Thursday, June 20, 2013

My Mother and Valium

My mother (29), sister (5), and me (3).

I grew up seeing my mother take little blue-green pills with a V in their center.

Twenty-nine years old, my mother was isolated, far from home, living in a rented farmhouse in Wisconsin with two little girls, while her husband taught at the state college nearby.
She had some sort of breakdown--I don't know the details--and her doctor(s) prescribed Valium (diazepam). This potent tranquilizer had just come out in 1963.

Valium can be addicting; "rebound anxiety" upon withdrawal can be worse than the original anxiety. 
As far as I know, for the next almost forty years my mother was never off the pills, or not for long, until she died at her own hand. 

Like other  benzodiazepines (a class of drugs that work on a neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger in the brain to bring relief from anxiety), Valium can cause or worsen depression over time, and it is contraindicated in the case of suicidal depression. 
Yet my mother talked to me about committing suicide for 25 years before she finally shot herself.

 I wish I'd asked my mother how the drug affected her. She treated it pretty casually, like aspirin. She even gave me half a V once, when I was in high school, because I couldn't sleep. I woke up in the morning feeling that I had not slept, I had been obliterated.

 I remember her being angry about doctors sometimes being unwilling to renew her V prescription, but she, with her smart and winning social ways, obviously didn't have much trouble finding her way around the restrictions.
At any rate, when we cleaned out her apartment, there were plenty of those familiar little pills around.

At the time my mother died, I hadn't known that Valium might have been partly responsible for her decline--she'd gradually receded further and further down a dark hole--- but a doctor acquaintance told me it was possible. 
I've always meant to look further into it. It's taken me ten years to get around to it.

I was unemployed and injured for most of last year. After a few months, I began to experience for the first time what I think my mother must have: pointlessness and anxiety. 
I don't think my mother needed drugs so much as she needed meaningful work to do and connection with people other than small children.

The year after my mother was prescribed Valium, my parents moved into town and my mother did get a part-time job. She told me later that she shared my memory of the next few years being Golden Years for her and the family. 
But those little pills, like mini-SweetTarts... they were always there.

I thought this image was a crumbling Valium pill, but no: it's a color of eyeshadow named Prince Valium.


For more info on suicide prevention or help if you are struggling:
"The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals."
Outside of the United States, please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.


deanna said...

Tim's (my hubby's) grandma was prescribed Valium, probably about the same time, and it caused her a lot of problems. His grandparents were a sweet couple; they didn't share many details, but the drug and her emotional makeup were obviously not a good combination. I think she hadn't used it for many years by the time I met her. I don't doubt that her situation was similar, in the first place, to your mom's. Isolation is not what we're made for, especially in the way it developed for many women in the mid-20th century.

Fresca said...

Isolation... yeah, we are herd animals, and for most of us, that can a death sentence (physical or psychological).

It's a sad situation--I've heard from several other people whose relative suffered from this too.

momo said...

It's so hard to know. There are so many pieces to the puzzle.
I wouldn't take medication for years. Then I did, and it helped, until it stopped helping.Tthen it started to harm. But how is one to know which symptom is the illness and which is the drugs? We know more now that we did when you mother was given valium, but the treatment plan still often amounts to being the Human Subject in a drug trial in which the number of subjects is one.