Matt is the editor-in-chief of Climbing Magazine, a published author, a husband, a father, and a pretty well-seasoned climber. And even though most of his life has not been easy, Matt has found his answers—beyond benzodiazepine addiction, beyond mental distress, beyond chasing dragons of treating it—to get down to the heart of the matter.
This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Gnarly Nutrition, Roaming Ingenuity, and Dirtbag Climbers. Music by: “Jazzy Frenchy”, “Cute”, and “Funny Song” by bensound.com, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, and “Pives and Flarinet” by Podington Bear, “Curiosity” by Lee Rosevere, “Collective Decision”, “You Are Not Alone”, and “Calm” by Borrtex, “Drift” by Daniel Birch, and “Play Pelagic” by Little Glass Men.
(KATHY KARLO): This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter has a history of first ascents and alpine roots. Their head of product development even climbed Everest once, in jeans (hashtag not fake news.) Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation. Founded in 1898, Deuter believes in good fitting backpacks, so you can focus on way cooler things like puppies, pocket bacon, and gettin’ sendy, whether at the crag or in the alpine.
– We’re working with Better Help to connect you to licensed therapists because even though my advice and opinions are free, I am improvising the whole thing. Better Help lets you message a licensed therapist, day or night. They’ll match you with the perfect therapist for a fraction of the cost of traditional therapy. You know who goes to therapy? Prince Harry. Emma Stone. Jenny Slate. Kesha. Therapy is beautiful—everyone should go to therapy. Go to betterhelp.com/climbing to sign up and receive one free week. It helps support this show, and it helps support you.
– This podcast gets support from Gnarly Nutrition, one of the leading protein supplements that tastes “whey” better than they need to because they use quality natural ingredients. So, whether you’re a working mom who runs circles around your kids on weekends or an unprofessional climber trying to send that 5.13 in the gym, Gnarly Nutrition has all of your recovery needs. The only question you need to ask yourself is: Are you a sucker for anything that tastes like chocolate ice cream? (Yeah, me neither.) Gnarly Nutrition is designed to enhance your progress—and taste like a milkshake, without all the crap.
– Have you ever cut an exterior hole in your van? Me neither. Building out a van can be hard work, not to mention that table saws have a funny way of leaving you with fewer fingers than you started with. (We’ll ask Tommy Caldwell all about it when he returns my emails.) I really can’t be trusted with power tools since a drywall incident in 2005—but Mark and Anthony can. Roaming Ingenuity is a team of outdoor enthusiasts and tinkerers based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Whether you are looking for a custom van build, or just need a little help with installing a roof vent, they can help. PS—I never actually emailed Tommy Caldwell.
– Hey. Before we start, I wanted to say a few things. First, I wanted to say thank you to Peter Darmi for his help with this episode (I seriously could not have done it without him), and to Matt, as well as everybody who has been brave enough to come on this podcast and tell their story. I also felt like it was an appropriate time to say thank you to all of the people who have really been looking out for me these past few months. I’ve had my own personal sadness to carry and process this winter, and I just want you all to know how much every message, every email, every phone call—even just good thoughts—mean to me.
The last few months have only emphasized the importance of sharing these kinds of stories—unscripted, painful, and painfully honest. Nine months ago, I acknowledged that the difficult things can be hard to talk about, but when we talk openly about our pain and weave it into a story—something really powerful happens. I really do believe that there’s value in struggle—that’s not just something I say. Nine months have gone by and I am blown away by how well-received this project has been, and I’m grateful that so many of you share the same vision.
A quick heads up: nobody dies in this episode, but there is a lot of heavy discussion about drug use and addiction. We will talk a lot about mental health and eating disorders, and there is also brief discussion about suicide. Go to http://www.fortheloveofclimbing.com to see the resources available at the end of the transcript. Here is episode eight:
(MATT SAMET): Boulder has definitely grown a lot. But I mean, the climbing is eternal. It’s one of the few places in the country where you can live as a climber and also have decent economic opportunity, I think. You know, if you come to Boulder and take it for what it is and take what you want out of it—I think it’s a wonderful place. If you come here and you’re like, “I’m the best climber at my gym and wherever, and I’m going to go to Boulder and crush and get sponsored, and this and that—you’d see a lot of people come here and they’re like, “Oh fuck this,” you know? They’re kind of in and then they’re out. Because it is a huge climbing scene and there’s a ton of talent.
(KK): If you stay in any place too long, you know, you start to feel like a big fish in a little pond. But yeah, you come here and you’re just like, “Oh my god, I’m, like—
(MS): I’m nobody.
(MS): Yeah, I’m kelp! At the bottom (laughs) swaying in the sea breeze while the fish come by to nibble atcha.
