Death Grip

A Climber's Escape from Benzo Madness

Matt Samet

St. Martin's Press

CHAPTER 1
 

It’s best to begin at the end: the last withdrawal, the final sucker punch to the kidneys. I was sick, you see; so, so sick. I’d been driven to madness by withdrawal from legally prescribed psychotropic agents, all while being told that the insanity was my own. The scary thing is, my story is not an anomaly.
One clear, sterile autumn morning—September 2006, to be exact—a hand not my own but that belonged to me smashed a beer bottle against a rock in Rifle Mountain Park, in Western Colorado. It hunted a shard of glass. The hand, once rough with climber callus and ropy with vein, had withered sickbed soft and pallid. Now it had designs—a theatrical slashing at the wrists—on its paranoid and bloated host. The hand couldn’t have picked a more apt arena, for it was here in limestone-lined Rifle Canyon that I’d peaked as a rock climber, where I’d starved down to my lowest “fighting” (well, climbing) weight and pushed my body the utmost. It was in fact along the ceiling of the gloomy gray amphitheater above, an upside-down bowl we’d named “the Arsenal,” that I’d once done some of its hardest routes in running shoes, foreswearing the special sticky-rubber rock boots that climbers use for precision footwork.
Rifle Canyon is known as an international destination for “free climbers,” who ascend via their fingers and toes, the rope there only to safeguard a fall. The canyon is a lush riparian defile—at the narrowest bend, you could toss a tennis ball across, the cliff walls leaning in so close that there’s barely room for the river, a footpath, and a graded dirt road. Rifle can be a bright place when the sun’s slanting in, but in the steepest caves that house the most difficult climbs it’s usually blanketed in shadow. Like tethered newts wearing seat harnesses, climbing shoes, and waist-bags of gymnast’s chalk to dry their hands, rock jocks slither toward the light only to lower off and do it again. Their goal might be a 5.13 or a 5.14, technical grades given to climbs well past vertical in which the holds shrink to the width of doorjambs and grow ever farther apart, sometimes so distant you have to leap in key, or “crux,” sections. These tiny holds, in the climber’s isometric battle against gravity, re-form your mitts into workman’s hands. Over time, your digits might curl with arthritis and gnarled, swollen knuckles. In clinging for dear life, you restructure your very anatomy.
When I first visited Rifle in 1991, I was an emaciated, self-obsessed nineteen-year-old would-be rock star. I was young and brash, coming up through the difficulty grades, and I wanted to be the best. It never occurred to me that fifteen years later I’d be genuflecting desperately in the same roadbed. It didn’t occur to me that I’d be in the throes of protracted benzodiazepine withdrawal, a syndrome that, in the words of one survivor, “brought the strongest man in the world to his knees.” I had no idea that the sport that had cured an agoraphobia born on the streets of my hometown, Albuquerque, New Mexico, would turn on me, growling, like a beloved dog gone rabid. It never occurred to me that self-starvation in the name of performance rock climbing would lead to panic attacks, which would in turn help sow tranquilizer and drug addiction, which would in turn lead to a ferocious withdrawal and post-withdrawal syndrome complicated by misdiagnoses, overmedication, hospitalization, and an attendant leper’s bell of bizarre, nutso behavior. I couldn’t have known that “psychopharmacology,” a profit-mongering psychiatric pseudo-science predicated on bombarding emotional anomalies with chemicals, would almost kill me. I could never have known driving into Rifle that first time, a September night in 1991, and seeing the undercut walls arc toward the full moon like silver parabolas, that I would find myself kneeling atop the hardpack, not wanting to live anymore but still not convinced that death was the answer. I could not have known that the one friend with me that day—Andrew, a fellow magazine editor and Rifle junkie—would have to run across the road and prevent me from opening my veins.
As a teenager I’d seen some poor, deranged sod do this down in Albuquerque. He’d opened his wrists in Summit Park, a shady square of grass near my mother’s home by the University of New Mexico. Three friends and I were skateboarding around a concrete loop that encircled the park’s central playground, and I’d noticed the man, raccoon-eyed and wild-haired, slumped against a cottonwood eating watermelon. We looped around again, paddling under a hot dappling of July sun, avoiding alluvia of gravel. We passed the man a second time, but now I noticed something off about his “watermelon.” I looked closer, saw how the watermelon was in fact the man’s two forearms wet with blood. He held them and a gleaming blade before him, alternately slashing at each like a fisherman cleaning carp.
