From teen dealers selling counterfeit Xanax bars on social media to addicted college kids using 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.
This is the diary of Dan, a British man in his 20s. Over the past six months, Dan has been documenting his attempts to break his addiction to counterfeit Xanax. The pills he's been taking still contain alprazolam—the benzodiazepine marketed as Xanax by medical company Pfizer—but have been made by home dealers, rather than in a regulated setting, and sold on dark web marketplaces, rather than prescribed by a doctor. Read Pfizer's statement on the rise of counterfeit Xanax here.
When coming off of Xanax, it's important to taper the dosage down gradually, as going cold turkey suddenly can cause side effects such as psychosis and seizures. With the help of a doctor, in September 2017, Dan began to taper down from a daily dosage of 20 milligrams. In the first diary entry, he is down to a daily intake of 18 milligrams of counterfeit Xanax.
September 14: My friend dies. This sends me into a spiral and I crash and burn. I can't believe it has happened—I looked up to him. I simply cannot go back to work so I call out and say I'm sick. I'm mentally and physically drained. I'm not sleeping, I have restless legs, and racing thoughts. I feel sick when I wake up and have a distinct lack of pleasure when smoking cannabis. The dopamine hit just seems to have not registered. I begin using heroin and ketamine to numb myself.
September 28: Sixteen milligrams. I binged hard on H, for five days. Bad move: I was on the brink of a second addiction. I attempted to drink a bottle of Jack Daniel's, stupidly. I threw up all night and the next day. I'm pretty sure I gave myself alcohol poisoning. I'm feeling alone in these four walls. I am manic, swinging between irritable, restless, moody, and quiet, to stimulated. In grief and feeling helpless. I go to my local drug addiction center, where I explain my drug addiction to benzos and H. The support worker is understanding and advises me to do things other than sit in my room and think. It's easier said than done.
"I am still using other drugs, but I begin to ask myself, 'Why? Why do I constantly feel the need to escape?'"
October 14: Thirteen milligrams. I try to go back to work, but it's too soon. I end up having an anxiety attack and now i'm back off, sick. I can't handle it. I sink deeper into depression. Thoughts are constantly running through my head about the future, about myself. My body feels like it’s shaking and tensing. I've literally just been sitting in my room, playing games, and not really leaving the house, except to go to the shop across the road. What has my life become? I'm basically just existing, not living.
October 29: I am now down to 11 milligrams. My hands have tremors and my muscles twitch. I cannot sleep. I barely have an appetite. I am still using other drugs, but I begin to ask myself, Why? Why do I constantly feel the need to escape? I listen to some philosophers. Alan Watts is a huge help. I feel something like a spark in my head. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I decide to just try to accept the discomfort. I begin yoga and meditation at home—this helps a lot with the muscle tension.
November 7: Listening to Lil Peep feels good. I Love his music; this guy has got it on lock. It's amazing how you can connect with someone else through their music and relate to their story. Now, I’m down to 10 milligrams. I'm noticing a pattern of mania every time I drop a dose. About a week later, I begin to get waves of euphoric hysteria. They don't last for more than a few days, but they feel pretty good. It's a shame that everyone else gets irritated by them. It feels good to be able to laugh for the first time in a couple of months.
November 15: Lil Peep is dead. I cannot believe it. Just as I started listening to him. I've gone down an extra milligram. I am deep in the heart of withdrawal now. I have stomach-twisting pain, muscle tension, and irritability beyond anything I have ever had before. I cannot focus on anything that requires a lot of attention; it just stresses me out, like simple TV at a low volume. I'm still smoking weed, just not much. Craving other drugs.
"I feel like no one understands. It makes me feel angry, alone, and isolated."
November 23: I'm down 2 milligrams from 8 milligrams. Just want it over, but know I cannot rush it. I cry, feeling sorry for myself and thinking about how stupid I was to get addicted in the first place. Sleep isn't happening. No pleasure from anything except drugs, which just mask everything. Everyone notices I'm neglecting myself, which has prompted me to eat and look after myself. Luckily, I am still receiving paychecks somehow from work. This helps massively, enabling me to buy plenty of games to keep myself occupied. I pace a lot nowadays.
December 2: Another 2 milligrams down. The dose dropping isn’t noticeable for about a week. By the end of each drop, I notice the mania and increase in symptoms. I brace myself—my anxiety is at an all-time high. I am dizzy, lethargic, in constant fear of impending doom, and just have general concerns about random things in life, about the future. I feel frustrated, angry, weak, and sorry for myself; my heart pounds whenever anything remotely emotionally involving happens. Its just too much and I cannot take it. I feel like no one understands. It makes me feel angry, alone, and isolated. Hold on, Dan.
