We hear a lot these days about the “opioid crisis” and the responsibility the medical community bears for prescribing painkillers too readily. But opioid painkillers aren’t the only prescription drugs that can cause addiction: patients taking benzodiazepines, tranquilizers prescribed for short-term treatment of anxiety or insomnia, can become addicted in less than a month. Many people even take opioids and benzodiazepines, a double-depressant combination that the Food and Drug Administration considers potentially life-threatening.
Whatever the specific drug or drugs involved, prescription drug addiction is a serious problem. If you suspect you have that problem yourself—or if you’re worried enough to be nervous about accepting prescriptions in the first place—the following tips will help.
1. The best cure is prevention.
If your doctor recommends an opioid or benzodiazepine prescription, ask how long you will be taking it, what addiction-related risks might be involved, and what alternatives are available. If you get a doctor who’s “too busy” or too rushed to discuss the matter seriously, get a second opinion before getting that prescription filled. And if you do accept the prescription, take it exactly according to official instructions—no exceptions, no excuses. If you don’t feel the medicine does its job when taken as directed, ask the prescriber for advice.
2. Be alert for early signs of addiction.
Contact the prescribing doctor also if you develop any of the following symptoms, especially if they regularly occur just before or after a prescription dose:
- Mood swings
- Loss of concentration
- Shortness of breath
- Headaches or dizziness
- Nausea or vomiting
- Heavy perspiration
Don’t ignore the symptoms and wait to “see what happens.” By the time trouble is obvious, detoxing will be considerably more unpleasant and dangerous.
3. Know your problem—and yourself.
Checking back with your doctor may be embarrassing if you’ve already ignored the above advice and developed an addiction by “cheating” on prescription instructions. Nonetheless, tell the truth about how much you’ve been taking, when and why. Nobody will be able to provide effective help without accurate information.
If your pride really hurts at the thought of “owning up,” take a serious look at yourself and consider whether you may have a problem with perfectionism, self-doubt or resentment. Even if you aren’t seriously addicted at this point, depending too much on medication—and being ashamed of that—is usually a sign you should consult a therapist as well as a medical doctor.
"Even if your hijacked brain and body tell you that you are in incredible pain and need your meds, the truth is that you get to hijack your brain and body back to true health- you are worth it!"
4. Get professional treatment.
If you do have full-blown prescription drug addiction, you’ll also need treatment at a drug detox center. Don’t risk “just stopping”: withdrawal from opiates or benzodiazepines is extremely unpleasant and, especially with “benzos,” potentially lethal. Possible reactions range from severe nausea and diarrhea, to seizures and heart failure, to mental breakdown culminating in suicide—don’t take the chance. Professional detox facilities are specially qualified to deal with medical emergencies, plus, they have access to medications and medical advice that can help you through withdrawal. If—as is common with benzo detox—you need gradually reduced doses for safer withdrawal, only someone with medical credentials is qualified to judge how much per dose.
Your doctor or health insurance company may be able to recommend a detox services provider; otherwise, look up conveniently located centers and research the medical credentials of their staff, their years of experience and their reputation in the community. See also if they mention programs specific to prescription drug addiction. Then, before making a final decision, pay the center a personal visit, see if you get a good “feel” from the grounds and the people, and ask any additional questions. (For more suggestions, see our article “What to Ask Before Choosing a Treatment Facility.”)
5. Arrange for long-term support.
Prescription-drug detox will probably take several days of “bedbound” care followed by several weeks of inpatient treatment and counseling. During this time, try not to get in a hurry to return to your “real world”—which will never be quite the same anyway, not if you want to avoid returning to your addiction as well. Your detox counselors will help you arrange for long-term therapy and emergency contacts, and for a long-term support group. Use these resources. Don’t ever get too proud or too busy to think you can manage without a little help from your friends.
6. Learn alternate means for coping with the problems you’ve been medicating.
One “friend” you’ll have to give up is the prescription drug(s) you were addicted to—once you get dependent on any substance to the point of addiction, it’s rarely possible to again use that substance “normally.” If your original prescription was for chronic pain or severe anxiety, the prospect of permanent abstinence may be terrifying: will you now have to live in constant agony or fear?
Before you panic, have a frank talk with your therapist about your concerns. It can help to remember that depending on pills as your primary coping source is rarely a good idea even with non-addictive drugs: building a better life takes its share of hard work on your part. With the help of your advisors, prepare a plan for reducing pain and anxiety through stress management, mindfulness, grateful living and a realistic outlook. Then you can consider whether you’d be further helped by a new medication for the original problem.
7. Develop focus for the long haul.
Cravings for “instant relief” are further reduced by having a hobby or passion you can get into with your whole self—something that provides both enjoyment and challenge, something that uses your unique abilities, something that does good for the world and is shared with good company. People in addiction recovery have a well-earned reputation for being enthusiastic volunteers: when someone has helped you resolve a major problem, it’s natural to pass the “help wave” on.
Nonetheless, cravings for a new taste of the old prescription drug may bother you periodically for a year or more. To keep them from getting too powerful, stay active in your support group, always have someone to call in case of emergency, and avoid situations that remind you of times you “needed another pill.” Plus, know the number-one secret of defusing cravings: if you fight them or even actively ignore them, your energy is drained while the cravings gain power; but if you quietly acknowledge a craving while simultaneously keeping a mindful eye on your feelings and surroundings, the craving will roll on by like a wave in the ocean. (Some people are helped by actually visualizing the unhealthy urge as a wave they can body-surf over—or you can create your own “this too shall pass” mental image.)
Prescription drugs can work wonders when managed properly, but relying on them to solve your problems for you is dangerous. Whether or not you’ve ever had an addiction problem, take all medication wisely and according to instructions!