This week, I lost a childhood friend to drugs and alcohol. He was only 24 years old. My friend was a brilliant musician and talented artist, but he was also dependent on benzodiazepine to function. He never spoke about why he used or if he suffered from childhood trauma. All I know is that he liked to use the way that I did. I remember one time he invited me to Disneyland when I was 16. He had a hotel room there, and by the time I showed up at 2 PM, he had already started partying. At the time, the amount of drinks he drank, pot he smoked, and Xanax he snorted didn’t seem like a big deal. Looking back, I wonder why he needed all those substances just to ride Splash Mountain.
Sadly, he’s not my first friend to die of a drug addiction—he isn’t even the first friend I've lost this year. But his death still blows my mind, because going to friends’ funerals never gets easier. To see the parents’ despair is gut wrenching, and as the mother of a newborn baby, I can’t imagine my child leaving this world before me. Young peoples' deaths leave their friends and family with many unanswered questions—the biggest one being “What could I have done differently to prevent my child’s overdose?” But I understand how these deaths can happen. Having been addicted to prescription medication myself, I know firsthand how dangerous these drugs can be.
At a very young age, psychiatrists prescribed me large doses of medication, but never taught me about the drugs’ addictive nature and side effects, which can be fatal. When my doctor first gave me Xanax, he never mentioned the drug can cause seizures, heart attack, stroke, and hallucinations if I abruptly stopped using them. Instead, after years of use, I began to depend on the drug. It led me to having even bigger anxiety attacks than I was having in the first place, because the thought of not having enough sent me into a state of paranoia. If I didn’t have the benzos to numb the pain and trauma, I believed I wouldn’t be able to function—I went into a spiraling hole of fear and wasn’t able to leave my house.
What has happened to my friends and me aren’t isolated events. Currently, 70 percent of Americans are on some sort of prescription medication. The US Center for Disease Control report says, “The estimated number of [Emergency Room] visits involving nonmedical use of benzodiazepines increased 89 percent during 2004-2008 (from 143,500 to 271,700 visits) and another 24 percent during 2007–2008."
People weren’t always this way. Robert Whitaker, author of Mad in America, measured both historical Social Security Administration payments for the mentally ill and rates of mental illness hospitalizations. In the US one in 300 were considered mentally ill in 1955. Today, one in 50 people are diagnosed as mentally ill. And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, Anxiety Disorders affect about 40 million American adults age 18 years and older.
Clearly, people are using these drugs because we're afraid. But what are we afraid of? I personally was afraid of the pain. The pain associated with living a life without a bumper or a safety net, which were my drugs. It seems as if we must be afraid of life, itself, afraid of the human experience. The English philosopher and mystic, Alan Watts, called it the “quaking mess.” This is what we are. To be human involves a certain amount of shakiness, anxiety, and a sense of separation. But what makes the problem unbearable is our attempt to try to get away from this.
I know my friend must have tried to get help in the past, but I don't know how. At one point or another, every person who abuses drugs questions their use and tries to find a way out. It was absolutely vital for me to get off all medication when I chose the path of sobriety—I knew that I needed to rip the Band-Aid off and face my life head on in order to recover.
Unfortunately, many of us do not know the way out. We are lost and turn to doctors and licensed professionals for help who then give us quick fixes for our unbearable problems that has led to the deaths of many of my friends and many more to come. There is hope; slowly but surely we can all make the decision to wake up and face this human experience together as a community. If we don’t change, in 50 years, we could all be a bunch of fucking zombies. All walking around (or probably driving) and going shopping, not really home, but not dead either. Zombies because someone thought it would be a good idea for thousands of people to heal their pain with drugs. If we don’t experience the pain and the challenges, then we also can’t experience the joy and elation of being alive.
Previously - How Do We Solve North America's Heroin Epidemic