SWEATING and shaking uncontrollably in the street, Miranda Levy nervously checked her watch as she waited to get her hands on the drugs her body so badly craved.
But the mum-of-two wasn't waiting for a dealer to sell her an illegal 'hit' – she was standing outside her local pharmacy on a Monday morning, desperate to get some Valium.
Though her prescription for the sedative had run out just hours earlier, Miranda was already feeling the horrifying withdrawal effects – from body aches and panic to an inability to stop shaking.
It sounds dramatic, but Miranda is tragically far from alone.
McFly star Dougie Poynter bravely revealed this week that he suffered a terrifying addiction to Valium, admitting he can’t remember the two years of his life he was hooked on the drug.
The bassist, 32, who went to rehab in 2018, told The Sun: “It’s a slope that you don’t really realise you’re slipping down until it’s too late. Then climbing out of that hole is a very, very long process.”
It's a horrendous ordeal that Miranda knows all too well. Like Dougie, she spent years in a drugged-up blur – and was even left housebound – as health professionals 'kept upping' her dose of prescription drugs.
"For five years or so I was a zombie. I lost my job. I didn’t see my friends," she tells us.
A shocking 1.5million Brits are addicted to benzodiazepines, which are a type of tranquilliser drug including Valium, Ambien and Xanax, according to the UK Addiction Treatment Centre (UKAT).
They are often prescribed for anxiety, insomnia and seizures.
Just because you hand over a bit of green paper and get your drugs in a blister pack doesn’t make certain types less dangerous than street drugs
Figures show around 12 million prescriptions for the highly addictive and controversial drug are issued a year – with 55.2 per cent of those who have misused them getting them from the doctor.
"Just because you hand over a bit of green paper and get your drugs in a blister pack doesn’t make certain types less dangerous than a substance you can buy on the street," adds Miranda.
Horrifyingly, a recent study even revealed women who take these kind of drugs before becoming pregnant may be at increased risk of ectopic pregnancy – when the fertilised egg implants itself outside the womb.
Black market dealers cash in with deadly batches
Yet while all experts can agree the drugs, also known as diazepam, are extremely addictive and should not be taken long-term, this doesn't mean Brits aren't given repeat prescriptions.
It also doesn't stop people resorting to the deadly black market.
In Scotland, a string of fatal overdoses have been linked to 'street Valium' – while experts have warned of batches of fake drugs flooding into the UK as more Brits self-medicate online.
And last December, an inquest heard how an English teen stepped out in front of a lorry and was killed instantly after taking an illegal extra-strength anxiety drug.
Grace Brockelsby, 19, was struck by the truck in Boston, Lincolnshire, after taking Etizolam – a banned pill available on the internet which is also known as ‘street Valium’.
Away from the black market, Valium is often seen as a socially acceptable drug – and one a host of celebrities including Katie Price and Kerry Katona have confessed to taking in small, legally-prescribed doses.
But Abbas Kanani, a pharmacist from Chemist Click, warns: "The main issue with sedatives is that they are addictive in nature and after a while, your body depends on them.
"Withdrawal effects can include restlessness, anxiety and headaches and if addictive sedatives are withdrawn abruptly, these side-effects will be more intense, and can also include seizures and psychosis."
People forge prescriptions by stealing doctors' prescription pads, or by trying to write private prescriptions themselves
Desperation means people resort to extreme measures to get hold of them – while criminals have been caught producing hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth of illicit drugs.
"People forge prescriptions by stealing doctors' prescription pads, or by trying to write private prescriptions themselves," Abbas adds.
"I've seen expired prescriptions for diazepam that have had the date smudged. People will do this to feed their own addiction, or to sell illegally.
"Months ago, we received an alert that a large number of diazepam tablets (among other drugs) had been stolen from a wholesalers warehouse.
"The problem is huge."
'I just wanted to sleep'
Because of the addictive nature of Valium, the NHS recommends it is taken for a maximum of four weeks. However, this isn't always adhered to.
For Miranda, 52, from Essex, her ordeal first started when she went to the doctor in 2010, after her husband of nine years called time on their marriage.
"I had a dreadful insomnia," she says.
"Naturally I was distressed, and was anxious about how I’d manage as a single mum.
"After a couple of nights with no sleep whatsoever, I saw my local GP, who dashed off a two-week prescription for a sleeping pill called Temazepam. It didn’t work – even when I took double the dose.
I was on a repeat prescription for around four years, and he kept ‘upping’ the dose
"I was signed off work and referred to a psychiatrist, who put me on a Valium-related drug called Clonazepam, and later Valium itself."