“Hey, man,” one of us said, as our little band stopped by his tree. “You need some help?”
The man stared at us blankly, said nothing, and then stood up unsteadily and ran off into the neighborhood. The cops came and we helped them search, following the man’s gore trail along the sidewalk until we found him cowering behind a hedgerow. I remember wondering what would drive someone to such a ghastly and public act—how could life become so unbearable? Only thirteen then, the worst of the anxiety storm still before me, I vowed never to be “that guy”—to force some unsuspecting other to witness my self-murder.
As I now did to Andrew.
I’d pulled the bottle from a crease off the shoulder, where we’d screeched to a halt in a pullout along Rifle Creek only thirty seconds earlier. (Much of this is reconstructed from Andrew’s memory, for the obvious reason that my own was compromised.) We were: me; my brindled, Bengali-striped, eighty-pound Plott hound, Clyde; and Andrew. We’d driven out from our homes in the mountain hamlet of Carbondale, an hour away, in my silver VW Golf, a climber car in stage 4 disrepair. I’d first met Andrew in 2005 when he was an intern at Rock and Ice, where he stayed on as associate editor. Andrew is tall, thin, dark-skinned, half-Arab, with a strong wit and iron fingers to match. I shouldn’t have come with him to Rifle that day. I should have been home in bed, rigid atop the sheets, vibrating, staring at the ceiling, sweating, “resting,” waiting for the seconds to congeal into minutes to congeal into hours until I could steal a few hours of nightmare-haunted sleep. But a coworker at Climbing, Rock and Ice’s main competitor but a block away in Carbondale and where I now—somehow, barely—held an editorial job, had shanghaied me into replacing old protection bolts during a Climbing-sponsored event. And so I’d come out, fearing all the while that being back in my old stomping grounds thusly compromised might trigger an epic blowout.
And now I ate my “watermelon” and forced Andrew to watch.
I’d called Andrew and asked him to come in part because I thought having a friend there might anchor me. The last time I’d visited Rifle, that spring of 2006, I’d been in the grips of a similarly stark terror. Only four months out from my last dose of benzodiazepine after seven continuous years on the drugs, I was so dizzy, fearful, and winded (among dozens of other troubling symptoms) that I’d not made it more than halfway up the warm-up, a climb I’d done hundreds of times before. I was so weak I could barely shuffle down the canyon road without wheezing, as a friend, Derek, and I walked from one wall to the next. It had been a horror, a disaster, a demoralizing failure. The climb whose protection bolts I was supposed to update this day was called Sprayathon, a severely overhanging 5.13c. (Fifth-class, or roped, technical rock climbing, is subdivided by the Yosemite Decimal System, originally designed to be a close-ended scale from 5.0 to 5.9 but that now goes to the mathematically improbable 5.15. At 5.10 and above, the YDS further subdivides into the letter grades “a” through “d”—5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, 5.10d, 5.11a, etc.) Andrew would go first and get the rope up, and then I would use mechanical ascenders called Jumars to reach the old bolts and, with a cordless hammer drill, replace them. The reality, however, was that I had to crawl up the stairs to reach my bedroom, rented from friends back in Carbondale. If stairs were too much, hoisting my fat carcass up a taut, free-hanging 10-millimeter rope was going to be impossible. At my physical peak in the nineties and early aughts, I could run laps on Sprayathon, and even used it as a warm-up when I was trying a 5.14, Zulu, down the road. Sprayathon had always been a handy benchmark of personal fitness, and for a time I’d been one of the stronger climbers in the canyon.
Now, however, I couldn’t get up Sprayathon on Jumars, and I’d tried to tell that to my coworker at Climbing. But like most everyone around me he just could not or would not believe me.
“Don’t worry about it, Matt,” he’d told me. “I know how hard you climb.”
I didn’t bother mentioning that he’d described another person: the Matt before benzodiazepine withdrawal.
By all outward appearances, I looked normal … enough. Overweight from inactivity, sure, with a comically “pregnant” stress belly; and downtrodden, my eyes perpetually glued to the floor. But not nearly as sick as I felt. It would have been better had I had a compound fracture: splintered bone poking through the skin. A tangible, relatable malady that elicited sympathy and didn’t require so much by way of explanation that I eventually gave up and just told people, “Well, I have chronic fatigue.”
