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Table of Contents
- What is a “Valium High”?
- Valium High: Short-Term Effects of Diazepam Abuse
- What is Valium (Diazepam)?
- Possible Side Effects of Normal Diazepam Use
- Valium Addiction in the U.S.: Facts & Statistics
- Warning Signs of a Valium Overdose
- The Signs & Symptoms of Valium Abuse / Addiction
- Valium (Diazepam): Withdrawal Symptoms
- Valium Addiction: Treatment Options & Recovery
Valium was once so popular it was believed to be the subject of a hit 1966 Rolling Stones song
“Mother’s Little Helper,” and diazepam soon became known in the U.S. by the same name – ”Mother’s Little Helper.” Like the drug in the song, Valium was being widely prescribed for anxious middle-aged housewives in the U.S. at the time.
In reality, however, it was likely that the song actually referred to “Milltown”, or meprobamate – the pharmacological predecessor to Valium. Milltown, a specific drug that was prescribed for everything from severely ill mental patients to recovering alcoholics, was later banned (much later, in 2012) because of its high levels of abuse and addiction.
However, by 1956, with only a couple of years on the market, doctors had already written 36 million Milltown prescriptions.
“So go running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper,
And four help you through the night, help to minimize your plight.
Doctor, please, some more of these;
Outside the door, she took four more.”
– Mick Jagger & Keith Richard, Rolling Stones
Regardless of the Stones’ “little yellow pill” of the song, it was the rock band’s reaction to the media’s bias towards young people, seen then as the root of the global drug problem, especially at a time when middle-aged women were seen to be using their own drugs to deal with anxiety.
Can you see a pattern emerging here? The mass-marketing of specific drugs without fully checking the potential issues, like addiction, their use might lead to? The same would be done with benzodiazepines, such as Valium, on their release to the U.S. public, and a recent and perfect example, of course, would be opioid painkillers, such as OxyContin.
In fact, between 1969 and 1982, Valium was the most prescribed drug in the U.S., with diazepam sales peaking in 1978 – there were more than 2.3 billion Valium pills sold that year.
Like other benzodiazepine medications, including Klonopin and Xanax, Valium – still known as “Mother’s Little Helper” – is another of the most commonly abused prescription drugs in the U.S., as recreational users take large doses of the drug to get high – known as the “Valium High.”
What is a “Valium High”?
Like other abused benzodiazepines, diazepam is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, and so decreases activity in the nervous system when taken. Furthermore, like all addictive substances, it releases a flood of dopamine into the brain. When a recreational user abuses Valium, the high they experience – the “Valium High” induces the following effects:
- Sense of calm euphoria
- Lack of coordination.
- Feeling of being intoxicated / drunk
However, as with most drugs that are abused, there are dangers, too. Although a Valium overdose is hardly ever fatal, abusers who mix the drug with other CNS depressants, such as opioids, eg. OxyContin, and alcohol, as they try to magnify the euphoria and sense of intoxication, will significantly increase their risk of overdose, and these can be fatal.
Valium High: Short-Term Effects of Diazepam Abuse
Valium can work rapidly upon entering the patient’s bloodstream, acting within 20 minutes to 1 hour. After the Valium high reaches and passes its peak, there is normally a period of withdrawal, known more commonly as a “comedown” or “crash.” The calm and euphoric state slowly disappears, and, as the brain rebounds and begins to function normally once more, the following side-effects result: from its drugged state and produces other undesirable effects, such as:
- Rapid heart rate
- Stomach cramps
- Disinhibited actions and/or speech
To counteract these crash effects, most addicts will simply take more Valium or abuse another drug to slow the brain and the body down once again. However, continually taking Valium means that the body quickly builds a high tolerance to the drug, making it continually more difficult to get the same euphoric effect again with the same amount. Therefore, the abuser will need to take ever-increasing doses, and so increase the risk of severe addiction and overdose.
What is Valium (Diazepam)?
Valium, the household brand name of diazepam, from the class of drugs known as benzodiazepines, is an anticonvulsant, muscle relaxant, sedative-hypnotic agent, and, because of its ongoing abuse, a Schedule IV Controlled Substance. In fact, Valium is one of the most highly abused prescription drugs.
However, diazepam, as Valium and other alternatives, continues to be one of the most heavily prescribed CNS depressant drugs today. It is primarily used in the treatment of:
- Anxiety and anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, PTSD, and obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Convulsive disorders
- Spastic disorders and muscle spasms in cerebral palsy, paraplegia, and multiple sclerosis
- Restless legs syndrome
- Agitation or other related psychiatric conditions, such as impulse control disorders, catatonia, and psychotic illness
- Status epilepticus (long-lasting seizures)
- Alcohol detox and management of withdrawal
Furthermore, because of its effectiveness in treating so many medical conditions, Valium is listed on the World Health Organization’s Essential Medicines as a “core medicine.”
