Ramblings/Rants: The Excessive Use of Xanax & Anti-Anxiety drugs

This morning I was rereading an article on the usage of Xanax in the US that was posted in New York Magazine back in March. I remember reading it the first time back then and having a thousand thoughts that I wanted to write down and post here, but I forgot about it until I came across a note about it on my “to write about” list. Something along the lines of “write about the excessive use of Xanax and other anti-anxiety drugs in this country and why it drives me insane”. The article in question can be found right HERE  (Listening to Xanax - Lisa Miller, New York Magazine, March 18 2012) and is worth a read as it is informative, brings up all different viewpoints and comes to a pretty good conclusion. Maybe a bit less dramatic and unyielding as my own thoughts on the usage of this drug, but sometimes it’s good to read up on things that you think you know all about. It didn’t change my mind about what I think of Xanax and her friends, but it would take a lot for anything to change my mind about that nowadays.

I’m not going to rewrite the article, that would be futile, but I shall definitely quote certain parts of it. Actually you should all read it, and then provide your own thoughts on the matter. Take your own stance, talk about why you love or hate the drug. I’m a natural worrier and have suffered from mild to severe anxiety for as long as I can remember. Mild being that clammy-hand-heart-pounding feeling you get when your teacher calls on you in class to answer a question; severe being not being able to leave the house out of fear of having yet another panic attack in the middle of a public setting, you know, hyperventilating while wanting to hide under a table so you can puke your guts up in peace. I was a shy kid, prone to worrying and getting nervous about speaking in public. But who doesn’t get nervous about speaking in public anyway? When I was at school you certainly couldn’t ask your doctor for something to combat your nerves when you had to do a presentation in class, or when you had to sit end of semester or year exams. During every Maths class I ever had I would pretend I was invisible and hope with all my heart that the teacher would pass over me and not ask me to go up to the blackboard to solve an equation that I had no clue on how to start, let alone finish (it actually worked pretty well, the invisible thing… Or maybe the teacher realized that torturing me was not going to actually help me get better at Maths). It didn’t get better at University either, especially when I actually had to present elaborate interpretations of modern poetry in an amphitheater using a microphone. All those tips about “pretending everyone in front of you is naked” and “you know more about the subject than them” don’t work. Just saying. For three days before I had to present my MA thesis I probably ate a total of two bites of food because my stomach had decided it was closed to the idea of food. And so on… There are many, many examples I could list. I wonder if my life would have been different if every time I had felt anxious I had been able to take a pill to feel calmer?

Would I have pursued acting? I loved being on stage. I had no problems learning lines by heart and becoming my character. I just couldn’t bear the thought of actually having to perform in front of people. Nightmare. The few times I did it I wanted to jump off a bridge and hated myself for putting myself through it. But I think that’s the point – I put myself through it. I accomplished something that was way beyond my comfort zone. So, I think my main question is now, why are so many people resorting to a magic pill every time they feel a twinge of anxiety? Look, I know full well there are people who suffer from debilitating forms of anxiety and depression, and I understand that people who suffer from certain mental illnesses need to take some form of medication in order to function normally on a day to day basis. I also know that some people may not be alive today if they hadn’t been prescribed medication. That’s fine; this is why in these cases we talk about “illness”. Medicine for an illness. But normal levels of anxiety can’t be diagnosed as an illness! That type of anxiety is just another emotion, like fear, sadness or happiness! If we didn’t have the ability to feel anxious then how could we have the ability to feel happy or sad? Fear is a warning our brain gives us when something feels out of place or wrong. If we didn’t feel symptoms of fear then how would we be able to protect ourselves from danger? Surely some anxiety is healthy for us, no?

To quote the article: “Xanax and its siblings—Valium, Ativan, Klonopin, and other members of the family of drugs called benzodiazepines—suppress the output of neurotransmitters that interpret fear. They differ from one another in potency and duration; those that enter your brain most quickly (Valium and Xanax) can make you the most high. But all quell the racing heart, spinning thoughts, prickly scalp, and hyperventilation associated with fear’s neurotic cousin, anxiety, and all do it more or less instantly. Prescriptions for benzodiazepines have risen 17 percent since 2006 to nearly 94 million a year; generic Xanax, called alprazolam, has increased 23 percent over the same period, making it the most prescribed psycho-pharmaceutical drug and the eleventh- most prescribed overall, with 46 million prescriptions written in 2010. In their generic forms, Xanax is prescribed more than the sleeping pill Ambien, more than the antidepressant Zoloft. Only drugs for chronic conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol do better.” So why are doctors prescribing anti-anxiety pills to just about everyone who complains about feeling “worried” or “anxious”? (I have the same question about the over prescribing of Vicodin to patients suffering from slight toothache too, but this is beside the point). How many times have I heard someone mention that they are scared of flying, and someone else comments that they should take a Xanax to get through it? It’s not like life is scarier in this day and age, I mean we live in times where can actually feel safe, despite worrying about terrorist attacks, nuclear war and other similar world-related issues. We worried about those issues 30 years ago too. At least nowadays our life expectancy is considerably higher than it was 150 years ago and we don’t have to worry about the bubonic plague wiping out half a population. Why are doctors prescribing pills to children who are shy and anxious at school? How are kids going to learn how to face their fears if they are given a pill to forget about them?

