Healing After a Total Breakdown
My Journey Back From Prescription Drug Dependence
As a pastor and public leader, this is the story that I don't want to tell. But I feel that I must because I'm a pastor and influencer. My calling is not to be perfect, but to help hurting people. So my transparency is to that end. My prayer is that my experience will serve as a road map or a lifeline to you or someone you know.
In November of 2018, I was on a long flight from Los Angeles to Fayetteville, Arkansas for a ministry trip. During the flight I began experiencing waves of anxiety that eventually turned into panic attacks. By the time I landed in Arkansas I was in full-blown crisis. My nervous system seemed to collapse. I could not eat, sleep, or even sit still. My mind was full of terror. I felt detached from reality. It was horrifying on a level that I cannot explain.
Now I know that I experienced what some call a nervous breakdown, which is more of a physical condition than a mental one. Because the nervous system is impacted, the symptoms feel very "mental"; but the body is actually what is in disequilibrium and dis-eased. I didn't know this when it happened.
I thought the thing that I feared the most had come upon me. The thing I was subconsciously trying to outrun since I was a child: the "curse" of mental illness.
I went to my doctor for lab work and discovered that my biochemistry was in havoc. For starters, I was severely hormonally imbalanced. In the doctor's words, my numbers were "psych ward" level. That's precisely what I felt like and my subconscious fears of mental illness multiplied the affect. She immediately began to treat me with bio-identical hormones (testosterone, estrogen and progesterone). She also prescribed an anti-anxiety medication called klonopin (a benzodiazepine class drug) to help me relax and sleep as my hormones were adjusting.
It helped. The hormone therapy eventually kicked in and revved me up. The klonopin relieved the anxiety and insomnia. I began feeling like myself again, to the point where I would forget to take the anxiety medicine. I didn't think about it because I didn't need it. Then out of nowhere, the panic, anxiety and insomnia would return with a vengeance. Worse than the first time. I would remember that it had been a few days since the medicine so I would take it again for relief.
This cycle continued and I became alarmed about the medicine, especially after researching its potential for dependence. I mentioned this to my doctor, but she told me that there was no way I could become dependent on such a small dose. She encouraged me to take it as I needed it. Not to be alarmed.
Then the anxiety, which is a debilitating feeling of extreme nervousness and fear, turned into depression. Crippling depression from the pits of hell. For 2 days, I wrestled with suicide. I have never wanted to end my life so this feeling was foreign to me. My husband was my saving grace. One day he walked with me almost the entire day to keep me moving until the suicidal ideations lifted.
The next solution offered to me by my doctor was an anti-depressant.
I was in deep internal conflict about the meds because my prayer was to be healed, not medicated.
But I didn't know the way so eventually I consented to adding the anti-depressant. I turned into a zombie, detached from reality. After 6 weeks, I stopped taking it.
Bad was getting worse and fear gripped my heart and mind like a vice wrench.
The greatest thing I had going for me was my family and community of faith. I was covered in the prayers of church members, family and friends. People knew I was unwell, but few knew the details. Yet they prayed for me powerfully and consistently.
Eventually I ended up in the care of a naturopathic doctor and that's when I entered the Light. That's when the healing journey really began. He connected me back to the Creator and the power of His creation to heal my body. He was very concerned about the benzodiazepine I was taking. Without disparaging my medical doctors, he educated me on how my body was created to heal itself and how the medication was really standing in the way of my body returning to balance. It was actually creating more imbalances.
I worked with him for 9 months to heal my gut, detox my liver, and clean my diet. It worked wondrously to restore my energy and wellbeing. Slowly, I weaned down to a small amount of the anxiety med. I felt so well and was taking so little that I thought there was no way I could still need the klonopin. So I stopped taking it.
Big mistake. Now I know that is called "cold turkey" and it could have been deadly.
I didn't sleep for 10 days straight. By day 10, I was at the point of a psychotic break. I know it sounds extreme, but it is the truth. Dexter Howard, my husband, is my witness.
The prescribing MD did not believe that it could be the affects of klonopin, but my ND (naturopathic doctor) knew it was. I was caught in the trap of dependence, tolerance and withdrawal of a dangerous medication. Not everyone has this experience with the drug. But I was one of the 50% or more that do.
Experts say that klonopin (and other benzos) are more addictive and have worse withdrawals than heroine. There is really no such thing as a small dose. Every dose is potent and has the potential to create dependence with use greater than 10 days. Countless people in the world are caught in its horrific web and are suffering in indescribable ways.
The worsening anxiety, insomnia and depression that I was experiencing were not an inherited mental illness, as I so greatly feared. It was actually inter-dose withdrawal symptoms. I was drug dependent, but didn't know it.
