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‘My skin felt like it was burning off my body’

Woman tells of a different dependency

Posted: April 2, 2018 4:48 p.m.
Updated: April 3, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Martin L. Cahn/C-I

Janine Hagopian, a former South Carolina resident currently living in Huntsville, Ala., talks about the effects of opioid withdrawal she suffered after taking benzodiazepine for 15 years under her doctor’s supervision during a special summit March 26 at the Jackson Teen Center. Hagopian said she did not she was suffering withdrawal symptoms until she spoke with a pharmacist weeks after stopping the medication.

Janine Hagopian said that if opioid addiction were classified as a disease, it would be designated as a pandemic, with more deaths from overdoses in 2017 than soldiers who died in the entire Vietnam War.

“Of the 65,000 death last year that involved overdoses, a majority involved opioids, but in combination with that, 31 percent involved benzodiazepine,” Hagopian, a South Carolina native current living in Huntsville, Ala., told those gathered for an opioid summit at the Jackson Teen Center on March 26 (see main story).

Hagopian should know, and talked about her experience in front of an audience for this time ever at the JTC.

She is among the large number of Americans recovering from the effects of prescription drugs, and not just those classified as opioids. Hagopian may even be part of a hidden number within those statistics: someone whose 15-year use of benzodiazepine -- a prescription sedative used to treat anxiety and insomnia -- took place under the guidance of her physician.

“I don’t think we can have a conversation about (opioid) addiction without having a conversation that many doctors are overprescribing these drugs and benzodiazepine … this class of drugs produces a calming effect. However, when it’s prescribed way beyond the amount of time it should be taken -- which is six to nine weeks is how long it’s approved and studied for -- but doctors are prescribing them for many months and for many years,” she said.

Hagopian explained that she had a variety of illnesses and symptoms that turned her into a “profit center” for the medical industry.

“And when I wanted to come off this class of drugs, my doctor said, ‘You take such a small amount and you don’t have an addictive personality, you can just wean yourself off.’ And I tried to come off in what I thought was a slow manner. But, what happened to me was horrific,” Hagopian said. “My skin felt like it was burning off of my body. I had a racing heart, heart palpitations and my digestion stopped.”

Despite those symptoms, no one told her she was in a protracted state of withdrawal.

“It was a nightmare. Finally, a pharmacist said to me, ‘You’re having withdrawal symptoms and you cannot come off this drug fast. You’ve been on it for 15 years as directed by your doctor.’ And let me make it perfectly clear: I never took this medication any way other than as it was prescribed to me,” she said.

Hagopian explained that she had been on benzodiazepine for so long, the pain receptors in her body could no longer work on their own.

“I didn’t sleep for four weeks. I lost 42 pounds. I thought I was dying,” she said.

Hagopian also recalled getting in touch with her insurance company about what she could take instead of benzodiazepine that would allow her to manage her pain, but not cause problems. She was given the name of three companies and began contacting them.

“The first one I called said they didn’t help people do that anymore,” Hagopian said. “The second one that I called, the girl on the phone said, ‘If you want to come off of it naturally’ -- because I didn’t want take another drug that could be addictive, that you would have to wean off as well -- ‘so, I suggest that if you want to come off of it naturally, you just stop taking it.’ I said, ‘Well, how long do you think that will take?’ And she said, ‘Three to five days.’ I said, ‘Sweetheart, you shouldn’t be answering the phone.’ (That’s) because if you stop taking a benzodiazepine too quickly, you can have a seizure, you can have a stroke, you can have a heart attack, you can die.”

Things got so bad for Hogopian, she admitted, she considered to take her own life.

“But for the grace of God, I stand here before you today because it wasn’t my time. I needed to be a voice for those who don’t,” she said to a round of applause.

She pointed out that she has endured one of the better outcomes in the story of America’s drug crisis. Among those Hagopian said she has spoken to was “Doug,” who she described as a prominent architect.

“And as we speak tonight, he’s fighting for his life. He’s tried to take his own life several times,” she said. “‘John’ was a successful businessman in Charlotte; I met him back in the ’80s when he owned a chain of spas. He also became a developer. He was in a car accident and he was given first opioids and then ‘benzos’ and they are not supposed to be taken in conjunction -- they are a dangerous combination and have killed so many people.”

She said “John” was found about two months ago, dead in his apartment, after a week and a half, with only 60 cents left in his bank account, having been bankrupted and killed by the drugs to which he had become addicted.

“His daughter wants to know who’s going to walk her down the aisle,” Hagopian said.

She also told the story of “Elizabeth,” also from Charlotte, N.C.

“She is a mother of three. She takes a milligram in the morning of Clonazepam and a milligram at noon and night. By the end of the day, she is in withdrawal. Her current doctor said it would take her at least six months to come off these drugs and he told her it was going to be a living hell. She sees no way out,” Hagopian said. “‘Georgia’ was 20 years old. I knew her when she was 10 years old. She did see a way out. She took her own life, at 20, with her drugs, she overdosed, and she left a suicide note. She was a beautiful, talented girl who had discovered her dream of singing and she took her own life.”

Hagopian also talked about “repeat offenders” among doctors who overprescribe opioids to their patients.

“They’re giving these drugs to the most vulnerable of our society, including the elderly, who have an increased risk for falls and dementia; veterans, who are already suffering from PTSD; and college students on college campuses. They have psychiatrists giving out these drugs to students,” she said.

She said some physicians are engaging in reckless, dangerous prescribing practices that, for years, have been known to lead to addiction and, as in her case, dependence, with effects she said are no better than illicit drugs.

Hagopian said she never saw herself as an addict because she had followed her doctor’s orders exactly.

To finally rid herself of her dependency, Hagopian said she spent $30,000 at a facility in Arizona where she could come off them naturally.

“I couldn’t afford it, but I couldn’t afford not to,” she said. “I had a very healthy lifestyle. I took this tiny, tiny, tiny little pill, prescribed by my doctor and only as directed, and it almost destroyed my life.”

Hagopian said everyone needs to be educated about opioids and “benzos” and that the country needs stronger laws that say “drug companies and their lobbyists are no longer going to capitalize on our pain.”

She also challenged one of the evening’s panelists, 5th District U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman to do something: “The one thing I would implore upon you is to go back to Washington, and beg your colleagues, the attorney general and the president of the United States to change this crisis from the opioid crisis to the opioid-benzodiazepine crisis.”

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