I hope this post doesn’t seem like a stretch, because it’s about something so basic it’s almost embarrassing: Walking, the intuitive act of putting one foot in front of the other to carry you from one place to the next. Yet if you’ve ever endured damage or a withdrawal syndrome from a psychiatric medicine, you’ll also know that things, like walking, that look and seem basic to others, and that did so in your past, “pre-medication” life, do not in fact come easily. Sometimes, on the worst days, they don’t come at all.
I still recall how hard I had to fight to reclaim the ability to carry out life’s baseline quotidian tasks as I strove for health and balance after years on meds, especially benzodiazepine tranquilizers. Shopping at the supermarket, comfortably carrying on a conversation, sitting in my car in traffic, remaining on the telephone without feeling anxious or trapped, picking out Christmas presents in shops, dining out at restaurants, going to the climbing gym, and so on—simple, necessary life, the things that I’d always done without a second thought.
At first, there was such an intense invisible fist of inertia, depression, brain fog, and fear crushing me in its iron grip that I rarely had feel the desire if even ability to leave the house. Meanwhile, I was wracked with physical weakness, heaviness, and burning pain, like my entire body was sheathed in a lead X-ray vest that had been boiled in oil. In my own head, I called it the “Plexiglas wall of benzo insanity,” a sheen of terror, agoraphobia, and suffering that locked me away from the outside world as surely as the divider in a prison visiting room.
I could see other people from behind the wall and even speak to them, through sheer willpower putting on my best impersonation of my old self. But they could never have any idea what it was truly like inside nor could I accurately convey the profound horror of the experience. I was shut off, locked away, alone with my pain. An ironic and paradoxical flip side to this extreme psychic and physical agitation, however, was that neither could I stand to be alone, cooped up in my bedroom quivering atop the sheets or pacing in the living room, prey to the suffocating midday silence, to black waves of self-loathing and guilt, to the knowledge that the world still hummed around me in all its life and motion and purpose and energy while I festered, static, alone in a broth of chemically induced terror.
When it came to leaving the house, I felt damned if I did and damned if I didn’t.
Better, then, to at least be in motion.
If you’ve ever watched a baby take his first steps, you’ll appreciate what a miracle it is to be ambulatory. Like so many incredible things about our bodies and brains—our manual dexterity, our opposable thumbs, our five senses, our ability to use language, our cognition—we take this fundamental skill for granted once we’ve mastered it.
With walking, usually it requires something like a broken leg or injured knee for us to realize how good we had it. But if you watch a baby learning to walk, you’ll see what a momentous event—a privilege and pleasure—it is. First he figures out how to crawl, and is content with that for a while, scuttling about the floor to explore all those nasty, dusty nooks and crannies he’s been eyeing for months. But soon that’s not enough and he’s clawing his way upright on coffee tables and chair legs and bookshelves, surveying his domain from this new, wobbly perch.
Then he wants to see more, to travel horizontally: he shuffles along the couch, holding onto the cushions and taking sideways crab-steps. And when this no longer suffices he’ll clasp your hand and demand that you walk him about the room, in loops and circles ad infinitum until the both of you collapse with exhaustion. And then, finally, he takes his first unassisted step, and his face lights up with possibility and joy.
He’s walking. This is what it means to human! This is what it means to be free! This is what it means to be alive!
Not coincidentally, early into my first year after stopping benzodiazepines, when I was rife with dozens of crippling symptoms, many of my dreams centered on walking. This one simple act: walking. I remember one dream in particular, in which I found myself lying in bed and then realized I needed to shut off the lights before going to sleep.
I walked across the room fluidly and easily, and switched off the light without a second thought. This was the old me, so naturally doing something—a small gesture—we all take for granted. This was not the new me, the one beset by fiery pain, cramps, tremors, difficulty breathing, and a rubbery head-to-toe weakness. The one who would have had to stumble and lurch across the carpet like the Frankenstein monster, panting, to reach the damned light-switch.
The dream felt like a vision, like one of those rare and precious imaginations you have as a child in which you can fly. I now saw what a gift it was to simply walk across a room unselfconsciously. From that point forward, I vowed to walk as much as my body could withstand until it became second nature again, until it built me up stronger and stronger and stronger again, step by step by hard-fought step.
Fortunately for me, I also had and still have a large dog who must be walked every day or he’ll freak out and demolish the house. During my worst year breaking free of meds (2005-2006), this big, brindled hound dog was still a puppy but had rapidly grown to his current size of 80 pounds; even now, closing in on eight years old, he still needs at least an hour’s walk every day or the shenanigans start. The trash gets upended and strewn across the kitchen floor, pillows pulled from the couch and tossed helter-skelter, the wood floor scuffed as he runs back-and-forth in nutso mode yowling until you put on his head harness and trot him out the door.
And so, I walked. As far as I could; as far as my body would tolerate; as far from the house as the benzo fear permitted me to stray. At first just around the block, then two blocks, and then three, the dog ever tugging at his leash. Soon I ventured on miniature hikes, onto a few gently inclined feeder trails leading into the grassy, rocky open space of Mount Sanitas above the house I was renting in Boulder, Colorado. I would go as far as possible, as long as my legs held out and the hyperventilation didn’t torture me, as deep into my fear of “being out and about” as I could handle in such a fragile state.