I’d barely climbed over the last year, and not at all in the month prior. I’d done a disappearing act that began in summer 2005 as I struggled to taper off benzos. Since then, I’d been hospitalized thrice, labeled “bipolar” and “majorly depressed,” chemically lobotomized by antipsychotic major tranquilizers and epilepsy-drug mood stabilizers, held in locked wards, recommended electroshock, and then ultimately tapered off the benzos at a big East Coast hospital, the Johns Hopkins Institute, only to be “snowed under” by further meds and released into the world sicker than ever. The root problem had for years been benzo addiction—tolerance and then withdrawal—but the doctors and therapists, the so-called experts, refused to acknowledge this. Instead, I’d been told repeatedly that my anguish was endogenous, the result of a permanent, lifelong panic disorder, and that I would always need to be medicated. And I’d been blamed as an addict—for recreational abuse of marijuana, painkillers, alcohol, and benzos. This addiction, I’d been led to believe, might even have given me a sort of incurable “superanxiety.”
It was only after my final hospitalization, at Hopkins, that I realized through my own research, meeting a benzo survivor in Boulder who would become a good friend and advisor, and connecting with online support groups that I needed to be rid of psychiatric medicine or I would never get better.
Which had brought me to this impasse: only one week free from all chemicals for the first time in years, I’d rekindled the most acute benzo-withdrawal symptoms and unstoppered the toxic backlog that infused my brain and nervous system, leaving me enraged, delusional, hallucinating, rudderless, and floppy-infant weak, awash in a confused depression, prone to internal psychotic meanderings, and filled with self-animus so paranoid and acid that I kept hearing sirens (“They’re coming for me”) when I lay my head on the pillow each night. I brimmed with burning, unremitting muscular pain from head to toe and an impulse to self-annihilate so strong that I had to start each morning by looking in the mirror and saying, “I promise not to kill you today,” keeping knives and ropes and other potential implements of death as far from my person as possible.
I had never been so terrified. The final medicine I’d stopped had been a powerful tricyclic antidepressant, nortriptyline. Nortriptyline is a chemical descendant of Thorazine, the notorious antipsychotic originally applied as a surgical antihistamine, to prevent a sudden drop in blood pressure called surgical shock.1 You’d not be reading this book if it weren’t for Thorazine, for it was this drug that in 1954 launched the modern era of psychopharmacology—psychiatry’s medication of mental illness through chemical agents touted as “specific antidotes to mental disorders,” e.g., antipsychotics, antidepressants, and antianxiety pills.2 Until then psychiatrists had had their Freudian therapy, straitjackets, ice-water baths, padded rooms, ice-pick lobotomies, insulin comas, electroshock, and even tooth- and organ-removal,3 but with Thorazine they latched onto something more legitimizing: a pill, a specific pharmaceutical “cure” much like the penicillin discovered decades earlier that revolutionized modern medicine. As my “cure,” nortriptyline, wore off, I began to feel that a dark shadow stood in the corner of my room each night, silently observing, sucking away sleep, encouraging my death. All the fine hairs on my body would stand up with gooseflesh as I willed it to disappear.
It was as if, as William Styron wrote in his masterpiece memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, “many of the artifacts of my house had become potential devices for my own destruction: the attic rafters (and an outside maple or two) a means to hang myself, the garage a place to inhale carbon monoxide, the bathtub a vessel to receive the flow from my opened arteries.”4 I’d visited Bureau of Land Management open space in the foothills west of Carbondale the previous weekend with my two roommates, waiting at their truck with Clyde while they finished a trail run, shivering with despair. I had the hound on a twenty-foot length of climbing rope, and headed into a fairy ring of oaks near the parking lot to hang myself. I needed to do it quickly, before my friends returned. I had the noose tied, Clyde’s leash-rope over a stout limb biting into my neck as I leaned into it and began to see stars. Then I realized that without his leash Clyde would run off. We were in rocky, scrubby, ridgy terrain home to bears and mountain lions, and cattle ranchers who shoot nuisance dogs. Clyde whined beneath the trees as he tracked my every move, his big brown eyes liquid with confusion. He deserved better than this. I undid the noose and headed back to the truck in tears, rubbing Clyde behind his lop ears, sobbing as I gushed apologies: the horror of doing this to him, an abandoned puppy whom I’d adopted from the shelter. The horror of being left alone that way. Yet, I wanted to die; I fixated on this one idea as a solution to end my pain.
