I lay in the tent with my family at Great Sand Dunes National Park, in southern Colorado, groaning, clutching at my stomach, writhing in agony while they slept soundly just inches away. Our hound snored curled up at our feet, the tent’s interior warm with body heat from four living beings. The tent walls flexed and popped with the gusting wind that beat down out of the night, out of the blackness of the wild rainstorm that had born down at twilight, turning the San Luis Valley red, then orange, then orange-black, then flat ebony as giant dollops of cold rain spattered down. We’d all scattered — our family, my wife’s parents and a family friend — to our tents as the storm moved in, and now I could hear the campfire outside dying in staccato hisses with the lashing of the tempest.
Earlier in the evening another storm, this one mostly bluster, had caught us out on High Dune, 650 tan, rolling feet above the shallow waters of Medano Creek, a wide red-willow-lined river below the southern ramparts of the mighty dunes. The blowing sand stung our cheeks like a hard slap to the face, and my son had begun crying even as I turned to walk backward, with him up in his backpack, to spare him the brunt of the wind. The tiny granules penetrated the pores of our clothes and the backpack fabric; the little man instantly had enough of being cold and wind blasted. He voiced his discontentment throughout the entire down-plunging run back to camp. He was suffering and he didn’t know why; he just knew that he wanted it to stop.
Now it was my turn to suffer. Before our hike up High Dune, I’d been sitting in the car sharing cashews with our son, and then I remembered: I have an intolerance to tree nuts, and if I eat more than a few, I will pay a few hours later with showstopper gastrointestinal symptoms. Hungry, I’d been shoving them by the handful into my mouth, heedless of my condition. We’d been playing all day in the hills, and here we were sharing a snack. Whoops. I knew that there’d be hell to pay. I finished chewing the last mouthful and resigned myself to whatever was to come.
As cloud-to-cloud lightning flashed through the tent’s thin green skin, another crippling wave of nausea hit me. I needed to either vomit or burp, or both. When the symptoms had first come on, two hours earlier, white-hot and all-consuming, I’d tried reading in the car as a distraction, but soon felt too bloated, weak, and doubled over in sweaty, shaky, febrile pain to sit upright, much less focus on a book. So I’d come into the tent and lay down next to my slumbering family, oblivious to my plight. The warm sleeping bag helped with the shaking, but the longer I lay there the worse I felt.
I wanted nothing other than to go to sleep, but the pain wouldn’t let me. There was no exit, no escape; only waiting. Enough rain had fallen that it splashed audibly in mud puddles outside. You could smell moist earth and piñons. I unzipped the tent door and hung my head past the ground cloth, over a puddle, freezing water coursing through my hair and across the nape of my neck.
Puke, dammit, puke. But nothing came out. I wanted to fall face-first into the puddle, drown, and be done with it.
Then: BRAAAPPPPPPPPPP! A giant burp, followed by others in powerful succession like the aftershocks of an earthquake. And suddenly my belly no longer felt fit to burst. I pulled my head back into the tent and lay prostate, exhausted. I soon found the energy to raise my head off the pillow and dry my hair with a jacket. Over the course of the next quarter hour, the pain began to ebb and then disappear. Grateful to finally feel well again, I began to doze as the rain tapered off. Just as I was about to cross the final threshold into unconsciousness, I had one of those weird, random thoughts that we all get right before drifting off. This one was: “Happiness is the absence of suffering.”
For whatever reason this thought has stayed with me. I apologize if it sounds like a truism you might see on a Hallmark card as penned by Epicurus, but it really is the thought that came, almost if planted there by some outside agency.
Happiness is the absence of suffering…
I’ve since come to realize this aphorism applies also to the suffering I endured while on and coming off psychiatric drugs: When that particular suffering — physical, emotional, neurological, psychological, sociological — had ended or mostly so, I was happy again. It was as simple as that. I was so relieved to no longer be in a state of terror, agony, and agitation, and to not have my life controlled by others (i.e., the “doctors”), that I felt happy — not just by comparison against being miserable, but because it was so enlivening, liberating, and hope-instilling to not be miserable.
Misery was at long last absent, and I had my life back, the thing I’d been pining for all along. I could walk again, rock-climb again, think again, and be around people again. And so, I was happy. Hours in gastrointestinal hell are nothing compared to years in psychospiritual hell, but in both cases, I felt equally relieved to have that hell come to an end.
