Computers have revolutionized the way that modern families research illness. Instead of making an appointment with a doctor, they often just jump on the glowing box in the family home and access hundreds of articles pertaining to almost any health condition. But sometimes, the information found online isn’t quite accurate. It might contain factual errors, old data or flat-out lies, and it can be hard for families to determine what they can trust and what might be best avoided.
At times, these inaccuracies are nothing more than annoyance, delaying or muddying the course the family chooses to follow. But when the health problem in question involves substance abuse or addiction, time is of the essence. The more families know upfront, the better they’ll be able to handle the issue and get the person they love the proper type of help. This is particularly true when the addiction concerns benzodiazepines, as these drugs are often misunderstood, and the addictions they cause can be severe.
An Old Therapy
The word “benzodiazepine” might be unfamiliar, but the drugs that are included in this medication class are quite common, and they’re often recognizable by brand name.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reports that alprazolam (generic Xanax) and diazepam (generic Valium) are the two benzodiazepine medications that are commonly found on the illicit drug market, but almost any medication could be a target for abuse, as they all tend to impact the brain in the same way.
Benzodiazepine medications are designed to soothe symptoms of anxiety and sleeplessness by slowing down electrical activity inside the brain. In essence, these drugs turn off specific portions of the brain that deal with processing new information. But this little adjustment also impacts portions of the brain that deal with sensation and pleasure. Before long, the adjusted brain is inundated with chemical signals that are typically produced only when something wonderful is going on.
This kind of reaction is typically mild in people who take these medications for therapeutic purposes. They’re on a very low dose of drugs, and they are typically taking the drugs orally, so they tend to infuse the tissues of the brain and body in a slow and steady manner. As a result, it’s relatively rare for people with prescriptions and good pill-taking habits to develop an addiction to benzodiazepines. In a study of the issue in The American Journal of Psychiatry, only five of 71 people given the medication for a psychiatric disorder like depression or anxiety developed an abuse issue in response to their medications. They took the drugs as needed, and they didn’t overwhelm their bodies. Those who do develop an addiction tend to have habits that are quite different.
While taking pills orally allows the medications to slowly enter the tissues, crushing the pills and snorting them or injecting them can mean overwhelming the body in a very short period of time. This is the sort of action the brain pays attention to, and it’s the sort of act that’s associated with addiction. Brain cells are altered quite quickly when drugs are applied in overwhelming doses that take hold quickly. In no time at all, a person who follows these habits can develop amended brain cells that don’t function optimally unless drugs are present. People like this can feel low and sad without their drugs, and they might not even feel a kick of pleasure when they do take benzodiazepines.
With each hit of drugs the person takes, brain cells tweak their responses, regulating and modifying their approach so they won’t be overwhelmed in the future. This means that feeling pleasure must be associated with higher doses of drugs. In no time at all, people might be taking double, triple or even quadruple the normal dose of the drugs once provided for therapeutic purposes, and as a study in the journal CNS Drugs points out, researchers don’t really know much about how these drugs work when they’re applied in such massive doses via nasal or intravenous routes. The drugs just weren’t designed to work in this manner, so the results can be unpredictable at best.
It is known, however, that people who abuse benzodiazepines tend to struggle with the recovery process. They may know that they should stop taking these drugs, but when they try to do so, they may be hit with intense feelings of desperation or loss. Their amended brain cells seem to call out for the drugs from sunup to sundown, making clear thinking difficult or impossible. Cravings like this can be hard to ignore, but some people have other symptoms that are even more severe.
The slowdown in electrical activity that comes with benzodiazepine abuse can result in seizures during the withdrawal process. As those amended cells awaken and begin to trade information at a normal pace, a storm begins to brew in the cells of the brain, and all of this new activity can cause muscles to clench and consciousness to fade. Some seizures are brief, lasting just a moment or two, but others can be intense and they can lead to damage that can end a life.