December 9: Another 2-milligram drop, to 6 milligrams. This is getting fucking hard now. I cannot even explain some of the symptoms—I don't know the words. I just want to give up. My muscles are spasming every day. I have restless legs at night, and racing thoughts make me dizzy. I feel constantly sick. The worst is in the morning, though: The stress and tension and pacing is constant and relentless. I am absolutely exhausted by the afternoon every single day. I'm lonely, and not working sucks. Who knows if I'll ever be able to go back. At this point, it feels like I won't.
December 15: I drop 1 milligram. Come on! I'm almost there. Since the last drop I have begun to notice a clearing in my head. I'm beginning to feel like a cloud has been lifted. My thought process seems faster. I begin to get "windows of hope." I begin to smile again. My doctor calls me to check on me—I tell him I'm beginning to feel more… human? This doesn't last, but it’s better than nothing. I'm still getting manic phases; I end up obsessing over random shit and going on shopping sprees. Invasive thoughts are starting to seep in. Is this taper too fast? What will happen when I reach zero? These thoughts become more noticeable over the next week. It doesn't matter what reassurance people give me; it doesn't help. This is something you have to go through yourself. I have found that while many people share the same symptoms, benzo withdrawal is very individual.
December 22: One-milligram drop for two weeks. I am now at 4 milligrams. Waves again—the room is spinning, I can't breathe or sleep. I pass out. I have a major anxiety attack: When will this end? I was seriously considering just ending it all. Obsessive thoughts about life and about the end of taper. The only thing that works? More drugs.
But that relief is only temporary, and afterward, you feel even worse. I keep repeating to myself: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Feel the pain, it's OK! All my life I have used substances to escape pain; now I must realize that pain is inevitable, and the more you try to avoid it, the worse you will be at dealing with it when it actually comes. Up, down, up, down, It's a literal rollercoaster of emotions (yet nothing in your life is actually going on).
December 29: Another 1-milligram drop, 3 milligrams! Christmas was good. It felt nice to see family, even though I usually can't be bothered. I’m feeling more connected when I speak to others; everything begins to feel more fluid in conversation. I feel moments of happiness and also good mania where I am euphoric and find everything hilarious. It feels kind of trippy, like a low dose of LSD where you cannot stop smiling or laughing. Sleep is getting better, so physically I'm feeling more energetic.
January 7: Another 2-milligram drop. I have noticed a decrease in physical and mental symptoms. I'm feeling stronger and more confident. I want to be working again, but don't feel I can. I go to work for my absence review, expecting to resign. However, my employer offers me "phased return" to work. I'd be working two days a week. I’m over the moon.
I go to work the following week for two days—it's kind of tiring, but very nice to see everyone again and socialize. I feel loved and missed, and realize how much I missed work too.
January 21: One milligram!!! I am near the end… what a fucking journey. I’m constantly worrying about jumping off now: What if I didn't taper long enough? What if this is just the beginning and now it’s gonna be even worse when I come off? Will I lose my job? What will happen? I feel like no one understands. Sesh Safety on Facebook helps by allowing me to talk to others who have been through a very similar set of circumstances, or even worse circumstances than myself.
"I will never go back to those blue little pills, ever. Now I can live my life."
January 29: Half of a half 2-milligram pill is a Tiny amount. I think this is more psychological now. It's the fear of coming off. I’m working two days a week still. It’s got me feeling confident in my ability and good about myself.
February 5: I jump off. 0.5 milligram to 0 milligram. I didn't sleep the first night; I was very scared. I was waiting for something to "kick in," waiting for the dreaded withdrawal.
February 6: I'm still waiting—anxious and nervous.
February 8: Nothing has really happened yet? I ask other people and they say it can take two weeks to kick in to withdrawal. I will wait another seven days.
February 14: Another seven days go past. During this time, I was becoming doubtful of any withdrawal. Nothing happened. This was it. I'd done it. I survived. It’s fucking over. I feel so happy—I feel all these emotions I haven't felt in years. It's actually pretty fucking overwhelming—joy, happiness. I am smiling. The birds are tweeting and the sky is a beautiful blue. I could cry. That’s how good it is. I will never go back to those blue little pills, ever. Now I can live my life, and I look back and think of my mindset during those months, the struggle. But I made it.
This diary has been condensed for brevity.
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