Lena Dunham this week revealed that she's six months sober, after three years of misusing anti-anxiety medication Klonopin (Clonazepam). Speaking on Dax Shepard's Armchair Expert podcast, the 32-year-old actress said: 'I was having crazy anxiety and having to show up for things that I didn't feel equipped to show up for. But I know I need to do it, and when I take a Klonopin, I can do it.'
Over time, Dunham added: 'It stopped being "I take one when I fly" to "I take one when I'm awake". I didn't have any trouble getting a doctor to tell me, "you have serious anxiety issues, you should be taking this".'
Klonopin, the drug Dunham described as her 'particular passion', is one of a group of anti-anxiety medications known as benzodiazepines – which also includes drugs like Xanax (alprazolam), Valium (diazepam), and Ativan (lorazepam).
Often known as 'benzos', these are psychoactive drugs commonly prescribed for the short-term treatment of anxiety and panic disorders. Benzos are typically prescribed on a 'take as required' basis, but they're highly addictive, and an estimated 1.5 million people in the UK are hooked.
37-year-old Imani was working as a lecturer in sociology and child development when she was first prescribed diazepam six years ago. 'I did quite a lot of high profile jobs, where I had to perform for somebody else, and I really struggled with panic and anxiety. The diazepam was prescribed as a PRN (take as required) that I would take during times of panic or really bad anxious episodes,' she explains.
As her anxiety got worse and worse, and her tolerance to the diazepam grew, Imani increasingly found she needed more and more of the drug to achieve the same feeling. 'I used to pop them like Smarties just to survive. You have the control to take it as and when you feel you need it, so there's a lot of potential for misusing it,' she says.
'When you're really suffering, you don't necessarily make sensible decisions because you just want that awful pain or panic to go away, and there is nothing that works better than diazepam at making it go away.'
For Imani, diazepam became an everyday habit. 'It was something that I would take not only for anxiety, but to numb all my emotions. I suppose it's like getting high – the escapism and emotional numbing effect of taking it is very rewarding when you're in pain and you're struggling,' she says.
'If I had to do something I considered stressful, I wouldn't take the diazepam when I was there, or beforehand, because I'd want to be able to concentrate and engage. But when I came back, diazepam would be part of my reward or relaxation – I'd treat myself with diazepam in the way some people treat themselves with a slice of cake or a glass of wine after a stressful day.'
32-year-old Etsy seller Katie had a similar experience on both lorazepam and diazepam, which were prescribed during a really rough period in her life. 'It makes you feel like you're wrapped in a cloud, which is a really nice, addictive feeling,' she says. 'The more I took them, the more I actually needed them, and I ended up in a situation where I couldn't do without them because it literally made me physically ill.'
Withdrawal from benzos can be brutal. 21-year-old Natalie* recalls getting migraines and panic attacks for several weeks after her doctor reduced her dose of diazepam, while Katie describes throwing up, and waking up in the middle of the night feeling like someone had just put a cold shower on over her. 'It was absolutely horrendous, so I realised at that point that, actually, I was addicted to them,' she says.
And it's not just benzos that are keeping women trapped in a vicious cycle of anxiety and dependence. 36-year-old PR professional Suzie was prescribed antidepressant Sertraline during a period of financial anxiety. 'I'd taken them before, about four or five years ago, and that time they really helped me get out of the slump I was in,' she says.
'But this time, I'd been taking them for a year when, about six weeks ago, I suddenly realised, "hang about, you're on this medication, but you're still not in a great place, and you're not managing to sort that out because of how the medication is affecting you". It was almost like I couldn't feel my way through the problem, because I've been so numbed out by the medication I'm on,' Suzy explains.
Although not physically dependent, Suzy realised she'd been relying on sertraline to 'keep up a front', but had completely lost herself in the process. 'At first it was a really positive move, because I felt like I was taking some control back,' she says. 'But after a while all my inspiration and creativity had gone, I was in a relationship that didn't work out because I couldn't feel emotional; I just felt like my brain was frozen.'
For Imani – who's now an award-winning writer and illustrator, as well as a mum to two daughters – it's pregabalin that still has her in its grasps. 'After I built up a tolerance to diazepam, I was prescribed pregabalin for my anxiety a few years ago. That's been a complete nightmare, because it's worked really, really well,' she says.
'It's really effective at reducing anxiety and it makes you feel amazing, like you've had a couple of glasses of wine and you can cope with anything. But it's so addictive. It's got really high street value, and it's something that prison populations fight over – but I wasn't warned about this,' Imani adds.
'I feel like the doctors wanted me to take it because it's the easiest option. As a mum, I need to be able to function, I have to drive and do the school run, and there are days when I can barely even communicate because I'm so cushioned by the medication that I feel like a zombie.'
Both Imani and Katie today volunteer for mental health charity Mind, and firmly believe that more awareness is needed about the effects of these medications – which can, when prescribed and used carefully, provide brilliant relief for people suffering from anxiety.
'These things really do need to be monitored,' says Katie. 'They're only meant to be given for a short period of time, and they shouldn't just be left on a rolling prescription forever.'
When she was first prescribed benzos, Katie says: 'I didn't even really know what they were. I was just told they were for anxiety and they'd make me feel calmer – which they did. But I had no idea they were so addictive.'
She now takes clonazepam as required, but says her past experience on both lorazepam and diazepam has made her extremely cautious. 'I can take up to half a tablet three times a day, which is a much more minimal dose, but I try and keep it to one half tablet a day, just in the morning,' Katie says.
'Some days are worse than others so I might take two but, in the two years I've been on it, I've never actually had the maximum three halves I'm allowed, because I'm obviously a lot more self-aware now.'
Imani is currently weaning herself of pregabalin, but says the last time she tried to withdraw completely, the symptoms were so horrendous that continuing to take pregabalin felt like the lesser of two evils.
'I know that my body will be healthier without me needing all these drugs, and it will benefit both my family and my work if I can find natural alternatives,' she says.
'I've cut down considerably but I still get this really bad irritability and craving three times a day, because I'm wanting my next fix. I've never done non-prescription drugs ever, but I feel like a middle class junkie on these prescriptions!'