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In late spring of 2011, I told my therapist that I’d reached a breaking point. For a decade, insomnia had kept me groggy, slightly stupid and cranky. Because exhaustion is poison to any job (unless your job is to underperform), stories that should have taken me several hours to write took me several days or weeks. Sometimes I’d write a paragraph, and then read it over and over in a trance. I’d tried everything — Tylenol PM, prescription sleeping pills, melatonin, meditation, scheduling a bedtime, journaling, and shutting down my phone and laptop an hour before I turned in.
Nothing worked. I maintained a clean diet. I’d eliminated alcohol and caffeine. I exercised regularly. I practiced yoga. And still, although I could fall asleep at night, four hours later, my eyes would pop open.
For six months, my insomnia had been worse than ever. Now I’d snap awake gasping. My heart would thrash in my ears. In the dark, I would conjure thoughts of death — my loved ones dying, nuclear war, biblical plagues, my own demise.
The panic seemed to bloom from nothing: OK, my finances weren’t in order, but when were they ever? My relationship with my boyfriend was coming apart, but I only half-minded. And yet, every night, I woke to a panic attack. Although my therapist believed that in time, we’d get to the root of my insomnia, when I told her how unmanageable my nights had become, she referred me to a psychiatrist. During our first session, he wrote me a prescription for .25 milligrams of Klonopin, a benzodiazepine, or “benzo,” used to treat anxiety.
And then I got better. I still woke in the wee hours, but my heart ticked calmly, my thoughts flitting around the mundane — making iced tea, buying my niece a birthday present. If the middle of the night had once been a storm cloud, it was now a fluffy cumulus. Daytime, too, felt dreamy and tranquil. “I love Klonopin!” I told everyone I knew. Like a new convert, I tuned out the naysayers, who decried benzos as addictive. “I’m on a minuscule dose,” I assured them. I kept saying, “It’s changed my whole life.”
That proved true in more ways than one. Suddenly, I found my range of emotions narrowed, my reactions uncharacteristically mild. One morning, I watched a cockroach scurry across my kitchen floor. Look at that, I thought. Nature. On hold with the phone company, I gazed placidly out my window. And every morning, I sat down to work and stared at the blank screen, the cursor blinking in time with the dull rhythm of my heart. This was a fog thicker than exhaustion, thicker even than writer’s block. Through writer’s block, that unwelcome expression of insecurity, the spark of inspiration still glows. I can see it; it’s just dim. On Klonopin, it was gone. My emotions dulled, I had nothing to say. So this was what it was like not to be a writer.
At first, I didn’t blame Klonopin; to blame it would have meant quitting. I’m just blocked, I assured myself. It will pass the way it always does.
Unfortunately, I was low on time, on deadline for two magazine feature stories, the payments for which would sustain me through part of the fall. But at the end of each writing day, I’d have half a paragraph, maybe less. When I read aloud to myself, my sentences sounded stiff and off-key. For inspiration, I turned to novels I love, but instead of feeling stirred by my favorite authors, I thought, How do they do that? I once sat on the edge of my bed, zoned out, turning a paperback over and over, as if looking for its sleight of hand.
I wondered: Would it be so terrible to become something else?
Like many artists, I often envy the non-artist lifestyle. “Normal people,” as I’ve always thought of them, know how to be adults. They know how to relax when it’s time to relax. I don’t. Because an artist’s work is never done, whenever I’m not writing, I’m worrying that I should be. (Imagine! I think, while watching people play Frisbee. Playing Frisbee without hating yourself!) “Normal people” got a memo that I missed. They learned how to apply makeup, how to decorate their homes.
On Klonopin, I got the memo. I could buy a couple of throw pillows to accent my comforter, I realized one day as I surveyed my apartment. How have I been living with that ugly lamp? Why is there nothing on my walls? For the first time in my life, I noticed advertisements and display windows. I wandered through Bed, Bath and Beyond and ran my fingers over the merchandise. Had this store really always been here? It was so … lovely! Where had I been? For the record, my home-makeover dreams weren’t creative — I had no interesting ideas — I just wanted to buy stuff. That I couldn’t afford to redecorate, or, more accurately, decorate, didn’t stop me from fantasizing.
But at the end of the summer, my fantasies evaporated when I handed in one of the two feature stories.
It just wasn’t working, my editor said, offering me a kill fee, one-sixth of the money I’d planned on.
Soon after, I emailed the other story to the other magazine. This one wouldn’t do, either.
Through the fog, I felt something: disappointment, embarrassment. Writing is more than just my profession; it’s my identity. It’s my way of making sense of the world. What did it mean if my writing “wasn’t working”? Plus, if my stories kept getting killed, how would I pay my rent? I wanted to blame my editors, the magazines, the ailing economy. But in the quiet that followed my fury (an anaesthetized version of fury), I knew the truth: I had written two unpublishable stories.
A Google search for “Klonopin” and “creativity” brought me to Stevie Nicks. After her years of cocaine addiction, a doctor prescribed her Klonopin. Although she was likely taking much more than I was (in an interview with the Telegraph, she said she’d taken six pills a day, but she didn’t cite the dosage), I related to her sense that Klonopin “sucked away my creativity and my soul.” About her first solo album, she told Nylon magazine, “It was a terrible record … You can’t write beautiful songs and sing beautifully … when you’re on that type of drug.”
I tossed my pills into the garbage.
Once my creativity was restored, my interest in wall hangings diminished, I expected my nightly panic attacks to return. They didn’t. According to my doctor, those three months on Klonopin broke a feedback loop in my brain; I was no longer going to bed anticipating panic. And although a year later, I’m still dealing with anxiety and insomnia, Klonopin did put an end to that cycle of nightly panic attacks.
In retrospect, I should have done more research. Well-known benzo side effects include “emotional clouding” and “loss of creativity,” which can be distressing whether someone wants to make art or not. “I have not been able to feel anything … in three years. I can’t even cry right,” wrote one member of BenzoBuddies Community Forum, an online group for people withdrawing from benzodiazepines.
In spring 2011, had I been offered relief from panic in exchange for temporary emotional muteness, I would have taken it. I just wish I’d known what I was getting into. I would have planned ahead for my recovery, picked up a mindless summer job, allowed myself a break from writing.
When a psychiatrist sees one of the 40 million Americans who suffer from anxiety each year, he’ll ask about his patient’s family medical history, his allergies and his diet. He’ll warn him that medication might make his mouth dry, or make him dizzy or sick to his stomach. He might even warn that benzo abuse can lead to addiction. But he will not ask, “Which means more to you, your emotions or your work? Your emotions or your peace of mind?”
Diana Spechler is the author of the novels “Who by Fire” and “Skinny,” and of articles in The New York Times, GQ, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Esquire, Slate, and elsewhere. She teaches writing in New York City and for Stanford University's Online Writer's Studio. Learn more at www.dianaspechler.com.More Diana Spechler.