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I hate my panic attacks, but I hate the medication that stops them, too

Born in Kiev, Ukraine, Galina defected to New York City at age 4 with her family in the 1979 wave of Russian-Jewish immigration. This dramatic transition has apparently left her with an eternal quest for a sense of belonging and a perpet...

I'm afraid of the medication the doctor gave me to help with my panic attacks

Therapists and my primary care physician have prescribed me Klonopin to ease my panic attacks. Klonopin is a brand name of the drug Clonazepam, used to treat seizures, panic disorder, and anxiety. It is a controlled substance and can cause paranoid or suicidal thoughts and impair memory, judgment, and coordination. Combining this pharmaceutical with other substances, particularly alcohol, can slow breathing and possibly lead to death. The prescription is for 30 pills with two refills available in the next six months. Instructions indicate to take it once or twice daily, “as needed,” which incidentally is the least scientific and most subjective way to specify dosage.

Klonopin is a dangerous and highly addictive drug, highly reactive with other substances and they dole it out like candy (or maybe it just seems that way to me). Each year doctors write out more than 50 million prescriptions for benzodiazepines and 15% of Americans have benzos in their medicine cabinet according to the American Psychiatric Association. Stevie Nicks has become an unofficial spokesperson on the hazards of Klonopin addiction, admitting the dependence ruined her life for eight years. She said, “Klonopin is more deadly than coke.” 

DJ AM was another example. After battling extreme substance abuse and being sober for 11 years, he survived a traumatic plane crash and was understandably prescribed Klonopin for the PTSD effects he was experiencing. Developing a dependency on this new pharmaceutical sent him into a downward depression spiral where he ultimately relapsed on crack one last time and overdosed.

I tried to initiate a conversation with my drug prescription dispenser (aka “primary care doctor”) about my panic attacks, explaining how my fight or flight reflex is extremely sensitive and it takes very little to set it off and very much to calm it down. She smiled knowingly, pulled out her prescription pad and said, “We’re in New York, everyone is stressed out here. Maybe you need the kind which can dissolve on your tongue and get in your system faster?”

The main problem with the drug is that my inner hypochondriac gets paranoid about the side effects. It’s a catch-22. In the midst of a panic attack, I engage in a pro-versus-con debate on whether the potential benefit of the pill (ending a panic attack) is worth the drawbacks (addiction, withdrawal). I tend to play a tough boxing coach, encouraging myself to try another coping method for panic attacks instead of reaching for the drugs. I try breathing techniques (which can also be counterintuitive because it makes me feel lightheaded, which freaks me out in another direction.) I try cleaning the hardwood floors. I don't like taking the pill. Not only do I worry about its addictive qualities (addiction runs in my family) I am concerned about how it will make me feel tomorrow.

This compulsive worry is completely counter intuitive to releasing me from the panic attack and also contradictory to my attempt to live in the now. I rationalize, “This might make me feel better right now but in the long term, it’s not a good solution.” The truth of the science behind the pharmaceutical is it was never designed as a long-term solution; it’s engineered to be taken short-term to help transition through a trying psychological time. However, in the current state of our healthcare, it is easier for a physician to write a prescription than to spend years unwinding the brain (potentially unsuccessfully) through psychoanalysis. I've attempted talk therapy several times in my life, with different therapists with various moderations of success. My culminating lesson is I have to be my own therapist. Only I know the honest, raw truth as it dances in a tango in my mind, and only I can confront it, understand it, and learn to live harmoniously with it.

A few weeks ago, I told my husband I had my very last panic attack. “I'm not engaging in this nonsense anymore!” I yelled, angry at myself, at my brain, at its anguishing attacks. I've said this a few other times before. I'm hoping if I say it loud enough then those small yellow pills folded inside a napkin in my wallet “just in case” will to evaporate in my mind as a solution.

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