Boulder writer Matt Samet chronicles his benzo hell in Death Grip

Benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax are one of the most widely prescribed drugs in America -- and one of the most addictive. In Death Grip, which came our yesterday, Boulder-based author, expert climber and former editor-in-chief of Climbing magazine Matt Samet chronicles his five-plus-year struggle with an addiction to the "benzos" his doctors readily prescribed to treat his anxiety. It's a journey that kept him from climbing for years, landed him in the hospital and nearly killed him before it was all over, and he reveals how the psychiatric profession left him floundering from drug to drug and faulty diagnosis to faulty diagnosis -- before he was finally able to find help and get clean for good.

Before his appearance at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, February 12 at the Boulder Bookstore to discuss and sign Death Grip, we caught up with Samet to talk about the book, the frightening state of psychiatric medicine and what it finally took for him to get clean.

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Westword:Give us a brief overview of what we can expect from the book.

Matt Samet: The book is a first-person narrative about my issues with addiction, primarily my struggle to get off the class of tranquilizers known as benzodiazepines. They're pretty commonly prescribed, potentially highly addictive. I was originally given them for some anxiety issues that kind of had to do with bad nutrition. I was basically starving myself for rock climbing, to be thin for rock climbing.

In 2005, when I tried to get off, instead of getting much help with quitting this one pill -- that I really did need to get off, that I had become horribly dependent on -- I ended up on more pills and given a bunch of psychiatric diagnoses and hospitalized. I just kept getting sicker and sicker until finally I met some people who'd been through this and did some research on my own and broke away. it's taken me a long time to heal, but I have gotten better. The narrative is, in a way, about the dangers of these pills and just how bad it is for people who try to go off. There's just not much support there and the information, at least in my experience, that you're given from psychiatrists and a lot of health-care professionals is simply wrong.

Your original diagnosis was for anxiety, which you've linked that to your diet at the time, correct? When you went in initially, was there any discussion of that, or was it just, "Oh, you have anxiety? Try this pill."

I think I saw a nutritionist at the time. Basically, I started having panic attacks when I was 21, and I'm sure bad nutrition was a huge part of this, but they couldn't find anything physically wrong with me. Of course, then you go to see a psychologist and he refers you on to a psychiatrist. They just see you very briefly, and their primary thing is to prescribe. It was sort of like, "Oh, you have some anxiety with some depression. Here's some antidepressants and here's some anti-anxiety agents." It was pretty common vector for how people end up on these pills.

Was that helpful with your problems at all, or did you have issues immediately?

The anti-depressant, I would go on it and off it. I don't think it was doing a ton. I was taking an incredibly low dose of Paxil, because I couldn't tolerate the side effects. At that point I was in college, the benzos they just gave me some to take sometimes. One issue is that my senior year in college I abused Valium. I don't think it had much to do with the fact that I had been prescribed benzos earlier, but I knew that they took away my anxiety and I knew that I liked them. Then I quit that cold turkey, which was heinous, but I stayed away from psychiatry until about '98.

Then from '98 to '05, I was on benzos every day, which is what screwed me up really badly, when I became dependent. Maybe they took away quote-unquote "anxiety" for the first couple of weeks, but after that I simply had to take them to feel normal, to stave off withdrawal symptoms. Dependency set in very quickly. I just didn't realize it. My anxiety symptoms were getting worse, so I thought "I need more and more of these pills to treat this underlying anxiety disorder," which is exactly the doctor was telling me.

Eventually this led to you being hospitalized and being diagnosed with some other disorders as well? When did all that happen?

That was in 2005. I had climbed through doses of 4 mg of Xanax or Klonopin a day. I was on, then I'd try the other. Then I started to taper in 2005 and as I tapered, I just got more and more anxious, more and more desperate. And my doctor just never really said, "There's a withdrawal syndrome associated with these. You've been on a very large dose for a very large time, it's going to be painful." Instead it was, "You have this terrible anxiety, the worst I've ever seen." [Then] "now you have mood cycling disorder." Then I had a bad reaction to Paxil and he thought I was bipolar. In a way, he was just using the chemicals, and their effect on me, to make diagnoses, and adding in mood stabilizers and trying to get me to take neuroleptics, antipsychotics. Very powerful pills with profound side effects. All they were doing was interfering with the one thing I wanted to do, which was get off benzos.

Do you feel like this is sort of a structural issue, with the way psychiatric medicine operates, or was it an issue with your doctor specifically not taking the time to figure out what you needed to get well?

