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The Movement of Fear – Rock climbing and the healing journey from benzodiazepine damage*

I fell 30 feet, dropping into the void on the edge of a vast, gloomy upside-down bowl known as the Madness Cave in the verdant mountains east of Lexington, Kentucky. I knew that my belayer and the system—rope, harness, carabiners, protection bolts drilled into the rock—would arrest my fall, as they have countless times before. Still, there was that momentary twinge of fear as I set up to lunge for a tiny handhold I knew I’d likely miss. Seventy feet up the wall, my forearms were “pumped”—flush with lactic acid—from the strenuous, overhanging climbing, and my fingers had begun to open. The move was a Hail Mary, a last-ditch effort to reach a better hold and perhaps recover, to dangle my arms and shake the lactic acid out to bring fresh, oxygenated blood back in.

But it failed. And so I fell, coming to a stop three stories lower a split second later, looking back up at the wall to puzzle out what had gone wrong—and how to do it better next time. The moment of fear was already behind me, well in the rearview mirror.

The author. Photo taken during a 2018 As Prescribed location shoot in Boulder

If you’d told me 17 years ago when I was in the throes of an agonizing, psyche-crushing taper from benzodiazepine tranquilizers that I’d someday be healthy enough to again push myself out rock climbing—both physically and mentally—I’d have called you a liar. After years of benzo use, as prescribed for anxiety and panic attacks, with a complex history that also included periods of abuse (of benzos and other substances), I’d found myself in dire straits. I was in my early thirties, living with a girlfriend in Boulder, Colorado, a mountain town surrounded by cliffs that I’d made my home precisely because of those rocks.

That autumn, 2005, however presented a much grimmer reality. As I fought my way through what I now realize was a too-rapid taper off 4 mg a day of clonazepam (the generic form of Klonopin), a flurry of nightmarish, ever-fluctuating symptoms came to dominate my days and nights, foremost among them a chemical anxiety so thick I can only describe it as pure existential terror. Soon, I was housebound. Compounding this were the various “medications” psychiatrists kept foisting on me to combat the “worst anxiety” they’d ever seen—while not once acknowledging the reality of benzo withdrawal—as well as three misbegotten hospitalizations in psychiatric wards. Had I not, toward the end of that ghastly period, done my own research and realized the true root of my symptoms—and that I simply needed to give myself the time and the space to heal from benzo damage, free of all psychotropic interference—I’d likely be dead or still overmedicated into fat, miserable inanition, a fate not unlike that of a calf in a veal cage.

During those unending months in 2005 and into 2006 (I took my last dose of a psychiatric medicine in October 2006, after tapering off the final three drugs I’d been prescribed to “help” me get off benzos), I became so mentally slowed yet also hyper-sensitized to external stimuli that I had to temporarily leave behind things that had once given me pleasure: literature, with its complex language and myriad upsetting themes; horror movies, with their jump scares and depictions of violence; video games; and so on. I also had to retreat from so many things I’d taken for granted as fixed and necessary parts of my existence: going with friends to restaurants, whose public spaces felt overwhelming and left me feeling raw, exposed, and vulnerable; going to the supermarket, where the vast, booming warehouse space and fluorescent lights triggered derealization; driving, especially on the highway, where claustrophobia enveloped me; and so on. My life closed down to eating, drinking, pissing, shitting, working (freelance editing at home, when I could focus), and sleeping when possible; there was no bandwidth for anything else. It was, as Paula, Geraldine Burns’ friend in Holly Hardman’s excellent documentary on benzos, As Prescribed, noted: “Things that my whole life I’ve loved to do have become a source of not fear, but terror.”

I remember one day taking a bath to try to calm down, and picking up the photo annual of a climbing magazine as a distraction. Even though I’d been climbing for 18 years and had been in similar situations, and knew all the risks, the images of climbers high on sheer limestone faces in the Alps, doing gymnastic jump moves in the gym, and climbing tall boulders without ropes triggered panic. It was too much stimulation, provoking a fear response as if I were up on those very walls myself but, in this chemically stripped-down state, rendered unable to process the hazards and make the appropriate decisions to stay alive. I set the magazine down and stared at the subway tile in front of me, the grout shifting and squirming courtesy of my insomnia-bleared vision.

If I couldn’t even look at a climbing magazine without having a panic attack, how was I ever going to become a climber again?

It was both a pleasure and painful to work with Holly Hardman on As Prescribed. A pleasure in the sense that the actual filming was interesting and fun, but painful in the sense that it dredged up old memories I’d just as soon forget. We were also filming at a vulnerable period, starting during a time (2014/2015) when I was quite ill from a setback, when climbing once again took a backseat to survival.

Yet now, in 2022, I have with hard work been able to resume rock climbing at the intensity with which I pursued it during my pre-benzo years. Much of that work was physical, involving yoga, long walks, and a slow, gradual return to the sport so my muscles and tendons could re-adapt. But the bulk of the labor has been mental and neurological—reconditioning my central nervous system (CNS) to get used to the exposure (heights), extreme exertion, and falling.