She adds: "These drugs should be prescribed at the lowest dose possible, for a maximum of four weeks. I knew they were addictive, but I didn't care at that point, I just wanted to sleep.
"I was on a repeat prescription for around four years, and he kept ‘upping’ the dose."
What the NHS says about Valium
DIAZEPAM, also known as Valium, should be taken for as short a period of time as possible, the NHS says.
The drug, which belongs to a group of medicines called benzodiazepines, is used to treat anxiety, insomnia, muscle spasms and seizures.
It can also be used in hospital to reduce alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Diazepam is only available on prescription, and comes in tablet or liquid form. It can also come in a rectal tube or be given as an injection in hospital.
According to the NHS, it "is not likely to be addictive if you take it at a low dose for a short time" – between two and four weeks.
Yet the service adds: "You're more likely to get addicted if you have, or previously had, problems with alcohol or drugs."
A recent study suggested women who take benzodiazepines before becoming pregnant may be at increased risk of ectopic pregnancy.
And while the NHS website says there's not enough information to know whether diazepam is safe to use during pregnancy, it warns it "can give your newborn baby withdrawal symptoms".
For more information on Valium, click here
Terrifying 'blur' that wipes out years
Miranda, who wants to warn others of the dangers of prescription drug addiction, confesses that the next few years became a blur, adding: "For a good year I didn’t even leave the house – I just stared at the TV."
Her comments echo those of McFly's Dougie, who told The Sun this week that the time he spent addicted to Valium was "strange" and a "huge blur" that he can't remember.
Two years just went as like a weird dream. Coming out the other end was like, ‘What? Where’s my band?’
“That’s something which is really hard to come to terms with, literally losing two years. Two years just went as like a weird dream," admitted the star, who is dating model Maddy Elmer.
"Coming out the other end was like, ‘What? Where’s my band?’"
Fortunately, bandmate Harry intervened and encouraged Dougie to go to rehab after he realised "how you can die if you don’t get help coming off it in a controlled environment with medical support".
In Miranda's case, the drugs she was taking proved so addictive it became nearly impossible to wean herself off. The turning point came after her agonising wait outside the chemist's, desperate to get her prescription.
"After a while, you need to take more to get the same calming effect, and when you take the extras, you run out too early," she recalls.
"If you suddenly stop taking these pills, you get severe withdrawal symptoms, which can be fatal. Even if you miss a dose, you feel terrible."
'I thought I was going mad'
She adds: "I knew this state of affairs couldn’t continue.
"I took myself to the local Drug and Alcohol service, and saw a lovely female consultant, who helped me to come up with a ‘tapering’ plan which meant day by day, I took a smaller dose until you're off the pills altogether.
"I had many false-starts where the physical cravings meant I kept giving up on my reduction programme. Eventually, I did it far too quickly.
"The afternoon I finally ‘jumped off’, I will never forget – so acute was my anxiety, I thought I was going mad. I recall lying on the floor or our spare room, curled up in a ball, moaning.
"I hurt from head to foot, I felt sick, the Earth tilted alarmingly."
For patients who can't stop taking sedatives or haven't had a 'turning point' like Miranda, a doctor's refusal to provide a prescription can prompt them to resort to desperate measures.
This is when dangerous 'black market' purchases might be made.
"Over one million illegal diazepam tablets were seized within the last year," says pharmacist Abbas.
"People who start to take more than they should will usually be refused supply from their doctors and in an attempt to feed addiction, they turn to the black market, either online, or from a dealer.
"Because there is no regulation when drugs are obtained this way, quantities are not monitored which can lead to an overdose resulting in death. The authenticity of medication sought on the black market is also questionable."
Mum's horror at dodgy pills
Last year, a British teenager nearly died after taking a dodgy Valium tablet that was allegedly laced 'with a drug up to 50 times more powerful than heroin'.
The lad's distraught mum shared a heartbreaking picture of him in hospital on social media, writing: "If we hadn't found him when we did, God forbid what could have happened.
"Please, please warn your kids to say no to drugs."
And Abbas continues: "Undoubtedly, there are counterfeit pills being sold as originals which can cause considerable harm. There is no official documentation to prove where the medication came from, or what is inside.
"These drugs can cause serious side-effects and considerable harm to health. During raids, drugs being sold illegally as diazepam have been found to contain fentanyl, a painkiller that is stronger than morphine."
Today, following her brave decision to get help, Miranda has been off her medication for nearly two years and has revived her friendships.
But while she has her life back on track, she wants more to be done to help others going through their own nightmare ordeals.
"Thank god I came out of it," she says.
"There need to be more measures in place to help people like me – stricter prescribing policies for GPs, and support such as helplines."
For more information on where to get support and advice, visit: talktofrank.com
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