The next day I took four carloads of belongings to a thrift store in nearby Glenwood Springs, giving my possessions away so that my friends and parents didn’t have to dispose of them later. I considered hanging myself from a bridge over the Crystal River near our home, but dismissed the idea because, on the level of pure vanity, I didn’t want my fat, bloated corpse swinging there for everyone to see. Neither did I want my bad juju haunting this singular spot over the river’s unsullied wavelets, the twin-summited Mount Sopris framing the southern horizon beyond—a summit I’d not stood on in two years.
Andrew had stepped into the car that morning not knowing any of this.
The first stirrings had begun when I picked him up where he lived, at the efficiency apartment I’d once rented in Carbondale. It was a bright, woody, ell-shaped add-on that my friend Lee, a climbing buddy I’d known since New Mexico, had originally built for his aging mother. Inside, I’d seen my old desk jammed under a window in the northwest corner beneath the windows. I’d left the desk for Andrew when I moved back to Boulder in 2005. (I’ve lived in Boulder most of my adult life, and hold two degrees from its university.) From 2003 until leaving Carbondale, I’d entertained grand notions of writing a novel at that desk. The truth, however, was that I’d come home from work, chew Vicodin ordered off the Internet (opiates had inspired the great poets, had they not?), sit at the computer trolling climbing forums and doing zero writing, and then pop one of my various daily benzo doses, guzzle red wine, and play Halo 2 until I nodded into narcotized sleep, too pasted to fold out my futon. Spike, my black Maine coon cat, would crawl atop my belly and we’d both awaken with the night terrors and screaming fits I had around 2:00 A.M. as the benzos wore off, as I leapt up choking and bellowing, wondering who’d left the lights on. The desk, so cheap, so nondescript with its flimsy black metal and crappy wood laminate, reified those wasted hours. It brought home how little I’d cared for myself.
And so, I’d fixated on the desk. And begun to resent Andrew for having it: that sonofabitch—he had “my” desk. Never mind that I had a perfectly serviceable look-alike from Target, the writing station at which I now sit. Andrew’s desk had a sliding keyboard rack—I needed it! Everyone needed it! Shit, famine babies in Africa needed it! My mind was so fragile, so Byzantine in its psycho logic; no other path threaded the rat maze. I’d have to go buy another desk exactly like this one if I were to fix the world again. But I was too brittle even to conceptualize driving, solo, the fifteen miles to the Glenwood Springs Walmart to buy a replacement. I could barely go to Carbondale’s grocery store without breaking down, sweating and shaking and sprinting for the exit. No way then could I venture into Walmart’s vast, booming warehouse space under those white fluorescents, which worsened the ongoing “nothing is real” symptom of derealization, flattening the world into two dimensions. And my voice was a hyperventilated wheeze: How even to inquire where the office furniture was? And how to comprehend a two-page assembly printout well enough to put a desk together? At that point, I could barely get through the jokes page in Maxim.
When, a few days earlier, I’d told my mother how poorly I felt post-nortriptyline, she’d e-mailed back that “it was too early after benzos to stop the final medicine,” meaning she felt that I was still too fragile. (I still deal with a protracted post-benzo-withdrawal syndrome that ameliorates in barely perceptible increments; more on that later.) By way of a response, I’d plunged my right fist through my iMac, shattering the screen with one punch. I was at my office at Climbing, fumbling through the days, shying away from coworkers, doing line-editing work while lying flat on the floor because a therapist had told me it was impossible to hyperventilate in this position. (She was wrong.) I wanted nothing more than to be free of all medications—now—and my mother’s response had enraged me beyond all logic. My boss and I, to explain the spider-webbed computer screen to our IT department, had to dissemble my knocking over the computer while reaching for a mug of coffee. I remember the texture, a garish slab of high-September sun invading my office’s east-facing windowpanes and how easily my hand breached the glass; the lack of pain; how easy it was to destroy.
Now in the car with Andrew, desk-obsessed and nauseous with anxiety, I’d felt the ride out go from bad to worse. I was barely able to hold up my end of the conversation as Andrew made small talk, the kind so easily shared among climbers—which Rifle routes he was trying, upcoming road trips. I’d grown ever tetchier, ever more envious of his perfect health and his goddamned desk, the nauseating, withdrawal-induced current that arced along my spine, thrumming in a rising crescendo. Strong sun beamed in unfiltered by clouds, sluicing across the Flat Tops to fluoresce their autumnal quilt of aspen yellow and scrub-oak purple, filling eyes insomnia-raw with photonic sand, amping my rage. Clyde, a year and a half old and brimming with puppyish angst, woo-woo-woo’ed from the backseat, writhing about and trying to nose through the gap.
