Marsha began experimenting in her early teen years with marijuana, alcohol and prescription medications like Xanax from her parents’ medicine cabinet. She had surgery on her foot at the age of 18 and was given a prescription for Percocet. She stated she “loved the feeling” it gave her. Percocet contains oxycodone, an opioid that is highly addictive. In her memory, she says from that period of her life onward, she took the most accessible prescription medication she could buy daily. That just happened to be benzodiazepines.

Xanax: A Powerfully Addictive Drug

Today, Marsha is recovering from a benzo addiction, having been through six attempts at recovery from her addiction. Benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants used to treat anxiety and sleeping disorders. When used appropriately, they are very effective in treating these disorders. However, when used for an extended period, dependence can develop. One of the most popular benzos prescribed and abused is Xanax, which is 20 times stronger than Valium and has led to an increase in addictions. 

According to a 2018 study, Xanax is the most prescribed and misused benzodiazepine in the U.S., accounting for more than 48 million prescriptions in 2013. Prescribing rates for Xanax remain high even though many prescribers say this drug has high abuse potential and can cause more severe withdrawal than other drugs in its class. Xanax dependence can be significantly more dangerous for those who intentionally misuse the drug, especially when they start buying Xanax from dealers on the street. The DEA reports that in 2018 and 2019, dealers were caught selling Xanax tablets that tested positive for fentanyl and cocaine.

Benzos and Teens: Why Early Use Is Harmful

Marsha has a brother and a sister diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Studies indicate concurring underlying genetic conditions could have increased the likelihood of her developing a substance use disorder. After her third relapse, an MRI of her brain showed that she no longer produced or could reuptake serotonin, which she referred to as “the happy trigger sensor.” Her doctors determined that because she experimented with drugs at a young age when her brain was still forming, these pathways could have been altered and damaged, making her highly susceptible to addiction.

The Reality of Addiction and Recovery

Acupressure and meditation are some therapies Marsha utilized during her attempts at addiction recovery. She was hypnotized, and her desperate family even tried a $1,000-a-day rehab facility with equine horse therapy where she continued to heal while learning how to manage triggers associated with addiction. The difference 13 years ago — the sixth time she entered a treatment program — was that she did so voluntarily after the birth of her son, when she lost custody due to her drug use.

Marsha said, “You won’t be able to be successful until you see your behavior as a problem and you have a strong motivating reason to stop using. Being separated from my son made me realize I needed to take my recovery seriously, and wanting to be part of his life was the motivating force that drove me to finally stay clean.

“To move past addiction, I had to rearrange my entire thought process and patterns of behavior and ways of coping. It is incredibly difficult to not slip back into what is easy and comfortable. It makes every day seem like a challenge to make the right choices.

“To be honest, there is still an addictive personality that replaces the drugs with an abuse of energy drinks or scratch-off lottery tickets, for instance. I think, as an addict, I am always chasing this elusive high that comes from the surge of chemicals released into my brains when I used to take drugs. That feeling numbed me or elevated me from what I perceive as a mundane or sometimes pain-filled existence.”

Where Do Teens Get Benzos?

According to research, there has been an alarming increase in benzodiazepine use among adolescents — within 10 years, the number of adolescents who use benzodiazepines has grown threefold. According to one study, 1 in 10 high-school-age adolescents have tried benzodiazepines at least once in their life. Benzos are dangerous for teens because they can easily lead to dependence and addiction by boosting the dopamine levels in the brain.

Benzodiazepines are widely prescribed to adults for anxiety or insomnia, so their prevalence may make it seem that they are insignificant or harmless. Between 1996 and 2013, the number of adults who filled a benzodiazepine prescription increased by 67%. There is little stigma attached to drugs like Xanax, sometimes referred to as “chill pills” used to calm nerves before a presentation or before getting on a plane. They are “just” taking the drug to be more calm — not to get “high.” Since benzos are so often found in the home, many teens who would never consider using illegal drugs would easily take a Xanax. However, that is a dangerous line of thinking.

Apparently, like Marsha in the story above, most adolescents and teens who use benzos without a prescription get them from home — specifically, from their parents’ medicine cabinets. Studies have shown a correlation between unprescribed adolescent benzo use and parents who use prescribed benzos in excess. As Marsha stated above, it was not difficult for her to get them illegally from peers, drug dealers or the dark web. 

It Is Time to End the Stigma Around Addiction

In recovery, there is hope. I stand with Marsha and many others to end the stigma related to substance use disorders. It’s easy to pass judgment about things we do not understand, but I encourage you to recognize those struggling with addiction need to be cared for and supported through an incredibly difficult journey. Addiction is not a result of moral weakness or lack of willpower. At first, it could be a voluntary choice, but over time, progressive changes in brain chemistry drive the uncontrollable drug or alcohol use that we know as addiction. It is an illness that requires care from experienced professionals in order to manage. Marsha is a loving mother, a responsible manager and a leader who is authentic, kind and so much more than her addiction.

If you need more information about The Recovery Village treatment options, please reach out to start a healthier, substance-free life.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.