I was at work at an Outback Steakhouse in Florida the first time I heard about Xanax.
“I popped a xanny bar and was like…gone!” A server whom I’ll call “Stacey” said to a coworker.
“It was great…” she continued while tying her thin, sandy-blonde hair into a tight bun before the start of the dinner shift.
“Oh girl you got anymore for me?!” Another server who had overheard chimed in while adjusting her apron.
“Yeah right, I wish I had more for me. My guy has been out of ’em for days,” Stacey responded
“I got a friend that sells but he’ll charge you double what you pay ’cause he’s expensive…” the server who’d overheard the conversation offered.
I was rolling the freshly polished silverware while this exchange took place.
“Let me see how I do in tips tonight and we’ll talk…ha-ha!” Stacey laughed.
At the time I had no clue about what Xanax was. My knowledge of pharmaceuticals was about as advanced as my knowledge of calculus — I knew nothing about what a “benzodiazepine,” “opiate,” or “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor” were or what they could do to the brain. Much like my knowledge of advanced mathematics, the realm of prescription medications had always seemed outside of my scope of understanding and a topic that I had nothing to contribute to personally. All that I knew was what I had heard and seen in the media and in conversation. And that was enough to keep me away from becoming “one of those” people who pop pills to get high.
I carried an armful of rolled utensils into the dining area and began setting the tables. While I did so, I wondered what a “xanny bar” was and why Stacey was taking them. She seemed sweet and smart and responsible.
How could somebody like her be taking drugs? I asked myself.
I didn’t realize it at the time but my opinion of Stacey had been tarnished and tainted. A quick Google search later on that night and I discovered what a “xanny bar” was and why they’re desirable. Some of the positive side effects: a euphoric state of mind, mellowed out mood and a lack of anxiety or worry. Who wouldn’t want to feel like that?
As I read about the medication it became clear to me why people like Stacey would pop them for fun. They were calming in the best kind of way — like a glass or two of wine without the headache the next day. It could take control of your mind in moments when you feel the least control yourself and get you to a better place — a chemically controlled place.
I had no interest in trying it myself. I wasn’t one of “those people,” and wouldn’t ever take mood-altering pills because…well, I was a good person with good health who went to church every Sunday. And people who take pills to feel good or for some “psychological issue” were weak and would end up as “junkies” and “druggies” with nothing to contribute to the world.
Little did I know, my opinion would soon change. And not because I wanted it to.
Fast forward five years. It’s Christmas Eve and I’m standing outside in the cold in my church’s parking lot sucking back tears and trying to breathe and convince myself that I am not going to die. I had walked out of the service while the preacher was talking about the birth of Jesus. The pew where I was seated was in the second to front row. In my mind, everyone in the room saw me get up and walk out. This only compounded the way I was feeling.
As I sat there, I began to feel faint and panicky as my palms became clammy and my heart-rate sped up to that of someone running a six-minute-mile. I had to get out of there. So I did.
Five minutes later and there I was digging deep around the trenches of my purse amidst a sea of bubble-gum wrappers and crumpled up receipts in a frenzy to find the plastic baggie I had tucked in there the day before that held a cotton-candy-colored 0.25 mg tablet of Alprazolam, the generic name for Xanax. In that moment and for where I was mentally, my life depended on that little pill. I felt ashamed, helpless, and weak.
I swallowed the pink pill and twenty minutes later and my heart slowed down, my palms were dry, and the panic was gone. The medication did what it was supposed to do because I had taken it the way my doctor intended me to when I was first prescribed Xanax several months before that Christmas. At that time I began having panic and anxiety attacks that began interfering with my ability to drive, work, and sit through staff meetings.
I learned later on in therapy that the anxiety and panic attacks were a result of onset PTSD from losing my dad to a heroin overdose and a childhood of physical and verbal abuse at the hands of an alcoholic stepfather. From the time I was nine until I moved out at 18, this man told me, among many things, that I deserved to be dead and regularly destroyed everything I owned, cutting the chords to all electricity in my room and breaking down my door so he could “keep his eye on me if I tried to call the cops.” He also liked to sneak up behind me when he was drunk and scare me. He especially liked to do this in the dark. On one occasion he did this with a pair of scissors. As an adult, I can’t walk for more than a few minutes without turning around to make sure no one is behind me.
These are some of the things that people don’t know when they cast judgment. And the things that, whether I like it or not, have shaped me as an adult — an adult in treatment for PTSD who has been prescribed medication for the times when childhood trauma is triggered or I fear that my step-dad is going to come for me and hurt me. It sucks to be 27 and have that fear. But it’s not as if I haven’t tried.
Writing about this experience is not easy. I fear there would be people who think I am medicating myself with a “band-aid” type of fix rather than a real one, or who will believe I am a bad person or am in danger. These fears are a result of the stigma surrounding pharmaceuticals in America. And that stigma can be far more lethal to the mind of a mentally ill person than any pill. Stigma shames and judges. It isolates and torments. And it can sabotage any and all efforts made by someone in or out of psychiatric treatment from continuing on their path to healing. It’s hard to escape stigma’s sting because it is perpetuated by the media and by people as a by-product of their fears and preconceived notions. It is not grounded in truth. And it is not rooted in love or compassion – the things that many who suffer from a mental health condition need most.
Some days I get especially angry about this knowing some people who numb their pain with booze but don’t have to bear the brunt of stigma unless they announce they’re an alcoholic. I understand that Xanax is commonly abused and by admission of using it, I risk being looked at the same way I looked at Stacey on the day I first heard the term “xanny bar.” But for anyone who would demonize a drug because there are people who abuse it and because Dr. Oz says it’s bad, to them I would say “the shame is on you for perpetuating a stigma that literally kills people.” Untreated depression, bi-polar, or panic disorder have driven people to suicide, yet we still struggle to accept these conditions as real illnesses like we do diabetes or asthma or Crohn’s disease.
My anxiety disorder and PTSD are chemical, medical issues that I, like someone with asthma, did not ask for nor bring upon myself. I do not feel “high” when I take Xanax — I feel stable. Nothing more, nothing less.
Stigma will always exist. And so will people like Stacey who brag about popping “xanny bars” or whatever other substance they’re into at the time. If I am forced to bear the weight of that stigma I can at least do so nobly. And that starts with what I have done here in this essay — by sharing my story. And keeping the vow I made to myself the first time I stood in line at CVS waiting for my name to be called so I could pick up a bottle of the stuff I thought I’d never have or want to take, but what saved me on a Christmas Eve two years ago, alone in a church parking lot, when I literally thought I might die.
I am thankful for that experience and every other one that has led to where I am. These are the things that make me strong, not weak — no matter how hard stigma and society’s shame tries to convince me otherwise.