Heath Ledger was the first actor I saw by accident. My date and later to-be husband, Nick, took me to see ‘The Sixth Sense’, and I finally succumbed to peer pressure to guess the big surprise ending. In the mid-1990s, ‘The Sixth Sense’ was off the major theater chain circuit and screening in small suburban independent theaters, which led to one of those now rare events: a double-feature matinee. First, there was ’10 Things I Hate About You’.
Having moved on from teen movies, even those with Shakespearean scripts, we admitted to liking 10 Things. Wow, I really like the male lead. Could you please tell me his name? He is an Australian, as Nick informed me. I was doubly impressed, and I am now filled with a sense of national pride in typical Australian fashion. An Australian up-and-comer joins the rapidly growing list of outstanding performers who are destined to grace the screens of Hollywood.
After a few years, I found myself watching the same scene over and over again on the DVD to fill a cheerless afternoon. It is repeated over and over again. I have a secret guilty pleasure. As Heath slid down the pole, microphone in hand, singing You’re just too good to be true, I couldn’t take my eyes off of you, the brass band began to play. A charmingly defiant half-run and half-prancing across the steps of the school. I find the scene to be brilliant. There is no explanation for this. There is just something old-fashioned about him.
Neither am I a star-struck fan nor was I one of those teenagers who plastered posters of movie stars on their walls, but this young man clearly has talent.
We were blown away by those scene-stealing roles that stole the show. It is the Patriot. The Monster’s Ball. Lastly, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as a leading man. We had already become accustomed to seeing an Australian up there with the rest of the world’s great talent producing an endless collection of diverse, yet illustrious film roles.
It was a mystery to us. There was no end to it. Our expectations were not met.
I am saddened when people I have never met but greatly admire die. However, I have never cried before. In my lifetime, I have never experienced such a heartfelt and overwhelming shock that lasted for days after hearing the news. There was something more personal about it this time. The moment I read the detailed description of his deathbed scene in the first report, I intuitively understood how he passed away.
I was confirmed in my suspicions ten days later by the final medical examiner’s report.
Xanax is the drug of choice in Hollywood. When you feel down, pop a Xanax. Take a Xanax if you are feeling stressed. When you need to perform at your highest level, take a Xanax. Performing in multi-million dollar films puts a great deal of pressure on A-list stars. The stakes are too high. There is an immeasurable amount of internal and external stress. It is the studios that risk billions, the stars who receive millions, and the actors who are subjected to an unnatural amount of pressure that we mere mortals cannot comprehend.
According to Heath Ledger, his stress levels increased tenfold following the release of A Knight’s Tale around the world and its instant paparazzi-bulb-flashing stardom.
According to Ledgers’ toxicity report, Xanax is the trade name for alprazolam, a generic anti-anxiety and tranquilizer prescription drug. In addition to diazepam, popularly known as Valium, there was another anti-anxiety medication. Benzodiazepines or simply benzos are a class of commonly prescribed tranquilizers.
An estimated 10 million prescriptions for benzos are written annually in Australia alone, with a population of only 20 million as opposed to 300 million in the United States.
It is common for doctors to write a prescription for benzos faster than the speed of light. But the real danger is that too many of them are unaware of the long-term effects these drugs have on your system, how to provide correct advice when administering or monitoring the dosages, and, most frightening, how to manage a benzo withdrawal program for their patients.
To begin with, here is an explanation of how benzodiazepines affect your body or, more importantly, your brain. The main neurotransmitter in the brain, known as GABA, is increased, or rather enhanced, by benzodiazepines. When taken daily, your brain will eventually cease producing its own GABA and rely entirely on the artificial benzo. This can happen in as little as three to four weeks if you take a daily dose.
There is no doubt that GABA is the most important neurotransmitter because it affects about everything else in the body. The primary function of this substance is to enhance the brain’s other neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Neurotransmitters in the brain perform a variety of functions, including voluntary muscle movement, wakefulness, sleep, memory function, sensory transmission, especially pain, and a host of other functions.
From this point on, your brain will require increasingly higher doses of benzodiazepines as tolerance develops, and the brain will require higher and higher doses in order to achieve the same effects. This insidious and often undiagnosed disorder known as Benzo Withdrawal Syndrome (BWS) will begin its ugly and potentially dangerous course if the patient is not given the correct dosage or management advice.
Experts in this field are aware of the severity and prolonged nature of BWS. In spite of proper care and supervision, it may take years for a person to completely withdraw from benzos. In the absence of this knowledge, the unwitting patient may suffer from over 30 symptoms, among them unrelenting insomnia, severe pain, and mood changes. It is possible for people who have been taking benzos for a relatively short period of time to experience withdrawal symptoms, even while still taking the medication. Furthermore, if you have been taking them for a prolonged period of time, and then abruptly cease taking them, dire consequences may result. At the very least, more pain, more depression, and unrelenting insomnia are likely to result.
Does this sound familiar to you when we read about Heath Ledger’s complaints? Benzo withdrawal appears to be extreme, but no one is exclaiming its dangers. Benzo withdrawal is not well understood by most general practitioners and even hospital doctors. According to benzo counselors, some even refer their patients to drug rehabilitation centers. When it comes to withdrawal from benzodiazepines, it is exactly the opposite of withdrawal from alcohol or street drugs. In drug rehabilitation, it is common for the benzo to be abruptly removed from the body. Benzos are necessary for the brain. To increase the brain’s own GABA levels, one must gradually withdraw the artificial benzo. Seizures and blackouts can result from the abrupt cessation of benzodiazepines.
Counselors in BWS advise against taking any medication or drugs. As far as pain relief is concerned, paracetamol may be the only medication the body can tolerate. There is nothing else. The use of codeine is also prohibited. Alcohol, caffeine, and all stimulants should also be avoided at all costs. Without knowledge of the protocol, the patient is at great risk.
According to the Ashton Manual, which is considered the bible of benzodiazepines:
Drug interactions: Some drugs with sedative effects are additive to benzodiazepines, including other hypnotics, antidepressants (e.g., amitriptyline [Elavil], doxepin [Adapin, Sinequan]), tranquilizers, neuroleptics (e.g., prochlorperazine [Compazine], trifluoperazine [Stelazine]), anticonvulsants (e.g., phenobarbital, phenytoin). Among the most commonly used drugs are antihistamines (e.g. diphenhydramine [Benadryl], promethazine [Phenergan]), opiates (heroin, morphine, meperidine), and, most importantly, alcohol. These interactions should be discussed with patients who are taking benzodiazepines. In the case of an overdose of sedative drugs, benzodiazepines may increase the risk of death.
The real problem is that there are very few experts in the field of treating BWS, and this does not include your local physician, hospital, or drug clinic. There are however some excellent BWS specialists who can be extremely helpful, but they are usually found in special clinics for tranquilizer recovery.
Why are doctors unaware of this information? It is simply not possible for them to do so. Is it their fault or does the pharmaceutical industry profit from these addictions? There is little or no dissemination of information about benzodiazepines within the community, the medical fraternity, or from pharmaceutical companies. According to BWS counselors working in the field, there is insufficient research or empirical studies regarding the effects of benzos and BWS management in order to assist them with their heavy workloads.
Why is this so? Who is responsible for the incident? Who is responsible for resolving the problem? Are the script writers unaware of the after-effects and potential dangers associated with benzodiazepines?
Can the death of Heath Ledger serve as at least one catalyst to bring this devastating travesty to the public’s attention so that they may demand additional information about it? Let’s hope so.