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Gwinna's Successful Recovery


[Gw...]

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I promised myself I would write my recovery story, no matter how painful it can be to remember, because I am proud of my transformation into a person I can love.

 

Context

 

I was prescribed benzodiazepines for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2008, when I was in my early twenties. I was fresh out of college, in my first apartment with my boyfriend, and starting my teaching career in a new town. My doctors assured me that the pills were safe if taken as prescribed. It is worth noting that the PTSD diagnosis is accurate. Like my mother (and her mother), I have always struggled with my mental health and can testify that our society’s common treatments can often be worse than the condition. I do not regret taking the pills, I regret taking them long-term when I was no longer in concurrent cognitive behavioral therapy.

 

My providers encouraged me to get 90-day refills for billing purposes, sign a controlled substances contract, and remember my refills like a responsible patient. The health care industry in this country, run by pharmaceutical and insurance companies, failed me as it has so many others. I was never warned about, or monitored for, the cognitive or physiological damage I sustained.

 

My decline over the course of a decade came on so gradually as I built up a tolerance for benzodiazepines that I was unable to connect my decline to the “medicine” that caused it. For the first few years of (consenting, adult) therapy as I learned about my diagnosis, Valium was immensely helpful. But I was so desperate to feel normal that I ignored red flags like frantic, tearful phone calls with pharmacies to beg for refills.

 

I stopped taking Valium in the months leading up to my wedding, hoping to prove I did not need it anymore. I came off way too quickly and suffered acute withdrawal for a few months, then became depressed and tried antidepressants (again) before ultimately reinstating benzodiazepines. I do not like to admit the number of weekends I drank alcohol with benzos in my system. I used to enjoy a Mocha-Valium-Vodka-Latte for Friday happy hour.

 

Shortly after I finished graduate school in 2012, I was unable to read a map and frequently got lost driving or even walking in my hometown. I was burning out in the classroom but felt trapped there. Ditto for my marriage. I noticed I was having difficulty connecting with people, remembering things, taking the initiative. I became glued to my couch, distracting from bleak suicidal bouts of despair with television and role-playing games. I avoided triggers instead of working through them, withdrew from friends and family, and buried myself in my work. I stopped reading. I experienced music as incomprehensible noise. Through the haze of sedatives, when I sometimes wondered about a vague nagging sense of unease in the pit of my stomach, I took a Xanax and went to sleep.

 

During the summer of 2016, I decided to kill myself rather than return to the classroom for another year. I have been that low before, but this time I genuinely believe I would have gone through with it. That August while I researched methods, my husband suggested we move back to his hometown and start over. He promised he would take care of me and I would be happy. I figured I had nothing to lose.

 

We moved to a dangerous city, took nonprofit jobs that underpaid and overworked us, burned through our savings, argued constantly, went into credit card debt, and became dangerously codependent. My mother-in-law died of MS that same year, so I felt obligated to stay.

I kept taking my medicine and feeling worse. I missed work to lay in bed and do nothing. I had panic attacks and flashbacks that were more severe than when I was first prescribed benzodiazepines. I was constantly exhausted and killing time with easy distractions. I felt like I was drowning in quicksand.

 

Spring 2018

 

I crashed my car and was concerned enough about my blasé response to the incident that I started googling. I thought maybe I had Lyme’s Disease or early MS symptoms. Then I found the Benzo Buddies online forum and it finally clicked that the pills were the problem! I asked two friends in the medical field for their opinion, and they shared my concerns. I remember they argued with each other about whether it was responsible to assure me that a complete cognitive recovery was possible.

They both stressed that if I wanted to get off benzodiazepines without serious and potentially fatal complications, I needed medical supervision. I found a young nurse practitioner who believed me and promised she could help me get off safely. I began my Valium taper.

