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“I Felt Like Superman”

What we need to know about benzodiazepine addiction.

Source: Dajra/Shutterstock

Benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium, and Ativan have been around for a long time. They are commonly used to treat anxiety and seemingly benign. Feeling stressed? Just pop a Valium. Yet, benzodiazepine overdose deaths have quadrupled between 2002 and 2015, a trend fueled by a 67% rise in prescriptions. Indeed, these drugs are a multi-billion dollar industry, reaching $3.8 billion in sales in the U.S. alone by 2020. It is now clearer than ever that benzodiazepines are not benign for many of us, and represent an addiction crisis alongside the more visible opioid crisis.

Many communities are affected by benzodiazepine addiction. The online pop culture magazine Complex shed a light on the Xanax crisis in the hip-hop community with their special report earlier this year called The Addictive Relationship between Xanax and Hip Hop . In it, artists spoke honestly about their personal battles with Xanax and how the community at large has struggled. I was interviewed about the unique dangers of benzodiazepines and how many of us, youth, in particular, might be vulnerable to addiction.

Several characteristics make benzodiazepines potentially dangerous. They are nervous system depressants, slowing down basic bodily functions such as breathing and heart rate, as well as higher order-decision making and motor control. Under their influence, people feel emotionally even and calm. Because they relieve emotional pain, benzodiazepines are very rewarding and the pull to take more–and find emotional relief–is strong. As one man in the Complex piece said, “I felt like superman. I normally feel anxious, but when you’re on it, you feel like no one can stop you.”

But as use increases, emotional dependence and physical addiction can set in. People might find themselves falling asleep at the wheel, slurring their words, losing memories, and becoming confused. Even more dangerous, when combined with other drugs like opioids or alcohol, dangerous synergistic effects can lead to cardiac emergencies and comas resulting in death. For example, some well-known overdose deaths in the hip-hop community resulted from combining Fentanyl and Xanax.

Several themes emerged from the Complex piece:

1. Stigma is a huge barrier since the stigma of mental illness and addiction remains strong. Often by the time someone speaks out, it can be too late. Advocacy needs to start with grass-roots efforts, and a focus on community members bravely speaking out about their own experiences.

2. An affinity for Xanax is linked to the experience of emotional pain . Xanax numbs that pain. Therefore, simply condemning those who use Xanax is rarely helpful. Real solutions involve preparing for and dealing with the emotional pain when it returns and finding more sustainable and healthy alternatives.

3. You don’t feel like an addict when you have a prescription . It’s easy to miss the red flags and warning signs of addiction because “it’s only medicine.”

4. Social media can be a trigger . Teens and emerging adults feel extra pressure to play the role that others on social media assign them. The dissonance between reality and social media fantasy can cause immense confusion and distress. Some turn to benzodiazepines to address the emotional pain.

There are well-known red flags and warning signs of addiction:

1. Physical and emotional cravings

2. Side effects including drowsiness, shallow breath, slurred speech, impaired coordination, poor concentration, and lost memories, depression, and sexual dysfunction.

3. Physical withdrawal such as feeling hungover, sweating, nausea and vomiting, intense anxieties, and dizziness.

4. Tolerance –needing to take more to achieve the same result–and consistently taking more than intended.

5. Spending significant time obtaining or using the drug.

6. The use of the drug gets in the way of meeting responsibilities , leading to impairments at home, work/school, and in relationships.

Awareness is growing–of the risk and warning factors–but what of the solutions? In the midst of public outcry and forced corporate and individual responsibility for the opioid crisis and its death toll in the hundreds of thousands, we must add these anti-anxiety medications to the list of dangerous drugs. I believe the first crucial step is to remember how benzodiazepines were originally intended to be used–short-term and in combination with non-pharmaceutical behavioral therapies. There are dangerous side effects of long-term use, and in a large percentage of us, long-term use actually gets in the way of developing sustainable emotional and coping skills. And it is these skills that are the best predictors of emotional healing and mental health–with no risk involved.