Addiction develops in stages. The first stage is tolerance. Tolerance is a state in which an organism no longer responds to a drug, and a higher dose is required to achieve the same effect.
The summer of 2016 was the summer I fell in love with Xanax. By this time, I was having daily panic attacks and could not sleep at all. Xanax was my saving grace. My psychiatrist prescribed me Xanax after being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Xanax is used to treat anxiety, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and phobias. PTSD combined with active amphetamine addiction can create a very tumultuous and bizarre reality. I was getting triggered rapidly and was instructed to pop a pill every time I felt a panic attack coming on. The medicine worked. I would pop a “bar,” and instantly my panic attacks went away. Fifteen minutes later, I would begin to feel the effects. My heart rate would rapidly slow down, I would feel an overwhelming and comforting sense of calm, and all the racing thoughts vanished. I was peaceful and at ease.
What does Xanax do?
Xanax (alprazolam) boosts levels of GABA (Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid) which is a neurotransmitter that produces a calming effect on the brain and central nervous system by stopping or slowing down activity in certain neurons. One of the many reasons Xanax is highly addictive is because its effects are rapid and strong. It works by decreasing the brains “excitability.” In large doses, the drug can cause euphoric effects. Many people will also take the drug for its sedative effect, some employing the medication as a sleep aid.
Xanax did not fix my anxiety. I became physically dependent on Xanax to quell my anxiety. But when I stopped taking the Xanax, the anxiety was still there and worse. Once the cycle of dependence begins, it is almost impossible to break. My PTSD was not being treated nor was my anxiety. The symptoms were, but the underlying causes were not. I became dependent on Xanax to function and because tolerance is so easy to develop I had to take more and more to feel the effects. Daily drug use for six weeks or more has been shown to lead to dependence in 4 out of 10 users.
Xanax & Physical Dependence
Physical dependence is a physical condition caused by chronic use of a tolerance forming drug, in which abrupt or gradual drug withdrawal causes unpleasant physical symptoms. I began taking more than prescribed. As a result, I would run out of my prescriptions early. The effects of withdrawing from Xanax terrified me. I had no tools in my toolbox to cope with the overwhelming anxiety I felt; I relied on Xanax to put me to sleep at night, even the thought of not having my pills would cause me to break down.
When I woke up the first thing I did was reach for my pills. I remember the feeling of comfort I had just by holding the bottle in my hand. I became obsessed with counting my pills. I had to make sure I had enough to get me through the day. I would then shower and scrub every inch of my body. I would take at least two showers because I had an obsession with being clean. I thought if I could scrub layers of my skin off, I would be able to cleanse the dirt from my soul. By abusing Xanax in combination with other pills, I began to experience auditory hallucinations. I started hearing music then voices speaking to me through my shower head. I believed there was an alternate realm of existence and perhaps I was accessing it. I had no idea I was experiencing mania, a sign of pill addiction. By my second shower the pills would have kicked in, and I would feel like I was able to manage my way through the day.
Psychological Effects of Xanax
By now I had hit the third stage of addiction: psychological dependence. After my second shower, I would spend two to three hours staring at myself in the mirror trying to make myself look perfect, blasting Spotify music, chain-smoking cigarettes and conversing with my reflection while I waited for my drug dealers call. I was now dependent on her for refilling my Xanax stash when I would run out of my prescribed pills. I would pull my underweight body into a gown, stumble into high heels, stagger down the stairs and hope to find my car parked outside. Best case scenario my car had a parking ticket on it; usually, it was banged up and worst case scenario it had been towed.
By this point in my use, I was blacking out every time I took Xanax. I would have seizures if I stopped taking my pills, I had massive weight loss, suicidal thoughts, blurred vision, anxiety, aggressive behavior, and tingling in my hands and feet. I was a disaster, and yet I would do anything to get my fix.
When Xanax use reaches the problem or risky use stage, it has become a regular fixture of a user’s life. It is also beginning to produce negative consequences. A user’s performance in work or school, as well as their relationships, may be adversely affected. Their behavior is likely to have changed.
Mine certainly did. I remember calling my mother who works in healthcare and screaming at her on the phone, “I need my Xanax! I need you to get me Xanax!” My parents were terrified. They thought I was insane.
