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Benzodiazepines, also known as “Benzos,” are a class of pharmaceutical drugs developed to treat symptoms of disorders and medical conditions, such as anxiety, insomnia, or seizures. Like any other drug, Benzos will cause short- and long-term side effects but the risk for abuse and dependence is higher than most other medications. Even when prescribed for a short period of time, a person who is taking Benzodiazepines is at risk for abuse. If a person tries to stop suddenly, they may go through withdrawal symptoms. Many side effects may result from Benzodiazepine abuse, including memory loss, often referred to as blacking out.
It is possible to blackout from Benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Valium, and Halcion. The phenomenon is similar to blacking out from drinking alcohol, and the risk increases when combining Benzodiazepines with alcohol. Both substances work on the Gamma Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) receptors of the brain, and when more natural GABA is present, communication between neurons slows down. Slowed communication means that memories do not go from short-term memory to long-term storage, resulting in what is known as “blacking out.” This is called anterograde amnesia, a condition that impairs short-term and long-term memory creation, causing a complete inability to recall events that occurred during intoxication.
Anterograde amnesia is most often experienced after use of a fast-onset, short-acting Benzo, and the risk of blacking out increases when mixing these medicines with alcohol. When a person is in a blackout, they are temporarily unable to form new memories while relatively maintaining other skills such as having a conversation, eating, having sex, or even driving. Taking Benzodiazepines long-term or in large quantities can result in an increased tolerance, leading one to take more of the drug, which increases the risk of blacking out. Episodes of amnesia can range from seconds, minutes, and hours to days. The time of onset and duration depends on the dose and route of administration. Users who black out are unaware of their behavior until it is pointed out by other parties, some only become aware after being detained by health or legal authorities. When Benzodiazepines cause anterograde amnesia, it can lead to either partial (fragmentary) blackouts or complete (en bloc) blackouts.
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Partial blackouts are characterized by someone having the ability to recall certain events from an intoxicated period, and yet being unaware that other memories are missing until they are reminded of the existing “gaps” in memory. A blockage in memory formation prevents the transfer of short-term memory to long-term storage, resulting in only being able to recall a portion of events.
En bloc, or complete, blackouts are classified by the inability to recall any memories from the intoxication period, even when given cues.
Once the brain is able to produce and store memories, the person may “wake up” from this state of amnesia and resume normal activity, but most fall asleep before the end of a blackout.
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It may be difficult to identify when someone is experiencing anterograde amnesia because they often remain awake and can engage in regular behavior such as talking, eating, and having sex. The user may also engage in risky behavior, but often it is difficult to detect whether someone is blacked out. Some indicators that a person may be in a blackout include:
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Recreational use of Benzodiazepines can produce similar effects to alcohol intoxication. Just as binge drinking can lead to blacking out, large doses of Benzos may cause the same effect. People who take Benzodiazepines and drink alcohol may experience episodic memory loss. Most users are not aware of their blackouts until someone else brings it to their attention. The state of disinhibition and memory loss usually leads to the user feeling shame and anxiety. A study on memory and Benzodiazepines found that, when hearing about their blackouts, users perceived their own behavior as inexplicable and inconsistent with their self-conception or normal behavior. Abusing Benzodiazepines can lead to addiction and the user may experience frequent blackouts, which have been described as unpleasant, unpredictable, and embarrassing.
Impaired memory increases the likelihood of personal injury, accidents, and violence. People who blackout from Benzodiazepines will sometimes become aggressive, get in trouble with authority, or become victims of crime. Due to its highly addictive properties, relapsing is quite common and often involves alcohol abuse as well. If you are struggling with Benzodiazepine addiction or blacking out, talk to a healthcare professional about detoxing. Detoxing from Benzodiazepines can be extremely uncomfortable and in some cases dangerous, but help is out there. A rehabilitation setting can help start the road to recovery. For more information, contact a treatment provider today.
Ginni Correa is a Latinx writer and activist living in Orlando,FL. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Florida and double majored in Psychology and Spanish with a minor in Latin American Studies. After graduation, Ginni worked as an educator in public schools and an art therapist in a behavioral health hospital where she found a passion working with at-risk populations and advocating for social justice and equality. She is also experienced in translating and interpreting with an emphasis in language justice and creating multilingual spaces. Ginni’s mission is to build awareness and promote resources that can help people transform their lives. She believes in the importance of ending stigma surrounding mental health and substance abuse while creating more accessible treatment in communities. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, crafting, and attending music festivals.
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