"You guys seen my bag of tizzies?"
It's an afternoon in Brighton in 2014. I stumble into the living room and blurt out these words to my housemates. Not, "Hey guys, how's it going?" but, "Where's my pills?" I look at each of them; all their faces are clenched. "You don’t remember?" one asks. I don't.
"She's gone home, by the way, in case you were wondering," says another, disdainfully. "She" is my partner who was staying the night after traveling the length of the country to see me. The penny starts to drop: I've blacked out, again. I see a familiar collage of emotions on the faces of my friends; anger, worry, apathy.
My mates tell me that, at about 1AM, my partner had run downstairs scared to death, because I was convulsing violently and sweating profusely in my "sleep". On my bedside table was a bag of red pills, each containing 2mg of etizolam – an extremely potent sedative available legally at the time as a "research chemical". As soon as they mention "those red pills" the fragments of the night return to me. So too does the creeping blackout dread.
Earlier the previous day, the pills had arrived in the post, and after popping two of them the same old mantra that any benzo-head will recognise started going through my mind: "I'm not feeling anything." So it was down the hatch with two more – but clearly something was happening because I'd forgotten the imminent arrival of my partner.
After that, nothing. I have no recollection of the next few hours beyond a thought loop telling me I wasn't not feeling anything, before lurching over my bedside to eat more pills.
My friends had no idea how many I had taken when they found me. I was apparently vaguely responsive enough that they didn't call for help. They put me in the recovery position, while my partner called her sister and left to stay with her.
"We don’t want to do this, but we’ve taken them away from you," my friends told me. Usually I’d flip out at this, but I replied with a solemn nod – they were right. There were 50 pills in that bag at the start of the day.
At that point, it sank in; I came very close to death without realising it, and the first words out of my mouth to the friends who had saved me were, "Where's my pills?"
My name’s Dan, I'm 28 and I've been addicted to benzos for about five years. What follows is an attempt to recollect fragments of my past lost to amnesia for my own benefit, and to serve as a cautionary tale, or maybe something someone out there can relate to. I remember how it all began quite well, but it's everything that came after after that's hard to recall.
Benzodiazepines are a class of prescription tranquillisers that were once heavily prescribed in the 1960s for anxiety, depression and insomnia. The most well-known are Valium (a brand name for diazepam) and Xanax (alprazolam), the latter of which has become notorious for its popularity among young people.
These drugs were eventually found to have serious consequences, including reduced inhibitions and delusions of sobriety leading to risky behaviour and compulsive re-dosing; addiction; and an exacerbated return of the treated symptoms after abrupt withdrawal.
Withdrawal from long-term use poses the greatest risk, and if not managed correctly it can lead to potentially fatal seizures. In the wake of these revelations, benzodiazepines became more tightly regulated in the UK and alternative antidepressant medications with less abuse potential were prescribed instead. Benzodiazepines are now primarily only prescribed for short-term use.
When your mind is plagued with a near-constant state of anxiety and riddled with depressive thoughts, it's far too easy to develop a taste for benzodiazepines if you have access to them. It’s then just as difficult to stop yourself when lost in their blissful tranquility – unaware that your life is disintegrating around you with every pill you pop.
When I enrolled at university, it dawned on me that something was wrong with my mental health. The doctors tried a number of antidepressants, with limited success. I wasn't depressed, but I also wasn't happy, so I gave them up. I figured it was better to feel awful than feel nothing at all.
One day, in the grip of a horrendous panic attack, someone gave me a small blue pill – which I later learned was called etizolam – and within about 20 minutes everything I'd been worried about just melted away. It was euphoric to feel such a sense of relief, to not care about things I should be caring about. I started to use the pills regularly in social settings, and with my inhibitions destroyed I became more confident and outgoing. Eventually I was given a bag of them with the label still on it. I went home and, with a few mouse clicks, found numerous sources for these wonder pills: 50 etizolam for £20? Ten flubromazepam for £5? I could barely contain myself.
Back then, everything I tried came from the "grey market" – unregulated online shops where you could buy all sorts of chemicals designed to be analogues of illegal drugs. They essentially served as a loophole to drug prohibition laws; change a molecule here and add one there – hey presto! A brand new substance carefully labelled "Not for Human Consumption".
