I'm at the 3 year and 7 month mark - medication-free. It's been awhile since I've posted and most recent posts have been in regards to some of the meals I make for my family. I thought it was time for another "post benzo blog entry".
The farther out I get the better things become. It's proven to have been a two-steps-forward-one-step-back process at times. I find I got through many weeks or months of feeling 97% better, only to get hit with a strew of old side effects. And again, many of you who read this update might think, "um, if you're 3+ years off, how can you have a side effect of a pill you don't even take?" A quick reminder: benzodiazepines affect the central nervous system (which as you know can take a long time to heal). They also take over the body's natural "GABA" which acts as a natural relaxer. When you take away the pills, your GABA has to now relearn in a sense. Your body has to figure out how to calm itself down naturally. This is why it can - though not always - take upwards of 5+ years to recover from the effects of the pills. I am not a "usual" case. Most people will come off of Benzodiazepines with less issues - even no issues. Why it hit me this way is a question I'll never be able to answer. The only thing I wonder if it's because I had been prescribed so many different SSRI's and benzos over the years (especially in my teens)...perhaps my body had enough of it all.
So on a normal, healthy day - which is most days - I am a regular human being. Nothing too exciting to tell. I find my biggest issue is heightened anxiety (again most people get nervous or anxious over situations...I just tend to get that much MORE anxious and my body tells me this by throwing little curveballs my way). My main symptoms that linger aside from anxiety are nausea (still can't get rid of that one), over-active bladder (proven to be a real pain when driving more than an hour...though sometimes my bladder causes no issues), sleep disturbance (though not as common...worst issues are active-dreaming, nightmares which cause issues with clenching at night) and that brings me to dental issues. My teeth are healthy - no problems there - but they hurt ALL the time. Whether I have a wiggly sensation in my front teeth (which makes me speak different as I feel like I have to curl my upper lip to keep them in place...even though they aren't actually wiggling...it's only a sensation), or dental nerve pain that I have revisited the Dentist for on numerous occasions, only to learn my teeth "look great!"
This might still sound like a lot to be dealing with 3+ years out, but it's a walk in the park compared to 3 years ago, when I was dealing with over 30 symptoms which included dry-heaving, sweats, muscle pain (like the flu), rib pain, headaches - you name it. Nowadays, I can live a life like everyone else. If I'm nauseated, I just take a breath and know it will pass eventually. If I'm anxious, I take an even deeper breath and remind myself of how many times I've overcome anxious situations and always win. Positive self talk has proven to be HIGHLY effective.
So now this brings me to Christmas time. Whether it was the excitement of it all, the excessive sugar intake after being SO strict for 3 years, the late nights (when my husband is on vacation, we are all about late nights on the couch watching movie after movie, or TV shows on Netflix), OR a combination of it all: I got hit hard. It was slowly creeping up a month or two before Christmas. I'd say I noticed it in November. Just more nausea than usual. Getting hit with the sweats. "Benzo-flu" off/on (which basically feels like a mild body flu but just comes and goes as it pleases). And then post-Christmas, the panic attacks. FULL attacks which I hadn't been experiencing in a LONG time. The worst was the morning of a recent snow storm. School was shut down. Hubby got the word to stay home from work. It SHOULD have been an exciting day! As soon as I woke up something didn't feel right. I was filled with this nervous energy which felt like electricity running through my veins. I felt like I needed to move constantly. My chest burned as I breathed. I felt a lump in my stomach. I sat behind the computer to check my e-mail when, "WHAM!" That was it. I was up like a lightening bolt. My daughter was still asleep, but my husband was awake. I looked at him with wide eyes and said, "something is wrong". This led to minutes of pacing my bedroom in tears. I felt the urge to dry-heave. Was I sick with the flu? Or was it anxiety? My husband reassured me endlessly that this was anxiety. It has been creeping up for weeks and this was the big hit. "You know it passes". SURE!!! OF COURSE it passes!!! The advice I've given myself over and over for years now was NOT going to work. In my head I was dying. Not literally of course, but it sure felt like it. My head was spinning, I was sweating but chilled to the bone. My breath was fast - hyperventilating. I felt like throwing up. The only thing I could think to do was call my parents. I haven't had to do this in SOOOO long. It was humiliating and humbling at the same time.
"Hello", my Mom answered.
"Mom? I'm so sorry", I sobbed.
