“One very special lady and doctor extraordinaire”
by Heather Jones
I was first prescribed benzodiazepines by my doctor in 1971 for a minor problem. I had a toddler son who had decided to become nocturnal and because of having to get my older daughter to school on time, I had become tired and thought a tonic might help. I can remember looking at the word ‘Valium’ on the prescription form with distrust. It was not well known in those days! “Don’t worry,” my doctor assured me, “they are harmless. You can take them all your life if you want”. Rather reluctantly, I began that slippery road down to one of the blackest places of my life. Like so many others of that time, I was ignorant of what lay ahead. “Mother’s little helpers,” they were quaintly called! For the next two years, life was good. We had a new house and my husband gained promotion. Any problems that did crop up could be wiped by the miracle yellow pills!
It was in 1974 that everything changed. I had stopped the pills because of being pregnant and subsequently, without realising, went into withdrawal, which I believe brought on a miscarriage. After the miscarriage, the doctor prescribed the Valium once more, but this time on a much higher dose. Life was no longer good. I became withdrawn, anxious, agoraphobic and prone to digestive problems. As the years progressed, the physical and mental symptoms worsened dramatically and life became unbearable. My husband had to give up his job to look after me and I was referred to a psychiatrist who prescribed Ativan and anti-depressants to take in addition to the Valium. Finally, after two years of that, I was then transferred to a young psychotherapist who assured me pills were not the answer but, instead, he thought I needed counselling!
And so the withdrawal from Valium began. Each month worse than the last. I was now down to 4mg of Valium and living a life of hell and despair! Unfortunately, nobody in those days recognised the symptoms of withdrawal. “It is your old anxiety coming back,” they said. Deep down I knew that this wasn’t true, but nobody would believe me. I had become a stranger in my own body and, apart from the physical symptoms, I had become morose, prone to temper outbursts and full of this dreadful fear. Nobody would believe me that is until…
I spent a year on that 4mg, sometimes thinking it would be best to die and then I noticed an article in the local paper. “When the Tranquillisers Stop,” it read. It was about a local support group here in Newcastle set up by an ex-nurse, who herself had been a victim of these benzodiazepine drugs. My husband and I went to the group at their next meeting and we were welcomed with open arms. So many stories to be heard, so many people like myself, all of us with one common denominator—TRANQUILLISERS! I was ecstatic! It wasn’t me it was the drugs!!! It was here at this meeting that I heard the name of Professor Heather Ashton for the first time. Ashton was a senior lecturer in Clinical Pharmacology at the medical school at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. She had started a clinic to study the effects and withdrawal of patients on prescribed benzodiazepines. “I have to see her!” I told my therapist. He reluctantly agreed that he would get me an appointment as soon as possible, but I would not be able to see him at the same time. He didn’t appear to be best pleased and that was a shame because he had been a great therapist and advisor. However, I knew getting in to see this Professor Ashton was the right path to take.
Within two weeks of that conversation with my therapist, August 23rd, 1983, I was sitting full of anxiety and panic attacks with my husband in the Department of Pharmacological Science’s at the University waiting to see this mysterious lady who was going to make me well again. Within moments of our meeting, there was an instant amity with her—her manner, her gentleness, and an amazing smile that put you completely at ease. After an hour long consultation, she decided that the small amount of 4mg Valium that I had taken for a year was serving no purpose whatsoever and gave me a tapering process for over the following days, as long as I had someone at home with me. My husband agreed wholeheartedly; he was as keen as me! In the meantime, she gave me her telephone number and I had to report to her every day at the hospital. She did admit later that this was maybe “a little brutal,” but at the time it was a case of trial and error. This was all new to us both.
The days that followed were grim, to say the least. I now had acute anxiety, bowel and muscle spasms, heightened senses and total fear. I was in despair, but Heather but never gave up. Anything she could do to help, she did. Acupuncture, hypnotherapy, reflexology, different diets—to name just a few. Some worked, some didn’t, but nothing phased her, nothing was too much bother. I relied on Heather and my husband 100%; he was my rock and her, my mentor—someone with all the answers.
Then, one day, I began to get ‘normal’ moments—”windows,” Heather called them. Then as the days turned into weeks, these “windows” became more frequent. I began to put on weight, my skin lost its sallow colour and slowly my confidence (of which I once had in abundance) began to return. Then the weeks ran into months and I carried on seeing Heather at the clinic on a regular basis. Every setback and improvement was recorded and any symptoms that could be treated were attended to; I couldn’t have wished for better care.
