slowly I got stronger although the anxiety and restlessness was terrible.

Withdrawal and Post Withdrawal symptoms:

The withdrawal and PAWS (Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome) was so awful. I would randomly break out into complete sweats and my hands would shake uncontrollably. I still felt like i would jump out of my skin constantly and I could not feel any sense of peace or relaxation. I didn’t share this with my doctor because I was afraid of being put on yet more medication. Somewhere inside myself, I knew I had to reclaim my life with the fewest number of medications. My mood however, was stable. I didn’t feel depressed and I didn’t feel like I would spontaneously combust. I wasn’t hypersexual, did not rant and rave and felt mood stability for the first time I could remember.

I would also have so much body pain that even the shower hurt me. I had to shower in luke warm water because cold water hurt as did hot water. I would almost scream in the shower at how painful it was. Every time I went in the shower, I told myself to just stand it for one more minute, and go up from there. Slowly, the shower stopped hurting my skin.

Other symptoms:

Other recurring symptoms were random recurrences of anxiety, dizziness, sensitivity to noise, light and ringing in the ears. My body was bloated, I retained water and could not see my ankle bones. I had regained some needed weight but the uncomfortableness in my body was almost unbearable. I was smoking cigarettes at a relentless pace in order to find some sense of inner calm. They worked for a while, at least to give me something . I knew it was not healthy but at the time I couldn’t let that go.

I had mental fuzziness for such a long time. I noticed that three of my prescribed medications were making me dopey and cloudy. I slowly over time asked my doctor if I could reduce and stop those medications. He agreed to try it and I removed three of them from my set of daily medications leaving me with only the seizure meds.

Insomnia was equally devastating. The brain, especially the bipolar brain needs appropriate amounts of sleep and my disturbed sleep cycle really scared me. I was exhausted every day and barely felt able to get out of bed. However, every day, i forced myself to get up, make my bed, get dressed and try to get through a day. Minute by minute I survived and got stronger. Inches at a time, I began to improve. I was determined to get better and have the life I had been trying to have for my whole life.

As a whole, withdrawal symptoms lasted about three years. I’d read that 98% of the time, withdrawal symptoms disappear in a year. Well it took me 3. For those three years, I fought the symptoms every single minute. I was not going to be a chronic loser whining about my pain and making excuses.

THE FABULOUS NEWS:

The greatest news and truly the point of this story, is to say that my withdrawal symptoms are 99% gone. I sleep well every night without drugs. I also wake up in the morning early without fogginess or feelings of exhaustion. I wake up happy, ready to tackle each day. My life is so great now. I am close with my family, my boyfriend and I are to be married, I have new friends and truly feel like I know who I am again.

I returned to school to get an engineering degree and i am halfway through. I connect with people at the University and I am proud of what I have accomplished. My mood has been stable for four years and I can really cope with life.

I no longer attend NA meetings, but I credit them with a statement that truly helped me those days where I thought I’d die without Xanax or pain pills. it was “Don’t use no matter what.” I gave myself permission to cry for a few minutes, break down for a little while knowing that the feeling would pass and that I would die before taking another pill. There was a time when I found a Xanax hidden in my going out purse. I actually put it in my mouth, caught myself, spat it out immediatly and really knew I’d made it.

I still think about pills very often. Every single time i have a bad feeling, its the first thing i think about. The difference is, I am not consumed with these thoughts and know that no matter what, I will not take one.

I now have interests, activities and enjoy just staying at home. I rarely feel like going out and ‘partying” and don’t feel like I am missing out. Again, every now and then, I feel the fear of missing out and get the thought that I would like to just cut loose and get drunk and f-d up. I don’t and I tell myself that the fun I am imagining is an illusion and I will not participate in that line of thinking. sometimes I yell at myself, get really tough with myself and I now find a great strength in my own self tough love.

I am now reliable, courteous, trustworthy, dependable. My relatives no longer have to worry about what disaster is on the other end of the telephone and trust that I can handle everything. I can.

The title of my story was chosen because the proper diagnosis of my brain disorder would have saved me a decade of grief. If you or a loved one has mood problems that are not improved by current medication, seek a different doctor, or most importantly, DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH! Go to Google Scholar and read the medical journals. Educate yourself and if you are a parent, read, learn, and be willing to accept that your child may have a mental illness. I call mental illness, brain disorders, because that’s what they are. Things don’t fire properly and there are measurable structural and electrical differences. This is not a choice anyone makes, they don’t know the cause, there is no cure, but there is management; most importantly without addictive benzos and pain pills.

Many like myself, sought these meds to feel better. I just wasn’t feeling better and didn’t trust anyone to help me. No one can overcome drug addiction on their own. That is a lie. That is a fact. I believe that inpatient, rehab is 100% necessary as well as follow up care. I needed to be plucked from my hell and rebuilt piece by piece away from my old environment. I like to think that my success to date is a testiment to this.

If you are suffering from withdrawal, or are becoming conscious that you are in trouble, or you recognize/suspect addiction in someone you love, take action. Don’t wait. Intervene now. Don’t listen to the addict. He/she will lie, fake being well, do almost anything to keep the addiction alive. I believe that only outside intervention can free the addict from this disease. The disease locks onto your brain and convinces you that you will die without the drugs. Drugs take over your survival instinct, which is the most basic and strongest one we have. Because of that, someone else must seize control.

