From teen dealers selling counterfeit Xanax bars on social media to addicted college kids using the benzos to help with panic attacks or comedowns, VICE UK is investigating the rise of Britain's counterfeit Xanax use. Read more features in this series here and watch our new film about mental health and fake Xanax, 'Xanxiety: the UK's Fake Xanax Epidemic', here.
From Valium – or "mother's little helper" – being prescribed in its millions to stressed and anxious housewives in the 1960s, to Xanax – a drug being used recreationally and as a method of self-medicating by teenagers today – benzodiazepines have been tranquillising and often damaging people for generations.
We spoke to British benzo users aged 17, 26, 31, 52 and 72 years old about why they first started taking the drugs, how their addictions progressed and the effect this has had on their lives.
A friend gave me a Xanax at a party when I was younger – he said it would be great. I saved it and I took it when I got home. I liked the way it made me feel, so I bought more the next week. I had social anxiety, which made me really uncomfortable. It stopped me going to school some days, and the Xanax made that go away.
Most people I know in London take Xanax at parties, but I was using it as a self-help thing. At first, I felt like a completely different person – it really helped. I was more confident, I was talking more in class. Within a few weeks I was pretty much taking a 2mg bar every day. I did that for nine months. It made my short-term memory really bad. If I was having a conversation with someone I would completely forget where I was going with it – that would happen a lot. If I went to stay overnight I’d have to take one extra with me. If I didn’t take Xanax in the morning I’d get agitated and angry at school. My friends noticed.
I had a couple of days off school and two friends came over to see if I was OK. I was really bad because I’d taken quite a few that day, and I wasn’t acting normal. They went downstairs to talk to my mum, so my parents found out. They weren’t angry, they just wanted to get help. My doctor pretty much told me I had an addiction. As soon as I got off them my anxiety got worse than it was before.
It was alcohol that got me onto valium. By the time I started going to Durham University, aged 20, I had a drink problem. I had a bad episode there – a week-long bender with alcohol and mephedrone. The family doctor put me on this drug and it really helped, it felt really nice. It was just a short prescription, a strip of seven 2.5mg of diazepam. It took away the pain from that bender. It was a slight euphoric sensation, a very warm fuzzy feeling, rushing through my body, that everything was going to be OK. Any issues I had didn’t matter anymore. It was very pleasant.
When I went back to university I started taking lots of drugs for fun and bought valium off the web for £1 a 10mg pill. I realised that, with valium, I could go on a three-day bender without feeling crappy. It relieves withdrawals, the anxious feeling of a hangover. Benzos were a bit of a licence to take anything I wanted. So I started drinking a £22 bottle of vodka over a day-and-a-half. Because valium was cheap and accessible it blurred into taking them whenever. At this point I was taking one 10mg pill, which would last 24 hours, so I was always under the influence. I don’t remember being particularly high – I do remember being caught forging a prescription for valium.
"I’m off them now, but I would struggle in a country where they were sold over the counter. If you put one in front of me now I’d have it."
I went to a drug service at university to get help, but I didn’t find it useful. It was generic and condescending – they were going through the motions. With funding from my grandparents, who were my guardians, I went to a rehab for alcohol and benzos in 2015. I was high when I woke up there so I didn’t know where I was initially. I was living with strangers, withdrawing, and the counsellors were all Scottish bodybuilders. It was one of worst things I’ve been through in my life. We woke up at 7AM and cleaned the floors, did the 12 steps and were told to believe in God.
I was teetotal for ten months. I had a girlfriend, but when we split I was on the valium again, buying crappy 10mg pills over the internet and taking eight a day. It was like laying in a thousand pillows. Everything was blurry, but I did manage to work. I was doing journalistic reports and interviewing people while on valium. Because I was getting stuff done I felt justified to carry on taking it. I realised I had to stop when one of my friends came up to Durham and stayed the night, and he was really annoyed I had no recollection of it a few days later. I gave myself a harsh withdrawal without tapering, because if you feel crap for couple of weeks it deters you. I didn’t want to let myself off that easily. I’m off them now, but I would struggle in a country where they were sold over the counter. If you put one in front of me now I’d have it.
I was doing a high pressured academic masters degree. I was in the library a lot, isolated. I graduated, but the intensity left me crippled with anxiety. I was sick every morning and after I ate. The family doctor was a private one and he put me on 20mg of Diazepam, 1.5mg of Clonazepam and a sedative to help me sleep.
The benzos took away all the physical symptoms, like a fast beating heart and being sick. But after a while the drugs made me have worrying thoughts – I was over-thinking things and it changed my personality; my inhibitions were lowered, when I was naturally shy. It was unsettling to have my personality changed by a drug, because it disrupted my sense of who I was. I became quite withdrawn, I gave up my job in retail, stopped going out and moved back with my family. I have complete memory blanks about that time. I lost two years of my life.
