How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
When I woke up from my first heroin overdose, I was submerged in an ice-cold bath. I heard my boyfriend Mark’s pleas, his voice screaming at me to wake up.
As soon my eyes peeled open, he lifted me out of the tub and held me close. I couldn’t move, so he carried me to our futon, dried me off, dressed me in pajamas, and swaddled me in my favorite blanket.
We were shocked, silent. Even though I’d been using hard drugs, I didn’t want to die at only 28 years old.
When I looked around, I was stunned at how our cozy Portland apartment felt more like a crime scene than a home. Rather than the usual comforting aroma of lavender and incense, the air smelled like vomit and vinegar from cooking heroin.
Mark told me that after we shot up heroin, I’d stopped breathing and turned blue. He had to act fast. There was no time for 911. He gave me a shot of the opiate overdose reversal Naloxone that we’d gotten from the needle exchange.
Why did I overdose? We had used the same batch of heroin earlier that day and carefully weighed our doses. Baffled, he scanned the table and asked me, “Did you take Klonopin earlier today?”
I didn’t remember, but I must have — even though I knew that combining Klonopin with heroin could be a deadly combination.
Both drugs are central nervous system depressants, so taking them together can cause respiratory failure. Despite this danger, many heroin users still take benzos half an hour before shooting heroin because it has a synergistic effect, intensifying the high.
Although my overdose scared us, we kept using. We felt invincible, immune from consequences.
Other people died of overdoses — not us. Each time that I thought things couldn’t get worse, we plummeted to new depths.
Parallels between the opioid and benzo epidemics
Unfortunately, my story is increasingly common.
The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found in 1988 that a staggering 73 percent of heroin users used benzodiazepines multiple times a week for more than a year.
The combination of opiates and benzodiazepines has contributed to more than 30 percent of recent overdoses.
In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even issued a black-box warning about the dangers of combining the two drugs. Rather than shed light on these dangers, media coverage often blamed overdoses on heroin laced with fentanyl. It seemed like there was only room for one epidemic in the media.
Thankfully, media reports have recently started to raise awareness about the parallels between the opiate and benzodiazepine epidemics.
A recent essay in the New England Journal of Medicine warns about the deadly consequences of benzodiazepine overuse and misuse. Specifically, deaths attributed to benzodiazepines have increased sevenfold over the past two decades.
At the same time, benzodiazepine prescriptions have skyrocketed, with a 67 percent increase between 1996 and 2013.
Although benzodiazepines like Xanax, Klonopin, and Ativan are highly addictive, they’re also extremely effective for treating epilepsy, anxiety, insomnia, and alcohol withdrawal.
When benzos were introduced in the 1960s, they were touted as a miracle drug and integrated into mainstream society. The Rolling Stones even celebrated benzos in their 1966 song “Mother’s Little Helper,” thus helping to normalize them.
In 1975, doctors recognized that benzodiazepines were highly addictive. The FDA classified them as a controlled substance, recommending that benzodiazepines only be used from two to four weeks to prevent physical dependence and addiction.
From chasing benzos to recovery
I was intermittently prescribed benzodiazepines for six years, even though I was honest with my doctors about my history of alcoholism. When I moved to Portland, my new psychiatrist prescribed me a monthly cocktail of pills including 30 Klonopin to treat anxiety and 60 temazepam to treat insomnia.
Each month the pharmacist double checked the prescription slips and warned me that these medications were a dangerous combination.
I should have listened to the pharmacist and quit taking the pills, but I loved the way they made me feel. Benzodiazepines smoothed my edges: blotting out traumatic memories of past sexual abuse and assault and the pain of a breakup.
In the beginning, benzos instantly blotted out my pain and anxiety. I stopped having panic attacks and slept eight hours a night instead of five. But after a few months, they also blotted out my passions.
My boyfriend said: “You need to quit taking those pills. You’re a shell of yourself, I don’t know what happened to you, but this isn’t you.”
Benzodiazepines were a rocket ship launching me into my favorite realm: oblivion.
I poured my energy into “chasing the dragon.” Rather than attending open mics, writing workshops, readings, and events, I plotted ways to get my benzos.
I called the doctor to tell her I was going on vacation and needed my pills early. When someone broke into my car, I reported that my pills were stolen to get an early refill. This was a lie. My bottle of benzos didn’t leave my side, they were constantly tethered to me.
I stockpiled extras and hid them around my room. I knew this was textbook ‘addict’ behavior. But I was too far gone to do anything about it.
After a few years of using benzos and then heroin, I got to a place where I was able to make the decision to detox. The doctors told me that I would no longer be prescribed benzos and I went into instant withdrawals.
The benzo withdrawals were worse than cigarettes — and even heroin. Heroin withdrawal is notoriously painful and difficult, with obvious physical side effects like profuse sweating, restless legs, shaking, and vomiting.
Benzo withdrawal is less obvious on the outside, but more psychologically challenging. I had increased anxiety, insomnia, irritability, and ringing in my ears.
I was angry at the doctors that had originally prescribed me ample benzos for the first few years of my recovery. But I don’t blame them for my addictions.
In order to truly heal, I needed to stop blaming and start taking responsibility.
I don’t share my story as a cautionary tale. I share it to shatter the silence and stigma surrounding addiction.
Each time we share our stories of survival, we show that recovery is possible. By increasing awareness around benzo and opioid addiction and recovery, we can save lives.
Tessa Torgeson is writing a memoir about addiction and recovery from a harm reduction perspective. Her writing has been published online at The Fix, Manifest Station, Role/Reboot, and others. She teaches composition and creative writing at a recovery school. In her free time, she plays bass guitar and chases her cat, Luna Lovegood.