As an adult, I’ve had several short stories and essays published (some you can read for free on my website patricktobin.net). I adapted one of my stories into a screenplay that eventually became the movie CAKE, which starred Jennifer Aniston as a character with chronic pain.
Five years ago, I was addicted to Xanax. It was like, one day I was popping the occasional .25 mg tablet to take the edge off and before I knew it I was taking twenty times the normal dose just to function.
How I got from Point A to Point B was made possible by the fact I was suspended in the warm amniotic fluid of near-total ignorance. I had a doctor who never mentioned addiction, even as she wrote ever-increasing prescriptions. And I was the quintessential lazy American. Give me a pill to solve my problems and I’m happy.
I only became aware that there might be a problem when I couldn’t remember anything about a movie that I’d seen the previous day. I consulted the internet (oh how quickly Google turns into a clown car of horrors when you have medical questions). I discovered conclusive evidence that long-term use of benzodiazepines affects cognitive abilities, perhaps even permanently. For someone who writes for a living, this was terrifying information.
I knew enough to know that I shouldn’t stop taking Xanax cold turkey – previous experiences with antidepressants had taught me the wisdom of tapering off psychiatric medication. I made the decision to decrease my dose over the course of six weeks.
In perhaps the clearest definition of irony, I remember feeling smart and cautious when I came up with this plan.
The anxiety started to come back two days into the taper, but I was mentally prepared for it. I was also prepared for the insomnia: I drank chamomile tea before bedtime and listened to Tibetan chanting on my iPod. By day four I was experiencing cramps and diarrhea. Day six marked the arrival of constipation – perhaps I’d been too vigorous praying for relief from the runs? Meanwhile the anxiety and insomnia became worse.
Rather than consult with a doctor, I decided that the discomfort I was feeling was beneficial in the same way that someone doing a juice fast consents to feeling like shit – the end of the road promised glowing skin and the freedom to feel superior to my friends.
I WAS DETERMINED TO WHITE-KNUCKLE IT THROUGH MY WITHDRAWAL EVEN AS NEW SYMPTOMS APPEARED ALMOST DAILY.
Blinding headaches. Flu-level aches. Electrical shocks that emanated from the top of my skull down my neck.
I endured, but it was getting harder to ignore how the quality of my life was deteriorating. My ears started to ring so loudly it was like I was surrounded by angry cicadas. I developed hallucinations. One night I noticed that any movement of my hands left light trails in their wake (think the movie “TRON”). Another night I thought a train was passing our house, but when I mentioned it to my husband he said he couldn’t hear anything before pointing out that we didn’t live near train tracks.
I suffered through all of this pain convinced it would end in a couple of weeks. By week four I’d stopped eating and sleeping, and the anxiety was the worst I’d ever experienced in my life. At the time I was at a loss to describe it, but now I give you this: Imagine the terror you’d feel if your life was in imminent danger. Imagine a killer approaching you with a knife or your car flying off the side of a mountain. Now imagine this terror as a viscous substance like honey or tar. It envelops you completely and any attempt to wipe it off merely spreads it to another part of your body. In this way, the terror can never stop or lessen – it simply finds new real estate within the same neighborhood.
I returned to the internet, where I was confronted by videos of people going through Xanax withdrawal whose tremors were so bad it looked like they were having epileptic fits. I read about people experiencing what I was experiencing, but instead of their symptoms diminishing after a few weeks, they continued for months. Sometimes years. As it became apparent that I’d tapered too fast, I tried increasing my dose, but it was too late. My symptoms continued unabated and a new feeling showed up on the scene: hopelessness. I was stuck in unending suffering without any hope of immediate relief.
TIME STOPPED HAVING MEANING: SECONDS FELT LIKE HOURS, HOURS LIKE DAYS, DAYS LIKE LIFETIMES.
I was experiencing a kind of spiritual theory of relativity, edging ever closer to a black hole of pain in which I’d be stuck for eternity. What I was going through seemed like the very definition of Hell.
To be surrounded by people who weren’t experiencing what I was experiencing only made the suffering worse. My husband was concerned about me, but his anxiety lapped at his feet like the tiny waves of a pond while I was drowning in an angry sea.
This isolation only made me more self-absorbed. I’d stare angrily at my husband while he slept peacefully.
I’d visit withdrawal message boards in the middle of the night. I wish I would die, wrote Dwayne from St. Louis. I don’t think I’m going to make it, wrote Alice from Boulder. The saddest thing is I used to complain about my life before this happened, I wrote one night, but now I realize I was living in paradise.
I started to consider suicide. I’d suffered from depression most of my life – I was familiar with thoughts of ending my life, but religious guilt had always kept them at bay. The suicidal feelings that showed up during my withdrawal were something entirely different than the fleeting thoughts of my youth. They were disheveled and emaciated and hysterical.
THEY CLAWED AT ME LIKE WINSTON IN 1984, FRESH FROM THE HORRORS IN ROOM 101.
Do it, they said. You won’t survive another five minutes of this pain, let alone a year.
What about God? I asked.
What about Him? these thoughts said. Do you honestly think there’s a God who would allow you to suffer this way? And so what if he sends you to Hell, would it be any worse than what you’re going through? There’s at least the outside chance that he’ll have mercy on you.
This dialogue continued while I drove along the freeway toward an interchange where there’d been construction for nearly a year. The temporary lanes had always been confusing and presented an ideal situation – I could drive my car into the cement dividers without hurting anyone or raising any suspicion. The construction crews were gone for the day. My husband and family would blame my death on driver error.
As I opened myself up to the possibility of ending my life, I felt a flash of relief – a solution existed that was going to end my suffering. With the interchange less than a mile away I took a deep breath and pressed down on the accelerator.
I imagined my husband’s grief. I imagined my brother, whose wife and daughter had died in 1998. Another tragedy would destroy him. I imagined my mother, who had prepared for my imminent death after I was diagnosed with HIV in 1985 – what would be her reaction? Would she turn against God for snatching me away after finally letting her believe that I wasn’t going to die of AIDS?
HOW THE FUCK WAS I GOING TO FIND THE STRENGTH TO GO ON?
I wish I could tell you why I continued driving past the interchange. After I got home I called my brother in Colorado – he’d just finished nursing school – and told him how close I’d come to ending my life. He took the next flight to Long Beach. In the morning he drove me to an addiction specialist who specialized in benzodiazepine withdrawal. This doctor was expensive and not covered by insurance, but my husband and I used our credit card to pay for his help weaning me off Xanax. We’re still paying off this debt.
If I were doing the Hollywood movie version of this story, I’d give you an inspiring montage of my yearlong road to recovery. The reality, however, was boring and often demoralizing.
Nurses calling me into examining rooms by an assigned number and not my name. Buying pricey homeopathic remedies, like sour cherry extract, that did nothing to help my progress. Because I was so focused on my symptoms, I discovered for the first time in my life the true meaning of loneliness. And yet, reaching out often proved frustrating. My friends and family grew weary of my complaints and I don’t blame them one bit. At one point the addiction specialist tried to start a support group, but his patients could find no strength in each other – to be gathered in one place freaked us out, like a magnifying glass increasing the focus on our pain.
It was slow going, but eventually I recovered. Every once in a while I’d find myself experiencing a long-forgotten emotion, such as enthusiasm or humor. I documented these fleeting sensations in my recovery journal – my doctor encouraged me to highlight these moments with a yellow marker, so when I flipped through the pages I’d see visual proof that I was getting better.
When I flip through the pages now I only see evidence of the paradox of life. Sometimes we experience suffering that takes us to the edge of the abyss. Sometimes we experience strength and healing. None of it makes any sense.