 

Withdrawal began with piercing headaches and nausea. My hands and feet tingled and went numb. I felt dizzy and disoriented, I was painfully sensitive to light and sound, and my entire body ached – yearned - for the drug. I threw up most mornings and spent the days following a dose reduction bedridden and screaming from full-body convulsions. I lost the ability to move my limbs or speak for hours at a time. I felt like I was dying and in the worst moments I wanted to.

 

I was not ready to accept that I could be sick for months or even years, so I focused on getting through the next week, the next day, the next hour, the next minute. I kept a spreadsheet to track my daily Valium dose and wellness goals: a walk around the block, thirty minutes on the elliptical, a journal entry, a chapter of reading, a visit with a friend, a healthy meal. Cannabis and hot bubble baths helped immensely.

 

I managed to keep working during this season with liberal use of PTO, because I told my supervisor what I was going through and provided a light-duty note from my nurse practitioner. I was open with friends and family about my experiences and received life-saving support. I simply did not have room on my plate for shame. I spent hours on Benzo Buddies practicing positive thinking and gratitude while I vented and obsessively read about all these other people going through the same thing.

 

Summer 2018

 

I started to experience windows of relief that lasted between few hours and a few days. As my benzodiazepine dose reduced, I experienced a dramatic revival of sensory and emotional capacity. Colors were more vivid, so I took thousands of photographs on my daily walks. Music inspired new intense feelings, so I spent hours going down cathartic YouTube rabbit holes of laughter and tears. I became obsessed with reaction videos because I enjoyed studying another person’s facial expressions along with the songs I found so moving. I went on nature hikes and retreats to the mountains and the ocean. There were plenty of days I was unable to function, but on my good days I felt almost happy. It was like waking up from a coma. I knew I was improving, but I was not yet able to grasp how far I still had to go.

 

Some parts of my life, no matter how hard I tried, did not fit the positivity and gratitude narrative. I harbored deep discontentment with my career, my finances, and my marriage, but was still too impaired to manifest the integrity and self-worth I needed make sound judgments or decisions about my future. I made a lot of poor choices and behaved in ways I now regret. I was terrified I would never get any better, that I was permanently damaged, but I battled that fear with acceptance and self-care.

I never considered reinstating. I wanted my life and my brain back.  My niece was born the month after I finally got off benzodiazepines, and I remember resolving to be the kind of person who could have a positive role in her life. I planted a garden.

 

Fall 2018

 

Autumn marked the end of acute physical withdrawal from benzodiazepines and the shift to post-withdrawal mental symptoms. Mornings were the worst. I set my alarm two hours early so I had time to breathe through the heart-pounding panic attack, vomit, and cry in a hot shower until I stopped shaking. By this point I was into a routine with gentle exercise, time outdoors, journal writing, brief social visits, etc. My threshold for stress was extremely low, leaving me particularly vulnerable when my car was stolen, my cat got sick, and our landlord stopped responding to our repair requests. I showed up to family birthdays and Thanksgiving, but quickly became exhausted and overwhelmed if I pushed myself too hard. I reduced caffeine, sugar, and processed food and despite still feeling quite depressed, I hoped I was on the mend.

 

Winter 2018

 

Winter was bleak. As colors faded and sunlight diminished, I felt increasingly disconnected, anxious, and depressed. These states became more pronounced as my troubles compounded. My cat died, I argued with my family over Christmas, our financial situation got worse, and water damage on New Year’s that my landlord refused to address led to toxic mold growth that caused respiratory distress. I struggled with insomnia and woke at three o’clock every morning gasping for air when the cortisol surge in my brain triggered a panic attack.

 

Intrusive thoughts would fixate and relentlessly loop on every real or imagined source of stress, working my body into a fight-or-flight response several times a day. Depersonalization and derealization were near constant, and I broke down sobbing every hour or so. I did not recognize myself or my life. My husband and I fought bitterly during this season.

 

Work became an utter nightmare when there was high turnover and I accepted a promotion, working twelve-hour days trying to salvage a failing program on my own. I was in a new role for which I had not been trained, as well as hiring and training my subordinates and my supervisor in our program’s busiest season. I told myself if I could just hang in there until spring, things would get better somehow.

