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Authors: Matt Samet

Death Grip


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Title Page

Copyright Notice

Author's Note




Part I: Anxiety Rising

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Part II: Panic Attack

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Part III: The Last Milligram

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven




About the Author




This book is a memoir and is based on real events. The names and characteristics of certain people have been changed.


To Kristin and Ivan, for coming into my life with beauty and love. To my parents and friends, who stood by me even when there was no “me.” To Dr. Heather Ashton, for shining the light of science onto a confounding darkness. To Alex, Neal, Lydia, and George, for giving an unproven writer a chance to tell his story. And to the late Alison Kellagher, who showed me that there was hope.



I would like to thank the following people, without whom this book would not be possible. First off, my wife, Kristin, for helping me find my way to life as a full-time writer. To Alex Heard at
, who picked my cold query off the slush pile and believed in it enough to bring to fruition the article that inspired this book. To Tracy Ross, for taking the time to advise me on the book business. To Neal Baer, and my agent, Lydia Wills, who gave me an ear, a sounding board, and most of all a chance to craft the proposal that became this memoir. And to George Witte for his wisdom and expertise shaping the manuscript, and to Terra Layton, Sam B., and all the good people at St. Martin's Press who've helped finalize the printed product.

First and foremost this is a book about benzodiazepine addiction, and I owe no small debt to Dr. Heather Ashton, the world's leading expert on the subject, who has not only provided a vast, thorough, sane, and compassionate body of research on these pills, but also advised me on certain scientific aspects of this memoir. Without Dr. Ashton and the work of other dedicated scholars and benzo experts, there would be a continuing black hole of mistruth and despair where instead you find knowledge and hope. Other people whose work, writings, and research have informed and inspired this book include Marcia Angell, M.D.; Peter Breggin, M.D.; Geraldine Burns; Daniel Carlat, M.D.; Terri Cheney; David Cohen, Ph.D.; Beatrice Faust; Paul Foxman; Joan Gadsby; Barbara Gordon; Leah Harris; David Healy, M.D.; Jack Hobson-Dupont; Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D.; the late Alison Kellagher (we miss you, Alison); Irving Kirsch, Ph.D.; E. Robert Mercer; Ray Nimmo; Reg Peart, Ph.D.; Sylvia Plath; Di Porritt; Richard Restak, M.D.; Di Russell; Andrew Solomon; William Styron; Andrea Tone; Ben Wallace-Wells; and Robert Whitaker. We must admire any writer who stares head-on into madness, confusion, and darkness, and then gets on with the desperate business of documenting it.

I'd also like to acknowledge the friends and family who stood by me through my ordeal. Some days it was all I could do to shuffle around the block, pull a few weeds from the garden, or come to the cliffs and climb half a pitch, but you all got me out the door and into the world without judgment. And finally, to my dog, Clyde, you big, crazy Plott hound: If I didn't take you for a walk every day, even on my worst days, you'd let me know. And it was and continues to be those walks that have helped restore physical and spiritual integrity.



a three-by-four-foot oil on wood painting, hangs in our home in Gunbarrel, Colorado, a suburb of the climber's mecca of Boulder. I've lived in Boulder, minus a few stints in Italy and on Colorado's West Slope, since 1991. Red, black, blue, mustard, livid, and impossible to miss, the painting anchors a windowless wall. Were a window there, it would open south toward the steeply pitched Boulder Mountains. Cloaked in Ponderosa and beetling with the planed, pyramidal sandstone Flatirons formations, it's here that I've climbed twenty-three of my twenty-seven years on rock. The Flatirons are a second home, a place where I've faced down brute, cold fear, but also where I've had great moments of peace: repair from the black waves of depression, anxiety, and addiction that nearly killed me.

The painting, by the talented climbing artist Jeremy Collins, was a parting gift in 2005 from the staff at
Rock and Ice
, a climbing magazine. I'd been editor there for a year until I had to resign, tumbled through the barrel by a mounting wave of bizarre, inexplicable panic attacks that made it impossible to focus or sit at my desk. They were the result, I would come to realize far too late, of addiction to and then withdrawal from the minor tranquilizer Klonopin (clonazepam
), complicated by a tangled, on-and-off love affair with marijuana, wine, and the narcotic painkiller Vicodin. Klonopin is a high-potency, fast-acting benzodiazepine, a family of drugs most commonly prescribed for anxiety, insomnia, and seizure disorders that also includes the notorious Valium, which was from 1968 until 1981 the West's most-prescribed medicine.
Jer created the original artwork in 2003 to accompany a column I'd written on life as a climber with a panic disorder—recurrent panic attacks—and how I and others similarly afflicted balanced vertical pursuits with the omnipresent specter of anxiety.

And how I sometimes—well, by that point, daily, a fact omitted in the article—took benzos, unaware that the pills were perpetuating the problem.

Jer's painting is astonishing, shocking even: A black figure in profile circles his arms over his head, a mosaic of diffuse white, yellow, and blue geometric figures filling in the arms, with yellow ribs and a gray spine subtly scribing the torso. In a semicircle around the head run the words “suffercation,” “death,” “doubt,” “fear,” and “paranoia” in white block letters, best seen up close. At this distance, nose hard to Jer's considered oil strokes, you'll also see that the figure's “brain” is a slate-blue homunculus turned sideways. The crown of his head orients toward the main figure's eye socket. Arms slung about his knees and his eyes lidded shut, the homunculus seems like a weary refugee; his same slate-blue skin tone beams in a ray from the main figure's head.

The homunculus is either shooting dark energy into the cosmos or absorbing blue gamma rays of ruination—or both. It's difficult to say. The blue almost matches the blue-green of those tiny Klonopin that nearly killed me, that pitched me into seas of panicking anguish, shuffling along cold, linoleum psych-ward hallways, spiraling down through gyres of the blackest depression pullulating with garish little pills until I could no longer see the surface. Until, strung out on five or six psych meds a day, I wanted nothing other than to die.

Until I was no longer myself, no longer a climber, but just a rotting bouquet of vague, untreatable disorders and syndromes, imprisoned in a chemical straitjacket.

At my sickest, I wanted to exile the painting from me: to give it away, despite its beauty. Instead I stored it wherever I happened to live, until I felt well enough—the meds clearing from my system—to display it again. In time I could walk by “Suffercation” without suffercating, without wincing from its incisive embodiment of the deepest fear state. In time I could stand before it and simply appreciate the painting on its artistic merits.

So there it hangs, where I could have that window. A reminder of the many things lost during the years on drugs, but also of the innumerable gifts since gained. A reminder of the suffercation endured, a fear beyond any I've felt on a cliff or mountain, even when I faced unroped falls of thousands of feet, the rock giving way about (or onto) me, or encroaching lightning flashing blue-white off the stone. A memento, no longer fearsome seven years after I took my last psychiatric medicine, of the wasteland I journeyed through to escape the last milligram.






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.

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