I can remember Heather asking if I would answer some questions from medical students in the lecture theatre of the medical school about the downfalls of these drugs. As they were all sat high up and you were on a dais below, it was quite a daunting task! All I could see through the corner of my eye was Heather and my husband peering through the window in the exit door, grinning widely and giving the thumbs up, whilst I tried to answer their barrage of questions, all the while shaking like a jelly inside! “It has to be done,” I told myself,”these are the doctors of tomorrow!!! They need to know these findings!”.
It was in April 1984, knowing my love of writing, that Heather asked me to add my account to an in-depth article she was doing for the British Medical Journal—“Benzodiazepine Withdrawal: An Unfinished Story”. It was a report of her patients that she had recently treated for benzodiazepine dependence and withdrawal. There was a lot of interest in this article and now her name was becoming more well known, nationally and internationally. It was because of this she asked me to make a short film to be shown to medical students, and then persuaded me to write an autobiography about my “journey,” so to speak. It took a few months to decide that this would be quite cathartic to do and it was with Heather’s encouragement that “Prisoner on Prescription” was finally finished and published in 1990. Heather and I never thought at the time that this problem would still be here today; three to five years, maybe—but certainly not nearly thirty! As I improved greatly into the months that followed and after the publication of the book, my husband and I visited several support groups around the northeast of England. I needed to be seen doing something to help Heather’s word and also meeting and giving so many victims, all looking for a cure, the best help I could—and that was hope.
In 1997, ITV (a London TV station) rang to say they were doing a programme on tranquillisers and Dr. Ashton had put my name forward to appear. Another test of strength—live TV!!! There was an arrogant doctor there with us who was adamant that these symptoms were “all in the patient’s mind” and that it was also a “case of the original anxiety returning”. I was incensed at the time but, given the time and the place (also the name of the show!), I tried to be as polite as duly possible. The audience, however, was not that polite.
Now, as time has progressed through the years, all of this seems a million years ago. However, I will never forget those hopeless, bleak days when my life was at its lowest ebb. And, I will never forget Professor Heather Ashton who took me on board at this lowest ebb. With her help and constant care she helped me put my life back together again. She never once gave up, always encouraging and supporting when faced with the blackest of times and then cheering you on through your triumphs and achievements, no matter how small or insignificant.
My life has changed so much since then. I am now a grandmother to three fine young men and, more recently, a proud great-grandmother to a beautiful baby girl. I have so much to be thankful for. I have also written three more books (novels, this time, I am pleased to say! So much easier to write!), which might never have happened if it hadn’t been for Heather persuading me to write the first. So now, sitting in reflection, I know how my life took a different turning in August 1983. It was this day I met one of the kindest, most caring doctors that I have ever known. This lady now needs recognition for all of her tireless work fighting the medical establishment against the misuse of benzodiazepines in our modern world—a recognition that has been a long time coming. Heather’s work has spanned three decades and, still, it goes on. Hopefully this will happen and hopefully, one day in the not too distant future, all doctors will realise the devastation and debilitation that these drugs cause.
Finally, all I have to say is that it has been a pleasure and an honour to know you, Professor Ashton. I will always remember you with great fondness and gratitude.
I was born in Wolverhampton, England in 1944 but spent most of my early years in Kingston upon Hull. I joined the RAF in 1962, which is where I met my husband, Lou. We moved to his hometown, Newcastle upon Tyne, in 1966 when he was demobbed which is where I still live. I can honestly say that I am now accepted as been an adopted Geordie! We have two children, Louise and Paul. Louise is a gifted and a widely-acclaimed clairvoyant/medium and my son, Paul, a talented photographer who also works for the NHS. I am a grandmother to three fine young men and more recently, a great-grandmother to a beautiful baby girl! I spend a lot of my time writing and have had three books published. The fourth has been accepted by the publisher, but I am still contemplating whether I like the storyline or not; only time will tell! My husband and I have since divorced but we remain firm friends. We have both been avid supporters in the fight to stop doctors from wrongfully prescribing benzodiazepines for over thirty years now and I would like to think that one day in the not too distant future this will come to fruition!