 

Spring 2019

 

The house we were renting became uninhabitable due to the mold, so we had to treat and/or discard all our belongings during a hastily scheduled move we could not afford. We crash landed in a friend’s house, telling ourselves stories about how we would get better jobs and buy the house from him while I overworked myself into a full mental breakdown. I was in a constant state of panic, consumed by a pervasive sense of dread. My new manager was an unbearable, micromanaging narcissist and I realized my situation was not going to get better before I ended up in the hospital or the grave. I remember closing my office door and ugly crying under my desk, then going home and lying awake all night in unfamiliar surroundings while my brain replayed my greatest fears behind my eyelids and just trying to breathe before getting up and doing it all over again. The day after I submitted the grant proposal that I wrote to keep the program funded, I resigned without another job lined up and fell back on my father’s support to focus on my recovery. It felt like giving up, like failing, like admitting I was broken and inadequate. I let go because I really did not have any other choice. I tried to have faith that the universe would catch me.

 

Summer 2019

 

The summer I spent not working was another turning point in my recovery, because I made it my sole purpose to heal. I joined the YMCA, started practicing yoga, kept journaling, read self-help books, learned to crochet, and started taking care of household chores like cleaning, grocery shopping, and cooking. I wrote long letters and visited gardens with friends. I identified a strain of medical cannabis that lifted my mood and eased anxiety. Most importantly, I found a good psychologist and resumed cognitive behavioral therapy. I built a daily schedule around these tasks to cultivate resiliency and cognitive ability. I wrote countless to-do lists so I could relearn how to show up on time and follow through on commitments. I started writing poetry again, attended a writer’s conference, and shared my creative work at open mic nights. I rose and retired with the sun to reset my circadian rhythm, noted details on my daily walks to practice mindfulness and memory, and slowly untangled my identity from my career. I developed self-respect, self-worth, and even self-love. I started applying for jobs and considering what I wanted my future to look like. I started to believe I had a future worth fighting for.

 

Fall 2019

 

I landed a part-time adjunct instructor job that allowed me to close my employment gap and regain confidence in my professional abilities while I continued to search for full-time employment. I separated from my husband around the same time, going to stay in my father’s beach home. I thought I would wait to leave him until after benzodiazepine withdrawal, but I realized our unhealthy dynamic was stifling my growth and I had to put my recovery first.

I had never lived alone before and I really needed the space to get some clarity. I watched the sunrise over the ocean every morning, collected seashells on my daily walks, and fell asleep to the sound of the surf. I wandered the boardwalk at night and listened to a strings concert at the local library.

I drove hours to teach my classes, attend marriage counseling sessions and individual therapy appointments, and for job interviews. I got better at managing my mental health. I remember juggling phone calls negotiating salary and consulting with divorce lawyers during the day and unplugging completely on the weekends. I lost friends in the divorce who accused me of selfishness but kept friends I looked up to who encouraged me to put my health and happiness first.

 

By this point it was neither helpful nor possible to distinguish between withdrawal symptoms and the trauma of so many major life changes at once, but I think I was probably recovering from the damage of long-term benzodiazepine use – or at least I framed it that way. Deep breathing and mantras helped me hold it together. I had no idea what my future held, and the intrusive mental loops tormented me with everything I had lost.

 

It felt like my whole life was falling apart because it was. It needed to. I had not built it to last, and my healing capacity depended on my ability to rebuild on stronger, healthier foundations. I started praying again in this season and remembered I have not just a body and mind, but a soul too. I told my husband I wanted a divorce, accepted an office position with a better salary, benefits, and work/life balance, and signed a lease on an apartment in a new city near that new job.

 

Winter 2019

 

This winter was as dark as the one that came before it. I liked the new job, but every part of my daily life was harsh and unfamiliar on top of the divorce. I did not know anyone, it was just me and my air mattress, card table with folding chairs, and TV. I splurged on a recliner and my sister helped me set up a Christmas tree. She took me shopping and I cried in her arms. I experienced frequent panic attacks and crying spells in my office and car, and I woke up every morning wondering what the point to any of it was. I felt vulnerable and lonely and scared and sad.

