How insomnia left me hooked on Valium and in a psychiatric ward: When her marriage split led to years of sleeplessness, this magazine editor and mother of two turned to prescription drugs. And, as she reveals in a powerful new book, what happened next could happen to anyone
- Miranda Levy struggled to sleep after her husband called time on their marriage
- Aged 42, the magazine editor was prescribed benzodiazepines by her GP
- Progressed to a cocktail of prescription drugs before being admitted to a ward
A moment that will stay with me for ever is driving back from a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in a rehab minibus affectionately nicknamed the ‘druggy buggy’.
There were eight of us heading back to the rehab clinic. The conversation was raucous, as people recalled their experiences on recreational drugs. Unable to join in, I stared gloomily out of the window. I had never felt more alone in my life.
It was 2014 and my fellow inmates had problems with cocaine, ketamine, heroin and alcohol. My ‘poison’ was Valium, which I took not for kicks, but because I couldn’t sleep. And my ‘dealer’ was a doctor.
Insomnia, and the dark places it took me, ruled and ruined my life for the best part of a decade. Much of this was down to my reaction to taking (and withdrawing from) prescribed psychiatric medications.
Miranda Levy (pictured) recalls turning to prescription drugs as she struggled to sleep, after her husband said he wanted to ‘call time’ on their nine-year marriage
My descent into sleeplessness had been triggered by my husband telling me in July 2010 that he wanted to ‘call time’ on our nine-year marriage. Our children were aged seven and five. I was devastated.
Sleeping for just 30 minutes a night, or not at all, I went to see my GP. Then 42, I was terrified about how I was going to cope as a single mother. He wrote me a two-week prescription for the sleeping pill temazepam, which is from a class of drugs called benzodiazepines (or ‘benzos’ for short).
That first night, the pill didn’t work. The second night I took two. Still no effect.
I was unaware that I’d taken the first step into my ‘psychiatric safari’, a ten-year voyage of ‘mood’ pills with seductive names such as Seroquel and Lyrica. Even to this day, I am not free of them all.
By the end of the summer, I was a pale, jittery ghost on sick leave from my job as a magazine editor. Thankfully, my ex-husband — with help from grandparents and a succession of kind after-school nannies — made sure the kids were well looked-after.
Still not sleeping, I was referred to an NHS psychiatrist who noted my distress and put me on antidepressants, plus a new benzo called clonazepam. This was a day-time tranquilliser rather than a sleeping pill, but I was told it should help me get some rest. There was no discussion of its potential dangers, or of how long I was to stay on it, but at that point I didn’t care.
The relief of the clonazepam didn’t last. A month on, the consultant doubled my dose. At a later date, he upped it over the phone. At my most medicated, I was on a dose equivalent to 50mg of diazepam (Valium). Most people on Valium for sleeplessness are prescribed 5mg to 15mg daily.
My diagnosis changed from adjustment disorder to depression to treatment-resistant depression and generalised anxiety disorder. At times, I felt suicidal.
Miranda booked herself into a rehab clinic because she felt too weak to follow a plan from her doctor by herself. Pictured: With her son in happier times
There was barely any therapy, but there were lots of pills: antidepressants, antipsychotics, more benzos. When these didn’t work, psychiatrists upped the doses and added new tablets into the cocktail.
Eventually, I decided all my problems were down to my dependence on these drugs.
There is a heated conversation among campaigners about whether you should use the term ‘addicted’ or ‘dependent’ for those who have problems with doctor-prescribed medications. Most prefer the latter, because the ‘stigma of being addicted’ means they are inappropriately treated.
I visited my local authority’s Addiction Service, where the doctor and I worked out a gradual reduction programme to cut back my pills over a matter of months. It’s really dangerous to stop these drugs cold turkey. Feeling too weak to follow the plan by myself, I booked into a rehab clinic within striking distance of my home. It enthusiastically reported success in bringing people off benzos.
The clinic GP told me that in a supervised environment I could detox more quickly than if I was at home. The aim was to come off the benzodiazepines within three weeks, with one drug-free week at the end.
The clinic employed the 12-step programme, which charts a course of action for recovery with the goal of becoming ‘clean’ or ‘sober’. There were five meetings a week: a mix of AA and NA.
Miranda (pictured) said she felt isolated as withdrawal symptoms started to kick in, and began to be seen as a ‘difficult’ client
Others at the clinic included an older Scottish woman who drank a bottle of vodka a day; a PR with an alcohol addiction; an alcoholic fireman; a trust-fund guy who had problems with ketamine; an executive coke-head; and a heroin addict who had been back many times.
Mornings tended to follow the same pattern. A therapist held a 30-minute meditation, after which everyone would stretch, grin and say how relaxed they felt. All except me. I was so tense, I could feel my teeth grinding together. It didn’t occur to me that this might be down to drug withdrawal.