Allow me to explain the difference between drug addiction and drug dependence. A person who is drug addicted craves the drug to chase a high or euphoric feeling. A drug dependent person does not crave, neither are they chasing a feeling. In fact, they may not take the drug until they need relief. Otherwise, they don't even think about it. Drug dependence means that the body has physiologically adapted to the presence of the drug. When you don't take it, the body doesn't produce the chemicals you need to sleep, be calm, or whatever. The drug has hijacked that system of your body.
You either take the drug or suffer the horrible consequences called withdrawals. For many people, the withdrawals are too difficult to bear so they feel they have no choice but to continue. This was not an option for me. I had to be free.
By the grace of God, I was led to an online support program for people who had become dependent upon benzodiazepines and other highly addictive prescriptions.
This program is called Point of Return, and I highly recommend them with 5-stars.
I found a local doctor who would work with me to follow Point of Return's very slow tapering protocol. I had to reduce the drug by 5% or less each week in order to safely and successfully come off. It took 5 months.
I wish it were as simple as that paragraph sounds. It was just a little north of hell.
The withdrawals were not as bad as they could have been without the slow taper and nutrition supplements Point of Return provided, but it was still bad. I don't know if I could have made it without re-instating the drug if not for the support of my family, close friends and the Point of Return community.
In retrospect, I can see that the greatest key to my success was my faith. I wasn't aware at the time because I was enduring so much suffering.
Now I know that deep within I believed that I would live again. I believed that I would return home to myself again. I believed God's Word that He had a good future planned for me. I would make it to my Promised Land.
This deep inner knowing helped me to keep moving through the darkest days. When I couldn't feel it, I relied on what I believed and it was strong enough to carry me through.
After the 5-month taper of the medication, I still had to allow time for my brain and body to heal from the damage of the pharmaceutical. That journey was also fraught with many sleepless nights and very challenging moments as my body was finding its way back to homeostasis.
At the time of this writing, I am almost 5 months drug-free. I take supplements targeted for my specific needs, plus a small dose of bio-identical hormones from a compounding pharmacy. I am intentional about self-care, which looks like this for me:
Eating from the bounty of nature. No pharmaceutical can trump the power of God's creation. Everything we need for health and healing is in nature. Eating organic vegetables, fruits, nuts and clean protein is the way I love myself and honor God.
Getting proper rest. Before the breakdown, I used to sleep well at night. But I rarely rested. Now I know I was a workaholic. My body was addicted to adrenaline. I'm committed to staying out of that zone. I make time for rest, stillness and reflection daily, not just sleep at night.
Moving my body. As I was recovering, I was taught to move my body in a restorative way through gentle exercises like walking, yoga, and stretching. This was to reserve most of my body's energy for healing. I can step it up a little now. I choose to do exercises that don't feel like exercise, but happiness. So I like to do walking or dancing programs to upbeat music because I enjoy it. Enjoyment is just as important as sweat when it comes to creating and maintaining health.
Managing my mind. Thoughts become things. The most powerful thoughts we have are those that we are not aware of. This is called the subconscious mind. It is what is really driving our life. Now I know that for years I had a subconscious fear of mental illness because of family experiences. This fear led me to over-achievement, over-performance, over-work, over-control, etc. This was the real root of my breakdown and it lived unknown to me in my subconscious mind for most of my life. Now I spend time with my thoughts on a regular basis. I have many practices for managing my mind that I'll share in future blogs.
Loving people profusely. When most people talk about self-care, they don't mention others because self-care is about the self, right? Yes and no. Here's the truth: loving people is essential to wellbeing. God made it that way. When we give authentic, genuine love to someone else, it is multiplied and heaped back on us. It may or may not come from the one you gave it to, but it will come back to you in huge ways. When I am spending loving time with my husband, daughters, or girlfriends, I am caring for myself. I get a big dose of oxytocin, the love hormone, which reduces stress and makes me feel good all over. My goal is to love somebody profusely everyday.
Today, I feel...stable. I settled on that word because I'm still early in my healing after only 5 months off of the drug. Some days I feel remarkably well. On those days, my cup is overflowing with energy and profound wellbeing. Then other days I can feel my brain struggling to remember things, stay focused, or hold positive thoughts and emotions. This is my brain healing. It's a part of the process so I don't get alarmed.
I am still regaining my footing and confidence in myself. I am still healing from the trauma of it all. But I'm so grateful that I am well enough to get back to my life, my work, and most of all...love.
As a disclaimer, I am not in any way discrediting medical doctors or pharmaceuticals. Both can be lifesavers. Neither am I giving medical advice, as I am not qualified on any level to do so. Please consult your physician or health professional before you make medical decisions.
This is my story. Nothing more or less.
If you are on a healing journey, my prayer for you is that you will not stop until you make it to your Promised Land of health and wholeness.
I have created some resources that will inspire you to keep moving forward. Please check out the Healing Collection here: https://www.genettehoward.com/candles
Please feel free to leave your thoughts, comments and questions below. Share with anyone who you feel this may help.