(KK): Matt is far from kelp, though. He’s been climbing for thirty years and is the editor-in-chief of a small publication called Climbing Magazine—maybe you’ve heard of it? When you have things like “editor-in-chief” on a resume and you’re living in Boulder—one of the most well-known climbing meccas in the US—it’s sorta easy to just assume that you probably have your shit together. But we tend to forget to look past surface level things, like status and job titles. It’s pretty easy to get caught up on the every day things that are in plain sight. You know, normal life stuff.
(MS): I have two young boys now and, you know, I need to earn money. The days of living in a Toyota and eating ramen are over.
(KK): Kids love ramen.
(MS): Yeah, that’s true! Well, you know, maybe I don’t need to be working, then. Although, there’s trans fats. So, really, if I wanna actually look after my kids, I probably shouldn’t be feeding them trans-fat-filled ramen.
(KK): Does your wife climb?
(MS): Oh, we used to climb together a lot but then we, you know, had two kids. Sometimes we meet at the gym, like, maybe once a month if we’re lucky (laughs). I assume that we’ll climb together again someday, but I don’t know when. But it would be lovely.
(KK): Beyond a full-time job, raising a family and having endless climbing at his disposal—Matt doesn’t live the quintessential Boulder-dweller’s life. And he’s pretty candid about it.
(MS): You wanna hear about suffering.
(KK): I do! I want you to emotionally gut me, and also all the people who will be listening to this. I…yeah (laughs)
(MS): Just say: Tell me about your suffering (laughs)
(KK): Like I said, I came here to be emotionally gutted.
(MS): Just gotta get right to the heart of the matter.
(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.
– A recent study found that one in six adults in the United States take psychiatric drugs for the treatment of mental health conditions. Among the most commonly used medications are benzodiazepines. When these sedative drugs were first introduced, it was widely claimed that they were non-addictive. This claim has since been proven false. Prescriptions for benzodiazepines increased by sixty-seven percent between 1996 and 2013. Benzodiazepines, which are typically used for the treatment of clinical anxiety and other conditions such as panic disorders and seizures, have become one of the most commonly prescribed and misused classes of drugs. They operate widely in the brain, affecting things like emotional reactions, memory, thinking, muscle tone and coordination. So, a question: what are the real dangers of benzodiazepines? Because it sounds like they treat a lot of things that need to be treated. And, are they dangerous? Matt, like so many others, knows firsthand the true impact that benzodiazepines have. Here’s his story.
(MS): You know, I deal with basically long-term neurological issues that were caused by being on benzodiazepine tranquilizers for years. You know, these are sedatives that are used to tamp down the nervous system. They go by common brand names: Valium, of course, is the one most people know. But these days, people definitely know about Klonopin and Xanax. You know, you hear about klonnies and xans, because people abuse the shit out of these drugs. They really have a nervous system muting effect. So, if you have trouble with anxiety or seizures or sleep—these drugs will lower you down. And in that sense, they’re effective, right? But in the other sense, like any drug, they’re highly addictive and over time, your body becomes habituated to their effects and your nervous system stops being able to regulate itself.
And then, when you do go to get off the drugs, your nervous system rebounds in a huge way. And that damage is really long lasting. I haven’t taken any of those drugs since 2005. So, we’re talking thirteen years now and I still deal with symptoms. I was also on a lot of other psychiatric medicines that complicated and damaged my nervous system and sort of during all that, I had issues with substance abuse, too—with pain pills and alcohol, to some degree. You know, marijuana, too. So, I was definitely a toxic sewer. See, the thing is, this was so long ago that you would think I would be better. And I think that that is the struggle that I deal with—is that I probably look ok to you—but I actually am in a lot of pain, almost all the time. I just have learned not to—what’s the word I’m looking for? Manifest it, really. You know, I just kind of stuff it down and get on with my day.
(KK): You just don’t react to it.
(MS): I don’t react to it. There’s not much I can do about it. Some days are good and some days are bad.
(KK): We’re talking physical?
(MS): Physical pain and often a lot of emotional pain, too. Because, I mean, these tranquilizers—what I’m saying is, you go off of them and you need to go really really slowly. But the medical community doesn’t support that and that was certainly my experience, too. I was yanked off them really abruptly. And when that happens, your body doesn’t have time to sort of re-regulate itself and it gets into this mode where it can just kind of stay there for years and years and years until you heal. So, you know, I’ve been slowly getting better again and actually, had gotten a lot better. I’d stopped the pills in 2006 and up until 2013, I was probably like ninety percent of my old self. And then, in 2013 I had a big setback and so, I’m five-plus years into that now and still dealing with it. The main thing that I think I deal with is disbelief.
(KK): I mean, if you take a really bad climbing fall and you’re on the ground all fucked up and broken—it’s pretty clear what happened. And people will rally and there will be hospital visits and fundraisers—that sort of thing. But if you have something that’s internal, and essentially, invisible—that’s a whole different story.