I’m mostly better now, but I still have bad days, and bad periods during each day when a strong electrical current runs through my belly and spine—central nervous system (CNS) hyperactivity—and my muscles tense and burn. I also have short, time-limited spells of bizarre, random anxiety that feels purely chemical, and is not related to life circumstances. If these spells hit when I’m out climbing, I have no choice but to press through, symptoms be damned.

Matt experiencing the joy of climbing again. Photo: Dean Ronzoni @deancool

Because humans are inherently scared of heights—a useful fear that keeps us from wandering off cliff edges—a key part of climbing well is acknowledging then suppressing our inborn fear of falling. Doing so lets you relax and focus on the physical challenge, moving fluidly and efficiently through what is essentially a dance or gymnastics routine in the vertical plane. There are myriad books, articles, and coaches to help climbers do this—mastering the fear of falling is a universally acknowledged challenge, one that, as with any training, takes ongoing vigilance and effort.

The most famous climber in the world right now is Alex Honnold, known for his singular, nearly incomprehensible ropeless ascent in 2017 of El Capitan, the 3,000-foot monolith in Yosemite, among countless other free solos. I’ve known Alex since 2007, back as I first resumed climbing after my years in acute withdrawal, and he’s a pretty normal dude; back in 2007, he was a goofy, funny kid with strong fingers who always wore sweatpants—famous in the climbing world for a couple of free solos in Yosemite but far from a household name. Still, even then it was clear that Alex was driven; he lived and breathed rock climbing, driving all over the western United States in a white mom-van to hone his craft.

In 2016, Honnold—by then famous—agreed to an fMRI brain scan, to register his reactivity to a series of disturbing images meant to trigger a fear response in participants. His control in this experiment was another male climber of the same age, but without the daunting free-solo résumé, though still labeled a “high-sensation seeker” as climbers tend to be. Perhaps not surprisingly, Honnold’s amygdala—the part of the brain that regulates our fear response—showed no activation in the face of the images, while the control’s did. Honnold had, through practice perhaps coupled with a congenitally unreactive amygdala, conditioned any reactivity right out of himself. It’s what lets him maintain his composure ropeless on difficult, insecure moves thousands of feet off the ground.

I’m no Alex Honnold nor will I ever be, but I have been able in my own healing to apply the same principles he used to train his mind and CNS—namely exposure and repetition. In recent years, the fear of falling had begun to consume me, coupled with a reactive CNS that I sometimes worry may remain sensitized for the rest of my life—or at least not bounce back to its full, original resilience. In fact, climbing had become a misery, as I was so scared of falling that I stuck only to routes below my physical threshold or rehearsed climbs so much I was sure I wouldn’t fall, even in cases where falling was perfectly safe.

So much of the pleasure had been drained from the sport, and I was no longer pushing myself physically the way I wanted to. So I set to work, realizing that I could not hide forever behind the excuse of a benzo-damaged CNS because, fuck it, this was my life and only I could change it. Or at least try.

This year, then, I began whipper therapy—a “whipper” is climber slang for a fall—in the gym and at the rock. At first it was overwhelming in a way that’s hard to describe, even with a trusted friend holding the rope and the intellectual knowledge that our systems were failsafe. Benzo people know the feeling: You suddenly feel too small in a world that’s too big, too permeable to sensory input, too fragile and brittle and vulnerable. On the wall, preparing to let go and take a fall, it was as if I could feel each molecule of air at my back and sense the inexorable pull of gravity wanting to dash me against the earth. Every fiber of my being screamed not to let go and that I would fall to my death. But I pushed through. Soon five-foot falls became 10 feet, then 20, until I almost relished the stomach-in-your-throat feeling like a thrill-seeker at an amusement park, until heads were turning in the gym at my whipper antics.

The whipper therapy worked. I was worried that it wouldn’t, given that I’m working with a CNS that does not always function like it once did. But I’ve slowly been able to condition away the fear of falling, until finally I’m back to where I want to be—able to focus on the rock and the movement, instead of being paralyzed by fear. To me this is a cause for great optimism for all of us benzo folks, showing that if we put the work in, are patient, and manage expectations, we too can get most or all of our old lives back, turning things we took for granted but that now terrify us back into things we can take for granted again. As proof, here’s a video of me taking a 20-foot whipper on a difficult climb near my home in Boulder, Colorado, all while Alex Honnold himself—passing through town with his family back in August—watches me go a muerte (“to the death”).

As with everything in life, my aversion to falling is a work-in-progress, but it’s work that I’m happy to put in. Perhaps I’m a bit more reactive to falling now than I was before benzos, but I don’t dwell on that. There are no guarantees in life—for any of us—and things are always changing, be they our health, our relationships, our careers, and so on. I feel fortunate for the health I have now, the progress I have made, and the opportunity to push myself so hard on the rock that I can fall off again; I feel grateful to be able to move through my fear to see what’s on the other side.

Matt Samet is a freelance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado.

This article appears on this site with the permission of the author.