One Woman's Journey to Freedom from Prescribed Antianxiety Medication
by Susie Davidson
CHESTNUT HILL - "One of the hardest things was that I couldn't drive more than two miles," says Amy Moss. "That, and the constant fear of being alone, was just more than I could handle."
So the then-26-year-old Chestnut Hill resident sought help. She went to Dr. Andrew Stoll at the Brigham, who was a well-known psychopharmacologist. He put her on Klonopin, a commonly prescribed tranquilizer, as well as Nardil, an antidepressant; eventually, she was placed on Risperdal, an antipsychotic, as well. Throughout, she continued to produce symptoms of panic and anxiety, to the frustration of all concerned.
Amy's issues began with the tragic death of her 28-year-old brother Dale in 1987, a popular, gregarious businessman who was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died four months later. She also was preoccupied with body issues but was basically normal otherwise; she had completed coursework for an art degree at Pine Manor College, had a boyfriend and close family, and worked full time.
"When I first met Amy," says Geraldine Burns, founder of Benzodiazepine Awareness Network International, a group which focuses on safe prescribing of antianxiety medications, "I saw her anxiety as directly related to the pills she was taking." Her group, she explains, "offers support to both doctors and patients in assisting them to get away from these highly addictive and often life-damaging drugs."
"I was on an endless cycle of more drugs, more symptoms," says Amy. "Even with all these so-called miraclulous drugs, I simply felt worse, and had no peace." (Compounding her frustrations was a weight gain of 20 pounds, says the now-slim woman of 33.) "I always thought I was crazy, that they would lock me up." Nonetheless, she stayed with Dr. Stoll, who was purportedly at the top of his field. When he moved on to McLean Hospital, she decided to take matters into her own hands. With the help of Burns, a family friend, as well as therapists, she dropped Nardil and Risperdal in 1998, then, one year later, Klonopin.
"Luckily, I didn't go through the usual physical withdrawal symptoms," she says. "The worst, and perhaps least-known, least-conveyed effect of benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan and Valium is their addictiveness," she explains.
"I did take a small amount of Valium alone just to help me taper off, as it is longer-acting and easier to come off of than Klonopin," she continues. "My own doctor, Brookline physician (and Orthodox Jew) Cathleen London, supported me through this process; my mother was a lifesaver as well. I also incorporated healthy diet and exercise - no white flour, no refined sugar, more protein...soy products, which raise estrogen naturally, gave me back my menstruation, which I had lost for two years." Acupuncture, homeopathy and a personal trainer were also part of her regimen.
"She had a terrible time," says Jean Moss. "It was a nightmare both being on the them, and coming off them." Amy's weight normalized and slowly, she began to regain her equilibrium. Though she had been told she had to be on drugs for her life, she found that despite the challenge, being off them was not only achievable, but far more desirable in the long run.
Drug-free for two years and 80 percent better by her estimation, Amy's anxiety has largely vanished.
"The doctor took away eight years of my life," she says, "and I want them back. I wish I could look at him and tell him to look at his patients as people first, instead of simply attempting to mask their symptoms with drugs."
People who feel they may be victimized by their antianxiety medications may contact the Benzodiazepine Awareness Network at www.benzo.org.uk or send for the manual ($20) at BAN, 3 Searle Road, Boston, MA 02132.