Xanax abuse can cause Xanax addiction. There is hope for Xanax addiction, and for me, it required a hospitalized detoxification program followed by a residential rehabilitation program with an aftercare plan for partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient treatment. Xanax abuse when combined with other drugs and alcohol can produce a deadly outcome. It is essential if you or someone you know is struggling with addiction that they seek professional help.
The Dangers of Xanax Withdrawal
“All I remember was looking up at the sun. It was so bright. I couldn’t stop staring at the sun. That is how my friend knew something was wrong. I remember laying down, and I didn’t know what just happened and I remember trying to lift my head up, and it was one of the worst pains I’ve ever felt in my life. It was like someone was jackhammering my head and I didn’t know it was because of the Xanax. It wasn’t until two years later that I found out I had been withdrawing from Xanax. I was shocked. I was out of my mind, shocked. I remember the faces that my teammates and coaches had. They were so scared, and I had no clue what had just happened.”
Xanax Withdrawal Seizures
Withdrawal is a set of physical and psychological symptoms that can occur within hours after you stop using psychoactive drugs at usual doses or higher frequencies. Xanax is a deceptively dangerous drug to withdraw from because of the severity of the symptoms. Seizures can be one of the most dangerous withdrawal symptoms and can sometimes result in death.
“I was having a Grand Mal seizure. I was foaming at the mouth, and I was convulsing for about thirty seconds. I was taking Xanax in fistfuls. It became normal for my body to depend on and expect five bars of Xanax at a time. The morning I had my seizure I had run out of pills. I had been taking Clonazepam three times a day as well as my Xanax. I thought I had to. I viewed it as medication. It was my medication. The morning I convulsed, I had volleyball practice at 8 am. I was out of pills. I seized because I was withdrawing.”
Benzodiazepines work on the reward, mood regulation and motivation regions of the brain. Our brain is an amazingly adaptive organ. Our whole system, mind, body, and spirit acclimate to whatever we put into our system on a frequent intensive basis. Acclimation turns into dependency. When we suddenly remove the substance our mechanism has grown used to receiving, the brain goes into shock, and the nerves rapidly attempt to fire on all cylinders. Not only does this demonstrate itself physically, but psychologically as well in the form of withdrawal symptoms.
A person withdrawing from Xanax may feel irritable, jumpy, and panicked. They may experience nightmares, mood swings and have trouble concentrating. To a Xanax user, these psychological withdrawals can prove to be as horrific as the physical withdrawals.
- Withdrawal symptoms include:
- Sensory hypersensitivity
- Poor memory
- Heart palpitations
- Muscle twitching
- Muscle pain
- Blurred vision
- Loss of appetite
“After (the seizure) I kept taking (Xanax) for two years. I couldn’t stop, and I didn’t know that was the problem. I thought it was my medication and I would justify it all the time. I mean, it was my prescribed medication. Then alcohol became my medication.”
“When I realized the Grand mal seizure was because of Xanax withdrawals, that is when my detox cycle began. I was so scared of having another seizure. I went to detox four or five times a year just to get clean from the Xanax, and then I would start the cycle of using again. Then I went to two and a half rehab facilities in two and a half years.”
Xanax is a dangerous drug to withdraw from without a proper medical detox. Withdrawal from Xanax can cause Grand Mal Seizures. Abnormal electrical activity causes a grand mal seizure (also known as a generalized tonic-clonic seizure) throughout the brain. A grand mal seizure causes a loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions. Quitting Xanax cold turkey can cause convulsions, seizures, psychosis, paranoia, mood swings, and mania. It is also dangerous to detox from Xanax alone. Death can occur, especially if users have been abusing alcohol and Xanax together.
According to the Journal of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, Xanax use should not stop suddenly. It is essential to monitor blood pressure, heart rate, respiration levels, and temperature. Grand Mal seizures have been well documented as withdrawal symptoms and can be potentially fatal.
If you or a loved one is struggling with Xanax addiction, there are resources available. Reaching out and asking for help is the first step to achieving recovery. I could not do it alone. I needed to reach out to a medical detox facility, then enter inpatient rehabilitation to give me the tools and skills necessary to stay clean from Xanax. I then had to enter an aftercare outpatient program to continue to learn about the disease of addiction and to participate in a community of like-minded people who had experience and could provide me with support. Recovery from addiction is a process and support is vital for long term sobriety.