Master mountaineer Matt Samet discusses his new memoir Death Grip: A Climber’s Escape from Benzo Madness, about his struggle to overcome prescription drug addiction.
Zola: Early on in the book, you lay out just how big Big Pharma really is, and how so many psychiatrists are quick to throw pills at any emotional difficulty. One statistic you cite is that the number of Americans taking antidepressants more than doubled from 1996 to 2005. But that timeframe coincides with 9/11 and the start of two wars. Could it be that the American experience simply became much, much more depressing, and that the mental health community had no idea how to deal with it?
Matt Samet: Good observation, and it could certainly be true that life in this country has become scarier and darker in that period, sure, between terrorism, wars, the Great Recession, the siphoning off of wealth by the country’s top earners, etc. I mean, terrorist attacks put everyone on edge, and as I write this (April 15) the news is buzzing with the tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon, another malevolent act reminiscent of 9/11 that hits us all in the heart and gut.
Still, setting all that aside, life has always been random, unpredictable, and violent and scary. I mean, look at world history, at the last century in America and, well, pretty much everywhere. The problem as I see it and as I tried to lay out in the book is coming at these very common life problems—spells of personal darkness we might label “depression,” spates of fear and uncertainty we might label “anxiety”—with only chemical treatments. From what I saw and what I’ve learned, this is the mainstream mental-health community’s primary and often only response to any perceived aberration of thought or mood regardless of the source of a person’s pain, largely because Big Pharma and the biopsychiatrical paradigm have such a stranglehold on the discussion.
I wish that people at the outset of these episodes could be given more alternatives. The message I kept getting was, “Your brain is broken and this is how you’ll feel for life unless you take our drugs,” which in the end turned out to be entirely untrue.
Zola: What advice would you give to someone who feels they’re experiencing crippling anxiety and who is considering taking benzos, antidepressants, or mood stabilizers—especially if a psychiatrist has advised them to do so?
MS: I can’t answer this question directly, because I’m not a health-care practitioner. But I can say what I would have told the old me, of 20 years ago, when I first started having panic attacks and as I poised to take that first step down the pharmaceutical road: “Look first at the underlying problems—the things that are causing this psychical discomfort—and put in the time, energy, and effort to fix these before you seek treatment for the symptoms of that discomfort. Because all these are are symptoms. They can’t kill you, and they can be tamed and mastered with the inner strength you might not even realize you possess right now, especially if you are brave enough to look head-on at the source of your pain.” As I’ve learned, at least for me anxiety and depression were adaptive: they were pushing me to make some much-needed changes in my life.
Zola: You write that a major part of getting off benzos was to completely cut yourself off from psychiatry. Do you still feel it’s a toxic community? Do you feel the same way about psychology?
MS: I don’t have anything good personally to say about psychiatry, no—and the more I research these matters, the more I’m sure of what I believe. I do believe psychologists are in more of a position to do good—at least the caring, empathetic ones. And it was a psychologist who first truly helped me when I was having panic attacks in my early twenties. Many often work in conjunction with psychiatrists, however, and so…
For myself, I’m done with all of it. I’m perfectly happy, sane, and healthy without and despite these outside interventions and opinions about who I am or should be.
Zola: Likewise, you were very put off by Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. What are some alternative support systems that you would recommend to an addict or an alcoholic?
MS: I believe that we all, deep down at the core of our being, have the answers to what we need to be happy and fulfilled. If NA or AA provide the structure in which people can find those answers, then I actually think that’s great; it just didn’t work for me because I’m not a group-oriented person.
Also, coming off benzos, which I was using at that time and not abusing, I was in a different headspace than someone who’s been drinking themselves into oblivion every night for years. I didn’t have cravings I needed to resist or even any danger of relapse. I just wanted to get the hell off the benzos—and all the meds, really—so I could start healing and figure out who I was again. I had already made the necessary shift in my head, but my goal didn’t synch up with what NA and AA had to offer.
Zola: Along with your struggle with prescription meds, you had a serious eating disorder, as do many climbers. Having recovered from that, you write that you don’t weigh yourself even to this day. Do you still obsess over food—over how much you eat and when you eat it?
MS: I don’t obsess over food now, no. For whatever reason, perhaps because the benzo period of dependency and withdrawal was so bad, and also because I got tired of the self-destructiveness of having an eating disorder and all the damn maintenance that goes into it (it’s exhausting), I got over it. I also realized I feel much better out climbing if I’m not starving myself, and so I eat.
It’s been very helpful not weighing myself, however. I do think scales give you this handy metric that all too easily perpetuates an eating disorder. I mean, if my pants fit, my climbng harness fits, and I can climb as hard as ever, then life is good. That’s all I need to know.
Zola: Death Grip offers several views on free-climbing (climbing without a rope), which you tried a few times when you were young and torn apart by “Benzo Madness.” What do you think of free-climbing now?
MS: Free-climbing is actually the act of climbing the rock using your own power—your fingers and toes—but still using safety equipment to safeguard a fall (in other words, you don’t use the equipment for upward progress; only to catch you). So this is what I do to this day: free climbing with ropes.
Free-soloing, however, is free climbing without a rope, which is what you’re asking about. I don’t free-solo now, but I’m also in my forties, I have a family, and it doesn’t do much for me anymore. When I was younger, I went through periods of soloing a fair bit, often because I just loved the freedom of being able to go climb by myself and get lots of climbing in at my own pace. I still do climb by myself on occasion, but now I take a rope and use a self-belay system. So, that’s how I get my “alone time” on the rock these days: in a non-potentially lethal way.
Zola: Your struggle spanned years of hopelessness and dread. Were there any books that helped you get through it?
MS: Darkness Visible by William Styron was an important book because he was so eloquent about how depression feels, and also because the book talks about Styron’s own experience with benzos, in particular Halcion, and his speculations that it fueled his nightmare.
To be honest, in the most hopeless years, I was so sensitive to outside stimuli and especially anything too dark or scary, and my thinking was so addled by all the psychiatric drugging, that I didn’t and couldn’t read as avidly as I had or do now.
Still, other important books were Toxic Psychiatry and Your Drug May Be Your Problem by Dr. Peter Breggin. Benzo Junkie by Beatrice Faust. The Benzo Book by Jack Hobson-Dupont. And Worse Than Heroin by E. Robert Mercer. These all documented or shared first-person experience of exactly what I was going through, and so finally I didn’t feel alone.
Also, I watched a lot of Comedy Central. It was way better to laugh than to turn on the nightly news or CNN and get wigged out about the sorry state of the world.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.