As Andrew recalls, I’d been “on edge” the whole morning, my voice angry when I shooed the dog back as we wound our way up Colorado Road 217, an idyllic byway that enters the canyon past a state fish hatchery. Each time, Andrew said, that I told Clyde to “get back” my voice had a harder edge. Like me, Clyde is a New Mexican (from Taos), and as a rescue dog, has his own anxieties. He must have been cut loose by a highway, because he flips out on certain roads or when we pull over in a strange place. Clyde had been with me through the horror of the previous year, and it was his photo—not my then-girlfriend’s—that I displayed most prominently in my hospital room at Johns Hopkins.
Andrew and I stopped to pay our day-use fee just inside the canyon mouth, where an information table for the day’s event had been set up at a kiosk. There a coworker manning the table said simply, “Samet…!” It was too much to hear my cursed name. Other climbers milled about; they all hated me. They all hated “Samet”: of this I was certain. I’d been off course—or as climbers say, “off route”—for years, an elitist prick at the rocks, penning snarky columns in the magazines and at times being too harsh, in print, on fellow climbers, but without the self-deprecation you need to pull it off. And everyone knew this; the whole world knew it and stood united in monolithic opprobrium. So what was I doing here, displaying myself like some three-legged freak so my enemies could mock me? I could picture it now: I would Jumar but a few feet up Sprayathon, dangling there too exhausted to continue, and someone would drive by and see me twisting in the breeze like a piñata.
“Hey, isn’t that Matt Samet?” they might ask their friends. “I hear he used to be some sorta hot-shit climber. Wow, look at him now … he’s so fat he can’t even get up the Arsenal using Jumars. What a jackoff.”
You see, these are not normal thoughts. But I no longer controlled my mind, and Andrew was beginning to sense this. I had the final eruption after we pulled away from the kiosk.
“I remember this,” he later told me. “You pounded on the steering wheel really violently, five, ten times—while still driving forward. It was just complete, pure rage. Then you ripped off both turning/wiping levers.” I can remember howling a single word—“Fuck!”—repeatedly as I snapped the levers from the steering column.
What a cloddish word: “Fuck.” Still, I could do no better. When a pumped (tired) climber snaps, frustrated, to the end of his rope after falling off some Rifle crux, that’s usually the first thing you’ll hear: “Fuckkk!” Our juvenile, fuck-filled tantrums had been so frequent the first two years in the canyon that local picknickers and fishermen had complained to the city about the influx of “foul-mouthed rock rats.” We came from Boulder in import sedans, using loud power drills to install the expansion bolts that protect the climbs, taking up the parking spots, hurling F-bombs. Imagine that: a bunch of skinny college-town weirdos in pink tank tops and garish spandex tights, hanging off the walls and screaming “Fuck!” like petulant middle-schoolers. Until climbers showed up, the canyon had been a quiet, cool summer repair for the busted shale-mining town of Rifle. By the mid-1990s, it had become the place to sport-climb in North America, and I’d been on the scene since the beginning, starving and striving and screaming with the best of them.
Andrew recalls what happened next: “You swerved to the right, and I felt like you were trying to drive us into the river.” (I don’t recall intending to do so; anyway, the river is barely three-feet deep come autumn.) I jumped out, Clyde yowling from the back, his nose greasing the glass. I began to mill around in the pullout. Andrew leapt out to console me, and I growled at him to “get the fuck away from me.”
Apparently I said this a few times, with enough ferocity that Andrew did precisely that.
Andrew then crossed the road, going over by the base of the Arsenal to give me space. I paced about agitated, gaining fury, beating my car with feet and fists. I pounced on the Golf’s rear bumper, kicked at the back windscreen, punched at the safety glass, hoping it might swallow my arms and bleed them out. The glass barely flexed; the rage needed another outlet. Two friends drove by, perhaps only half-seeing what was transpiring or lacking a ready context for it. They gave a little wave and continued up canyon. Andrew waved back like everything was okay, hoping it soon would be. It was then that I found that bottle, an empty Corona down in the reeds.
I broke the glass on a gray chunk of limestone, took up the largest shard, staggered back up on the road, knelt in the dirt, and began cutting at my wrists. I was like a kettle at high boil: The steam has to gush out or the whole thing will blow. Andrew screamed, “No!,” and ran over. He bear-hugged me from behind. Andrew enclosed my hands in his own, trying to prize away the glass.
“I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t be here,” I kept saying.
Then: “Where were you?!” I yelled at him. “Where were you where were you where were you?!”
