Tijs Synaeve was addicted to anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants for 15 years: “I had the feeling that I could win the big Lotto pot at any moment”

Tijs Synaeve was addicted to anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants for 15 years: “I had the feeling that I could win the big Lotto pot at any moment”
Tijs Synaeve was addicted to anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants for 15 years: “I had the feeling that I could win the big Lotto pot at any moment”
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“Having lived largely in anaesthesia for fifteen years, I feel like I’ve lost a lot of time. That makes me feel a bit younger than my peers. Not that I haven’t had good times, thanks to the medication I was able to live without fears and at times even in full euphoria. But it was under the influence, mainly of benzodiazepines. Getting rid of that was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. But it paid off.”

“I’m forty-six now. That is already seven years older than my mother ever became. I was sixteen when she died. She had been ill with breast cancer for eight years, but with treatment she could live well for a few more years. When I was fifteen, she relapsed and developed bone cancer. There was nothing more that could be done.”

Like a Fruittella

“I still remember my mother lying downstairs on the sofa that last year and throwing up a lot. I discovered port and drank it. If I had a few glasses, I could sleep. I no longer heard my mother throwing up, no longer heard the oxygen tank. I didn’t like alcohol, I only drank to numb myself. My father had a career abroad. After my mother’s death, the motto was: we keep going. West Flemish style.”

“In 2005, eleven years after my mother, my father also died. Very unexpectedly, from a heart rupture. A few months later I had my first anxiety attack, in the supermarket. I didn’t know what was happening to me, I was terrified. When it happened in the car, at a restaurant or during meetings at work, I sought out a psychiatrist.”

“The pill he prescribed me, the benzodiazepine Tranxène, helped wonderfully. Just the idea that I had a tablet in my pocket that worked within twenty minutes helped me function. But gradually I needed more. I started taking them proactively. Because why wait for an anxiety attack if you can prevent one?”

“I clearly asked the psychiatrist about the edits, and whether it was addictive. He reassured me: ‘as addictive as a Fruittella’. According to him, my fears were biological. I didn’t have to look for an explanation in the past. The fact that I lost both my parents early was barely mentioned. Just as a diabetic patient needs insulin, he assured me, you need pills for your brain.”

“I was grateful. My life seemed heavenly. But time and time again I lost well-paid jobs in local government and became alienated from my environment. I barely kept in touch with old friends, and certainly didn’t meet new people anymore. I arrived at work just in time and after a double espresso and half a benzo, I sat in front of my screen in a daze. I couldn’t get anything done anymore. Stacks of files and assignments piled up as I, in a daze, traveled to the most remote places on earth via Google Earth.”

Party cocktail

“Benzos work like alcohol: the longer you take them, the more you need them and the more resistant you become to them. My fears returned. In the summer of 2016, exhausted by panic attacks, I visited the psychiatrist, desperate. He declared me depressed, wrote me home for three months and prescribed me more pills. Another benzo, an antidepressant, an antipsychotic and a muscle relaxant, Baclofen, to curb alcohol cravings. A, as I later discovered, a life-threatening cocktail. But also one that made me feel fantastic.”

“My life became one long trip. Boosted by antidepressants, freed from anxiety thanks to benzos. On top of that, the Baclofen, chemically related to the party drug GHB, gave me a buzz. I felt like I could win the big Lotto pot at any moment. I don’t remember much about that period. Only that one day I read an article on the BBC website about a Lakota Chief who married a Belgian lady. The couple had lived on an Indian reservation in South Dakota for forty years. From one day to the next I gave up my job and left for America.”

© Christophe De Muynck

“As a child I dreamed of becoming a reporter or writer. The cocktail of pills made me want to pursue that childhood dream. My father had left me some money; I convinced my wife that I was now a journalist. It became a two-month dream trip in the American Midwest. A wonderful period that I would never have experienced without my psychiatrist’s ‘everlasting party cocktail’. He even wrote a weighty letter in English, just in case I was stopped at border control with all those pills.”

“But when I got home, the dream shattered. I wanted to write, but no words came. I couldn’t do it. For five years I drifted from one job to another. As a shelf stocker in a supermarket, I couldn’t keep up with colleagues, I was so numb. In the summer of 2022 I left for South Dakota again. Looking for the carefree happiness I had experienced five years earlier. But nothing was the same anymore.”

Connection as salvation

“I arrived at the airport confused and could barely read the contract when I picked up my rental car. As I drove through Wyoming, all the cars seemed to dance in front of me like in a kaleidoscope. To calm myself down, I drank a six-pack of Budweiser. The combination of benzos and alcohol can lead to cardiac arrest, but I was desperate.”

“On the way to my cousin in Salt Lake City I found a bookstore Blood orange night by Melissa Bond. In it she describes the consequences of her addiction to benzodiazepines, but also the difficult process of getting rid of them. I realized: if I wanted to live, something had to change. I came home and was admitted immediately.”

“What followed was an absolute hell tour. Knowledge about withdrawal from benzos is not yet very advanced in Belgium. I tapered everything off in four days, while Anglo-Saxon specialists agree that a slow taper is recommended for long-term use to reduce the withdrawal symptoms. I didn’t sleep a wink for four nights. Palpitations, sweating, terrible fears. I heard sounds, saw flashes of light. My blood pressure was constantly monitored because there was a risk of convulsions or an epileptic fit.”

“I spent ten weeks in the psychiatric ward. But the doctor warned me that I could feel very bad for at least another year. I have a very sweet wife who I have been with for almost twenty-five years, and a wonderful thirteen-year-old daughter. I wanted to do this right, for myself and for them. My greatest fear was an unfinished life. I knew: if I don’t get rid of this, it will kill me.”

“I grabbed everything that was handed to me by professionals with both hands. Group therapy, individual therapy, EMDR therapy, cooking and writing therapy. When I was allowed to go home for the first weekend after three weeks of admission, I immediately attended a lecture. About a man who made a cycling trip through America. I started going to plays more and more, to lectures, to concerts, to films. I felt how much that helped me reconnect with other people. With real life.”

“I have now been completely clean for fifteen months: no medication, and no alcohol anymore. I hardly even dare to take an Imodium anymore, I have developed such an aversion to pills. Instead, I have become a culture glutton. I have also found a great job, I am a caretaker at the Royal City Theater of Bruges. By reconnecting with others, I have not only saved myself, I have also been able to make it my profession. It’s fantastic to be able to see up close how people come together to watch something they can perhaps relate to, and to talk about it afterwards.”

“I also owe the fact that I am still here to my wife, Betty. She has always believed in me, even in my darkest hours. She was not naive, but she was sometimes powerless. We’ve been together for so long, but often I was numb. Only now do I fully discover how great she is, how much strength she shows to be able to deal with the down-to-earth Tijs. She is my link to normality, I often say jokingly. Thanks to her care and patience, I now have both feet in the world.”

“Withdrawing from benzos and antidepressants is the hardest thing I have ever done and may ever do. The long-term effects, such as tinnitus, have not yet completely disappeared. But the suffering has paid off enormously. Yes, everything now comes in without a filter. And that is confrontational. But I’m really alive now. I know a lot of people are as desperate right now as I was then. I want to say to them: don’t give up, the darkest days seem endless, but dare to ask for help. There is hope.”

The article is in Dutch

Tags: Tijs Synaeve addicted antianxiety drugs antidepressants years feeling win big Lotto pot moment

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