The world looked giant then, immense, towering, hissing, surreal—almost like a fake Hollywood backdrop or enormous mural—but also so beautiful, like I was visiting a strange and exotic alien planet. Then, when I could go no farther, I would turn around and head home. I have heard from many benzo people that they’re often too weak or in too much pain to walk. I often felt that way as well, and as I took that first step on many an outing I felt similarly: That I just could not do it.
But I would go nonetheless. I had no choice: Either I got out and walked the dog or all hell broke loose at home. Over time, I began to notice that if I just kept moving, as slowly as I needed to, at some point usually 10 or 15 minutes into the walk I would start to feel better. My muscles would loosen up, my breathing would slow to a more natural quicker inhale/steadier exhale, I’d start to feel warm and secure in my own body, and my pace would quicken almost effortlessly.
Over the next few years, my walks grew from a half-hour, to an hour, to two hours; soon I could incorporate hills again. Not long thereafter, I began to hike, slowly, on the steep, rocky paths you find all over Colorado’s foothills. As I re-immersed in my primary sport of rock climbing, I was soon able to approach climbing areas I’d been avoiding because they sat atop large hills an hour or more from the car. Now, having done so a couple years ago just to see if it was possible, I walked all day—eight hours—without stopping, one of the few times I’ve worn the dog out so much that he slept straight through the next day.
To me, walking is a beautiful thing. It’s free, it’s always available, and you can do it alone as a form of meditation and communion with the world and with nature. I used to love running and in particular trail running, but have not returned to it due to knee problems and also some minor breathing difficulties that linger post-benzos. However, I can’t say that I miss running that much.
In running, the focus is so often on the athletic pursuit itself, or you’re working so hard or so out of breath, that you don’t notice your surroundings as much. In the end, it becomes more about the goal and less about the process: “Did I run my five miles?” and “How fast were my splits?” and “Did I make it to my usual turnaround point?” (Moreover, in that easily excited early withdrawal state, I noticed that strenuous activities like running or climbing too hard could rev my compromised nervous system up to an unbearable degree, leaving me sleepless, sweaty, and agitated for days. It just wasn’t worth it.)
Walking, however, lends itself to process. Sure, you can strap on a heart-rate monitor and do laps around the track, the same as with running. But you can also putter along and explore, taking a sidetrack or path you might not have followed before; stopping to notice the way a scrap of passing cloud frames a familiar tree, making it look new again; or setting out for a destination like a pond or vista where you’ll stop to engage with your surroundings.
Walking is so much slower than running that you naturally open yourself to sensory dialogue with the world. When you’re trying to get your brain to synch up with your body again, this connection is paramount. You need to slow down and listen to it. I at first felt bad, almost guilty, about “only” walking on paths where I used to run, and I’m sure many other athletic people sidelined from their sports by withdrawal have felt the same.
Then one day as I walked the hound I had a strange but illuminating thought: that some alien intelligence spying on the world from a great height wouldn’t be able to distinguish between a human walking and one who was running. To this unbiased, evaluating eye, we would look exactly the same: little points of motion, the one having no greater or lesser value than the other. It was then that I realized, “Walking is OK.” For me, it’s been one of the primary healers from benzodiazepine and psychiatric-medicine withdrawal, and continues to be to this day. It has long been a source of meditative calm.
It’s fitting, perhaps, that in 2005 as I fought to be shut of the meds, I ended up doing freelance work for a Boulder-based spiritual publishing house, Sounds True, transcribing the audio files that accompany a book called Walking Meditation, by Nguyen Anh-Huong and Thich Nhat Hanh. This wonderful book asks readers to immerse themselves in the act of slow walking as meditation, taking in everything around them, really noticing the world with all five of their senses.
Anchoring themselves with each footfall in the present moment, with no goal or destination. It is, in the classic Buddhist sense, all about process. As Sounds True’s promotional copy for the book puts it, “There is a Buddhist concept known as Apranihita, or the spirit of wishlessness, in which one neither pursues desires nor flees from discomforts.” Walking meditation cultivates Apranihita.
In florid benzo withdrawal, I certainly desired nothing more than for the suffering to end, and had I been able to would have fled my discomfort. But no escape hatch was available other than the fleeting relief I might have felt by reinstating benzos, a siren song that would have dashed me right back against the lethal cliff of tolerance withdrawal. There was no escape; only the present moment, the same one that had been there all along. In fact, it had been just such a pursuit of desire (to be “happy”) and flight from discomfort (to not be “anxious”) that had landed me here in the first place: seeking a facile, seductive, and ultimately destructive fix—psychiatric chemicals—for a life lived in a broken, hungry way, experienced never in the present but instead with an eye toward some elusive “better” future. All along, it was the core issues that needed evaluation, and now I stood face to face with them in the mirror each morning, my eyes as saucered as a panicking horse as I peered into the cluttered basement of my soul and steeled myself to survive another day in hell.
And so, I walked. I walked because I had to for my dog, and because I couldn’t stand not to; to remain alone in the house all day with the toxic fear. And then I walked some more, and more again. With each footfall I became me again, foot by foot, yard by yard, mile by mile. You could almost say, then, that by getting through withdrawal this way I learned, naturally, inadvertently, even accidentally, to cultivate Apranihita. Given the choice between sublime wishlessness and pacing the living room wringing my hands in torment, it was a no-brainer to put on my shoes, lace them up, leash the dog, and head out the door.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.