In 2015, thinking that these grey market pills would soon become harder to get, I started to regulate and reduce my use. I found out about the "Ashton Manual" – a guide to withdrawing from long-term benzodiazepine use. I created a rough timetable to reduce my dosage by 10 percent every month to get myself clean within a year, and built up a small stash to avoid the unbearable withdrawal I'd already experienced if I overran.
Ultimately, it was important that I believed I was in control of my problem – and to some extent it worked. In August of 2015, I graduated miraculously with a 2:1, despite being consistently numb to the world around me. I stopped binging and losing countless nights to the fog of synthetic tranquility and began planning where I would go after leaving Brighton. I couldn't afford to stay there without any regular work, and I felt like I needed a fresh start in a new city, so I moved to Bristol.
Before the end of 2015, I started my new life – albeit still carrying my old habits. By sticking rigidly to my withdrawal timetable, two months after the UK government brought in the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act – which served as a blanket ban for any conceivable substance that had a psychoactive effect – I had fully stopped my abuse of benzodiazepines. At the time I felt a tremendous sense of pride and integrity; I'd overcome a huge weakness within myself.
But then the depression that had been buried all those years returned with full force. I'd forgotten how to cope with that headspace without the help of some chemical crutch to see me along. Roughly three months later, I relapsed.
It's only been in the past year that I've acknowledged this as a problem beyond my control and sought outside help through the services available in Bristol.
I'd managed to keep the extent of my use relatively secret for two-and-a-half years after moving here, maintaining a relatively functional existence and keeping my habit hidden from my new partner. It stopped being recreational and I began to justify it to myself as "self-medicating" my depression and anxiety, while failing to recognise that the pills were only making it worse in the long run.
I'd confided in my partner about my prior use, but I lied that I was no longer using and it was no longer a problem for me. Why? Shame, I suppose; ashamed at being weak-willed, ashamed at not dealing with my problems the way everyone else seemed to be.
Then there's fear. Fear that if I came clean about my use I'd lose her and everyone around me. When you hide a drug problem you convince yourself that you can lie forever about it, that you can keep it hidden as long as you need to.
My partner found my stash in April of last year and confronted me about it. It finally clicked that I needed to get help, or risked losing everything. I realised how many years had passed since that first tizzy, how many memories I’d lost, how many opportunities I’d squandered, how stupidly oblivious I was that all my friends were well aware of what was going on but had no idea how to help.
After a long talk with my partner, my real recovery began. I spent a few months trying to cut my use again, but with no success, so I searched online for local drug support organisations and found Bristol Drugs Project (BDP).
I spent hours anxiously going over in my head what I would say, to what extent I would tell them about my problem. I was terrified of any negative judgment and being rubber-stamped as another junkie statistic, as I'd never come clean about this before. Fortunately, whoever I spoke to on the phone was very helpful and understanding. They told me they don't have services to help with benzodiazepine use directly, and referred me to another organisation called Battle Against Tranquilisers (BAT), who have been helping me ever since.
They drew up a reduction plan for me to give to my GP, and it was made clear that I shouldn’t feel pressured to make any cuts to my dose if I didn’t feel ready to do so – and that, by law, I was the one in control of my medication.
I'd like to say I've been attending my group sessions with BAT every week, but holding down a full time job makes it challenging. Not to mention the palpable anxiety I feel when I think about getting that bus to Southmead Hospital every Thursday to sit and confront my demons. It's been at least two months since I last attended, but I can say with confidence that if I hadn’t gone at all I'd be in the same place I was in April, if not worse.
Simply knowing that I have a safe space with other people going through those same motions makes this process easier, and I have nothing but gratitude toward BAT and the people who attend those sessions. They give me strength, and strength is a rare resource to find in the depths of withdrawal.
Since seeking help I've kept reducing my use with the help of BAT, and have come clean to my friends and family, who have all supported me in their own way. I'm also now on a waiting list for cognitive behavioural therapy, to address the reasons behind my self-medication.
I count myself extremely lucky to have not faced rejection as a result of my poor decisions. As for the future, it’s just a case of taking it all one day at a time and knowing there will be an end to all of this.
Daniel Finn is a pseudonym
A version of this article was originally published in the Bristol Cable, a UK-based media co-operative