It was a disingenuous accusation, leveled at Andrew in particular simply because he happened to be there. His bad luck: He would have to serve as proxy for those friends and family members who’d failed to believe the profundity of my struggle, who’d let me wander into the wilderness sick and crazed to die alone.
“I’m right here,” he said. “I’m here now. I’m here right now. Stop it, Matt! You need to stop! I’m here now, I’m here for you.” And he was.
I craned around wildly, catching glints of the Arsenal from behind its roadside screen of slender elms. The trees had turned yellow-gold with autumn’s apogee—not that I cared, about the damned, beautiful trees or the climbs behind them. Nine years earlier, I would routinely climb these routes in running, not rock, shoes. I’d been such a prickish, competitive lout that I made a point of doing so when I saw someone failing on one of the climbs. One day in 1997, sporting an early-spring wine gut, wearing garish yellow MC Hammer pants and a monster-truck cap, and half-covered in mud (I’d fallen into the creek), I’d walked up without fanfare and done the very overhanging 5.12+ Vitamin H in blown-out New Balance running shoes before one such suitor. This was the kind of Dadaesque stuff we’d do. Another buddy, Charley, had done the same climb naked with a watermelon hanging off his harness. And another friend, Steve, had climbed out an eighty-foot overhang called Pump-O-Rama, in the Arsenal’s guts, wearing a tutu and high heels. Now I pushed two hundred pounds, a sad, crazed, hobbled, fatty. Karma is a cruel mistress.
I shook Andrew off and flung the bloodied glass into the reeds. My left wrist seeped sorry serums, dewing there in gashes and clots. I’d done some damage, but not enough even to leave scars. I’d been cutting, recalls Andrew, like I was “trying to saw through a rope with a dull knife.” And as any climber knows, you never cut the rope.
Another “Fuck!” Then as suddenly as it began, it was over; the fire left my body.
Andrew drove us back to Carbondale. I was too depleted, too unreliable to drive. We drove slowly, unable to use the turn signals, the wiper blades locked at 3 o’clock on the windshield then occasionally going into spasm before freezing back in place. We said little, Andrew worried that one wrong word—hell, even a frisson of the wiper blades—might trigger another episode. We came to Glenwood Springs and drove over the Colorado River, heading up-valley toward Carbondale and Aspen, the dark green waters slow and languid below. Then Andrew informed me that he was taking me to the hospital.
“No, you aren’t,” I spat. “If you drive toward the hospital, I will jump out of this fucking car.”
I meant it; to prove my point, I opened the door as we poked along in traffic. I knew I was being unfair: I’d saddled Andrew with a tremendous burden, and his response was of course the most logical one—if a friend is suicidal, you take him to the hospital. But I also knew what would happen there, because I’d been through it a year earlier: They’d refer me to a psych ward, lock me up on a seventy-two-hour hold, and pump me full of pills. Even though I knew the position I’d put Andrew in, I refused to let him deliver me back to my tormentors. Death would be preferable. I would not swallow another pill.
“I’m sorry, man. I really am,” I said without affect. My voice oscillated between a flat trauma monotone and an anemic whisper—Styron’s “ancient wheeze” of depression. “But I can’t let you do that. I’m this way because of the psychiatrists, and if I go back this will never end. They will put me back on meds and zero out the clock again. I just can’t let you take me there. It would be the end of me.”
Andrew looked at me, a fellow climber, and I could see that he believed me. The Matt he’d known for the previous two years lay somewhere beneath the pain. And the real Matt would never act this way; Andrew had spent enough time with me on rock to know this. On dangerous or “death” leads there is a shared faith between partners; the belayer (the climber securing the rope) needs to believe just as much as the climber that the outcome will be favorable. If it is otherwise, the belayer’s fear permeates the leader, and the endeavor—and the partnership—will crumble. Two springs earlier, Andrew and I had climbed a death route in Eldorado Canyon, outside Boulder, called High Anxiety, a fussy, difficult-to-protect 5.11 up red-brown dihedrals (open-book–shaped corners). As I stemmed, opposing my feet on two walls at the crux, placing RP nuts a quarter of the size of a pinkie nail for protection, Andrew held the rope expertly, only occasionally voicing encouragement. If I fell in the wrong spot, I’d break my legs … or worse. I could feel his belief in me vibrating along the cord, just as he believed me now even if this day would so punish Andrew that he couldn’t climb for a week, his back muscles locked with residual stress.
“Okay, Matt,” he said. “But we need to find a way to keep you safe.”
