Utah author ‘taking pain and transforming it’ in memoir about ‘benzos’ dependence

Journalist and poet Melissa Bond details experience with Ativan in new book, “Blood Orange Night.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Melissa Bond, a Utah journalist and poet photographed in her home on Wednesday, May 31, 2022, recounts her multi-year struggle with accidental benzodiazepine addiction in her book Blood Orange Night to be released in July 2022.

Melissa Bond laughs when she says something that’s odd to hear from an author doing publicity for her new book: “This is not the book I ever wanted to write.”

Bond’s plan, the Salt Lake City poet and editor said, was to write about raising a child with Down syndrome and autism. But as she was blogging about her experiences with dependency on benzodiazepine drugs, she said she received hundreds of responses from people. They urged her to keep going, she said, because they had lost a brother, or their mother was disabled, and Bond’s story made the topic concrete for them.

“Art has a way of taking pain and transforming it,” Bond said. “For me, personally, it was a way of taking this really traumatic experience and stitching it into a new kind of story.”

Writing her book, “Blood Orange Night: My Journey to the Edge of Madness” (to be released Tuesday, June 14), was a way, she said, of informing a larger audience of people about the side effects of benzodiazepines — which Bond called the next big drug epidemic of which people are not aware.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Melissa Bond, a Utah journalist and poet photographed in her home on Wednesday, May 31, 2022, recounts her multi-year struggle with benzodiazepine dependence in her book "Blood Orange Night," to be released June 14, 2022.

Her own private Fukushima

Benzodiazepines, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, are “depressants that produce sedation and hypnosis, relieve anxiety and muscle spasms, and reduce seizures.”

The DEA says the street names for this class of drugs are “benzos” or “downers.” Some of the brand names may be more familiar: Valium, Xanax, Librium, Halcion, Ativan and Klonopin, among others.

Bond said she was relieved when her doctor prescribed two drugs when she had severe insomnia while pregnant with her second child.

The first prescription, she said, was for Ambien, a sedative used to treat insomnia. Ambien is not a benzodiazepine, Bond noted, but it halts the normal function of neurotransmitters in the brain.

“So, when the drug is pulled out really quick, the [neurotransmitters] are disabled for a period of time,” she said. Bond quit Ambien cold turkey, she said, because she wasn’t told it was unwise to do that.

The problems persisted, she said, and her doctor — whom she calls Dr. Amazing in the book — prescribed her Ativan. “We need to get you to sleep,” Bond quoted Dr. Amazing as saying. “That will repair your hormones. I’m going to give you a sedative, it’s totally safe.”

Bond said she remembers thinking, “Oh, it’s all solved, like he knows exactly what’s happening.”

In hindsight, Bond said, she calls it something else: Her own personal Fukushima, a reference to the Japanese nuclear reactor damaged in a natural disaster in 2011.

“It was a three-stage thing,” Bond said. “The first was having a child with Down syndrome. That was the earthquake. The tsunami was insomnia, and the nuclear meltdown was the prescription.”

This happened in 2008, when the recession prompted the Wasatch Journal, a much-admired local magazine for which Bond was an editor, to fold. (Bond also is a published poet, was a major force in launching Salt Lake City’s “slam poetry” scene starting in the mid-’90s, and for several years ran the literary arts program at the Utah Arts Festival.)

“I joke about it in the book, that I was not prepared to be the Betty Crocker CEO of the household,” she said. “I felt that loss of identity, everything I loved and defined myself by was suddenly torn away.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Melissa Bond, a Utah journalist and poet photographed in her home on Wednesday, May 31, 2022, recounts her multi-year struggle with benzodiazepine dependence in her book "Blood Orange Night," to be released June 14, 2022.

The dangers of benzodiazepines

“The decline was so rapid, [but] it took me a while to [realize it],” Bond said. “Benzodiazepines cause what’s called anterograde amnesia, which means that it impairs the formation of your memories.”

In short, Bond said, she couldn’t track what was happening from one day to the next.