Possible Side Effects of Normal Diazepam Use
When it is used as directed as a prescription medication, Valium does not produce the same effects as it does when it is being abused – the Valium high. Valium, however, still has side effects, even with correct usage. The most common side effects of Valium can include:
- Dry mouth
- Slurred speech
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in heart rate / rhythm
- Decreased respiratory rate
- Decreased memory consolidation
- Delayed reflexes
- Difficulty urinating
- Blurred vision
Valium is considered to have a long half-life – this means that while it does not take effect immediately, it can remain in the body for a prolonged length of time. In a young and physically healthy adult, the typical half-life is around 24 hours. However, trace amounts, eg. found to be present in urine samples, can still be seen up to 80 hours after use.
The History of Valium
Many of today’s benzodiazepines were initially produced by Leo Sternbach, a pharmacist and chemist, at the Hoffmann-La Roche pharmaceutical company. Sternbach had been tasked with developing a safer alternative to barbiturates and meprobamate (yes, the Milltown drug discussed previously).
His first benzodiazepine was found purely by chance. A forgotten chemically-adjusted compound from his earlier experiments, located during a clean-up in his laboratory, was found to be exactly what he was trying to achieve. Renamed chlordiazepoxide, it was introduced in the U.S. under the trade name Librium in 1960.
Following on from this success, Sternbach produced a similar compound – diazepam, which was then released into the U.S. in 1963 with the brand name Valium. The drug became a favorite of doctors and physicians across the nation, and, between 1969 and 1982, Valium was the most prescribed drug in the U.S., with sales in 1978 of more than 2.3 billion pills – a phenomenal amount.
Valium Addiction in the U.S.: Facts & Statistics
Did you know that diazepam is also used in veterinary medicine, and this is how many recreational users access their supply of the drug? In 1975, in response to many reports of diazepam abuse and addiction, the Justice Department designated the drug as a Schedule IV Controlled Substance. The most recent data suggests that diazepam is the third most abused tranquilizer in the U.S. – after alprazolam (Xanax) and lorazepam (Ativan).
“Many young people turn to these medications to self-treat symptoms of stress or anxiety, in part because clinical therapies and treatments are too costly or inaccessible, are seen as too time-consuming, or carry too much stigma.”
– Linda Richter, Director of Policy Research & Analysis, Partnership to End Addiction
Although once known as “Mother’s Little Helper,” Valium is now referred to in the illicit drug market on the streets as:
According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), diazepam is one of the most common benzodiazepines found on the illicit drug market. The DEA identifies these main sources of illicit diazepam:
- Doctor shopping
- Forged prescriptions
- Legal drugs diverted by unethical pharmacists and doctors or through unregulated purchases online
About 1 in every 5 U.S. adults who take Valium or another benzodiazepine are misusing their medication, U.S. survey data show. The statistics also revealed that the use of benzodiazepines among adults is actually more than twice the number previously reported, with nearly 13% using diazepam or others within the past year.
Diazepam and other benzodiazepines also feature in the fatal overdose statistics of the ongoing U.S. opioid epidemic. In 2019, 16% of overdose fatalities involving opioids also involved benzodiazepines like diazepam, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Warning Signs of a Valium Overdose
It is exceptionally rare for someone to overdose solely on Valium, or to die from an overdose if one occurs. The amount needed for this to happen varies from person to person, and, in fact, a high dose of Valium, as much as over 1500mg, in one day is still unlikely to cause any permanent damage, if used on its own.
The use of Valium in conjunction with other CNS depressants like opioids or alcohol, however, can be an entirely different story. The most common signs and symptoms of a Valium overdose include:
- Increased drowsiness
- Bluish lips
- Slurred speech
- Extreme lethargy and lack of energy
- Double vision
- Impaired vision
- Extreme difficulty in breathing
- Lack of coordination
- Increased anxiety
The Signs & Symptoms of Valium Abuse / Addiction
Although Valium is considered to have a lower potential for dependence compared to other benzodiazepines, many people will still experience withdrawal symptoms if they take diazepam for an extended period of time – even when prescribed by a physician. Because of this, doctors normally instruct patients to taper off their Valium use gradually, rather than to stop taking the drug abruptly.
However, this lower potential for dependence is the reason Valium is used to mitigate the dangerous withdrawal symptoms from alcohol and other, stronger benzodiazepines, such as seizures and convulsions. Once the individual is safely detoxed from alcohol, for example, they can then be easily tapered off the Valium use.
Long-Term Side Effects of Valium Use / Abuse
Heavy use of diazepam over an extended period of time can have damaging effects on the brain and body. These effects can be permanent and, in some cases, even life-threatening. The long-term effects of Valium can include:
- Memory loss
- Slow heart rate
- Respiratory problems
- Cognitive issues
- Heart attack
- Aggressive behavior
- Psychotic experiences
Polydrug Use: Common Valium Drug Combinations
Polydrug use (mixing substances) is common among recreational diazepam users who want to exaggerate the drug’s sedative effects, and the most common additional substances are opioids and alcohol, both with their own sedative effects.
However, some users take cocaine or other stimulants to actually counteract the sedative effects of Valium, while retaining the euphoric high. Although using cocaine helps recreational users to stay awake, it can also provide a false sense of how much diazepam has been taken. As cocaine wears off much faster than diazepam, the user may take more than they intended to, resulting in an overdose, often with severe, life threatening complications such as coma and seizures.