I think it's definitely structural. I think the minute you walk into a psychiatrist's office, you're entering their paradigm and their system. You're entering a paradigm in which the answer is always drugs, no matter what. They're going to give you a diagnosis. The DSM 5 is coming out this year, and it's thicker than ever, with more and more of what they call pathologies. They're inching closer and closer to diagnosing everyone with some sort of psychiatric disorder. For which, of course, there's always a pill that Big Pharma is urging them to prescribe. That's just the paradigm. I don't think my doctor was an anomaly at all.

I think you can meet some doctors who are quote-unquote "benzo wise" and knowledgeable about that class of pills. They'll realize that for some people tapering can be really hard and they shouldn't append other diagnoses and medicines while someone's in that state. But I think most of them, you know, you go in there, they don't acknowledge the duration of the withdrawal syndromes for most of the pills. They take you on and off very quickly. They don't want to hear much about troubling side effects.

In a way, my sense was that they didn't want me to get better. They didn't want to lose me as a patient/consumer/customer. I felt that the paradigm of psychiatry was -- and is -- the minute you walk into that office. you have whatever disease they tell you have, for the rest of your life, at least in their eyes.

You said eventually it wasn't your doctor who helped you quit, but some people you met. What kind of a situation was that and how did it come about?

I was finally taken off benzos at a hospital; however, they put me on three other pills and told me I was majorly depressed. Basically, I called a number I'd seen on a wall in Boulder for a benzo support group. The group wasn't meeting any more, but the woman who organized it, Alison Kellagher, said she'd be happy to talk to me. It was in speaking to her and seeing that she'd gone through the exact same thing -- had actually tried to quit four times before it finally stuck because the same thing happened to her. They'd tell her it was her, they'd put other meds on. Meeting someone else and finally hearing what was the truth basically is what allowed me to get better. Also, finding some support groups online, connecting with people who had gone through or were going through this, was hugely helpful.

So it was really just a matter of hearing that you weren't nuts, or depressed, or whatever, and that it eventually got better?

Yeah, I think exactly it was. Hearing that the symptoms, because the symptoms are very profound and strange and troubling. They're things that probably sound, to a psychiatrist, like manifestations of anxiety, but they're basically a thousand times worse and last a long time. To hear other people enumerate these symptoms themselves, to compare mine to theirs. Yeah, that's what gave me the perspective that this was a very real syndrome that had a beginning, a middle and an end. And that I was in the middle of it, and that was what was going on. I didn't need to keep looking for other solutions anymore, I just needed to give myself time to heal.

You're a hardcore climber and former editor-in-chief of Climbing magazine, but I understand this interfered pretty severely with your climbing, right?

Yeah, I didn't climb for about a year and half. I didn't do much of anything for about a year and a half, couple years. As the taper got harder, then afterwards, I was very, very sick. I could do a little bouldering, where you're climbing close to the ground, with crashpads. But I was often so dizzy and shaking sweaty and kind of confused that being on a cliff was completely overwhelming. Not to mention being just physically fatigued.

But now you're back to climbing? No lingering side effects?

No, I still have a little trouble breathing, which has kept me from going in the high mountains, but nothing else. It's all gone.

You've got another book and have been writing about climbing and some other stuff for years, but this seems like a bit of a departure. Was writing it part of moving past it, or did you just feel like it was a story that was important to share?

It was definitely tough to write a different genre. I don't know if I pulled it off or not, I guess we'll see. I had the germ of the story, because I'd written a feature article that ran in Outside in 2010. That helped me sort of get my mind around it, but to be honest I didn't write the book as any sort of catharsis. I worked through all that stuff a long time ago. I wrote it in the hope that someone who's going through this, or is seeing their life fall apart while they're on psychotropic meds, understands that there's another perspective here. There's not just the one they're being told during those fifteen-minute med check-ins, and there's not just the one that are in those pharmaceutical commercials they're seeing during the nightly news. There's potentially a huge downside there, and you can get trapped, I think. I got trapped in a way that I never would have imagined the first time I took a benzo. Had I know where I would end up, I certainly never would have gone down that road.

There can be healing, but you have to be very patient. The doctors told me I would feel a little funny for two to four weeks [when I quit], but for me it was two to four years. I think their timeline is a little skewed -- a little overly optimistic.

Before we wrap up, is there anything else you want to say?

I just urge anyone who's reading the book -- the book is maybe pretty frightening for someone who's in a withdrawal state, or on the drugs -- but I just want people to understand that I absolutely have gotten better. It's been six years since I've taken a med and I'm the happiest and healthiest I've been in my life. I'm glad I made the choices I did, even if I had to go through hell to get here.

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