Battling Benzos and "Climborexia"
Renowned rock climber Matt Samet first got hooked on starving himself to stay lean for his sport—and then to anti-anxiety meds. Now clean and sober, he tells The Fix how he lived to climb again.
Rock climbing in the early 1990s was just breaking into the mainstream as a legitimate sport—and as throngs of wild-eyed, lycra-wearing metalheads descended on national and state parks searching for rock, up-and-coming climber Matt Samet found himself embedded in a dangerous culture of eating disorders and drug abuse.
Samet developed what's known colloquially as “climborexia,” which saw him starve himself for weeks in order to stay light and keep putting up harder routes—and then binge on food like crazy in a moment of weakness. Surviving on only 850 calories a day messed with his brain and body so much that he landed himself in the ER on multiple occasions, and eventually in front of a shrink, who diagnosed him with panic-attack disorder and sent him home with a prescription for benzos.
Before long, Samet had a 90-milligram-a-day Valium habit and was barely hanging on to climbs that he used to do in tennis shoes. After trying to quit cold turkey and watching his life degenerate into a constant battle between the real and the imagined, he finally pulled an old scrap of paper from his pocket with a phone number for a benzo helpline on it, and called. He's chronicled his experiences in a new book: Death Grip: A Climber's Escape From Benzo Madness.
I was surprised to hear about eating disorders among climbers, especially in the ‘90s. Back then the sport was dominated by men, and you don't hear so much about men having eating disorders.
In the climbing community in the early ‘90s, there was this whole idea that in order to climb hard, there was only one body type, which was just this incredibly lean, emaciated form. It's true that when you climb, you want to be light and fit and in shape, but so little was known about training at that point. And people, instead of being smarter about training harder and focusing less on their weight, were thinking, “This is what you do, you get really skinny first, and then you can climb hard,” instead of looking at more professional, adaptive ways of getting better. So [eating disorders] were actually pretty prevalent.
"As I got very addicted, I would have days where I would just take my harness off and say I'm done for the day, because I can't. I'm too anxious to climb."
You got into trouble with an eating disorder and anxiety problems. What was it like to be stuck in that cycle?
It was completely miserable. Of all the addiction things I've dealt with, in a way, my eating disorder was maybe on a psychological level the worst, because it's you who's torturing yourself. It's not some outside chemical agent, which you can at some point choose to get off of. With food, you gotta eat, right?
Did being surrounded by people with similar problems make you think it was OK? Or was it more your ambition to climb harder?
I think it was a combination of the two. I put my personal touch on it by taking it to the extreme degree that I did, where I just basically started ignoring very clear signals about my health in order to continue starving and binging. The writing was more and more on the wall. By about year four or five, it was clear it was starting to take its toll on my emotional health. People who are less obsessive than I am might have pulled back. I just took it as a cue to do it even more.
You were initially able to climb better and harder routes. Did that influence you to keep going?
It sure did. You got the carrot on a stick. You keep grabbing for that carrot. You go, “Oh, well, this is actually working. I'm getting better.” And then you want a bigger and bigger carrot. In climbing, it's in the form of higher and higher [climb difficulty] ratings.
At what point did you realize you were in trouble?
I knew I was in real trouble when I first started having panic attacks. I was in a lot of denial about my own role in that. I thought, “Why is this happening to me?” instead of, “What have I done that's caused this to happen?”
I knew something very bad was going on. I saw some nutritionists and even saw a heart specialist and they were like, “You can't starve yourself and expect it to go well.” But I was really in denial. I didn't want to deal with it.
What was being hooked on benzos like? It was interesting that you didn't see them as illegal drugs because they were prescription medication.
When you seek out a psychiatrist, you're pretty desperate for an answer, and you're pretty desperate to have a name for this thing and the reasons for it. Because it's so incredibly scary. At first I certainly embraced this notion that I had a "panic disorder" and that I was even "mentally ill" and "depressed." This was the early ‘90s, this whole era of SSRIs and antidepressants. You have Prozac Nation coming out and pop culture is infused with all this optimism about these new pharmaceuticals.