“I know, man. I know…” And we did.
Andrew and I reached a compromise: I would call my father, and my family and I would sort out the situation. I shut the car door. This day, at least, there would be no more hospitals, no more psychiatrists. Back in Carbondale, Andrew dropped me off at home and then called other friends to come over for lunch so we could debrief. Four of us sat at the table eating bread and slurping yam soup while I assured them I would not harm myself again.
“Well, you’re a pretty clever guy, Matt,” one friend, Jeff, said. “I’d hate for us to leave here and then you go and try something like this again.”
“I won’t, Jeff,” I said. “I promise.” I could see in his half smile that he didn’t quite believe me. I explained the situation as best I could, emphasizing that I could not return to the doctors. I laid out the specifics to strengthen my case. Barely anyone around me knew what was going on. It was too complex, too convoluted, to be elevator chat, so I mostly kept mum about my situation; besides, I needed time more than I needed friends’ well-meaning platitudes in order to heal.
I’d taken my final dose of nortriptyline only a week earlier, a twenty-five-milligram capsule washed down after dinner. Psychiatrists at Johns Hopkins had prescribed the pill to treat major depression, though it had served mainly to mask anxiety caused by the cessation of benzos nine months earlier. That last nortriptyline brought to a close a checkered fourteen-year history with crazy pills: Had I been lucid enough to do the math, I would have realized I’d been on thirteen psychiatric medicines in as many months. Now I’d entered a rawer, more fragile epoch, the underlying benzo withdrawal kicked into hyperdrive by this final chemical insult. The worst, ongoing benzo symptom had been hyperventilation, which left me wheezing, irritable, and in physical distress. The overabundance of CO2 set my muscles on fire, and only increased the constant, black, gut-piercing terror. I couldn’t walk up hills, and could spit out only three or four words at a time, punctuated by flurries of weird, shallow, triplicate yawns that worsened as my nortriptyline dose declined. I slept with my mouth duct-taped shut and nostrils opened with breathing strips to promote diaphragmatic breathing, in the hopes that my body might find equilibrium. It didn’t, and would not for some time. I was not safe out in the world, but neither did I have real refuge—especially not in my bedroom, alone with my ex-junkie’s guilt and self-hatred. I needed time, distraction, and somewhere to lie low, but it wasn’t happening. No one would let me. I’d tried to tell a few friends, family, and coworkers of my plight even as some urged me to “get help,” “go back on the meds,” and exploit my “support network.” But the support network—of therapists, doctors, and hospitals—had, through chemical paternalism, helped orchestrate this undoing. In fact, the only people who’d verified the reality of my experience were people who’d been through it themselves, ex-patients and survivors of benzodiazepines. It hadn’t been the doctors. It was as if I had vertigo after an hour strapped to a merry-go-round, but everyone I lurched toward for help asked, “How can you have vertigo? I don’t see any merry-go-round.”
There is no merry-go-round.
Imagine that you have been poisoned for years but have eventually come to realize the mechanism. And you know that, given time and a safe harbor, your system will normalize. But no one believes you because the poison is medically legitimized. In fact, the withdrawal symptoms themselves mimic the very conditions—anxiety, depression—for which the medicines were originally prescribed. They mimic conditions you’ve tussled with your whole life, only amplified so profoundly—a banshee howl piped through a bullhorn—that you can no longer function. Which is sure proof that you mustn’t stop your medicines, because your original condition is worse than ever. In fact, you may need new pills, and at ever higher doses.
It is a tough cycle to break.
Mind you, I don’t have these fits anymore. Writing this seven-plus years later, it would not occur to me to behave this way. I go about my days assuming sanity, climbing again, taking long walks with Clyde and my wife, Kristin, and our little boy, Ivan. Working, writing, being a husband and father. The madness is as remote, as hypothetical, as the ice rings of Pluto. And it’s all because I stopped listening to the doctors and started listening to myself.
I kicked myself in the ass and changed the basic message. I changed it from, “You, Mr. Samet, have a lifelong anxiety disorder that must always be treated,” and, “We need to approach this benzo withdrawal from a place of strength, with other medicines on board” and, “It’s very dangerous to stop your antidepressants. What if you become suicidal?” and, “Meds give you choices,” to, “You are a whole, functional human being and not just the sum of your symptoms and diagnostic labels.” I changed it to: “You do not need these meds.” I changed it to: “The choice to live chemical free is a good and a necessary one.” Choices: It’s all about making choices. The five times I’ve been hospitalized—four of those for what I now realize was benzo withdrawal—the psychiatric establishment always offered more “choices.” This blue-green pill or this white one, this pink pill or this yellow one. This useless support group or that one. This endless, navel-gazing talk therapy or that one. Their choices have given me rashes, headaches, dry mouth, a deadened libido, dampened creativity, palpitations, head rushes, electrical zaps to the brain, slurred speech, glassy eyes, sleepless nights, rage … “Choices.” Without such choices, I might have healed years ago.