The rest of the day there were readings, ‘homework’ based on a big AA textbook and ‘group hugginess’, which isn’t my thing at all. We took turns to cook and clean. Five evenings out of seven, there were ‘fellowship’ meetings. I didn’t identify with the ‘journeys’ of the alcoholics and drug addicts at all, although not for a second did I judge them.
Feeling isolated, I was really not sure the 12-step treatment model was working for me.
As withdrawal symptoms started to kick in, I grew antsy, deranged. I couldn’t sit still, ran up and down the stairs, and began to be seen as a ‘difficult’ client. I was failing my homework, doing my chores badly, trying to get out of meetings. At one session, the group leader made me stand on a chair and sing God Save The Queen. I was mortified.
A standard rehab stay is 28 days. I hung on a couple of weeks beyond that, until it was decided that it would be better if I left.
Miranda (pictured) said she was deemed something of a time-waster, after spending around five days on a psychiatric ward
Though I had cut my Valium dose (I had switched from clonazepam) significantly, I wasn’t off it. And I was still taking my antidepressant, trazodone, though they’d wanted to take me off that as well.
Two clinic counsellors drove me back to London. I asked them to drop me at A&E, where I begged doctors to take me into a psychiatric unit. I was in such a state, they admitted me. I was hoping for a new approach — some therapy, even. But this was almost non-existent (an hour’s ‘art therapy’ a week). The TV was on without sound all day. My ward was by the side of a railway, and Tubes rattled past until 1am, then started again at 5am. Staff peeked in all night long, making no effort to be quiet.
It really wasn’t conducive to sleep, which, if anyone remembers that far back, was the reason I was in this mess.
During this stay, I recall seeing a doctor once. The young consultant decided to keep my medications as they were. This was disappointing.
After five days or so, I was deemed something of a time-waster and kicked back home, where my health deteriorated further. I decided to come off all the remaining benzodiazepines myself in two or three weeks — way too quickly.
From this point on, I was pretty deranged. I could no longer speak in sentences, just stuttering repetitively. I even started hitting myself in the face, one time so violently I detached a retina and had to have three eye operations. Things got so bad that it was decided it would be better if I moved to Essex to live with Dad, who had just retired from his dental practice.
I remained in a frightful state for more than two years. But I did not go back on the Valium, though I was put on several other medications.
Eventually, however, at the start of 2019, I began to notice there were gaps in my wakefulness: my clock might say 01.34, then the next time I looked, 02.55. With a tiny bit of sanity restored, I slowly began re-engaging with the world, watching TV. Dad bought me a smartphone. I deleted 60,000 junk emails. I was even able to start exercising and cooking.
In April, I saw friends for the first time in years. These little things were like a virtuous cycle: the more I did, the more I slept. Gingerly I came off the olanzapine and lost a chunk of weight. Soon I got up to four hours’ sleep a night, and started to feel human again.
Miranda (pictured) revealed her life has now improved beyond recognition, and she sleeps six or seven hours a night
Of course, the question is: why? Why was I so ill? Why did I get better? I have consulted many sleep experts and it’s becoming clear that the worst of my ‘illness’ was because of something called ‘post-acute withdrawal syndrome’ — when you come off benzos too quickly.
I spoke to Melanie Davis, who runs a group called REST (Recovery Experience Sleeping Pills and Tranquillisers) as part of the organisation Change, Grow, Live. She told me: ‘Benzodiazepines cannot be treated in the same way as other addictive substances. They need separate attention. “Regular” rehab is often not appropriate and most rehab workers do not have training in this area.
‘This is one of the reasons why the 12-step programme, which can be life-saving for other addictions, is not appropriate. It is based on abstinence: you have to stop and stay stopped, which you can’t do suddenly with benzos.
‘Coming off too quickly could mean you suffer with terrible sleep problems, anxiety, depression and flu-like symptoms. These could last for years.’
Davis thinks the Government should provide specialist services for prescription drug dependency, and that GPs and psychiatrists need up-to-date education on how to withdraw people safely.
Amazingly, my own life has now improved beyond recognition. I sleep six or seven hours a night. I feel happy and strong. I’ve stopped most of the pills, though not all of them. It’s one battle at a time with the drugs.
Against the odds, I have been able to resume my career. Most of my friends are back — some new ones to boot — and I’m forging a new relationship with my children, now in their teens. I also have a nice new boyfriend, who lives in New York.
Yes, there is always the fear I’ll be plunged back into the maelstrom of insomnia again. Even if this happens, I will never take another benzo.
In the meantime, I say thanks to the Gods of Sleep each morning. To tell them that sleep is a blessing, that I’m so grateful for this wonderful gift. And that I am going to make the most of every waking moment.
The Insomnia Diaries: How I Learned To Sleep Again by Miranda Levy is published by Aster at £9.99.
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