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Death Grip: A Climber's Escape from Benzo Madness

Death Grip: A Climber's Escape from Benzo Madness

2.5 2
by Matt Samet

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Death Grip chronicles a top climber's near-fatal struggle with anxiety and depression, and his nightmarish journey through the dangerous world of prescription drugs. Matt Samet lived to climb, and craved the challenge, risk, and exhilaration of conquering sheer rock faces around the United States and internationally. But Samet's depression, compounded by the


Death Grip chronicles a top climber's near-fatal struggle with anxiety and depression, and his nightmarish journey through the dangerous world of prescription drugs. Matt Samet lived to climb, and craved the challenge, risk, and exhilaration of conquering sheer rock faces around the United States and internationally. But Samet's depression, compounded by the extreme diet and fitness practices of climbers, led him to seek professional help. He entered the murky, inescapable world of psychiatric medicine, where he developed a dangerous addiction to prescribed medications—primarily "benzos," or benzodiazepines—that landed him in institutions and nearly killed him.

With dramatic storytelling, persuasive research data, and searing honesty, Matt Samet reveals the hidden epidemic of benzo addiction, which some have suggested can be harder to quit than heroin. Millions of adults and teenagers are prescribed these drugs, but few understand how addictive they are—and how dangerous long-term usage can be, even when prescribed by doctors.

After a difficult struggle with addiction, Samet slowly makes his way to a life in recovery through perseverance and a deep love of rock climbing. Conveying both the exhilaration of climbing in the wilderness and the utter madness of addiction, Death Grip is a powerful and revelatory memoir.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Samet (Climbing Dictionary), a former editor-in-chief of Climbing magazine and an accomplished rock climber, unsparingly recounts his addiction to and withdrawal from benzodiazepines or “benzos”—the family of fast-acting minor tranquilizers that includes Valium, Ativan, and Klonopin. Samet describes how regularly pursuing the high-altitude sport in his teens provided him with an “almost transcendental peace” that “stood in stark juxtaposition to all the urban and childhood anguish” in his loving but less-than-stable family life. But this peace is soon disrupted by a series of panic attacks that produce in him “a terror like no other... my heart slamming... hands shaking violently.” Samet details each step in his long search to conquer his panic through psychopharmacology, which leads to addiction, “ferocious” withdrawals, misdiagnoses, overmedication, and hospitalization. Samet is no fan of the way “Big Pharma” encourages “drug-mongering” by psychiatrists to patients like him. But Samet’s admission of complicity in his drug problems—including “gobbling Valium like Tic-Tacs” while having an “on-and-off love” affair with marijuana, wine, and Vicodin—actually supports his belief that “benzo” users don’t always realize how dangerously addictive the pills can be. (Feb.)
From the Publisher

“As a fellow climber who's also experienced challenges with depression, medications, and the addictiveness of adventure itself, I felt uplifted and awed by Matt Samet's gritty yet hopeful memoir. Compared to my self-amputation, Matt's epic self-exorcism from the clutches of psychopharmacology is a far more powerful display of courage. Whatever adversity we face, in our darkest moments, we need books like this to help us through our struggles.” —Aron Ralston, New York Times bestselling author of Between a Rock and a Hard Place

“You do not have to be a rock climber to appreciate this book. Anyone who has experienced benzodiazepine addiction personally, or observed it in their family or friends, will find this book not only riveting but also helpful. Matt Samet tells his gripping story vividly, with anger and passion, and with no holds barred.” —Dr. Heather Ashton, author of The Ashton Manual

“As I read this compelling book, I kept wondering this: How did Matt Samet remain a world-class rock climber, able to cling to the tiniest of fingerholds, while in the throes of benzodiazepine addiction? Ultimately, Death Grip is a portrait of a young man's courage, as he confronts a challenge more difficult than any climb he ever attempted--withdrawing from legally prescribed drugs. Fast-paced and well-written, Death Grip relates an instructive and important tale of medical care gone horribly awry.” —Robert Whitaker, author of Anatomy of an Epidemic