To quote the article again: “But the anti-benzo psychologists are also making a value judgment. They believe Americans would be better, and healthier, if they learned to manage their anxiety without pills. They believe people should feel their feelings. A pill can be a crutch, says Doug Mennin, an anxiety specialist at Hunter College who does private therapy for the functionally anxious. The more you use it, the less able you are to navigate life’s tough spots on your own. “I’m a New Yorker,” says Mennin. “I see dependency on pills all the time. What I say to clients is, ‘You’re selling yourself short a little bit.’ If you’re going through a stressful time, and you say, ‘I’m going to get some of these,’ then the next time you get to that kind of problem, you start seeking out that pill. If you didn’t have the pill, you’d probably be okay.” The mind is a muscle, Mennin adds. With practice, you can teach it to handle anxiety: “It’s the same kind of skill as learning a better backhand in tennis.” This is exactly the way I feel about it. In my own personal life I feel that by learning to overcome certain fears and situations that caused me anxiety I have been able to do things that I never would have been able to do if I let the panic take over. But not only that, I’ve learnt that I don’t need to fear these things again. If I had taken a pill and got through them, then the next time I was in the same situation I would have reached for the pills again. I’m not superwoman though, there were many times in my life that I self-medicated with alcohol. A couple of shots of vodka worked wonders against an impending panic attack, but only if I was out in a bar when I could feel one coming on. At any other time I just had to grin and bear it, breathe deeply and dream about the moment that it would all be over. I’ll always remember shaking before a presentation at work, wondering why I felt like throwing up when all I was doing was presenting an idea I had come up with and applied to a project. That’s a feeling I know that will never go away, but I don’t actually feel like I want it to. My anxiety is as much a part of me as my ability to feel happy when I’m in the presence of someone I care about. Or angry when someone hurts my feelings. I don’t WANT to eliminate the feeling, even if it sometimes drives me insane. What makes people want to remove all forms of emotion and feel numb, even if it’s just for a while? How can you function properly when all you feel is numbness? What kind of life are you willing to live if you want to block out all forms of emotion and creativity? I know people who take Xanax to knock themselves out and forget about everything. I can understand that if you are going through something quite terrible (death, physical pain), but just because you are slightly stressed at work? Why knock yourself out during the time you are actually outside of work, when you can relax and enjoy life? In the end, what is the point in actually living if this is how you go through life? I know I am being severely subjective right now, but the idea of having no emotion and therefore wiping out my natural creativity scares me more than speaking in public, so I would rather just deal with the anxiety and forget the pills. 

To quote a friend: “I’m sick of Xanax dilated eyes zombies; emotionless kielbasa heads”… It’s true… When did the ability to FEEL become such a problem? If we have a pill for every moment of stress or anxiety in our lives, how are we going to deal with real tragedy and pain when it really happens? How can we learn to survive in this world if we just block it out every time the going gets tough? Or is that certain people's form of survival? I'd rather do without thank you very much. And if one day I have kids, then I shall be that annoying parent who forces her kids to deal with anxiety (apologies to said kids in advance).

Ramblings: Charles Snelling and the question of Euthanasia

I was perusing the New York Times online today (thanks to my lovely friend Meg I now have a subscription!) and came across THIS article about a man named Charles D. Snelling, who, after 61 years of marriage to his wife Adrienne, killed her and then himself. He had previously written a Life Report for David Brook’s column (read it HERE), in which he explains how his wife taught him unconditional love and nurtured him during their life together, and how, it was his turn to look after this wife as her struggle with Alzheimer’s got tougher and tougher. For anyone who has either cared for, or been close to someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, the decline of the sufferer is terrible and heartbreaking. To me, this was a wonderful story of love, one that lasted over many decades. That Charles chose to kill his wife and then himself was a choice he made, and I can’t really condemn him for it, not based on facts portrayed in both his essay and in the article linked above.

