It can be difficult for family, friends, doctors and other caregivers to fully understand the effects of benzodiazepine withdrawal. No amount of empathy can prepare them for the impact of the physical and psychological symptoms, personality changes and emotional challenges, as well as the practical support which may be required. It is not unusual for them to allude to an overreaction or to the medication causing some form of permanent mental or physical disorder.
Compassion fatigue or burnout occurs when a caregiver becomes emotionally, socially, mentally and sometimes physically exhausted, resulting in apathy or lack of ability, willingness or energy to provide further attention and care. This is a natural response to the upheaval associated with especially chronic or intense situations.
If you care for someone who is withdrawing from a benzodiazepine, the following tips will help you to provide the required support without becoming fatigued.
Learn more about withdrawal and what it entails
The more knowledgeable you are about benzodiazepines and withdrawal, the better prepared you will be to cope with its stages and idiosyncrasies. You will find that you are more understanding and accepting of your loved one’s experience and will be well equipped to give the support needed.
You may have your own ideas regarding how withdrawal should be dealt with and what coping strategies and treatment are appropriate. As much as you may be able to empathise, you will not know what your loved one is going through. Resist suggesting visits to psychiatrists, accelerating or slowing tapers, reinstating the drug, querying other diagnoses or anything other than allowing the time and space to heal.
The true effects of benzodiazepines are understated and there is an ‘unbelievability factor’ which causes many to doubt that taking a legally prescribed drug could result in such adverse reactions. Try to be open and not make judgements based on assumptions or what you perceive to be credible. Even many well-intentioned medics are unaware and uneducated about the true effects of long-term benzodiazepine use, specifically dependency and withdrawal.
Appreciate that you have no control over the recovery process so that you don’t feel responsible or pressured. The benzodiazepine withdrawal experience is unique and unpredictable; you may have to provide support for a much longer period than anticipated.
Give practical support
Your loved one may be in severe discomfort and feeling extremely lethargic and depleted of energy. Mowing the lawn, cooking, cleaning, shopping and attending to the children can seem like insurmountable tasks during withdrawal. Also, for those with intense symptoms, any form of exertion can cause flare-ups. Offering to help with practical matters can make a big difference.
Withdrawal can be overwhelming and your loved one may feel traumatised. Talking is therapeutic and some people feel a need to talk about their experience. Follow your loved one’s cues: if you can, listen actively – without judgement or preconception – as feelings and concerns are shared; at other times space and/or companionable silence may be all that is needed. Remember too, that non-verbal communication can be powerful and your warmth, acceptance, expressions and body language are even more important than your words.
Don’t take things personally
If your loved one is agitated or becomes angry and overly-sensitive, try not to take it personally. The effects of withdrawal can cause mood swings, organic fear, paranoia and a host of other psychological symptoms. Understanding that these reactions are ‘normal’ will allow you to accept them for what they are while you continue to give your support.
Look after yourself
Eat healthily, exercise regularly, maintain your hobbies, and get the rest and relaxation you need. Set limits and commit to what is realistic, rather than feel obligated to deliver on promises you are unable to keep as this will drain you even more. If possible, arrange a respite or back-up person who is reliable and trustworthy so that you can take regular breaks.
Get emotional support
Caring for someone in withdrawal can be mentally draining so you need to ensure that you take care of your own emotional needs and receive adequate support at this time. It is also important that you have a trusted friend or relative to discuss your fears, needs and feelings with. If you become emotionally drained and fatigued you will have nothing left to give.
Reassure your loved one
More than anything, someone experiencing withdrawal needs reassurance. Persistent, intense symptoms can cause doubt and increased anxiety. You will need to keep encouraging and reassuring your loved one that recovery is taking place. Hope is one of the most valuable coping tools and your positive attitude can make a big difference.
Keep in touch
Keep in contact with your loved one even when it seems she or he has recovered. Withdrawal symptoms often come in ‘waves’ and you may mistake a ‘window of clarity’ (period during which the symptoms temporarily subside) as full recovery. Most people are devastated when the symptoms resurface and this is when you may be needed the most.