Today, I’m riding around the world on my motorcycle without a return date. I’m on nobody’s schedule but my own, I work whenever I feel like working (and whenever there’s good internet connection), and I’m free to carry on riding for however long I like.But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, for a very long time, it wasn’t even an option. So much so that if somebody told me this would be my life five years ago, I would have said they were totally crazy.
For fourteen years, I was heavily addicted to drugs. Yes, you heard me right: I’m a former drug addict.
Only, I wasn’t shooting up heroin on street corners or snorting magic white powders at parties. My drugs were legal, because they were prescribed by white-coated medical professionals residing in big, severe-looking offices.
At the age of 15, I was prescribed Valium for depression and insomnia. By the time I was eighteen, I viewed my Valium prescriptions as something inevitable, something I simply had to do because I was sad and couldn’t sleep on my own. I thought I was, you know, like those people with asthma who have to carry their inhalators or diabetics who need their insulin shots. I thought my ‘little sleep problem’ was more or less the same thing, and taking a pill every night felt pretty normal. I didn’t really pay much attention to this for years, especially because my doctors never saw a problem with it, and they would know best, wouldn’t they? Every month, I’d get a new prescription, and that was that. “Googling” something wasn’t a thing back then – it had yet to be invented. And besides, I figured I could trust the medical professionals. Surely they knew what they were doing.
But once, when I ran out of my magic pills and couldn’t get a prescription in time I realized I felt horrible without them. The first few days weren’t too bad – I felt like I had the flu, couldn’t sleep, and generally felt nervous and upset. I also had what I call a brain fog – the feeling that your brain is being saturated with this thick, heavy cloud of dark grey nothingness, making it very difficult to concentrate, think, even stay conscious. At the time, I didn’t realize these were the withdrawal symptoms, but as soon as I took one pill, they all magically disappeared.
It happened a few more times until I finally made a connection. The flu-like symptoms, the anxiety and the brain fog wasn’t flu – it was withdrawal.
By the time I was 24, it got me worried. I asked my doctor about it, but she just smiled and said I shouldn’t worry – I was probably exaggerating, and anyway, Valium was completely safe, and there was no need to be alarmed. But I was alarmed, and Google had finally arrived, so I started researching the whole thing.
What I found terrified me.
Valium is a benzodiazepine, a group of psychoactive drugs prescribed to treat all kinds of conditions from insomnia, anxiety and panic disorders to muscle spasms and seizures. Benzodiazepines, better known as benzos, are extremely addictive; over time, benzos cause physiological changes in the brain, which means the user gets physically addicted. If one was to quit benzos cold turkey, according to Wikipedia, this is what would follow: anxiety, panic attacks, tremors, confusion and cognitive difficulty, memory problems, palpitations, headache, muscular pain and stiffness, a host of perceptual changes, hallucinations, seizures, psychosis, mania, schizophrenia, and, especially at high doses, seizure disorders.
According to both medical professionals and former addicts, withdrawal from benzodiazepines is worse than that from heroin and cocaine put together. And the worst part was, the withdrawal could last anywhere between a few weeks to a year or even two.
I was shocked. But at the same time, I was determined to quit, then and there. I didn’t even bother to consult with a doctor – they saw no problem in me taking Valium continuously anyway, so I didn’t expect much help from them. I figured I’d do this on my own. Vaguely remembering the flu-like symptoms those few times I’d run out of my pills, I figured maybe it wouldn’t be that much worse. Maybe all those people were exaggerating, or perhaps I’d simply get lucky and the withdrawal would be over soon.
I waited until the holidays, stocked up my fridge so I wouldn’t have to go out, and disconnected my phone so I wouldn’t be disturbed. The first few days were ok – I just lazed around reading and watching movies on my laptop, stuffing my face with sugary treats. Somewhere around day three, I realized my condition was worsening. I got very anxious; my heart was constantly pounding as if on high alert, and my breathing was shallow. Worst of all, I couldn’t sleep. I’d get completely exhausted during the day, but as soon as I lay my head on the pillow and close my eyes my brain would just light on fire. Eventually, around five or six am, I would pass out into a nightmare-filled state of half sleep, and wake up an hour later, even more terrified.
By day five, I began to realize I probably wouldn’t make it. I couldn’t sleep at all. My muscles and joints hurt, I was constantly grinding my teeth without realizing it, I had cramps, sweats and chills and couldn’t stand up. I just lay on my mattress, terrified of my own shadow, a shaking, shivering mess. On day six, I started hallucinating, and I couldn’t bear the horror any longer. I called the ambulance, because I was absolutely certain I would start convulsing next, the hallucinations would increase and I would quite literally lose my mind.
After that horrific experience, I accepted that drugs were for life. I would have to take Valium until I died, because quitting was a slow and painful suicide. I knew it would eventually destroy me – I had already begun experiencing memory loss and cognitive errors from time to time. Very slowly but very insidiously, Valium was already poisoning my brain, potentially irreversibly. Yet I thought I had no choice.
And then came the spring of 2014. Volunteering and backpacking in India, I’d decided I wanted to continue my journey on two wheels. Unexpectedly to myself, what was supposed to be a two-month ride around India turned into a year of wandering across the whole Asian continent, and by the time I got to Malaysia I realized that this, too, was for life. I knew then and there: I was going to ride around the whole world on a motorcycle.
But to achieve this, I needed to be really and truly free. And if I could conquer the Himalayas on a motorcycle, perhaps I could kick the addiction in the ass, too?
This time around, I didn’t go cold turkey – the lingering memories of the horrific experience a few years back were all too fresh. I found a psychiatrist specializing in helping people to cope with addictions, and he helped me to come up with a six-month plan which included taking antidepressants and anticonvulsants to help extreme panic and seizures; I tapered off the Valium itself very slowly. But finally, the day came when I had to quit completely.
Hell reigned in the days to come, sleep an elusive whispered memory. My body slid through time and space, a wraith-girl living through light turned to dark and dark to nothing, haunting shadows hiding in corners and corridors leading to a plummeting abyss. The shattered remnants of my mind fluttered in tatters as I held desperately to a shred of sanity – the bedroom doorknob my hand knew so well, its bulbous brass handle smooth against my skin. But even this small anchor refused to follow the laws of physics and reality, and wouldn’t open until the clock’s big hand took a full turn around the distorted face, and would became rubber between my fingers, oozing and pulling apart like gum on a shoe on a hot summer’s day…
For a full ten days, I was completely incapacitated.
Then I finally started to sleep a little. Half an hour here, half an hour there. The anxiety was still debilitating, but the hallucinations were already fading.
By week three, I could sleep three entire hours without waking. I ventured outside. Everything looked like a distorted Technicolor movie, and I was scared of my own shadow, but I walked in the sun.
It took another three months before I could function again. The whole withdrawal experience cost me my job and my relationship; it took another six months to get off the anticonvulsant and antidepressant medications, and another year before I could sleep more than six hours on my own.
But today, I’m free. So many wonderful things have happened since: when I quit Valium, I felt like I was invincible and could do just about anything. I quit smoking soon after, something I thought I’d never do because I enjoyed it too much!
But I also quit worrying about what the world expected from me. I quit beating myself up that at 30, I still had no university degree and no career to speak of; I quit limiting myself to a belief that you had to have a certain position, certain job or certain achievements at a certain age. I quit trying to squeeze myself into standards that were never my own to begin with.
And today, I am riding round the world on my own terms. Never planning too much into the future, never agreeing to anybody else’s schedules and preconceptions, I’m just taking each day as it comes.
I’m blazing my own trail. And that trail is marked by a two tire thread– something I am eternally grateful to the universe for.