It’s only relatively recently that addiction has become a much better understood disease, but we’ve still only scratched the surface. There’s much about addiction that’s extremely complicated and difficult to understand; in fact, if there’s one thing we know about this disease, it’s that it’s highly variable, depending on situations, substances, and background. The specific substance to which a person is addicted is very influential when it comes to how the addiction affects the person as well as how the addiction is overcome. In general, depressant substances lead to extremely powerful addictions, but in the past, certain depressant substances were in widespread use for quite some time before their full effects were fully understood. Such is the case with a class of depressants known as barbiturates.
You might say that barbiturates were the original benzodiazepines because they were often prescribed to treat conditions that would typically be treated with benzodiazepine today. The term “barbiturates” is actually derived from barbituric acid, which was first synthesized in late 1864 by German chemist Adolf von Baeyer. However, the substance was found to be of very little use or value until 1903 when several German chemists realized that barbital was incredibly effective at inducing sleep in dogs; at this, the substance was branded Veronal by Beyer and sold as a sleep aid. It was also the first barbiturate to be made commercially available.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that the strong potential for dependency and behavioral disturbances of barbiturates became known. To be clear, barbituric acid doesn’t directly affect the central nervous system, but there are many derivatives of barbituric acid — known as barbiturates — that do, in fact, affect the central nervous system. As well, most barbiturates are broken down according to the intensity and duration of their effects. Those that are most intense and last for the least amount of time were reserved for use mostly as anesthetics, which have physicians a much greater level of control over their use.
There are other classes of barbiturates, too. Two classes in particular are referred to as “short-” and “immediate-acting”, both of which are primarily reserved for use as sleep aids for individuals who suffer from severe insomnia. They could also be used to treat conditions that involve anxiety, too. Those barbiturates that aren’t short-acting are the “long-acting barbiturates”, which are primarily used as anticonvulsants for individuals who suffer from conditions that involve seizures. In very rare occasions, long-acting barbiturates could be used during the daytime, but only in rare circumstances since their effects tended to linger far beyond those of short-acting barbiturates; those who would take these barbiturates during the day would find it difficult to stay away and would often feel “groggy” for much of the day.
Some of the most commonly-used and well-known barbiturates include phenobarbital, pentobarbital, tuinal, amobarbital, and secobarbital. The primary difference between the different barbiturates that exist is in the duration of their effects; the effects of a barbiturate can last for as little as a few minutes or as long as two days. They became popular drugs for recreational abuse throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but declined sharply in popularity thereafter. For the most part, their decline in use was due to the transition from barbiturates to benzodiazepines as medicinal treatments for anxiety, insomnia, and a variety of other conditions. Due to the strong risk of dependency and the potential dangers of associated with barbiturate addiction, they were largely phased out of use.
Although many would consider barbiturates to be the precursor to benzodiazepines due to the fact that both classes of drug share a number of characteristics, barbiturates actually differ from benzodiazepines. Some of the most characteristic effects of barbiturates include slow and dulled cognitive ability, dramatic mood swings (a person can quickly go from laughing to crying without any apparent trigger), slurred speech, irritation, and occasional hostility. In addition to these effects, however, there are a number that barbiturates share with benzodiazepines; for instance, both types of drugs induce profound drowsiness, inhibit coordination and motor skills, and cause confusion and inability to think clearly.
Despite the effects attributed to barbiturates, recreational drug users were quite fond of barbiturates for about two decades for two key reasons. For one thing, drug users found barbiturates to be effective in alleviating the negative effects associated with other drugs; if they were hungover or experiencing a “comedown” from another drug, taking barbiturates made them feel much better by alleviating those unpleasant effects. Additionally, barbiturates were popular party drugs because they could mimic the type of intoxication that one might expect from alcohol as well as amplify the effects of other drugs when taken simultaneously with barbiturates.
Like virtually all other mind-altering substances, barbiturates are associated with a number of withdrawal symptoms that manifest when someone who’s addicted to barbiturates goes a period of time without the substance(s) to which he or she is addicted. Again, some of the withdrawal symptoms attributed to barbiturates sound very much like benzodiazepines, but the barbiturates withdrawal is widely considered to be considerably more dangerous. Among the numerous barbiturate withdrawal symptoms, an individual could expect to experience severe insomnia, dizziness, nausea and/or vomiting, general weakness, restlessness, sweating, and anxiety. However, when the withdrawals become severe, the individual may experience tremors throughout the body (similar to alcoholic withdrawal), auditory and/or visual hallucinations, seizures, and even psychosis.
It’s unlikely that an individual would become addicted to barbiturates today, especially since benzodiazepines have all but taken barbiturates’ place completely; however, there are still infrequent cases when barbiturates may be used. If someone were to find him or herself addicted to barbiturates, there are many recovery resources available to help him or her overcome that addiction.
Typically, such an individual would be encouraged to begin with a detox program, which would allow him or her the opportunity to overcome the physical component of the addiction prior to moving into the treatment phase of recovery. Once in the treatment phase, the individual would participate in psychotherapy, group sessions, relapse prevention training, and another of important components, which would ensure that the individual achieves long-lasting recovery.
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