(MS): You know, it’s an entirely subjective experience. I’m the only one who can feel it. People are just sorta like, “Huh.” So, I’m very selective about who I climb with. Like, you know, just make sure they’re people who are supportive no matter what. Because there’s days at the cliff where I’m just fucked. Like, I might be physically fucked or mentally fucked because of this. You know, like I said—it’s nervous system hyperexcitability. It feels like I’ve been plugged into a wall. So, I’ll wake up on a bad day and I’ll feel like electricity is coursing through me. Anxiety is off the charts—vibrating—like I have an internal tremor that’s basically my central nervous system just firing, firing, firing, which in turn makes my muscles fire, which in turn makes them feel like they’re on fire, and I’m all locked up. You know—horrible anxiety, can’t think. And it’s like, shit I gotta get through the day somehow.
And then, if you go climbing in that state—like sometimes climbing makes it better. It kind of can break me out of the pattern. Sometimes, it makes it worse and I just don’t know. So, I think the big thing, as a climber, is just people who I climb with know about it so that they know I have this limitation.
(KK): So, no Mountain Project partners?
(MS): (laughs) Partner finder? I think you’re rollin’ the dice on that one, no matter who you are. Yeah, yeah. And I think, I mean, maybe you’ve encountered it, too. I mean, I think you’ve sort of talked about it some on your podcast: there’s just this sort of this machismo in the climbing community where people—it’s just sort of assumed that we’re all young, healthy and fucking going for it all of the time. And that’s sort of the default. You know? And that’s sort of a portrayal in the media and that’s sort of the lore of the sport—sticking your neck out there and manning up and sacking up. And it’s like, it’s not that black and white. Life is never that simple. So, I think, you know, that’s the one thing that’s been challenging for me—is finding how to live within my story, within kind of a culture that’s a little bit macho.
(KK): Being hard and soft at the same time—that’s so much of who I am, but I would say that that is not the norm in climbing culture, and just society in general.
(KK): You know? People can’t comprehend how you can do that—how you can have those two things coincide.
(MS): Yeah, like how can you be a rock climber and be scared? It’s like, well how can you not be scared? And then, if you have a nervous system on top of that that won’t let you not be scared—yeah, what do you do with that?
(KK): Thirty years a climber, Matt grew up in Albuquerque and he later moved to Boulder for college.
(MS): I landed myself in this mess. You know, I don’t blame anyone else, but this, I think, all started with an eating disorder. So, when I was in my teens, I really got heavily into rock climbing. There were no gyms at that point, but I’d always kind of wanted to climb and I’d done some climbing with my dad’s college roommate. Like, starting from age twelve, I’d go out to Olympia, Washington in the summers and climb with him. And I’d come back to Albuquerque and there was nowhere to climb. And then when I was fifteen, I was enrolled in one of those things in the eighties. It was called the “challenge program”—like, I stopped going to school. It was basically through a psych hospital. It was like an outpatient thing. Because I’d transferred from a private school to a public school, and I got to the public school and I was just like, “Holy shit. This is overwhelming.” Like, I felt like I was going to get beat up all the time. I was kind of like a punk rock kid with a mohawk and stuff.
(KK): I could see that.
(MS): Yeah, it sucks. Right? Yeah, you’re a target if you’re walking around as a punk rock kid. And I just got really gripped and I wouldn’t leave the house and I got terrible agoraphobia. So, they enrolled me in this program. And the program sorta helped me and I just really, was like, “Oh this is it.” Like, I’d climbed some before that, but as soon as I was able to go climbing regularly, it was clear that that’s what I wanted to do. So, I got heavily into it and probably around the time I was sixteen or seventeen—I mean, this was the eighties. People were emaciated. You know? You’d pick up the magazines—it was definitely even worse than it is now. And I think it’s still a thing now. No one talks about it, but obviously, it’s still a thing.
(KK): What Matt is referring to is the relationship between body image, weight and performance climbing. There was, and still is, this misconception that people have to be skinny or a specific weight in order to climb well. And I am neither confirming nor denying that doughnuts probably don’t actually help you send, and things like strength-to-weight ratios can be critical physical benchmarks for climbers with bigger goals. But there are good ways and bad ways to get there, which Matt had to learn. And—he did.
(MS): I think Christian Griffith came to Albuquerque and he was one of the first Americans to go over to Buoux, France and climb. And he did a slide show and he had all of these photos of him and he wanted to do this route, Chouca. And he talked about dealing with his own eating disorder and having to get really skinny for this route. And I think it was Jean Tribout, who was the leading sport climber at the time, at one point told Christian that he was too heavy to do Chouca. So, Christian goes on these crazy diets at the crag eating these little ziplock baggies full of dried oats and milk powder or something. They were choosing starvation rations in order to do these routes. And they did—they came back having done all these 13d’s and c’s and 14a’s—like, stuff that was really cutting edge at the time. And I remember seeing this slideshow and I don’t think Christian was necessarily espousing having an eating disorder, but it certainly was on the table. And same with that article—if you can go back and find that article of Climbing, you know, it’s a pretty seminal article, because it was one of the first ones that sort of introduced the whole concept of European sport climbing to American readers.