 

As sick as I was of starting over, I knew how to do it by this point. I built new routines compulsively, filling legal pads with to-do lists and budget notes. Training in my new position was the priority, and most evenings I just got high, ate a microwave dinner, and fell asleep in front of the TV. Intrusive thoughts were brutal in this season, it was common for me to be gripped with panic over my taxes before my eyes even opened in the morning.

 

I learned to shop, cook, and clean for myself. I tried several supplements including Melatonin for sleep. I was triggered by phone calls, emails, my mailbox, and any other potential source of bad news but with time and coping skills practice, I was able to reduce the severity, frequency, and duration of meltdowns.

I made a 2020 vision board, hung a white board above my desk and kept no less than six meticulously color-coded calendars. I put a different scented candle in each room to help me acclimate by associating positive sensory input with my new space. I kept up with therapy, started a hot yoga class and book club, and unpacked my childhood belongings while decorating my space with things that made me happy. I hired a lawyer to handle my divorce settlement negotiations. I joined a women’s circle book club. I sat alone in the quiet with my regrets and my fears, and I survived one day at a time. 

 

Spring 2020

 

I celebrated my thirty-fifth birthday at the beach with my sister in March. Spring in my new home was supposed to be my season to get back out into the world and meet new people, but instead it brought Coronavirus quarantine. I started working from home, ordering groceries, wearing a mask, etc. I was ill with virus-like symptoms in March and ended up in the ER because my heart rate was so high that my chest hurt and I didn’t know if I was having a panic attack or a heart attack.

My therapy sessions went virtual, so I had help adjusting to the “new normal.” I have reset my life so many years living crisis to crisis that I found myself uniquely suited to doing it again – only this time, the rest of the world did it too. I had forgotten that most people are not used to feeling like the sky is falling.

Recovery (and divorce) made me take a long hard look at how my life got to that point. It was not as simple as blaming the pills or the marriage or the job. I had to navigate the trauma at the root of my thoughts and experiences, to unpack my choices, and to take ownership of my own narrative. I realized nobody else was going to do that work for me, and I decided I deserved to be happy.

 

Because so many of my memories are hazy and triggering, I learned to find relief from the racing thoughts in the present moment. Eventually, mornings got easier. Breathing got easier. I did not think about benzodiazepine recovery as much, focusing more on getting my life back together in the aftermath. I started thinking about writing a success story but was afraid everything would fall apart again if I got my hopes up too soon.

 

Summer 2020

 

My new job is going well My divorce decree arrived in the mail. I have solid relationships with my family, friends, and neighbors. I am in the best physical shape of my life. I am handling my affairs without (as much) panic and I am sleeping through the night. My creative and spiritual life is blossoming. I am demonstrating because recovery taught me not to look away from painful truths. I have my life back. I have my mind back. It has all been worth it.

 

I still experience anxiety and depression associated with PTSD, but I continue to learn better ways of managing my condition. I have lingering digestive symptoms that may or may not be related to benzodiazepines; I have started seeing specialists and going for tests in search of answers. I do not think I am quite as cognitively sharp as I was before benzodiazepines, but I have faith that will come with time as I continue to develop new life skills. I lack a baseline to say I have recovered a certain percent but can say I have experienced continuous improvement and have every reason to believe that will continue.

 

The time has come to close the book on this chapter of my life.

 

Analysis

 

Recovery stories are heavy celebrations. I want to focus on the strategies that served me during this crucible and share some hard-earned wisdom. Take what uplifts and emboldens you. Leave the rest.

 

• Advocate for yourself and your needs.

• Show up to your life.

• There is no substitute for high-quality, compassionate professional help.

• The stories we tell ourselves have devastating power that can be harnessed.

• What is the next right thing to do? Do that thing. The rest will come.