From then on I cried and repeated how scared I felt...how this couldn't be happening again...I couldn't put my daughter through this again...why is this happening???...What if it stays for months like last time??? I had so many questions that I knew couldn't be answered but I was scared - terrified, really. I finally told my parents I'd let them go. I just needed to work through this and continue to pace. When my daughter woke up minutes later she saw my red, swollen eyes. I told her, "sweetie, you remember all that stuff I went through a few years ago? This is like a small version of that. It won't last, I'll be okay, it's just hard and it's making me cry". Her answer was, "okay!". No stress. A hug and a look of reassurance from her, and all was right in her world. My old therapist had told me a few years ago, "You aren't traumatizing your daughter. You are teaching her empathy. This will make HER stronger". She was 100% right and this was proof. She has become an extremely empathetic girl with a huge heart. She feels emotions of others around her and notices EVERYTHING. But she has this strength that I find SO admirable. Even at school when a peer teases her or makes her feel bad, she comes home, tells me right away what happened, MAYBE lets out a few tears, but then knows that tomorrow is a new day. She's never "angry" with those peers...only disappointed. It's a great quality. We, as parents, try to hide the "bad stuff" from our kids. We want them to think we are perfect. We tell them half-truths so they won't be disappointed in us. But what does that do for them long-term? THEY'LL be frightened to tell us just about anything for fear of letting us down! I think this experience of benzo withdrawal only taught my daughter about mental strength, empathy, unconditional love - and to top it off she got to watch her DAD step up to the plate and become the cheerleader in our family.
Got a bit off topic there...continuing on:
Well, about 45 minutes later from the start of the panic attack, I was out shovelling our snow-covered driveway for almost 3 hours (I helped a neighbour as well). NO signs of anxiety. The nausea, the sweats - all of it - had passed. And it has NOT come back to that degree since. As quickly as it came that morning, it left.
When you go through benzodiazepine withdrawal and read all the manuals/books, it can be overwhelming and frightening, but what it repeats over and over, is that it's not uncommon to get hit out of nowhere with what feels like withdrawal all over again years out. What follows the "climax" of that wave is normally weeks of improvement, where you end with an all-over improved baseline. I am slowly approaching that now since having that panic attack - which would have been the climax. I can feel all of those symptoms slowly fade away again. Less nausea, less sweats, less anxiety, and a better sleep pattern.
It's a reminder that this is not over yet - not my journey at least. Some people will be symptom free in a matter of weeks. I seem to be taking the longer route. But either way, it gets better. SO much better. The med-free-Sarah thinks more clearly and feels a genuine, deep happiness I was missing while "numbed" on medication. I smile easily - and this time I don't have fear hiding behind that smile. I can commit to things, though I have to be careful of what I commit to as some things still bring on too much anxiety. This means I've learned to say "no". I can socialize easily AND enjoy it (not just "be" there). Life is pretty beautiful.
Meditation, yoga, exercise, long walks, and "me time" seem to be essential to working through my anxiety issues. I will always use these tools. Healthy diet is a key and I have learned the hard way after allowing myself a few too many treats in recent months. Our meals are notoriously healthy, but the small snacks...not always. I was reminded and have now committed to making the necessary changes. Water is another one that is so essential, but I have a horrible habit for "forgetting". I could go an entire day with "forgetting" to drink, then would try to get several glasses in me during the evening, only to visit the washroom throughout the night which meant a not-so-solid sleep. I now remind myself to "drink drink drink".
This journey has been VERY scary at times, but in the end kind of exciting. My blog has been a resource to some who have either contemplated coming off of benzos OR have wondered if medication is right for them (and I don't completely knock medication as it's effective for some...I just choose not to as the cons HIGHLY outweigh the pros in my case). It helped my close family and friends learn about this journey as well. Not only did I become stronger throughout this but so did my friendships and my marriage. There's a lot to be said for those who stick by you during difficult times when life isn't full of sunshine and roses. I thank them quietly very often. They are awesome people and I was partially so successful with this because of them.
As I continue this road, I hope that in the coming year or two this will be behind me entirely. I've read of those having issues for upwards of 7 years, but obviously I hope that this coming year is my last. No one is perfect. Everyone experiences anxiety to some degree - even if it's just occasional butterflies or an evening of worry. I don't expect to become Super Sarah who lives with zero fear and endless happiness...I just know that I am a human who is capable of altering things in my life (in my case diet and meditation) so that I can live a more comfortable life - nerves and all. I can proudly say I've gone through this journey without any bitterness. It's been about growth and self-learning - and growing love for and from those I love.
“A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.” - Elbert Hubbard