Then I read the reader comments and was quite surprised at how many people were completely outraged by his act, which got me thinking about all sorts of different points and arguments. Technically, Charles committed murder and then suicide, and we have no idea if his wife had any say in the matter, or if it was a common wish that they die together when it got too tough. To me it sounds like it was an act of love, and based on the portrayal of their life together, they had probably discussed and agreed to something like this. But I suppose there will always be a lingering doubt, did she really want this? How far gone was she when this happened? Was there no one who could have helped them both? If a husband of 35 killed his wife of 34 and then himself I think I would be disgusted and would consider it some type of crime of passion, but for Charles and Adrienne I just feel compassion. Such blurry lines…

I think this is really a question of personal opinion and everyone is entitled to theirs. If one day I am sick with a degenerative disease then I will consider euthanasia as an option of escape. Not because I don’t want to live my life, but because I don’t want to be a burden on my family. But I also wouldn’t want anyone to go to prison for helping me to die in as much a humane way as possible, and in most countries euthanasia is still illegal and will probably never be legalised. For good cause really, because there are so many fine lines that can be crossed, and so many different opinions to watch out for and to listen to. What kind of criteria do you use to determine when you want to die and how? I’m assuming that all sorts of documentation will need to be put together while you are still conscious and able. What if you change your mind at the last minute and can’t communicate this to whoever is helping you to die? If I decided to end my life today it would be considered suicide, but if I asked someone to assist me in dying because I was physically incapable of doing it alone that would be considered murder. I’m not religious, but I believe in choice, as long as my choices don’t hurt another human being.

For those who believe in religion, I assume that the idea of killing another, be it because it was requested (euthanasia), an act of love (see above), or because of more despicable means (hatred, envy etc), is always going to be condemned. The fifth Commandment in the Bible states that “Thy shalt not kill”, meaning murder is murder, whatever the reason behind it. Every single question I ask myself in this regards is followed by another question and another question and yet another one. I don’t think there is a real answer as to what is right or wrong on this subject; it’s just a case of opinion based on a separate case at a time.

In any case, in my opinion, Charles Snelling showed love and courage in his final act, and I would like to imagine the couple together somewhere, holding hands and looking down on their children and grandchildren, wherever they may be. I feel like I am going to be thinking about this for the rest of the weekend and I am not going to be able to come to any conclusion about it being right or wrong, good or bad, black or white. I actually don't think there are any real answers or conclusions to this entire topic to be honest. Everyone is going to be right because everyone has the right to their own opinion...

Information on Euthanasia

Jack Kevorkian information (famous for helping many of his patients die in peace, and convicted for this).

"Sin By Silence" - Women who killed their abusers

I was going to keep it light today and write about a new photography project I had in mind, but while going through my Twitter feed I came across the following article on a new domestic violence/murder/crime documentary called "Sin By Silence": Women Who Kill The Men They Love.
The documentary follows the women of a prison support group in a prison in Chico, CA, and tells the stories of how the group was created and the women who are part of it. Brenda Clubline founded the group after she was jailed for 26 years for murdering her husband, an ex-policeman who repeatedly beat her up and harmed her, before she killed him (you can read about her story HERE). At the time when Brenda Clubline was jailed, domestic violence was still one of those crimes that was swept under the carpet. There were no real support groups or shelters out there and there was a real stigma surrounding it. You just didn't talk about it. Even if you continuously had visible bruises on your face and body and broken bones, people would just avert their gaze... Or tell you to leave your husband/boyfriend/partner.

To be honest, only those who have actually suffered from domestic abuse/violence can actually really understand what you go through, after the actual physical pain has subsided. I know too many people close to me who suffered from it. Maybe one of them will be willing to answer some questions that I can then make into an article... Let's see. It's so important to keep talking about it, because it still happens on a regular basis.

Back to the documentary. I suppose murder is murder, and taking another person's life is a crime (unless, of course, it's during a war and then all laws fall out of the window and anyone is fair game apparently). But how does one judge the murder of an abuser? What if this is really the only way out, or at least, you cannot see any other way out? It's a interesting, and quite heartbreaking discussion. You can think about it in a pragmatic, distanced and cold-blooded way, or in a passionate way, thinking what you would do if it happened to you.

I want to see this documentary, and I want to write more about this. Or at least start some kind of meaningful discussion.

More information on Sin By Silence HERE