Sleeping pill addiction: the silent health crisis?

Addiction to sleeping pills has become more of a problem, not only in London, but nationwide Pic: Dean 812

Sleeping pill addiction has been claiming victims for decades, with famous cases such as Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson. Two former addicts explain why sleeping pill addiction shouldn’t be underestimated

“For four years I was walking across international borders with tablets that hadn’t been prescribed to me, which, at any point, could have been confiscated from me, which would’ve made me very sick, very quickly,” says Tom, 45, who lives in Hackney. Due to a stressful job that spread across different time zones, he quickly became an addict, but has lived to tell the tale.

Tom has been clean for more than two years now – taking his last dose of benzodiazepines in 2017 – but his addiction started a decade before. The first kind he tried was Valium, one of the most common benzodiazepine tablets on the market, while away on business in India in 2004. He says that, after taking it, he slept for 18 hours straight and felt like he didn’t have a care in the world. Eight years later, he started to get shift-pattern insomnia and consequently took both benzodiazepines and Z drugs, like Xanax and Ambien, to get by.

These medications may work in different ways, but each can cause addiction. While benzodiazepines are a standard sedative and work by slowing down the body’s functions, Z drugs are a hypnotic and knock you out very quickly. Doctors prescribe the use of both for a period of two to four weeks. If taken for longer, they can create physical addiction and mental dependence. A report, published by the University of Warwick in 2014, linked the prolonged use of sleeping pills to an increased risk of death.

The drugs that Tom says he began taking were not prescribed by a doctor, and, since he was abroad, were easier to purchase. “I come from a background as a professional fixer, so finding what I needed was not a problem,” he says. Tom’s addiction got bad enough that he decided to seek medical attention: after two failed rehabilitation attempts, he returned to the UK and visited a GP. At the time he was taking 9mg of Xanax a day, while the maximum recommended dosage is 4mg. He says his GP was “extraordinarily good” – they listened to him and immediately switched him from Xanax to Valium, which is half as strong. As well as being highly addictive, Xanax’s other problem is its extremely short half-life; half-life meaning the time it takes for the drug to be half as effective. For Xanax, it’s about eight hours, while for Valium this varies from 24 to 48.

Benzodiazepines, if taken regularly and for longer periods of time, are extremely dangerous, because the body takes up to two weeks to dispose of them. “People think they’re fine after a couple of days, but that stuff is still in their system and it’s actually interfering with their sleep patterns, mood and lots of different things,” he says.

Tom is not alone. Michael, 33 who lives in Lewisham, took benzodiazepines for more than 10 years. Prescribed by his doctor at the age of 19, he used to take from 10 – 40mg of Stilnox a day. He decided to quit, because he began sleep walking. “Once I woke up in a random place. I didn’t know how I got there and I worried the situation was going to escalate, so I just stopped using them there and then,” he says.

Quitting such highly addictive medications is not easy, and both men experienced painful withdrawal symptoms. Tom said he suffered badly with chest and muscle pain. “I couldn’t think straight and my vision was blurred. I also had panic and anxiety attacks all the time.” Michael’s withdrawal manifested in lack of sleep and mood swings. He said he couldn’t sleep at all and was awake 24/7. “I also felt more aggressive and prone to violent behaviour,” he says. “Once I almost got into a fight with a stranger on the tube.”

Data suggests, each year, that doctors write more than 15 million prescriptions for sleeping pills across the UK. Dr Passetti, a psychiatrist who specialises in treating addiction, says this phenomenon is quite common nationwide, due to the fact that pills can now be purchased online and passed around more easily. “Taking such medicine has become the quick solution, but people don’t realise that these drugs are both physically and mentally addictive,” he says. Passetti believes that right now, compared with 10 or 15 years ago, there is much more awareness surrounding sleeping pill addiction – especially at primary care. “GPs are much more aware now about the risks of prescribing sleeping pills unwisely, and there have been more efforts at a public health level to raise awareness,” he says.

Step By Step Recovery, in Hackney, is a rehab centre which helps people deal with addiction, including that of sleeping pills. Danielle Byatt, a clinician working at the centre, says that most people aren’t just addicted to benzodiazepines and Z drugs, but they’re also addicted to other substances. “A cocaine user may approach their GP with insomnia, but fail to mention that their insomnia is caused by taking cocaine,” she says. “The GP then unknowingly prescribes sleeping tablets, so we see a number of clients who are addicted as a co-occupancy of other substances,” she says.

As with any substance abuse, addiction to sleeping pills works in the same way and can be triggered through a verity of contributing factors, such as preoccupation, compulsion and obsession. In the same way as Dr Possetti, clinicians at Step by Step focus on giving patients both clinical and psychological support: treatments include detoxification, a holistic therapeutic programme and tips on healthy living.

The power of sleeping pill addiction is not something to underestimate. Tom says he’s fully aware of the fact he’s one of the “lucky ones”, as “for the level of non-therapeutic doses that [he]was taking” someone else may not have recovered in the same way that he has.

Follow our Sleepless London series this week to find out more about sleep loss and the impact it can have. #SleeplessLondon

Some names and places have been altered.

If you feel like you may be struggling with issues mentioned in this article, contact your GP or a specialist centre immediately. 

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