Valium is called “the housewife’s cocktail,” but it has also resulted in emotional and psychological dependence in countless career women and men. Some of the most publicized victims, like Betty Ford, got hooked on the deadly combination of that drug and alcohol. But Valium, the nation’s most prescribed tranquilizer (3.2 billion were popped in 1977), also ranks number one in drug-related hospital emergency room cases, and last year alone it killed 50 Americans. One of the most harrowing—and potentially helpful—discussions of the perils of Valium (and other tranquilizers) is a new memoir by Emmy-winning TV writer-producer Barbara Gordon, 43, herself a victim. In I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can (Harper & Row), Gordon details her introduction to the pill after a back injury and her subsequent addiction. She was able to quit but in going cold turkey wound up with chronic insomnia, hallucinations and convulsions that landed her in mental hospitals twice within a year.
Born in Miami, the daughter of a successful hotel and restaurant supply businessman, Barbara graduated from Barnard College. Starting as a secretary to a TV producer, she eventually became a documentary maker herself and earned three New York Emmys for her works on slum landlords, Vietnam veterans and mental patients. She also profiled, among others, blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumball, comedian Redd Foxx, Jason Robards Jr. and CIA defector Victor Marchetti. Still single after her divorce 13 years ago and living on Manhattan’s West Side (where she is currently writing her second book, a novel), Gordon talked with Patricia Burstein of PEOPLE about her Valium breakdown and recovery.
What is Valium?
It is a superb anti-anxiety drug as well as a muscle relaxant. Valium serves the same purpose as cigarettes, alcohol, work obsession—anything we need to make ourselves feel whole and that we can use excessively to hide from our pain, rage or refusal to grow up and face reality.
How long did you take the drug?
I lived on Valium for nine years.
When was the first time?
A doctor gave it to me when I was about 25 to relieve the muscle spasms from a back injury that was later corrected by surgery. Then, seven years later, I had an anxiety attack after leaving a job. The psychiatrist I was seeing said, “Oh, that’s anxiety that you’re feeling now, and I’m going to give you this pill called Valium. It’s not addictive, and you don’t have to worry about it.”
How much did you take?
Two milligrams, maybe once or twice a day. Then, as the anxiety attacks persisted, it took more and more Valium to make them go away. The doctor began giving me the yellow [five-milligram] pills rather than the white. Soon I was up to two five-milligram pills a day. By the time I went off Valium, it was 30 milligrams a day.
Was that excessive?
It’s hard to believe, but in the hospital I met people who were taking 70 milligrams a day. Thirty is not considered an unusual amount, but I couldn’t tolerate it.
Was there any problem getting the pills?
My psychiatrist just prescribed me 100 every two weeks. The last three years I’d just go to him for the prescription. There was no therapy going on.
Why did a successful person like you get addicted?
All I know was that I was a woman who had everything in life. Super friends, a wonderful love relationship, a great job. I had just one problem: I couldn’t cross the street or go near a department store or ride a bus without those bloody pills in my pocket.
How did Valium make you feel?
It was not a high or a down. I felt just sort of all right; I had a sort of serenity and evenness. But it had destroyed and masked my emotions and my senses.
What made you decide to quit?
It was morning. I had just finished a film about a cancer victim who died before she could screen it, and I was depressed. I was getting ready to take two pills, because I was then taking them even in anticipation of attacks. But instead I called my shrink and said, “No more pills.” It was an impulse toward health. My doctor said, “Then do it right, Barbara. Don’t take one. No matter what happens don’t even have a sip of wine.” I was a docile patient and ended up in a mental hospital.
Did Valium cause your breakdown?
I didn’t get into trouble from taking it. My problem was in the way I went off it—cold turkey, rather than tapering off. I became a hysterical, disoriented little girl.
Did you have withdrawal symptoms?
I could not control my body movements. I had burning flashes in my scalp. When I put a cold towel on my head, it felt like a fire.
How long did you stay in the hospital?
Seventeen days in the first hospital. The next stay was five months. Hospitals, like Valium, should be for crisis intervention, like a crash pad. I got sicker because they put me in a ward with very chronic schizophrenics. I saw all these people and I figured I’m nutsy like they are, so I sank lower. Ultimately I began to fight back.
Are you angry with the psychiatrist who advised you to quit cold turkey?
In the first hospital, I asked him to come and see me. I had been going to him for nine years and thought he might transfer me to his hospital. But he just said, “I’m sure you’ll get good care and do fine there.” I never heard from him again. When I got out of the hospital, there was his bill waiting for me for $75 from my final session.
Did you pay him?
Are you anti-psychiatry?
No. I had a wonderful psychologist in the second hospital and have a great psychiatrist now. But the profession needs a Ralph Nader. We give much more thought to buying a car or winter coat than shopping for the right doctor. Safeguards ought to require that patients question why they may be going for 10 years to a doctor and taking more and more pills. Patients should say, “No, I won’t wish to be sedated. I would rather face my demon than mask it.”
Should Valium be taken off the market?
No. It can be an adjunct to therapy. But what I was doing, in a silent conspiracy with the psychiatrist, was replacing therapy with pills. For that I am as accountable as he, but he should have known better. He’s a doctor.
So you believe the pill has a use?
Yes, for crisis intervention. To get people through a death in the family, a divorce, a sick child or major surgery. What I object to is chronic maintenance, day-to-day abuse. I did not have a parent dying or an operation to face. I was using it to get into a chic restaurant or to get down an elevator. That was abuse.
What are danger signs for Valium users?
When a woman takes 25 to 30 milligrams a day just to pick up her kids at school, she is in trouble. If she is taking more and more to make the same symptoms go away or if she needs to have it in her purse all the time, then I would say she is in trouble.
Why is Valium known as a women’s drug?
According to The Tranquilizing of America, a book due out this fall, 42 percent of the adult female population has taken Valium at one time. That means 34 million American women. More men are doctors than women, and more women are patients than men. Men are brought up to be macho and hide their pain. A housewife will express her frustration, and the doctor will simply “make it go away” by suggesting she take a Valium. It doesn’t occur to him that she may have a legitimate reason to feel terrible.
How will people in the future deal with psychic pain?
In the years ahead experts will look back and see how they tranquilized and made people non-thinking and non-feeling. It will be viewed as barbaric. The most precious thing is one’s own sense of uniqueness, feelings and spirit. I lived for three years being depersonalized. Valium almost cost me my life.
How do you feel now?
When I got sick, the child in me took over. I got off on someone bringing me chicken soup or a back brace or a Valium. Now I think the child is quiet in me, and the strong, independent adult is winning. It’s so boring to have to grow up at this age. I should have done it right the first time.
What is the response to your book?
I’ve been getting calls from women who are panicked. “I take two, I take four, I take six…Do you think I’m addicted?” I tell them, “I’m not an expert. Go doctor hunting.”