“Matt's gift of wordsmithing is apparent in the opening paragraph. Not only is his writing style edgy and fishhook seductive, his stark honesty reaches up and grabs you by the throat.” —Dr. Jennifer Leigh, from benozowithdrawalhelp.com

“Samet has been climbing since he was 15 and has served as editor in chief of Climbing magazine, but his biggest scramble was out of the pit of addition to benzodiazepines, or benzos, prescribed to him because of depression exacerbated by the stresses of his training. Here he offers a cautionary tale about addiction to prescription drugs, decidedly on the rise, and particularly to the little-discussed benzos. Not just for climbers; watch.” —Library Journal

“Samet (Climbing Dictionary), a former editor-in-chief of Climbing magazine and an accomplished rock climber, unsparingly recounts his addiction to and withdrawal from benzodiazepines or 'benzos.'” —Publishers Weekly

“A vivid account of personal addiction and prescription-drug abuse at large…As a journalist, he imbues the memoir with more than first-hand experience, combing through research to expose an epidemic he believes is woefully overlooked.” —Sneak Peak Vail

“Written with piercing clarity...this book is essential reading for anyone in a dark place--and everyone who loves climbing.” —Climbing Magazine

New York Times bestselling author of Between a Roc Aron Ralston

As a fellow climber who's also experienced challenges with depression, medications, and the addictiveness of adventure itself, I felt uplifted and awed by Matt Samet's gritty yet hopeful memoir. Compared to my self-amputation, Matt's epic self-exorcism from the clutches of psychopharmacology is a far more powerful display of courage. Whatever adversity we face, in our darkest moments, we need books like this to help us through our struggles.
Kirkus Reviews
Turgid, overstuffed account of overcoming prescription-drug addiction. Former Climbing magazine editor-in-chief Samet (The Climbing Dictionary, 2011) seemingly lived a dream life as a 20-something devoted to competitive rock climbing. Yet he found himself increasingly dependent on the class of drugs known as benzodiazepines, which include such popular medications as Xanax, Valium and the powerful Klonopin. He was horrified to discover their addictive qualities and the difficulty of withdrawal. As he struggled with his benzo addiction, he portrays his life as an endless series of failed relationships with long-suffering women, multiple soul-destroying hospitalizations and many go-rounds with various therapists, portrayed in terms of condescending caricature. Ultimately, Samet concludes that only he has the inner strength to heal: "[I]f I don't research and solve this nightmare myself, no one will. These so-called mental health professionals are not equipped to help someone like me, nor do they seem particularly willing. All they can do is get you on drugs--not off." The strengths of this book, besides the apparent depth of its pharmacological grounding, are Samet's descriptions of his rock-climbing exploits. He conveys a sense of the technical discipline this obscure sport demands and its physical risks and emotional rewards. Unfortunately, these passages are nuggets within long, repetitive reflections on his star-crossed attempts to get off pills and his angry screeds regarding the pharmaceutical and psychiatric industries. Samet attempts to fuse too many elements--climbing memoir, report on benzo risks, angry account of recovery traumas--bound together with artificial-seeming dialogue and a melodramatic and self-pitying tone. Given the widespread nature of prescription-drug abuse, the book may prove useful to people facing similar circumstances, but reading it is a slog.

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Death Grip

A Climber's Escape from Benzo Madness

By Matt Samet

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Matt Samet
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-02236-3


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. 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. 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, 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." 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.


Excerpted from Death Grip by Matt Samet. Copyright © 2013 Matt Samet. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

MATT SAMET is an accomplished longtime rock climber and former editor in chief of Climbing magazine. He is the author of Climbing Dictionary and bestselling author of Death Grip. Samet lives with his wife and their son in Colorado.

MATT SAMET is an accomplished long-time rock climber and former editor-in-chief of Climbing magazine. He is the author of Climbing Dictionary (The Mountaineers Books, 2011). He lives with his wife and their son in Colorado.

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Death Grip: A Climber's Escape from Benzo Madness 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I wish this book was more about withdrawing from benzo's and less about climbing...I really could care less what structures he had conquered over the years..I wanted to know more about his benzo issue which was lightly touched upon on the whole in the book: especially when you consider his addiction to prescription pain killers...