The use of other drugs with Valium medication will significantly increase the risk of an overdose, and a potentially fatal one, too. Abused simultaneously, alcohol and/or opioids and diazepam can slow down a person’s CNS, and so their respiratory system, to the point where they will stop breathing altogether.
Valium (Diazepam): Withdrawal Symptoms
Because Valium has a longer half-life than most other substances of abuse, the duration of the withdrawal symptoms is significantly longer, too. In fact, patients who take a small dose, ie. 10-12 mg of Valium per day, for more than 6 months – far too long a term, can also experience withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms are divided into acute and long-term symptoms.
The acute stage begins about 1-4 days after the administration of the last dose, and include a variety of psychological, physical, and neurological symptoms: The most common of these symptoms include:
- Dry retching
- Stomach pains
- Muscle cramps
- Body tremors
- Heart palpitations
- Increased heart rate
- Cognitive issues
- Violent mood swings
- Panic attacks
- Rebound anxiety
The most violent of the physical withdrawal symptoms will diminish after around 1-2 weeks with use. The longer-term withdrawal period, known as Post-Acute Withdrawal Symptoms (PAWS, for short) can last significantly longer (some symptoms do not resolve themselves for months), and consist of psychological symptoms, such as insomnia, suicidal tendencies, anxiety, and diazepam cravings.
It is highly recommended, if not required by physicians that Valium doses should be gradually tapered, rather than abruptly stopped. The safest way to detox from any benzodiazepine, and so lessen the severity of the worst of the withdrawal symptoms, is to undergo a medically-assisted, supervised detox in a professional facility.
Valium Addiction: Treatment Options & Recovery
Because of the suppression of the brain’s production of natural anxiety-inhibitors, recovery from Valium addiction is not easy. The suppression of the anxiety-inhibitors results in the rapid return of panic disorder symptoms, such as extreme anxiety and panic attacks, making the user more likely to relapse to resolve these symptoms.
Furthermore, as implicitly stated above, any person with a Valium addiction requires a medically-assisted, supervised detoxification, due to the problematic and potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms that can occur, including benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome.
Following the detox process, patients should participate in a professional evidence-based addiction treatment program run by an an accredited drug and alcohol rehab center or other recognized facility; this program can either be as an inpatient or an outpatient, depending on the level of addiction and the patient’s needs, eg. work and family responsibilities.
Inpatient Program (IP) for the Treatment of Valium Addiction
Otherwise known as a residential drug rehab or simply “rehab,” an inpatient program (IP), professional treatment for any substance use addiction, allows the patient to fully focus on both their treatment and their recovery, without any outside distractions, influences or disruptions.
Additionally, it removes any potential relapse triggers normally present in the patient’s home environment or those people associated with past drug use, and the patient can access constant care – 24/7 if required.
IPs offer a high chance of a successful, sustainable and long-term recovery, as it allows the patient to fully engage with both their treatment and their health as it gradually improves. Furthermore, patients can learn how to spend their free or spare time, socially or alone, in a way that is substance-free.
Outpatient Program (OP) for the Treatment of Valium Addiction
As a less rigid alternative to IPs, while still retaining professional-standard treatment, outpatient treatment programs (OPs) can be undertaken at varying levels of intensity, allowing the patient to balance their Valium addiction treatment with other important obligations, such as attending work, caring for family, and carer responsibilities. The levels of treatment and care normally follow these guidelines:
- Partial hospitalization programs (PHPs)
- Intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), and
- Outpatient programs (OPs)
These different levels of care are determined by a combination of the patient’s clinical assessment, and the choice preferred by the patient, and are specifically based upon the number of hours per week someone can commit to their treatment.
OPs generally take place on several days a week, and for a few hours each day. Depending on the treatment facility, timetables and appointments can be very flexible, enabling a patient to either continue working, attend school, or care for family while still receiving treatment.
Life After Valium Addiction Treatment
After the Valium addiction treatment program is completed, the newly-sober patient has several options by which to maintain their recovery, such as:
- Sober Living Homes: Providing a direct link between a patient’s residency in an IP and a direct return to life in their own home and usual environment, sober living homes provide a safe, structured, and sober environment for those who need additional time adjusting to their new Klonopin-free way of life.
- Mutual Aid Support Groups: Support groups and programs, such as the 12-Step fellowship, eg. Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and SMART Recovery (Self-Management And Recovery Training).
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): Benzodiazepines and Opioids. February, 2021. Available at DrugAbuse.gov.
- World Health Organization: WHO Model List of Essential Medicines (20th Edition). June, 2017. Available at WHO.int.
- Valium (Diazepam) Label. Published 2016. Available at AccessData.FDA.org.
- Partnership to End Addiction. 2021. Available at DrugFree.org.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Classics in Chemical Neuroscience: Diazepam (Valium)” March, 2021. Available at NCBI.NLM.NIH.gov
- Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Behavior, UCLA, Dual Diagnosis Intensive Outpatient Program: Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome. 2021. Available at Semel.UCLA.edu.
- Narcotics Anonymous. 2021. Available at NA.org.
- SMART Recovery (Self-Management And Recovery Training). 2021. Available at SMARTRecovery.org.