But I remember I just sorta was like, “Oh. Ok.” And I really, around age sixteen or seventeen, started eating in a fucked up way. Like, starved myself for four or five days, then binge and overeat. You know, food limiting. Just kinda the standard stuff. And yeah, I kept it pretty well hidden—I think my parents suspected to a degree because my mother had had an eating disorder. But I kind of hid it. And I did that for a long time. And then I moved up here to Boulder in the early nineties. And, you know, it’s like we were talking about—Boulder’s a pretty overwhelming, concentrated climbing culture with lots of very good climbers. And I remember my freshman year in college, I think I dropped down to a hundred and twenty-five pounds. I was the wrong weight for a male who’s five foot seven and, you know, I’m kind of a stocky Russian guy. I don’t think I knew how fucked up I was. I would look in the mirror and I was like, “Yeah, I still gotta lose a little weight.” I don’t know what I woulda lost, you know? But I think just years of the bad eating and my weight bouncing around, by that following fall, I started getting really bad anxiety and I started to have panic attacks.
(KK): If you’ve never had a panic attack before, it is really hard to know what it’s like. I definitely remember my first and only one:
(heart beating rapidly)
my heart was racing, I was flushed and lightheaded. I thought I was having a stroke or a heart attack and I remember being on the phone with a friend at the time, who assured me in a very calm voice: “You are ok. You aren’t having a heart attack.” (Later, only to tell me that he totally thought I was having a heart attack.) But the important thing to know is: you’re not going to die, even though you might feel like you will. The hard thing to know is that it can take years of therapy, education, and understanding the cause before you can really grasp what’s going on.
(MS): It’s horrible. Yeah, it’s a horrible thing and then you kind of quake in fear at the specter of it. Yeah, I think the first one I had, I was on the Stairmaster at the health club where I was living and I just kind of went too hard. And I came home and I was kind of dizzy and sweating and I just started sort of hyperventilating without realizing it, freaking out. I’d almost kind of died of dehydration a couple of months before that, so I was like, “Oh! I’m really dehydrated again.” I called the ambulance
and they took me in and I was completely fine. And the nurse was like, you know, they’re ER nurses—they’re annoyed when you come in for a panic attack. ‘Cause I’m sure they see a lot of drug-seeking behavior malingering, and she just kind of kicked me out on my ass. She was like, “You had a panic attack. Get out of here.” And I was like, “What the fuck is a panic attack? I don’t know what that is.” You know, but I was really freaked out and I went home—I think it happened right before Christmas break. I went home over Christmas break and I didn’t leave my room. I didn’t want to exercise ‘cause I didn’t want to get my heart rate up, like, I was just terrified of stimulation. And I had to work through that. I stayed in college and I went back, started therapy. And at that same time, I also started to see a psychiatrist, which I think was the, you know, the biggest mistake I made.
This was the nineties and this was the whole listening to Prozac, all these SSRI’s are new—like, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, you know? There’s all these quote, unquote new cleaner anti-depressants and drugs like that. And I sort of bought into that whole myth—that you need those, you know, because of these quote, unquote chemical imbalances or you need these in addition to talk therapy. If I could go back now, you know, twenty-six years ago, I would say: go to therapy—but clean up your diet, do yoga, stay the fuck away from those quote, unquote medications because they’re gonna unravel you down the road. But that was sort of my entry point into psychiatry.
At that same time, you know, I think I started to take Paxil, which is an anti-depressant. But the doctor also gave me Ativan, and he was good and thoughtful about it and he said, “Only take these as needed. You don’t want to take them every day. If you’re having a really high anxiety day or you can’t sleep—take these.” And I kind of kept that relationship with them, but I also noticed I had an affinity for these drugs. But I don’t think that that’s unique. You know? I don’t believe necessarily that there’s an addictive personality or that if you’ve abused other substances you’re going to latch onto it. I mean, so much of it is biochemical. Like, take a Mormon grandmother who’s never had a drink in her life and you can give her these drugs for two weeks and she will be physically addicted. And they sink their hooks in you—they work on you on a neurochemical level, and sort of no matter how strong a proclivity you have towards substance abuse, at a certain point, your body will need them in order to not go to into withdrawal.
I definitely noticed an affinity for them—I liked that they knocked out anxiety because—who wants to feel anxiety, you know? Nobody. It’s horrible. You know, I didn’t always just use them—I definitely sometimes would stockpile them and take more than I needed, or I would kind of ask the doctor for more. You know, I’d get into that kinda behavior. And then, my senior year in college, someone I know was getting Valium and I just don’t think I really knew the dangers, but I started really abusing Valium. Like, going to raves and, I don’t know, it was just this nihilistic period, you know. A bunch of us were in on it and became really addicted and then stopped, cold turkey.