Writing this, seven years after “the incident,” with a drug-free mind and hard-earned lucidity, I will say that the “choice” to trash my car and slash my wrists beneath a beloved cliff, in front of a beloved friend, is not one I will make again. I won’t take another med; I’d rather swing from a noose. Try me: I will end it before I let the brain-vultures spiral in again. I will endure every thunderous brainstorm and the filmiest wisp of depressive fog, knowing that this is my lot and that here, in darkness, rests my core, authentic self. I will sit with depression when it comes and listen, to decipher its barbed and cryptic teachings.
Now, listen: I’m not some rabid coyote ululating from the badlands. I’m just a guy. I have a graduate degree, grew up on middle-class streets, held jobs, paid taxes, flew in airplanes, went grocery shopping, slept with women, brushed my teeth, tied my shoelaces. And whether you admit it or not, you do know someone like me. A friend, perhaps, who has trouble sleeping and ended up on three different pills that came to worsen her insomnia. Aunt Betty who lost her husband to cancer and was given “a little something” for her grief, and soon that something snowballed into a polydrug cocktail and she can no longer leave the house, her face a jelly of twitches and tics. Your nephew, an overly plump “bipolar” five-year-old taking an antipsychotic drug to control “irritable outbursts” and to temper the side effects of the ADHD drug he’s been on since age three. Grandpa Tom benzo-anesthetized at the nursing home so he’ll be less belligerent, less prone to sclerotic frissons, though now he can only count stucco dots on the wall, his mien gray-washed and slack. A co-worker who ghosts white during meetings and escapes for a high-potency benzo, only to return composed; but now, five years in and three milligrams deep, she has a constant tremor and must carry a pill vial from which she never separates.
Do these characters sound familiar? Are you one? Do you believe that these people have been given “choices”?
Surely the cure outstrips the disease.
Welcome to the Psychiatric Death Machine—hospitals, doctors, the FDA, and their bedfellow Big Pharma—which has created an ever-expanding universe of dependency-fostering, side-effects–laden pills and profitable “mental illnesses.” If we are to take certain facts at face value, there has been an explosion in mental illness in America in the past quarter century, an epidemic requiring aggressive pharmaceutical intervention. More than 1.5 million Americans are on disability due to anxiety, depression, or bipolar illness,5 a 2.5-fold increase between 1987 and 2007.6 Six million adults are now considered bipolar,7 with a forty-fold increase in the diagnosis of children and adolescents with bipolar disorder between 1995 and 2003.8 Between 1996 and 2005, the number of Americans taking an antidepressant more than doubled, from 13 million to 27 million (10 percent of us over the age of six are now on antidepressants),9 with global sales of antidepressants equaling $19 billion a year.10 A 2006 estimate cited a whopping 8.6 million Americans who take sleep medication.11 The atypical antipsychotics Zyprexa, Seroquel, and Risperdal have surpassed cholesterol drugs to become America’s top-selling class of pharmaceuticals.12 And benzodiazepine sales are on the rise, climbing from 69 million prescriptions in 2002 to 83 million in 2007.13 In total, one in every eight Americans is regularly popping psychotropic pills, with total sales of these drugs in the tens of billions: $40-plus billion in 2008 alone.14 If you look at it one way, we’ve all gotten crazier, driven mad by the exigencies of modern life. But if you look at it another, it’s that the psychiatry has swollen like a bloodsucking tick, infiltrating the darkest corners of the human soul with empty promises and dangerous nostrums that are only making us sicker.
In my experience, it’s the latter.
You see, I’m whispering from outside the concertina wire, but soon it will be a scream. I crab-crawled through the spools one moonless night while the guards dipped their heads for a smoke, one of the few to slip away. I drew on my strength as a climber—my firsthand experiences with fear and mortal peril—to do so. From what I see peering back, too many prisoners yet languish. We should free them. We should bring them back into the world, back into the daylight. We should show them that this insanity need not continue.

 
Copyright © 2013 by Matt Samet