WhiteFlag CEO & Founder
Five years ago, on August 14th, I took my last, final milligram of Valium, having gradually tapered down from 60 mg over the course of just 21 days. The slow taper had already been excruciatingly painful. However, when I eventually reached zero, it was as if the ground gave way beneath me, and I found myself plunged into a realm that can only be described as hell, with torment as its central focus.
Allow me to provide some context. When one decides to discontinue the use of Xanax, the transition involves switching to an equivalent dosage of Valium. Valium's longer half-life makes it somewhat easier to taper off. In my case, I transitioned from 60 mg of Valium, which equates to 6 mg of Xanax, in a matter of weeks. Medical guidelines and professionals typically recommend a minimum of 6 months to taper off a single milligram. Most individuals require 12 to 18 months to safely and gradually reduce their intake to zero. However, I chose a different path. The warning that "this can be fatal" oddly enough only heightened my resolve to expedite the withdrawal process.
I devised a schedule in my journal, allocating 5 days for a critical state and recovery before my wife's arrival for family week. I was fully aware that what lay ahead was going to be unbearable. I had heard terrifying stories about benzo withdrawal. Apart from alcohol, it's the only substance withdrawal that can lead to death.
And so, I began the journey: 60, 55, 50, 45, 40, 35, 30, all the way down to a 10-day countdown. Then, on August 14th, 2018, I hit zero. Words are inadequate to describe the agony I experienced. This isn't a cliché or metaphor; it's the simple truth that the lexicon falls short in capturing the intensity. No arrangement of letters can convey the sensation of anxiety spiraling so uncontrollably that your resting heart rate reaches 220 bpm. There's no one coming to the rescue in a facility filled with others in "crisis." My heartbeat was so forceful that my shirt fluttered as if driven by a speaker blasting intense bass beats at maximum volume. I awaited death. I even prayed for it, even when my faith faltered. My screams echoed until my voice deserted me—not in a plea for assistance, but because I could no longer see anything. When my vision vanished, I was left only with the symphony of my heartbeat and the searing sensation all over. Boom, boom, boom—my heart's relentless rhythm was the sole audible presence. Ultimately, my resistance crumbled as my chattering teeth threatened to fracture. Lying in that bed within the trauma treatment facility, I surrendered, fully at peace with the notion of dying. Not merely desiring death, but needing it, imploring for release from the agony.
Reaching this point is to grasp the essence of suicide and the myriad "whys" and "hows" it entails. I asserted that the words hadn't been coined to describe this ordeal because I meant it. I comprehend the anguish that could propel someone toward seeking an end to their life in order to escape. I understand it, yet still, I'm incapable of adequately articulating it.
I recall crawling into the bathtub and turning on the shower. My skin burned and crawled as if the problem resided in my body, not just my mind. I vomited ceaselessly, and the water morphed from bile to blood as portions of me seemed to tear apart.
My solace during this torment was my roommate, a veteran of 5 tours, burdened by traumatic brain injuries and severe PTSD. He shepherded me through the withdrawal experience, even carrying me to the medical unit when walking was beyond my ability. He infused hope into a place steeped in darkness. This individual is the inspiration behind WhiteFlag—an embodiment of the magic in connecting with someone who comprehends your ordeal.
As I slowly regained my faculties, I noticed an increased sensitivity to light and sound. Sentences beginning around me caused me to startle, and loud noises or doors triggered my collapse to my knees. Nonetheless, I persisted in getting up, repeatedly. I reengaged with group therapy sessions, and when I could barely speak, Cia arrived for family week. I've never shed so many tears in my cumulative existence as I did during that week when Cia learned about benzo withdrawal and the trials I had weathered. Following her 4-day immersion, it was time to depart. I remember being behind the wheel since Cia had yet to secure a driver's license due to immigration challenges. We pulled over every half-hour, tears staining our journey. Eventually, after an 8-hour drive, we reached my brother's home, where I sought refuge for another 60 days of acute withdrawal.
I'm fully aware that the manner in which I discontinued Xanax likely resulted in brain damage. However, I had made a promise to Cia that I would be off it by her arrival, and I knew she wouldn't comprehend any deviation from that commitment. So, I persevered. Because for me, remaining on that medication equated to a form of dying. Following 6 months of withdrawal, on New Year's Eve, I resorted to consuming marijuana. That night marked the first instance I managed to share a meal with my wife since entering treatment. I continued to grapple with withdrawal for several more years, contending with protracted symptoms like overwhelming anxiety and panic. In fact, this year is the first in which I can genuinely declare that I've healed from the experience.
After battling intense withdrawal symptoms for 4 and a half years, I finally yielded to what my doctors had been advising for months: the necessity of antipsychotic medication. I had resisted and deferred this recommendation due to the stigma associated with such medications. Negative perceptions and tales had colored my view. It took reaching the brink before I embraced this option.
From the first night, I sensed a shift. Up to that point, I had explored every avenue: organic solutions, antidepressants, dietary adjustments, alpha brain stem waves, EMDR, CBD, marijuana, ketamine, psilocybin, equine therapy, CBT, inpatient and outpatient care—you name it, I'd tried it. I had battled for my life, and all along, stigma had stood as the barrier between me and relief. This medication breathed life into me. Not a return to "my old life," as anxiety had always been a constant. It bestowed a newfound vitality upon me.
I am immensely thankful to have survived. I comprehend human suffering in ways I never deemed possible. Although I could never endure such an ordeal again, choosing to remain sober from Xanax has always been the only rational choice. Don't take it, and live. Thanks to the medication I'm now on, I can truthfully say that I'm genuinely alive for the first time. I am elated to be here with all of you. For those who are suffering like I was: Don’t give up. Ever. This will pass. You’ll feel better. And, on that day, you’ll be glad you are here, too. __________
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