(KK): Going cold turkey means quitting abruptly, with no weaning period and no professional help. Most people assume that they can stop using a drug just as easily as they started taking it, but that’s not the case with benzodiazepines. Going cold turkey is a shock to the system. It puts your body into overdrive while your brain tries to reset its normal neurotransmitter production levels. And what we’re trying to say is: when it comes to tapering, you cannot stop cold turkey. It’s really risky. People can have seizures, convulsions, paranoia. They’ve had heart attacks. It can even trigger psychosis. Benzo withdrawal has even been linked to death, as reported by the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology.
(MS): And that’s what it did to me. I stopped taking them and three or four days later, I stopped sleeping and I was like, “I’m losing my fuckin’ mind.” I didn’t know what was going on; I didn’t know that I was taking so much of these drugs—I think I was sometimes taking eight or ten a night—that I needed to taper. And because I was young and physically strong—my body could withstand it. Fortunately, I didn’t die. But, yeah, I really lost my mind for three, four, five days—something like that. I was hearing my voice kind of being called out from random places in the sky, seeing things, not sleeping, felt like the ground was kind of made out of tar—like when you walk on a really hot street in the summer? And ended up going to my therapist. I finally admitted what had happened and he’s like, “Oh. You can’t do that.” And I ended up in Boulder Community Hospital. I got free of all that, but I should have known then. It took me months to feel better again. And that time, I was only twenty-two or twenty-three.
(KK): That’s scary when you’re that young.
(MS): Yeah, it was not a good experience. Because you just wonder, “Am I gonna sorta be out of mind for the rest of my life?” or “What’s going to happen?” But yeah, it took a really long time to heal. I moved to Europe and my sleep was all fucked up and then I had jet lag and then I wasn’t sleeping. That initial experience, I remember some nights I wouldn’t fall asleep til, three, four, five a.m., you know, just—it totally messes up your biorhythms. So, I dealt with that then, and then I stayed away from those drugs, for the most part, for a while. But then, I moved back to Boulder in ’97 or ’98. And I’d been clear of all psych meds and I was feeling anxious again, I think, probably because I was really skinny ‘cause I’d been climbing at Rifle. Got back on Paxil and then back on benzos, and then I started taking them daily and, you know, I just don’t know how complicit I am. I mean, a part of me was probably like, “Hey, cool. I don’t have to deal with this anxiety problem anymore.” There was no long term thinking. But, at the same time, the doctor, you would hope, would be aware enough to think that, “Here’s this guy in his mid-twenties. He can’t be on these things all his life. We have to figure something else out.” And we never really did.
But, over time on those, you know, I was taking two milligrams of Ativan—so it was one milligram twice a day. Over time, my anxiety started to get worse and worse. And what happens with these drugs is you go into something called “tolerance withdrawal”, which is where you basically have built a tolerance to your dose, which means your body is kind of in an acute state of need of a higher dose. So, you have withdrawal-like symptoms, but you mistake those for a worsening of the condition that you’re trying to treat. So, I would have much worse anxiety, horrible panic attacks, sleep issues. But, you just sort of accept it and, I mean, the mainstream narrative is that some of us are born with chemical imbalances and that we need to treat them all our life with drugs—which I don’t believe to be true. But, I didn’t know at that point to really do any sort of deeper research. You go to doctors—you trust doctors—and then, after they damage you, that’s usually when you find out they actually don’t know what they’re doing. And a lot of them are taking big pharma-money or they’re not really researching the drugs they’re giving out and, you know, that these pharmaceutical studies are totally skewed. It’s a for-profit industry and the best way to make money off of you is to keep you perpetually sick and to keep you perpetually yolked to their chemicals.
You know, it certainly could have been on me to get in more of the bullshit—you know, but a lot of the bullshit was me. So, I wasn’t mature enough to face it. I was like, “I’m a climber.”—I was doing a lot of risky stuff, I didn’t want that to change, you know, I was smoking a lot of pot. I was taking these pills. It was comfortable. It was warm. It was cozy. You don’t want to get yanked out of that. You don’t want to be told, “Hey—you’re going to have to go through years of horrible fucking withdrawal and you’re going to have to suffer.” And—no. You’re like, “I’ll just stay here. I’m good!” You know? I mean, and I’m sure there’s a lot of denial about having a problem, anyway. But, you know, there’s this whole kind of oleo of different things. It was like, prescribed drugs, psych meds, my own drug abuse, the risks I was taking out climbing—at that point, I was doing a lot of high ball problems and free soloing and long things alone in the mountains. So, I think if anyone could have extricated from that, it would have been me.