Going through the withdrawal period without medical help can be so distressing that some people simply choose to go back on their benzodiazepine drugs, and they might refuse to get sober in the future. They’re concerned about death and nervous about their bodies. They may not even realize that treatment could help them to get sober in a safe and controlled environment.
Preventing these problems from even taking hold might be ideal, and sometimes, that means looking closely at the people who tend to abuse these drugs and thinking hard about whether they should be given these medications for a psychiatric condition. In some cases, the drugs just seem much too dangerous to provide, especially when there are other options available that could bring relief.
Among all of the risk factors available, experts suggest that a prior history of addiction is the most common and the most dangerous. A history of abuse of another addictive substance seems to prime the brain to respond to benzodiazepines, and that could mean that a prescription for these drugs translates directly into abuse. Often, people just add benzodiazepines to a substance abuse problem they already have. In a study of the issue in Psychopharmacology, researchers found that 440 of 633 people who abused benzodiazepines took in another substance at the same time. Studies like this demonstrate how dangerous blending can be, and how common the practice really is.
Other risk factors for an abuse issue include:
- Poor coping skills
- Few social connections
- Family history of addiction
Finding Drugs to Abuse
While preventing an addiction from occurring might be the best course of action in a perfect world, people who already have an addiction can’t simply turn back the clock and make their concerns go away. Their issues are real, and they must be addressed. Often, this means their families must be adept at spotting the addiction that’s in progress, so they can get the person appropriate help. Often, the visible signs concern the methods the person uses in order to get drugs.
As the addiction progresses and the person is forced to take larger and larger doses of drugs, that person might be forced to visit multiple doctors, hoping to get a prescription for drugs at the end of each and every visit. Feigning illnesses and complaining of symptoms might be common, and some people might even encourage their family members to visit doctors in order to get prescriptions the addict could use.
If working with doctors proves fruitless, some people with benzodiazepine addictions go to street dealers, buying pills from them in bulk. Dealers could be found in certain neighborhoods, but they might also be part of the person’s social circle. Coworkers, friends, classmates and even neighbors all could sell these drugs, and they might do so covertly, blending in with the population at large. Dealers might also work online, selling drugs from overseas warehouses. Multiple boxes coming into the home might be a sign that an addiction is in play.
Stealing drugs from relatives, friends and strangers is also common for people with benzodiazepine addictions. They might hit the restroom as soon as they arrive in another person’s home, rooting through the medicine cabinet for drugs to abuse.
Treating the Problem
People with addictions to benzodiazepines can feel hopeless and helpless, but there are good options for treatment. Often, these programs focus on providing intense counseling. By delving into the roots of the addiction and parsing how the problem began, counselors provide their clients with the information they’ll need in order to keep from abusing substances in the future. They’ll also learn more about how to develop skills that can help them to resist the temptation to abuse substances of any sort. Programs like this can be intense, and they can take months to complete, but counselors often use sophisticated techniques in order to keep their clients interested. For example, some counselors provide their clients with rewards each time they can produce a urine test that’s free of drugs. In a study of this practice in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, researchers found that eight of 10 people were able to stay clean when given prizes. It’s a small study, but it does demonstrate that the intervention can work.
Those who developed a benzodiazepine addiction in response to an underlying mental illness like major depression might need even more intensive therapy. In a Dual Diagnosis program, they’ll have the opportunity to explore both the mental illness and the addiction issue in each therapy session they attend. They’ll learn how to control both conditions, healing on an intense level, while ensuring that one condition doesn’t stay in place while the other fades away.
This is the sort of help we can provide at Black Bear Lodge. Our counselors are adept at designing programs for both addiction and mental illness, using techniques that have been proven effective by scientific study. We can also help people who have a benzodiazepine addiction that’s not compounded by a mental illness issue. If someone you love needs help, we might be the right place. Please call us to find out more about our admissions process and science-based therapies. We have admissions coordinators on hand to take your call.