Valium was considered a miracle drug in the 1960s and ’70s — an ideal way for Americans to calm the anxiety many were feeling in turbulent times.
So when documentary filmmaker Barbara Gordon wrote a book about herValium addiction and withdrawal in 1979, it was an eye-opener and a shock. This “easy fix” for stress that many Americans relied on turned out to have, for some, a terribly dark side.
Gordon’s book, “I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can” became a huge best seller, a film starring Jill Clayburgh — and a wake-up call. At that time, Valium was one of the top-selling prescriptions in the United States.
“I thought I was writing about one woman. It turned out I wrote about a big, national, dirty secret,” says Gordon today. It was also the era in which former first lady Betty Ford went public with her addiction to pills and alcohol, which Gordon calls a “truly courageous” act that helped begin to remove the stigma of addiction.
A few months ago, Gordon’s book was rereleased, and its story on the dangers of relying on pills to combat stress remains highly relevant.
In fact, prescriptions for anti-anxiety pills are a bigger business than ever.
Today, Valium (diazepam) is still around, but it has been eclipsed by other, newer, and far more popular anti-anxiety drugs in the same family, known as benzodiazepines. Xanax is the one most prevalently prescribed, followed by others such as Ativan (lorazepam) and Klonopin (clonazepam). Doctors says Xanax (alprazolam) is often favored by both doctors and patients because it has less of a “hangover” effect than a drug like Klonopin.
While stories of addiction to prescription pills are hardly as new as they were three decades ago, and may not carry as much of a stigma, they are persistent.
Opiate addiction — to such misused drugs as the painkiller Vicodin (hydrocodone/acetaminophen) — is the most common of pill addictions. But addiction to Xanax, Valium or other benzodiazepines also can be perilous. Some doctors say people can easily begin taking more than the prescribed dose, increasing their tolerance. They can form a reliance on them as a coping mechanism or as a “high,” not unlike overimbibing.
Withdrawal from even low or moderate doses can cause symptoms that include jitteriness, insomnia and heart-racing, which can lead to another cycle of anxiety — and another pill.
Sudden withdrawal, particularly for people whose bodies have gotten used to higher doses, can lead to seizures and death. Singer Sean Levert died after having hallucinations and delusions while he was in the Cuyahoga County jail. The coroner ruled that withdrawal from Xanax was likely a contributing factor in his death; he had been taking 2-milligrams three times a day. While that was his prescribed dose, a typical Xanax prescription would be between 0.5 and 2 milligrams a day.
Toxicology reports on other celebrities who died of complications involving a mix of prescription drugs — such as actor Heath Ledger — also often mention Xanax. So have initial reports of medications found in singer Whitney Houston’s hotel room.
When he was an emergency-room physician at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center, Dr. Thomas Graber saw a number of people in the throes of a pill addiction or withdrawal — or with complications resulting from seizures that came from sudden withdrawal.
“Often, the pills had been prescribed by primary care givers who didn’t have extensive experience with them,” says Graber. “I do think both patients and doctors fail to calculate how important individual responses to medication are.”
Dr. Peter Cohen is an addiction specialist in Maryland. He says he was inspired to become a psychiatrist when, as a medical student, he saw the film “I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can” and was moved by the scene in which Gordon’s character works with the psychiatrist who helps bring her back to health.
“I started to learn a lot about benzodiazepines, the No. 1 prescribed medication at that time,” Cohen says. “And today, it’s still an issue people are discussing: What to do about the tremendous use of benzodiazepines and opiates? Should anti-anxiety agents be more restricted?”