My doctor put me on Xanax for years

Naturally I got addicted, and then everything went nuts. Now I'm trying to pick up the pieces

Published May 25, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I had always been a pretty easygoing person and good-natured, but now I'm a mess and have a lot of anger at some situations and want to confront them because I feel this would help empower and heal me.

This is a long story, but I will try to condense it.

I was hospitalized for pneumonia 10 years ago. My family doctor put me on Xanax at this time. He kept me on it for years. I asked him periodically if this was OK, because I didn't want to be dependent and he said it was fine, I was on a low dose.

At this time I was functioning well as a single mom, university student with high grades, published papers, spending a lot of time with my child, going to church and volunteering. I was never more happy and fulfilled in my life.

I didn't know I was physiologically addicted to this nasty benzodiazepine. Anyway I met a man who was highly educated and my son and I moved in with him (BIG MISTAKE). He was an abusive alcoholic (more mental and emotional). I started drinking a lot too along with taking my Xanax. I became a mess, told my doc and he put me on a five-day taper. I ended up in an E.R. in my hometown and almost died. The docs there said no one should every be on a benzo for years. This was right when the economy was going down, I had nowhere to go so I sent my son to his dad's, went to a DV [domestic violence] shelter, then a rehab, then a women's homeless shelter. The rehab and shelter were horrible, just running women in legal trouble through the system. Most of the women were at the "homeless shelter" because they were on house arrest. I went through some horrendous situations that were just as scary as the abusive boyfriend. I went through this system for 14 months. My dad died when I was in the shelter and I inherited a decent amount of money (Dad never knew I was there, my dysfunctional family is another can of worms) and his death was very painful to me. The estate is not all the way settled and one of my brothers is co-executor of the estate. He has screamed at me and sent me very vile, abusive emails. Also I started seeing my former fiancé of many years a few weeks before my father died. He treated me bad but I dated him for a year because I felt like I couldn't handle another loss. He forced himself on me sexually twice when I refused sex because of the way he treated me. I broke it off six months ago.

Cary, it seems like ever since these things happened I am treated badly by people who would not think of being that way before.

I feel withdrawn and afraid. My son has been back with me for a year now and he is in his late teens. I love him and I know he loves me and I know part of his pushing away from me is a normal thing for his age, but he is having problems too, focusing on doing something with his life. I try to get him on track, but he does a lot of push-back. I had a counselor at a university but that ended at the semester. I want to move back to my hometown (not very far) because I don't think where I am at is a healthy place for me. My son is resistant and I'm racked with guilt about moving because he is dependent on me.

How do I confront people who have harmed me? (I have left a lot out for brevity's sake.) It feels like there was a domino effect that continues on by the way people treat me now. I've never sued anyone in my life, and I'm not sue-happy, but there are a number of people I would like to sue! I just feel that I want to hold people accountable for what happened ... I don't like soap operas and I don't like being a victim. I was vulnerable and now I want to get back on track with my life and help my son be productive, too.

Thank you for any advice you can give me.

Hurt but Ready to Fight

Dear Hurt,

We're sitting on the bench together at the dog park and I say to you, You've been through a lot.

You start talking about your plans. I listen and nod. I'm thinking, Now is not the time to sue. I understand the desire to sue. But it's not what you need to do right now. Certain things are going to happen that render your immediate plans unimportant. I know this.  Yet if I try to describe it, I'll feel as if I'm selling something. So I listen and nod.

I'm wondering, Is there something you're leaving out? Why would they put you on Xanax? Xanax is for panic attacks. So I say, Was it pneumonia by itself, or was there a panic attack too? But then I realize that this is getting into stuff I don't know anything about.

I ask you how your son is doing.

You say he doesn't want to move. You'd like to move back to your hometown but your son wants to stay where he is.

I say I'm sorry to hear about your dad. My dad died last year and I wasn't able to be there for the funeral because I was recovering from cancer surgery.

Then we both sit on the bench a while in silence, watching the dogs. There's a little Boston terrier chasing a tennis ball that keeps bouncing back at his face so it's like he's dribbling. I could watch that all day. Then there's another dog, a bigger dog chasing the terrier.

I see you as fragile and in danger. I want to protect you. But I'm cautious. I could see you lashing out, too. I could see you snarling and panicked.

I want to tell you many things, but now is not the time. So later I will write you a letter. You have some money now, I will say in the letter. You can take care of yourself. You need some kind of program for living. So here is what I suggest. Don't move back to your hometown yet. Don't take your son away from his friends. But make a plan to move back to your hometown soon. Maybe when he's 21.

Meanwhile, just heal. Don't sue people. Just heal. Live a quiet life of healing. Find a doctor who will treat you as a whole person. I don't know exactly what happened with the Xanax and the pneumonia and the drinking. But I have certain instincts. I have seen how prescription drugs and turbulent emotions and alcohol can make for chaos and lasting damage. You need to heal. You need to take care of yourself and live a simple, quiet life for a while.

Find a meditation practice or a regular church practice that will give your life a weekly and daily rhythm. Set your alarm clock to get up every day at the same time. Eat regular meals. Avoid stimulants. Get exercise every day. If you are not working a job, then be sure to get out of the house and walk every morning. Greet your neighbors. Do simple things. Take the time to mourn your father. Avoid your brother and your ex. Make sure your son has what he needs but don't expect things to be rosy between you. He's on his way somewhere different where you can't join him.

Join a group of trauma survivors. Sit in a circle and talk about what you went through. Go out for something to eat afterward. Do this for a while. Live simply and look for stillness in the middle of the day. When you feel yourself making progress, thank somebody. When you feel stuck, sit down and pray or meditate. Take your own pulse. See if you can keep your heart rate down. When you feel anxious, pay attention to your breath. Live quietly for a while and just let things pass.

These are the things I will say to you in the letter. Meanwhile, we're sitting on that bench, and you have been talking about suing. I say, Don't sue anybody. At least not today. You close your purse. You have been looking at your cellphone while I've been talking. Your son has left you a message. He wants a ride. I notice that my talking has sort of drifted off like the wind. You say thanks for meeting with you, you have to go pick up your son and his new girlfriend. They've been skating. Or they say they've been skating.

I say, Take a deep breath. You take a deep breath and walk out of the park to the street. I watch you drive away and I watch the dogs play, and I take a few minutes before getting in my car. I have one of those thoughts I have often, about the mystery and vastness of the world. Then I get in my car.

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By Cary Tennis

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