The long road of recovery from an addiction to Valium and Xanax

     Joseph Barnes at WHYY Studios. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    Joseph Barnes at WHYY Studios. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    Overmedicating himself with a Valium prescription led Joseph Barnes into a cycle of drug and alcohol abuse that lasted nearly 30 years. When he was forced to move to a homeless shelter, he decided to do whatever it took to change his life.

    Joseph Barnes suffered from severe asthma and pneumonia as a child. The illnesses took a physical toll but also left him anxious, insecure and struggling to keep up with school. A family doctor prescribed Valium to him when he was a teenager. For the first time he felt calm, confident, at ease in the world. He began taking more Valium than what his doctor had prescribed. He added pot and alcohol and eventually started taking the anti-anxiety drug Xanax along with cocaine.

    Barnes’ cycle of drug and alcohol abuse lasted nearly 30 years. When he was forced to move to a homeless shelter, he decided to do whatever it took to change his life. He has been “clean and sober” for 18 months. Listen to the story he told to WHYY producer Jeanette Woods as part of The Pulse segment Patient Files.

    My childhood started off very well. And then the illnesses came.  

    I used to be rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night an ungodly amount of times. I couldn’t tell you how many times — just consistently being under the oxygen tent, just consistently being in a hospital. And as a kid, that takes so much out of you, physically and emotionally.

    I fell into a sort of a depression. Didn’t like being around people, didn’t go to parties, didn’t want to go to school. I slacked in school a great deal because I was depressed. So I went to a family doctor. He prescribed a drug called Valium, and boy did I feel different.

    I was 16 — 16 or 17. When a person’s been anxious all of their life, you figure, “Hey, I don’t wanna feel anxious no more, and this is pretty cool. Well, just take one more.” Maybe the next thought is “Take two more.”

    I was taking street drugs, marijuana, a little bit of beer with the Valiums, and it felt good. I felt relaxed around people, I felt more competent, more assertive. This is great. So I became my own doctor, in a sense. I had no idea of the repercussions; I just wanted to feel good. And I continued the Valiums for a long period of time, again, with marijuana and alcohol. And then it was powder cocaine with that, as well.

    See, I was functional — dysfunctional, but I thought I was functional — because I held a job. I was good at what I did. So I thought I was functional, I thought, “When you hit rock bottom, that’s the bum in the street.” So I thought.

    At the age of 26, I got married. I met a girl who liked who I was. We were working at the same job together.  She depended on me a lot. She was a sweet girl, a very sweet girl.

    I went to a psychiatrist and got Xanax from the doctor. Boy, did I love the way they made me feel.

    I started selling the Xanax. When I was selling them, I wasn’t taking them as I should have been taking them, and I was going through the withdrawal. I didn’t know much about withdrawal, so I needed that medication, and I needed it real bad there. Sometimes when I was doing powder cocaine, I would take four or five to calm down from the coke high.

    This lasted for, all of my [marriage]. About six years. But over time, when you’re stealing from your wife to get high, and you’ve told her time and time again you wanna stop, and then you can’t, the person gets fed up.

    I could appreciate that. If the shoe was on the other foot, I would have been fed up too, no doubt, no doubt, no doubt. Eighteen months ago, I knew I had to get off the Xanax. … And I wanted to find a way to get off them — but how do I do it?

    I was staying with a cousin, and I had to leave. I called up different relatives. They didn’t have any room. I left, went to a shelter.

    I couldn’t believe where I was. I went to the shelter with the mindset: Look, tell them what’s going on. And tell them I have [maybe a month’s supply] of Xanax left. And I said, “You know? I gotta come off them gradual.”

    And they weaned me off of the Xanax. They weaned me off of them and gave me Ativan. That was a start. They prescribed me a drug called, Zoloft. I take them to this day. I take it as prescribed.

    I go to regular therapy sessions twice a month, and drug programs as well. 

    I had to do things I didn’t wanna do. I had to hear things I didn’t wanna hear, but it got me another day. I saw the days add up one after another. I just felt really good about who I was, my mental state felt really good.

    Now some days, it isn’t easy dealing in transition, but it’s made me stronger. It’s given me 18 months clean, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. 

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