You know, over the years I’ve built a tolerance to those pills, and then you start to get something called “interdose withdrawal”, which is withdrawal symptoms between each pill. And I was just sorta living on this roller coaster of like, I’d take the pill—I’d feel pretty good, and then it would wear off and I’d have horrible anxiety and I just couldn’t…I never, I don’t know why I never put two and two together. I’d be like, “Every day around two, I have horrible anxiety.” and it didn’t occur to me—I’d take the pill at like, nine when I wake up, or eight. It wears off by one and at two, I need another pill. I was just like, “I don’t know. At two, I get really anxious.”
You know, so it just kept worsening and worsening and worsening, and then eventually working with this doctor, my dose of these benzos climbed until it was four times what it had originally been. Until I was taking four Klonopin a day, and then there was like two of the big Xanax, which was the equivalent of the amount of Valium I’d been abusing. And then I began to take a bunch of Vikatin, too. I mean, it all just kind of came to a head. I was like, “Ok. No more.” Like, I was fat and moody and not really anchored in reality and angry a lot of the time and couldn’t climb and I’d sort of lost everything. So, I was like, “I gotta get off these drugs.” So, I got off the opiates myself—and the benzos, I was like, “I’ll work with this doctor to taper.” And I was like, “It shouldn’t be too bad. Maybe these aren’t as bad as the opiates.” And I just had no idea. So, in 2005 I began to taper—going pretty rapidly, but at that point, you know, I’d been on them every day for seven years. There wasn’t much information. There’s a lot of information on the internet now.
(KK): The “Ashton Manual”, which is available online, gives an overview of what benzodiazepines do to your body, how to withdraw from them, and offers tapering schedules. It also describes the problems with the cold turkey/withdrawal method and gives acute and protracted symptoms. In addition, there are Facebook groups that can help you figure out how to titrate your drugs and how to taper slowly and safely.
(MS): People now, when they find the support, they go really slowly and a lot of them do ok. But I didn’t, and I went really quickly and it just turned into this absolute nightmare because as I tapered, again—I had that nervous system hyperarousal and all of these horrible symptoms, and I’m going to this psychiatrist and he’s saying: “It sounds like you’re bipolar. It sounds like you’re having mixed states,” which is a cross between depression and mania. We were trying these other different antidepressants and mood stabilizers, and you know, the thing is, all I was was chemically sick. And more chemicals were being poured on and this led to these sham diagnoses. Ended up in, you know, it was three different psych wards that fall and at certain points, I was on five or six different medications that I didn’t need. And by the time I left the last hospital, they’d gotten me off of benzos, but I left there on Lithium which is a horrible, terrible drug—and really dangerous if you’re a climber because it gets in your bloodstream and if you get dehydrated, you can get lithium toxicity. So, I mean, completely risky for the kind of life we like to lead.
I was on Neurontin, which there’s been a huge lawsuit over the company. I forget who made it, but they were just pushing it on dementia patients and they were pushing it on everyone for anything. So, it was just sorta this catch-all drug. It was like, “Oh you don’t feel good? Take Neurontin.” So, I ended up on that and a really dirty old antidepressant—a tricyclic antidepressant. They’re the ones that cause heart problems and heart palpitations and dry mouth and dizziness—like, these old, dirty drugs from the fifties and sixties. I’d finally started to do my own research to read a lot of these anti-psychiatry books and things like that. And I was like, “I’m pretty fucked. Like, if what these books say is true, I’ve dug a really deep hole here. Or, a really deep hole has been dug.”
And I came out of that hospital and I flew back here to Boulder and I was alone over Christmas and I tapered the Lithium, I tapered the Neurontin, and then nine months later, I tapered the antidepressant. And meanwhile, I was in the throes of acute benzodiazepine withdrawal. I mean, it’s just, it’s really hard to describe, but it was way worse and has been way more terrifying than anything I’ve ever encountered out climbing. I mean, one of the worst things I’ve encountered. I mean, I’ve spoken to other people who’ve been through it: people who’ve lost their children, people who’ve survived cancer—this was worse (big sigh). For a year and a half, I probably only slept for two or three hours a night: auditory hallucinations, hyperacusis, which is just your senses are too sort of finely attuned—so bright light really hurt, strong smells are really overwhelming, obsessive thoughts, sweats, shaking, tremor, muscle weakness, heart palpitations, tinnitus—you know, that ringing in your ears. There’s lists of hundreds of symptoms and when you’re in acute withdrawal, you’ll have dozens of them at once.
(KK): It must have felt endless to you.