Gentleness did not save me. Swift, slightly harsh action did. I am so glad that I was arrested and forced to break free. I know I would never have done it on my own. The manner in which my detox was handled was horrifying, and because I survived I count myself as one of the luckiest people on earth.

To restate, I am so happy, happier then any time i was addicted of got high. Every single thing in my life works now. It scares me sometimes how much things work out. While addicted, NOTHING worked, ever. Now each day is amazing and i can’t wait to see what happens next. All of the effort has been worth it and continues to be worth it.

Thanks for reading!

7 Responses to this article

  1. Renee / August 24, 2014 at 9:37 am

    I read your story and just wanted to say good for you! Success stories are very helpful.

  2. Avatar of Brian
    Brian / August 20, 2014 at 3:18 am

    Well your story is an inspiration for many to understand the ways to get out of this disorder. That is why it is often said that patience & strong determination can help one combat all odds, to come out successfully. Due to which it is recommended to consult the nearest rehab centers without delay, if anyone is going through lean patch in life & unable to cope with current life style. Since rehab centers are fully equipped to take every challenges to make the patient feel better & stronger.

  3. Avatar of Joanna
    Joanna / August 7, 2014 at 2:41 pm

    Also, you WILL feel good again. I am so certain of it. I felt so terrible before, when i was addicted. I actually thought I would feel worse without the pills but its NOT TRUE. Its such a lie I don’t have words for it.

    You will feel so good, you’ll feel like you did before Bipolar reared its ugly head. There will be some crappy days but you can know that they absolutely will go away as long as you just do what you are supposed to do. I tell myself that its ok to feel bad today. Feel bad, but keep going. The feelings ALWAYS go away, and I think the Bipolar part can appreciate feeling good even more.

    Here’s to you feeling good and happy!

  4. Avatar of Joanna
    Joanna / August 7, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    I’m trying to reword this reply since the site is not letting me post this!! Argghhh.

    I’m so glad someone actually read this. While I can’t say it won’t be really hard and feel like total s**t, but the end result is so amazing, I can’t even tell you.

    Wow, having cancer is so scary that in and of itself demonstrates the strength you have! I reallly believe that the brain, and therefore you, can not even begin to function (neurons firing) in a normal way on state altering substances.

    The great thing is, you CAN do it. I think its best to get help with it, bc someone needs to be a professional support in the beginning. The thing I relied on most while I was healing was tiny goals. That way, the “addictive” part of my brain was already being rewired for reward with these tiny good goals that made me want more of them. A substitution was necessary for me bc of the way my bipolar brain is hardwired BUT, it is finally a good, helpful and correct set of patterns and behaviors.

    As for the hydrocodone, you DO NOT need it now, nor can you have a functioning life with it. There are no negotiations here. Tapering is probably the best way to go about it, although in rehab people detoxed cold turkey. They felt awful, and I know how it feels. You feel like your skin is crawling and you think you will die. But you won’t. That part of your brain wants to be alive and can only do so with opiates. Without them that part will die. It will fight you, who you really are, the person that wants to be free and better. Again, good news is that YOU will win. Because YOU are the foundation of your being. The addictive part, was created by you in an attempt to feel better, not knowing what effect it would have.

    I can tell you that I absolutely have no desire to use pills again. I have the romantic dream that they will save me in “hellish times” but I, the real I, tells myself that it will not entertain illusions and the “beast” stays quiet.

    Don’t make excuses, do it. Get off them. Get better. Get happy again. Do it now. :)

  5. Avatar of Joanna
    Joanna / August 7, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    I tried to reply, but its not showing up. Hopefully you will see this comment to know I’ve replied with what I think will give you even more hope.

  6. Joanna / August 7, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    I’m so glad someone actually read this. While I can’t say it won’t be really hard and feel like total s**t, but the end result is so amazing, I can’t even tell you.

    Wow, having cancer is so scary that in and of itself demonstrates the strength you have! I reallly believe that the brain, and therefore you, can not even begin to function (neurons firing) in a normal way on state altering substances.

    The great thing is, you CAN do it. I think its best to get help with it, bc someone needs to be a professional support in the beginning. The thing I relied on most while I was healing was tiny goals. That way, the “addictive” part of my brain was already being rewired for reward with these tiny good goals that made me want more of them. A substitution was necessary for me bc of the way my bipolar brain is hardwired BUT, it is finally a good, helpful and correct set of patterns and behaviors.

    As for the hydrocodone, you DO NOT need it now, nor can you have a functioning life with it. There are no negotiations here. Tapering is probably the best way to go about it, although in rehab people detoxed cold turkey. They felt awful, and I know how it feels. You feel like your skin is crawling and you think you will die. But you won’t. That part of your brain wants to be alive and can only do so with opiates. Without them that part will die. It will fight you, who you really are, the person that wants to be free and better. Again, good news is that YOU will win. Because YOU are the foundation of your being. The addictive part, was created by you in an attempt to feel better, not knowing what effect it would have.

    I can tell you that I absolutely have no desire to use pills again. I have the romantic dream that they will save me in “hellish times” but I, the real I, tells myself that it will not entertain illusions and the “beast” stays quiet.

    Don’t make excuses, do it. Get off them. Get better. Get happy again. Do it now. :)

  7. Christine S. / August 7, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    Thank you so much for your story. I am bipolar, but take hydrocodone since having cancer 3 years ago. Also on a pain patch. I know I’m addicted. I’m afraid to get off these for how bad I feel when I run out of them, I’m afraid I will never feel good again, but I see hope from your story.
    Thank you!

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