• Community support is critical to successful recovery.

• Creativity is sacred.

• Small, easily attainable goals build confidence and momentum.

• Breathe into it. Let it go.

• The only way out is through.

 

Two years after my last Valium dose, I have adopted a puppy to celebrate my successful recovery from benzodiazepines. I named her Gwinna.

 

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the tress and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy. (from Desiderata by Max Ehrmann, 1927)

 

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This is such a wonderful story, Gwinna.  I can't tell you how happy I am to see you doing so well after all you have been through. And I'm so glad you got a puppy!

Gardie :smitten:

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Gwinna, such a story of pain and perseverance, and what the body and mind can withstand. Thank you for sharing your story and how you made it through, there is no doubt that your story will help others. You are so strong and never forget that. I am so happy that you have a puppy, they give so much comfort and tons of love. You deserve the Sun, the Moon and all that is good. Stay Strong and Stay Safe. 💖Peace and Healing. :smitten:
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Gwinna, all I can say is that your story is very powerful and shows the inner strength it took for you to endure so much and yet transcend it all and find a healthy place both mentally and physically.

 

You should be immensely proud of yourself, I am proud of you and proud of you for sharing this with everyone here on the forum.

 

I wish you all the best in this new life of yours! Enjoy that new puppy, they give unconditional love to their 'people', love you deserve!

 

PG  :smitten:

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wow what a powerful story. I felt like you were talking about me in many ways. Wow, you had a really hard time but so glad you pushed through it.

 

I tried writing a story around my one year mark. Around the 16 month mark I finally pushed myself to finish. I was a mess. Your write so well!

 

Congratulations.

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What a harsh soulful journey you have been on.  I can relate to so much of it.  I am very weary,  in the trenches.  You have given me such hope......  Blessings on you and your fuzzy one. 
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Hello Gwinna,

 

I am so happy for you, what a journey you have been on.    Its good to hear that your job is going well and you have good relationships with your friends and family. It sounds like life is wonderful right now...and you so deserve it!  Thank you so much for your wonderful, inspirational, well written,powerful story, you have a talent.  I am sure your story is going to inspire a lot of people.

 

I wish you the best of everything that life has to offer, and i am sure you will enjoy (gwinna) your adopted pup.

 

Magrita :smitten:

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Gwinna...wow. I see a lot of resilience and strength in you. How you managed to be in recovery, work, move, etc...

then do the hard work of working on you(and sometimes thats the hardest one  ;)).

 

I love how you said you made the choice that you deserved to be happy. I really do believe it is a choice for most of us. Its so easy to get lost in the coping and striving.

 

May you continue to find healing and fulfillment. thank you for sharing with us!

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You made me cry. Thank you. You helped realise that I am alive. Despite the pain that suffocates my emotions, I can still be  compassionate person.

 

Have a wonderful life! :smitten:

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Single handed lay the most well written success story on this board. One can truly feel your journey as the read it, thank you for this. You really illustrate the strength we possess inside when we grit down and make the next right choice...!
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  • 2 weeks later...
Gwinna ! What an awesome success story! You are a good writer and express yourself well! So happy for you and glad you got a puppy and so neat naming it Gwinna. Always a reminder of how far you have come. God Bless you with an abundant life always!
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Gwinna

 

A huge congrats 🍾🎉🎊🎈 to you. You suffered tremendously and managed to get your life in order. This success story is so well written I could feel your pain. I’m with pianogirl, she said it all. I too lost my husband, my job, my home and much of my life due to these drugs. It wasn’t until I got into my taper that I started to feel more normal and got my life back on track. I too had to move in with a parent but once I started tapering down I was able to move 600 miles away because my family had become so toxic. You are the embodiment of fortitude and courage. May you continue to feel better and eventually I hope you can find love again. But for the time being, you are number 1. A true inspiration. ❤️❤️

 

Oh and I got a puppy too. He has literally saved my life. As PG said, they love you unconditionally.

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