(MS): Oh, it did, and it still does—because I still deal with it. But yeah, there’s nowhere to hide. I think that’s the big problem. Imagine that you’ve just topped out a really long alpine route and you’re on a summit with no trees and you’re in the middle of a lightning storm? It’s that sort of feeling—except constantly. Especially when you can’t sleep, because sleep, at least, is some sort of psychic relief. You’re like, “I can have dreams and I’m not going to be in pain when I’m asleep.” But sometimes I didn’t even get to sleep. It’s a lot better now. A lot of people who go through this, what I’ve seen and talking to people and what you read about—is there are a lot of suicides. And there’s also a lot of people who don’t escape because they continue to believe the conventional narrative—that this is the return of your original problem. You know, they’re in this state that is indescribably bad—way beyond anything they’ve ever experienced and they’re still going to their doctor whom they trust, and the doctor’s like, “Oh. This is just who you are.” and people lose hope and they end up believing the doctor’s rhetoric and they end up poly-drugged.
I mean, we’re so complex—all of us. There’s so much been written about this, almost all of it is trauma—childhood trauma. Like, people disassociate, they get lost in their own thoughts. And all these fucking imaging studies where they’re: this is the brain of a schizophrenic, this is the brain of a depressed person. It’s all horse shit. They don’t know. They don’t know the barest thing about the human brain, much less the soul. I mean, the psyche and the soul. Psychiatry is so rigorous in this sort of chemical approach to things. It just doesn’t account for anything else. A lot of people find their way to these drugs through general practitioners—people who don’t even have any experience with helping someone who’s in emotional distress. You know, things like that. And I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault in particular, but I think there is also a lot of greed and evil. There’s definitely a lot of complicity, too. You know, it’s like if you do a lot of research the way these drugs are marketed and tested—and the way that they present the fact that we all quote, unquote need these drugs. I mean, everyone makes their own decision, but you know, you watch the nightly news and they’re pushing psychotropic medications on people. You know, us and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world with direct consumer advertising for pharmaceuticals. I mean, a lot of the motivation is profit—it’s not helping people. And you know, maybe this drug helps one person—maybe it gives twenty other people awful side effects—like, kills their liver.
(KK): Or ruins their lives.
(MS): It ruins their life, like mine, yeah. It’s completely changed the trajectory of my life. And you know, I think a lot of these doctors, these psychiatrists, maybe believe they’re helping—but their toolbox sucks. You know? Their toolbox is full of poison.
Until I started to really have acute tolerance problems and things like that, I was pretty functional. Like, I was somehow functional, you know. But when they really stopped working and when I was totally strung out—my anxiety was crippling. I had to leave a job—I was working at Rock and Ice at the time—and I had to leave. I was like, “Maybe this job’s giving me this anxiety.” And then I left and the anxiety was still there. Like, 2006, when I was incredibly sick one month out of the hospital, I took a job back at Climbing. Jonathan Thesenga came back on as editor and he hired me and I was like, “Well. I’m really sick.” And I told him and he’s like, “Yeah, I want you there.” And I was like, “Well, maybe the structure will help.” And it has. You know, for a while there, it took me a while, like, you really have to bring your brain back online, too. Like, you know, when I was acutely sick, which was over Christmas 2005 into the new year, 2006, I couldn’t do much more than watch television. And even that, I had trouble comprehending it. It was often too disturbing for me. Like, you’re really, really sensitive. I was just reading stupid little articles in dumb magazines, like Parade Magazine. And then, over the months I was able to start to read stuff in the New Yorker again, and then I was able to read books again. But your attention span is just shattered because you’re in so much pain and so much information’s coming at you. So, you know, in the face of all that, it was certainly hard to work, and still can be, but I find it also gives me at least some structure, something that’s sort of outside of the suffering that lets me reorder my mind.
(KK): Professionally, it was hugely disruptive. It affected Matt’s jobs and relationships ended over it. In 2007, Matt met Kristin, his wife, and told her what he was going through. By then, he had begun to heal. But then, he got sick again in 2013.
(MS): I was freelance at that point, and luckily most of my work was at home and I was able to just, like, “Ok. You’ve been through this before.” and just get the work done. You know, but how does it affect me now, on a day-to-day basis? There’s days, sometimes when I still have to go home early, mid-afternoon ’cause I feel too sick. You know, and I’ll go home and I’ll lie there and maybe take a twenty-minute nap which I’m really lucky to be able to do. That’s the other fucking torture, too, is when you can’t sleep, you also can’t nap. So, at one point, I remember—I think some of the worst periods—I would go a week without sleeping. I couldn’t even nap during the day. But now, at least, I can go home and take a nap and then feel a little bit better afterwards. It really was hugely disruptive and when I had the setback, it was really disruptive too, because our son was only a year and a half at that point. And then, a year and a half later, our second son came along.
(KK): He’s not sleeping, you’re not sleeping!