But there’s a catch, and it’s something I had either not considered or avoided considering while healing. It’s that while you might have changed as a result of your experience, and are probably more grateful than ever for the gift of life, and savor it accordingly, the world itself has remained the same. In other words, there will still be bad things. There will still be pain and illness and loss and uncertainty and frustration and worry and hardship and death; the same rules as ever will apply. For some reason, perhaps a strong case of magical thinking I used as a carrot on a stick during the worst years, I had it in my head that rainbows, unicorns, flower-filled meadows, marshmallow clouds, endless chests of treasure, and lazy streams filled with chocolate syrup waited on the other side.
But, that’s not how it was. There was just regular old life, with all its ups and downs, waiting to be resumed again. And me—the new, reborn me—trying to figure out how to make my way through. I will say that my life is much better now during the med years, both because of the absence of suffering but also because, as a person who would never, ever take a psych drug again to hide from my pain, I’m more at peace with the world and with myself. But as happy as I am to be out of hell, I can still only be as happy, on any given day, as life permits. (And spare me the lecture about how it’s not what happens in life that matters, it’s our reaction to it. Sometimes life just straight-up sucks; sometimes terrible things happen or we’re victimized by predatory or morally bankrupt people acting from a dark place of corruption, greed, or fear.)
That’s just how the world works.
I recently read an Esquire profile on Matt Damon in which he described fame in an analogous but inverse fashion. As Damon put it, one day you’re not famous, and you’re just you, going about your day, and no one notices you or cares. But then suddenly you get famous and you try to go through that same day again and you can’t, because the world reacts to you in a completely different way and thus no longer resembles itself, even though you’re technically the same person trying to do the exact same things. The experience, as he describes it, is disorienting and surreal, which might explain why so many famous people go sideways.
The opposite experience—being a new, reborn you in the same old world—is no less disorienting, in my opinion. The world is still itself but you, at your core, are different, and it’s hard to re-synchronize the two realities. I’m a blockhead and it’s taken me awhile to wrap my head around this obvious truth, but I have seen how thoroughly it courses through my day, in all the many things I, as an adult in modern-day America, need to do: drive, shop for groceries, interact with others for work, etc. As grateful as I am and will remain to be alive, because I have seen and survived the blackest hell, I also know that I’m operating by the same set of rules we all do, and that there will be events outside my control that will cause pain. And they won’t all be minor or easily avoided, like eating cashews, either.
In other words, having survived something as awful as benzodiazepine and psychiatric-drug withdrawal is not protective against future hardship. I wish it were, but it isn’t.
But there’s a big difference now, which is that I accept at least my own internal darkness as part of life. I might not be able to control outside events, but I no longer flee from, label, or try to “treat” the suffering that lives inside me, because it is me. Because it makes me who I am. This much, at least, I can do. This much, at least, I can control.
I’ve had people email asking if I still get “depressed” or “anxious” post-withdrawal, and the short answer is yes, of course I do. Of course I still experience pain. I’m human. If you’re awake, aware, and looking at just how badly we’re screwing over each other and our planet, or if you’ve spent even a millisecond considering the big existential questions, then you will experience inner turmoil. Now, however, I permit myself to feel and explore that turmoil without judging or labeling it. Now, when I wake up in cosmic terror at 3 a.m., in that still, dead, quiet hour when the whole world is asleep, and wonder why I’m here, and think about friends and family who have died, and wonder what will happen to me and everyone I know and love after we pass on, I allow myself to be in existential crisis. Now, when I have a bad day and wake up feeling like life itself is some cruel, pointless, tiresome experiment and that I’m going precisely nowhere like a hamster on his wheel, I sit with it. Now, when I wake up on edge and feel like the sky might come crashing down around me, I turn to face it and go about my day anyway—let the sky fall for all I care. If it’s easiest to label these feelings as “depression” and “anxiety” then so be it. To me, they feel like a thinking person’s natural and only possible reaction to the human condition.
It’s not all rainbows and unicorns on the other side, but it is still much better than the medicated life. I’m by no means a bright, sunny person, but I’m still much happier than I ever was on the pills. I inhabit my darkness, I wear it, and I face it. In this ultimate acceptance burns a fiery star of self-realization far more elucidating than any manmade molecule ever will be. Like so many of us, I have come to know my true self because of my pain.
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Rock climber, author, and MIA Blogger Matt Samet discusses his experience becoming addicted to, and subsequently coming off of, benzodiazepines.
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.