Bond said she realized she had a problem one day when she picked up her daughter, then 1½ years old, after giving her a bath. They left the bathroom, she said, and her “legs turned to water.”

“I just fell like a dead body from a bridge,” she said.

The moment went super-fast, she said. She saw the corner of a wall coming toward her daughter’s head, and Bond wrenched her body to the side, she said.

“I lay there, with her in my arms, and I thought I had MS, because this is how it starts: Cognitive decline and balance problems,” she said.

Bond said she went through other options, such as a possible brain tumor. Eventually, she said, she had another thought: “Well, what about the drugs?”

Once she got off the floor and put her daughter to bed, Bond said, she got online and started researching benzodiazepine withdrawal.

“That’s when I discovered all the symptoms that I was having were considered active withdrawal,” Bond said. “This drug is metabolized so rapidly, you can be on a high dose and still be having active drug withdrawals as if you’re trying to get off it.”

That night, Bond said, she tried to cut down on the Ambien. “I thought, ‘I have to get off this thing,’” she said. “I took my pills out and I cut a wedge off of one of them and thought this tiny wedge should be OK.”

Later that night, she said, when her daughter woke up crying, Bond went to tend to her. When she tried to lift her out of bed, Bond said, she felt “an explosion of heat, like blood red, neon. … I remember the carpet shoving itself into my face, I passed out and woke up a couple of times.”

When she eventually woke up, she said, she could barely move. Doctors later discovered Bond had suffered a stroke, she said.

Bond said she worked with another doctor — not Dr. Amazing — for five months trying to get off the drugs, and that doctor told her, “I’m terrified we’re going to kill you.” Eventually, she said, she found an addiction specialist, and worked with him for a year.

Throughout the process, she was having active withdrawals every single day. Those around her asked if she had an eating disorder, but Bond says it’s hard to see physical pain and anguish.

“It felt like I was on fire from the outside,” Bond recalled. “My muscles would shake, my eyes would shake in their sockets. I couldn’t read or write. I felt nauseous.”

Bond compared the process to getting an addict off heroin. “It was the most rigorous physical and mental challenge I’ve ever had in my life,” she said. “I never did get 100% off the drug, but it’s got to the point that it’s not impactful now.”

‘Shadow epidemic’

Bond said she wants to show with her book that addiction and dependence are similar, but not the same.

“When we think of addicts, we think of people that are using to either get high or to feel altered or something like that,” she says. “But physical dependency, especially with benzodiazepines, it’s so punitive. The withdrawals are so severe, you’re taking them just to have a semblance of normal.”

Bond cites an observation from writer Leslie Jamison’s memoir “The Recovering” to explain the difference between an addict — someone in a cycle of “desire, use, repeat,” as Jamison wrote — and someone who is dependent.

“The addict intends to use the drug to annihilate or cover up. The intention is compulsive and repetitive and the impulse takes over their life, eclipsing nearly everything else,” Bond said. “Someone who is dependent had the intention only of following their doctor’s orders in hopes of getting well.”

The Benzodiazepine Information Coalition, a nonprofit organization that describes its mission as “educating about the potential adverse effects of benzodiazepines taken as prescribed,” says, “the body’s acclimation to the chronic presence of the medication results in neuroadaptations and, ultimately, a dependency on the medication.” The group also says the symptoms of physical dependence, such as tolerance or withdrawal symptoms between doses, “can look like addiction, but it’s not.”

Bond noted that many who take benzos are “only following a doctor’s orders, and suddenly your body can’t function without the drug.”

Bond added that with benzodiazepines, there is no spinning out of control, as with opioids — just a rapid physical and emotional decline. She described the prescribing of benzos as a “shadow epidemic.”

Bond used an analogy that shows her poet’s flair for picking the right word hasn’t diminished.

“Opioids are the fire that burn your house down,” she said. “Benzos are the thieves that steal everything you own a piece at a time.”

Note • If you or someone you know is dealing with substance abuse disorder, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) collects information on thousands of state-licensed providers. Call 1-800-662-4357 (HELP), or go to FindTreatment.gov to find a treatment facility near where you live.