(MS): Yeah! Exactly. You know, you have the logistics of having two kids, the stress it puts on a marriage. I also got very, very sick then. My immune system kind of went south on me, probably because of the stress of going into a setback again and, you know, the kids bring home viruses and stuff. And I got so sick. You know, definitely, during various points of this, I’ve had to quit climbing. And not just for a like week: “Oh, my fingers are kinda sore.” It’s like, a year, a year and a half. And at the worst, I think in 2015, I didn’t climb for about a year and a half. I couldn’t. I mean, at one point, I was too weak to even walk around the block. So, this stuff—it lays you out, and until you get better, you have to sort of restructure your life around it. And it’s very variable, too. You don’t know how you’re going to feel on any given day, so it’s hard to sort of like, lock into plans. I mean, I don’t really ask people for support. All I ask at this point is that they believe me. That’s all I care about. That’s the one thing I can’t fucking deal with. It’s like, when people don’t believe me, again—I don’t need to be validated. I just need to not have to defend myself.
(KK): Not that it’s necessarily important to Matt that people empathize with what he goes through, but it does provide a context in which he has to operate—and when he comes up against people who don’t believe him or worse, use it against him, it not only impedes his healing, but it can also be infuriating.
(MS): There’s nothing wrong with mental distress. It’s there for a reason. I mean, that’s the thing I’ve learned through all this—through trying to chase these dragons of treating it. There’s a reason we feel these things, right? I mean, there’s a reason that people have psychotic breaks. It’s trauma or some sort of dissonance in their life. Or maybe someone put LSD in their orange—you know, I mean, things can go south. And there’s a reason people get incredibly depressed or anxious. I mean, look at how we live—it’s out of whack with nature. And, I mean, I think, as climbers, in particular, we understand that. As a climber, you can go outside and you feel really good simply because of where you are and what you’re doing. And we’re incredibly lucky to have that, right? And I think that is mostly what people felt until the Industrial Revolution. You were outside, you were moving your body, you were connected to the earth. I mean, we’re animals and we have this sort of non-animalistic way of living and all these rules that we’re supposed to follow. And then, there’s countries and places in the world where people are a lot happier, but America is completely fucked up. I mean, I just don’t know how you could live here and not be depressed or anxious—unless your head is up your ass and you’re not paying attention to what’s going on and you’re not informed. I mean, it’s a travesty, right? I mean, modern life is kind of a travesty. Like, the things that I have to think about are whether my children are going to be shot at a playground or going to a mall. That’s not right. And how could you be aware of these things in the world and not feel anxious?
So, what I’ve learned is it’s a very natural and almost a healthy thing, you know. There’s a reason we feel what we feel, and if you try to medicate that away—the feelings won’t go away, but the manifestation of them in your body will go away—while the drugs are working. And then, when the drugs stop working or when the drugs make you really sick, you’ll be dealing with chemical withdrawal and unresolved emotional issues. You know? It’s just, it’s really hard. And I mean, you know, I don’t think that the climbing community is necessarily any better or worse than other communities. I mean, obviously, there’s a lot of darkness in it and a lot of people I think sort of use climbing as a catharsis, but, you know, might as well—could be shuffleboard (laughs). I don’t know. I mean, I think it’s just one more tool that people use to escape, and it’s just sort of hard to blame people for wanting to escape.
So, you know, I think, yeah, I mean, some of what I did—I triggered these panic responses in my body by starving myself. But I think a lot of it, too, is just at least for me, is having an outlook in which, you know, I’m trying to pay attention to the world around me. And the more you pay attention, sometimes the harder it is to not feel darkness.
(KK): It can be difficult to pick up the phone and ask for help, but calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always free and confidential. If you experience suicidal thoughts and don’t know who to talk to, call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. That’s 1-800-273-8255 to be connected to a trained counselor at a suicide crisis center nearest you.
– Even though I still have no idea what I’m doing—things are happening. And if you’d like to help out and support this podcast, please check out patreon.com (that’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N) where you can sponsor us for as little as $1 per episode. It really helps keep this podcast going, and I’m so grateful for all of your help. Special shout out to Cameron MacAlpine because he makes this thing sound good.
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Resources for you and/or loved ones:
The Ashton Manual contains information about the effects that benzodiazepines have on the brain and body and how these actions are exerted, as well as detailed suggestions on how to withdraw after long-term use and individual tapering schedules for different benzodiazepines are provided.
World Benzodiazepine Awareness is solely an activism and awareness effort and its mission and objectives focus on public education and awareness alone. Their website contains general information about medical conditions and treatments. The information is not advice, and should not be treated as such. World Benzodiazepine Awareness educates communities on the dangers of prescribed benzodiazepines.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)‘s mission is to advance science on the causes and consequences of drug use and addiction and to apply that knowledge to improve individual and public health.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) is an international non-profit membership organization (with more than 1,800 professional mental health members) and a leader in education, training, and research for anxiety, depression and related disorders. More than 38 million people from around the world visit the ADAA website annually to find current treatment and research information and to access free resources and support.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online or by calling 1-800-273-8255.
These institutions, many of which study anxiety disorders, can provide information on the nature of these conditions and how to cope with them.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): 1-800-950-NAMI (1-800-950-6264)
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA): 1-240-485-1001