"Whenever I tried to talk to my doctor about the effects they were having on me he dismissed it. I felt a deep sense of shame that he was telling me that I was essentially crazy."
Part of my problem with benzos was wrapped up with my relationship with my doctor, a famous doctor who treats lots of celebrities. I was a young woman, everything I said was taken as being emotional. He had a huge belief in psychiatric drugs and would not entertain the idea they would had bad effects. It was very patronising. Whenever I tried to talk to him about the effects they were having on me he dismissed it. I felt a deep sense of shame that he was telling me that I was essentially crazy.
I stopped appointments with him, and so the prescriptions stopped. For about four months I did not sleep much. I went to a benzo support group and they advised me to go back to a low dose and taper, and I started sleeping straight away. I’ve been off the pills for 16 months now and I’ve had time to think about why I was so prone to anxiety. There was a lot of domestic violence in my family home, my dad used to beat my mum a lot. I have overcome the worst of my anxiety, without using drugs, by understanding what caused it in the first place.
Being on benzos makes the mundane attractive. It laps you up and gives you a sense of security. It’s a life of mediocre blankness. You can watch these crap films on Channel 4 at 3PM and it’s fine – you don’t have to seek anything attractive, because you can just take a tablet.
I was working as a hospital nurse in the Midlands in the 2000s when I first started on them. I was stressed at the time because I was going through a custody battle involving a young son I loved. I turned to valium. It was easy access because I took them from the ward. I was taking 40 to 50mg a day – two blues in the morning and two at night. At the beginning I was using valium because it felt like I was wrapped in cotton wool, and also to detox from heroin, which I had been using on and off with crack for years. If I was a bit sick from heroin, I’d go to the valium. But soon valium became just another habit.
"I got a wake-up call when I fell asleep at the wheel on Valium and my car hit a JCB digger and turned it on its side"
I was asked to leave my job after falling asleep looking after a patient. Luckily, no one was harmed. I started buying it online but got a wake-up call when I fell asleep at the wheel on valium and my car hit a JCB digger and turned it on its side, so I went to rehab. I wasn't clean for long. My girlfriend at the time introduced me to Xanax, which is shorter acting but more potent than valium. I started on 2 to 3mg a day, and went up to 10mg a day. I took Xanax in the morning and heroin and crack in the afternoon.
What marks benzos out from all the other drugs I was taking was that I couldn’t remember anything. With booze black-outs, you don’t remember one night. But with benzos you lose days, weeks. That’s the thing about benzos that gives me the chills – it’s not knowing what could happen or has happened. I’d ask people if I had been OK yesterday, or if I was out of order. Benzos gave me a propensity to shoplift. Not necessities – mainly things like books, because you are in your own little world, your own cocoon, and you think, 'Well, OK, no one can see me.'
In 2011 I went into rehab again. This time I noticed the detox from benzos was quite horrific – it goes on and on; you don’t feel right for a long time. It's much worse to come off benzos than heroin and crack. I was three years clean, but in 2015 I started buying valium on the web again. Then I had another car accident; I turned my car on its roof. I went into rehab again and that’s been it – I go to NA now, where there’s plenty of people with benzo problems. I still have to be vigilant. I’m very lucky.
I was on benzos for such a long time, it’s difficult to say what I would have been like without them. They’ve made me a different person. I’ve been ill throughout my children’s lives. I think the way benzos have been prescribed to people is one of the biggest scandals of our time.
In the 1960s, learning to be a teacher in Portsmouth and meeting my husband, I was so happy. At 26, after our first child, I had a hysterectomy and hit the menopause hard. I wasn't allowed hormone replacement therapy and I couldn’t sleep at night, so the doctors gave me three 10mg Nitrazepam a night. I had no idea at the time, but that was the start of 36 years on benzodiazepines, of really bad insomnia, terrible night sweats and high anxiety. I stopped taking them in 2012, but I’m extremely ill.
There are not many people who’ve taken benzos for this long who are still alive. That’s the horror of it. It’s taken so many lives away.
Back then, I had no idea why I started suffering severe anxiety and tachycardia [high resting heart rate] after taking these pills. When I went to the doctors they just said I was having menopausal symptoms. It was never recognised. There was no internet. The doctors reduced my dose, but that put me in withdrawal, which gave me a lot of muscle pain. They prescribed valium for the pain and also another benzo, Temazepam. I continued to be prescribed a variety of different benzos over the next four decades, including 10mg of Temezepam a night between 1987 to 2007.
There are not many people who’ve taken benzos for this long who are still alive. That’s the horror of it. It's taken so many lives away. I've seen so many people commit suicide now, it's a horror story. I've spent a long time talking to the Samaritans myself. I set up a support group in 2015 to raise awareness. It's a terrible story, really, but it's coming out more now. It's the group that's kept me going: learning about this and passing that knowledge onto other people.
Names have been changed to protect interviewees' anonymity.