Beating a Benadryl Addiction

My sleep schedule is killing me. I’m just not getting enough sleep and I keep waking up earlier and earlier. It’s miserable. No matter how relaxed I try to stay, and how long I lay quietly in bed after I wake up, I seem unable to go back to bed in the early hours of the morning (1-3ish). 

I’ve always been a poor sleeper because of the severity and extent of my sensory processing issues and sensitivities. I’m a notoriously light sleeper and wake with the slightest noise, change in temperature, glimmer of light, hair movement, vibration, or smell. Having anxiety always made things worse because I would perseverate on things at night and struggle to turn off my brain. Things got exponentially worse, many orders of magnitude, after I was attacked. PTSD caused excessively jarring nightmares and a much-reduced ability to soothe myself at night. The sum of the number of wakeful hours in bed spent feeling traumatized and broken because of the attack would probably amass to a frighteningly alarming number, probably on the order of several months of my life at this point. Frankly, I don’t want to know because I’m sure the time, in aggregate, is so extensive at this point that it would further depress me because it would provide yet another concrete way in which the trauma has negatively impacted my life in a gross way.

A few years ago after the insomnia became so severe and I was trying to go to graduate school and lead a “normal” life, my doctor recommended that I start taking Benadryl to help me sleep. Particularly because I have mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS), which is a disorder that involves excessive histamine production with widespread “allergen” triggers (I put allergen in quotes because one of the symptoms of MCAS is that histamines can spike from very innocuous (low-risk allergen) stimuli), taking Benadryl, an antihistamine, can be dually beneficial because it also induces drowsiness.

I heeded the advice and started taking one pill before bed. Although it far from cured my insomnia, 25mg helped me sleep a lot better, which translated to feeling a lot better in daily life because not only was I not a total zombie, but I was also somewhat spared from endless nights feeling tormented by my memories and flashbacks of such a life-threatening trauma. Whereas prior to the medicine, I would be up for hours and hours and hours, the time spent alone in bed haunted by my past was reduced. It was easier to try and feign feeling like life could and would move on when my entire night wasn’t lost to PTSD symptoms.

For a year or so, I stuck on the one pill a night, and felt it was necessary. The nighttime itchiness was also much reduced, which was a boon as well. However, the effectiveness of the sedative qualities seemed to wane after about a year. Moreover, my joint pain had become relatively incapacitating, especially at night when the pain would peak. I saw two rheumatologists who diagnosed differing conditions, but both agreed that another pill per night would help me sleep better through the throbbing pain and would be less detrimental physiologically than either prescription sleep medicines or pain killers. 

The benefit of the Benadryl was that after any time I was roused from sleep in the night (which is typically every 45-90 minutes), I could fall back to sleep relatively quickly, thanks to the drowsiness, instead of the usual several hour sleeplessness stretch wherein the intense pain or PTSD symptoms would plague me and prevent sleep. Again, it wasn’t perfect, but it helped truncate those wakeful hours in misery to a more tolerable length of time.

Unfortunately, two pills led to three, and to four, and to five, and finally to six. I was completely addicted and dependent on the medicine to sleep. Several times in the months where my dosage was ramping up so rapidly I tried to cut back, but I always failed. In fact, it was the efforts to taper that usually resulted in a rebound of a much higher daily dose. I was scared that I’d be addicted forever and was going to die from the medicine (I know this last point is unlikely, but I am a hypochondriac and highly anxious by nature). It should be noted that there was never a night in those years I took Benadryl that I didn’t take it; it was always part of the nighttime routine without a single night off.

This summer, I decided I needed to beat the addiction and quit taking Benadryl altogether, save for an allergic reaction. I tapered down from the six pills at a relatively aggressive rate, getting down to my first Benadryl-free night of sleep in three years in ten days. Sleep has not been easy and my energy levels, immune system, and health in general have suffered; however, I can say with pride that I’ve made it six weeks without a single Benadryl.  There have been many nights I want it, but I’ve stayed strong. So, yes, today, like many days, I’m exhausted, but I’m more okay with that than the drug-addicted alternative.

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