Death Grip: Then and Now


Nothing much happened today, and that’s a wonderful thing. I woke up early to tidy up an essay I’d written, answered a few emails, and then was home with my son while my wife went to work. We went to swim class, then he had a bath; we took a walk with the dog and the little man napped in his stroller. Then we came home and shoveled a patch of errant snow off the driveway, left over from a fast-moving snowstorm on Monday. Later in the afternoon we went for a wagon ride and ended up down by the creek, playing with sticks in the mud while March sun sluiced in through a subtle web of bare winter trees.

All in all, a pretty normal, quiet suburban American day.

Yet, it wasn’t always this way. Only eight years ago—spring 2005—I was unbeknownst to me about to plunge into a nightmare, one of psychiatric misdiagnoses, polydrugging, forced medication, hospitalization, and dehumanizing labeling and pathologizing of my core personality, all because I wanted to get off the benzodiazepine tranquillizers upon which I’d become dependent. With the benefit of hindsight and research into the subject, I can now of course see that there was, unfortunately, nothing unusual about my experience. I walked right into the standard biopsychiatry/psychopharmacology trap, the one so eloquently described, from varying perspectives, by Robert Whitaker and the many contributing writers to this site.

From what I’ve learned, it seems that the minute you walk into a psychiatrist’s office or have the misfortune to be locked up on a ward is the minute you’re given a diagnosis and medication(s), and perhaps even electroshock. There is no “normal”; “normal” is not allowed. You have a “lifelong disorder” of whatever ilk, and it must always be medicated.

This is the paradigm.

This is the system.

Unfortunately, it did not help me. In fact, it very nearly claimed my life.

I’ve detailed these experiences as best I can in a book called Death Grip: A Climber’s Escape from Benzo Madness, from St. Martin’s Press. The book has been out for a month now, and you can purchase it in print or electronic form.

The first part of the title is probably the more important one: benzos had a “death grip” on me, but it also took me having a “death grip” on life itself to slug through to freedom. The second part of the title has the word “climber” in it, but I don’t think this distinction matters as much in the narrative, which I tried to make as universal as possible to the withdrawal/overmedication experience. I just happen to love rock climbing, but we all have that one thing—or multiple things—we do with passion that makes us who we are, that makes life meaningful and worth living. In climbing, of course, in the midst of fear or when at your limit, you cling to the stone with a “death grip,” though, paradoxically, this also tires your arms out quicker and makes you more likely to fall.

You climb best if you learn to hold on lightly; so too, perhaps, should it go in other avenues of life. Unless, of course, someone else, no matter how “good” his or her intentions, is trying to deprive you of your autonomy and your freedom—then you fight like hell for what you know to be true.

The first chapter of this book details an incredibly bleak day at Rifle, Colorado, a climbing area I have long loved, a day during which the strong, torment-inducing and reality-warping symptoms of multiple-medication withdrawal had driven me to act in a suicidal fashion. It’s raw and humiliating to imagine that I could act this way. After a day like today where I’m out playing in the mud with my boy, happy and mellow and warm in the sun, I feel like we are talking about two different people. But I did act this way—it was indeed me—because my mind had been colonized by chemicals and poisoned by messages of clinical hopelessness.

It’s scary sharing these personal details in a book, but I keep telling myself that if even only one person reads Death Grip and avoids some of the bad decisions I made (or had made for me), then it will have been worth it. Maybe you’ll be that one person or maybe you’ll pass the book along to someone else who becomes that one person. If the narrative around these issues is to change and to come back to something approaching normalcy, compassion, and sanity, we all need to tune in and listen, and to speak up as loudly as our voices permit.


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.


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  1. Matt,

    I preordered your book on Amazon and found it waiting for me when I arrived home one Friday afternoon a few weeks later. I read the entire contents in one sitting later that evening. I loved it, absolutely loved it.

    The last paragraph on the last page with that pointed, poignant last sentence will remain with me for a long time. For how many of us is that true?

    I also enjoyed hearing about your punk rock teenager years and working abroad in Italy! I hope that you are paving a way for others to come forth with stories of psychiatric pharmaceutical survival, myself included.

    Thank you,

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  2. Reading your story reminds me of something that I believe is a problem that no one is really looking at. Benzos are a very popular prescription drug sold on the street now for recreation and fun! I guess all drugs are addictive and people will most likely take them no matter what, but it’s very obvious to me that all these people buying benzos on the street are probably thinking that they’re benign compared to the regular street drugs. Boy are they in for a big surprise if they develop a benzo habit!

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  3. Hi Matt,

    I am reading your book right now. It is excellent. I relate to so many of your experiences, especially with Dr. and Therapists. It is nice to see that my experience wasn’t an isolated incident. I will recommend this book to anyone that I run into. I find you to have a great sense of humor and a wonderful way of describing the climbing experience. It makes me want to try my hand at it. Great job! An excellent read.

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