I bought that hook, line, and sinker. I thought, “Here's a reason for this, and here's a paradigm in which it fits. And now I will simply take my treatment, and I'll be better,” instead of stepping back and saying, “This is happening in my life because I'm being completely self-destructive.”
So I get these legally prescribed things for this "medical condition.” And even though the first psychiatrist I saw was like, “You need to be careful with these,” I just thought, “Well, they're prescribed to me. How dangerous can they be?”
You went to a couple of Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Why didn’t it work for you?
I was probably too harsh in the book on NA. To be honest, here's the problem: My psychiatrist had mandated it. But he wasn't himself being especially helpful in getting me off any chemicals. He's saying, “You have a problem with abusing chemicals. You need to go to NA”—but then he was continuing to prescribe chemicals.
This put me at odds with myself, with this doctor, and with NA. And I just didn't feel like I belonged there. The other problem I had was trying to break free of psychiatry, which has a pretty absolutist view of things. They have their whole model that chemical imbalances [in the brain] need to be fixed. They don't allow for any other truth. And when I went to NA, I started to feel like I was being given a similar, pretty rigid world view. For me, that didn't work. I felt like there was no danger of me relapsing on these benzos once I got off of them.
What made you think that?
Because it's so horrible coming off of them. If you have a bad withdrawal, you will never want to go near them again. It's like sticking your hand on a hot stove and burning it. You do it once, you're not gonna do it again.
What was it like to talk with Allison, when you called the support line? What was it about her style that helped you?
It was huge to meet someone who had been through the exact same thing and realize that my story wasn't an anomaly, that people who try to get off benzos often find themselves like the black sheep in the addiction world. There's not much support for doing it slowly. There's very little understanding or even compassion for people who, once they're off the pills, are still suffering.
And her style was very compassionate and non-judgmental. That was always very hard for me to understand, whether it was with benzos or any addiction: the judgment passed on you by other people who are supposed to be caregivers. I never felt like I needed someone screaming in my face about what a fuck-up I was. You just need someone being like, “You're in pain. I've been in pain, too. It'll get better.” That was Allison's approach. And that was certainly very helpful for me.
How many years have you been off benzos now?
Seven and a half.
How long did it take you to get back into climbing? What was it like to climb clean and sober?
It took me a while. I didn't climb for a year and a half, during the very worst period of withdrawal and afterwards, because I was so scared and physically weak. But once I could, I did start climbing very easy, low bouldering and traversing. Climbing was a huge part of my healing.
At my best I climbed 5.14. When I started back, I was climbing 5.5 again. It was like I had just started rock climbing for the first time. As I relearned how to be in the world, I was also relearning how to climb. It was happening simultaneously, as I was relearning how to use my body. It was a huge part of my healing, as was walking and yoga.
But now, seven and a half years off benzos, and almost seven years off all psych meds, I still deal with some lingering symptoms, but they're not troubling to me anymore. And just a few weeks ago I did another 5.14.
How do you deal with anxiety now as a climber?
Climbing had always been a very peaceful thing for me. One big reason I got into it initially was because it was the one place in life where I could understand the causes of fear. There's always a very real, tangible, concrete reason to be scared, right? You don't want to take that fall where you're 500 feet up. And you could work directly to address the source of your fear and to solve the problems. It always made me feel like, “Oh, I have a lot of control over my life.”
But as I got very addicted, I would have days where I would just take my harness off and say I'm done for the day, because I can't. I'm too anxious to climb. Now, I don't have any of those issues at all. I don't do as much risky climbing as I used to, because I'm older and have kids. But it's been really nice to understand that the initial reason I was drawn to climbing is still there, and that I still have as much control as ever.
Jacob Slaton is a photographer and rock climber in Little Rock, Arkansas.