The Myth of Sisyphus

Summer in Queensland is the earthly manifestation of Dante’s Inferno. Serpents abound, temperatures soar, there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

For me, summer is a special kind of hell because I live within minutes of one of Australia’s best crags. I can hear the siren song drifting out of the cracks and floating down the mountain to my tortured ears, but the very real possibility of heatstroke keeps me housebound. I haven’t climbed in over a week… which sounds like the confession of an addict, and probably is.

“Hi, my name is Ryan and I’m a climber. My last climb was a 10 days ago.”

For me, the compulsion to climb brings to mind the myth of Sisyphus. In Ancient Greek mythology, Sisyphus was punished by Zeus for his treachery. He was eternally bound to the futile task of pushing a boulder to the apex of a hill, after which it would inevitably return to the bottom.

Apart from the obvious allegorical similarity of the act of ascent, the myth of Sisyphus has strong parallels with the need to climb. One can, for a time, satisfy the urge to climb, but that satisfaction is fleeting. “I’ll still have to roll up that stone,” laments Peter Horn Jr in a song which featured heavily in the 2012 documentary, Messner.

It might seem odd and frankly pathetic to listen to me moan about a week or two off the rock, but can climbing become truly addictive? Could such an addiction ever hold a candle to drug or alcohol dependence?

In order to examine this idea fully, we must first understand the concept of addiction. This seems like easy task, but scientists, psychiatrists and other related professionals are still unable to provide a conclusive definition of the phenomenon despite over a century of dedicated study.

Addiction: Mind over Matter?

The term addiction has long been synonymous with substance abuse. Both scientifically and colloquially, addiction has classically been defined as a biological and mental dependence on a drug of some kind, typically illicit drugs or alcohol. Recent paradigm shifts in addiction research and literature speak to the fact that substances are merely a path to addiction rather than a definition for it.

Redefining addiction is more than a matter of semantics. The nomenclature we use helps to shape our perception of the problem. For example, an outdated version of the DSM (American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) relied heavily on the term “dependence”. This inherently excludes any addictive behaviour which may occur independently of drug use, and also encompasses non-addictive behaviour in relation to substance dependence in controlled circumstances (for example, prescription medication).

In The Meaning of Addiction, Stanton Peele states that “withdrawal is nothing more than a homeostatic readjustment to the removal of any substance—or stimulation—that has had a notable impact on the body. Since virtually all drugs create such effects, withdrawal and tolerance can’t possibly define addiction. Instead, addiction derives from how damaging people’s drug use is, and how unwilling they are to withdraw from that experience.”

DSM-5, the most recent edition released in May 2013, eschews the term “addiction” in favour of “substance use disorder”. However, emphasis has shifted away from the concept of dependence, with greater focus placed upon the negative impacts to the user, namely socially, physically and psychologically. It also casts attention upon the inability or unwillingness of the user to stop the behaviour despite its negative impacts.

What we are now realising is that substances form a means to an end, just one of many habits that fall under the vast umbrella of addiction. Stimulation can come in many forms, from drugs and alcohol to gambling, sex, video games, eating, Facebook… you name it. If it can be done to excess, it can be classified as addictive.

There is a tendency to disregard or trivialise these types of non-substance related addictions. They are often regarded as failings of moral fortitude rather than bona fide addictions, given that there appears to be no evidence of true physiological dependence. However, they are very similar to drug addictions in their effect on the brain’s reward system.

Dopamine plays a major role in reward motivated behaviour, essentially telling our brains that a) we like this and b) do it again. Illicit drugs in particular seem to hijack this system rather efficiently, but the reward system is certainly vulnerable to a great many stimuli. Intense, pleasurable experiences can achieve a similar dopamine release. Dopamine physically alters brain on a cellular level and establishes a “reward circuit”, sort of like working a comfortable ass-groove into your favourite sofa.

The upshot of all this is that anything pleasurable can become an addiction, and continuing research is proving this to be less opinion than scientific fact.

Climbing Problem? Call 1-800-DESCEND

The spring of 2015 was a time of savage introspection for me. By this stage, I had been climbing and travelling consistently for some three years and was about to embark on an expedition to Denali which had driven the final nail in my financial coffin.

For reasons I’d rather not discuss, my accommodation was a decaying plywood shack which would have given the prisoners in a Siberian Gulag nightmares. The roof was collapsing, the windows covered with sheets of tarpaulin, the interior smelled of mould and rodent piss. After brushing a pile of broken glass from an ancient sofa, I sat down and soberly took stock of the decisions that had led me to this juncture in life.

At 29 years of age, I was fiscally destitute and essentially homeless, with little to my name save the admittedly expensive climbing equipment which I’d been hauling around the globe for the previous few years. My old friends had long since disappeared into the ether, and my feeble attempts at romantic interest had failed spectacularly.

Climbing had done this to me, or rather my inability to engage in the pursuit in a more stable and sustainable manner. Something had to give. Given the work I’d already performed for the Mountain Training School, I asked for a job and was granted my request, after which I returned home in order to engage in a lifestyle that was partially rather than entirely nomadic.

Even though that very same company has recently and somewhat spectacularly crumbled into oblivion, the lifestyle shift the job afforded has worked well for me in the most part. I’ve climbed a lot, saved a lot of cash, even maintained a relationship with lovely lady who continues to find me vaguely tolerable.

For others, the path to recovery is not as straightforward. In magazine articles, interviews, and his book Death Grip, erstwhile Climbing editor Matt Samet gives candid insight into his battle with addiction. He calls climbing “the cause of and cure for all my maladies” and describes how his obsession for the sport was the genesis of anxiety, anorexia and drug abuse. It’s a chilling tale that not only draws uncomfortable parallels between climbing and other more commonplace addictions, but dispels the perceived barriers between the two.

“Climbing and addiction. Ultimately, they’re the same disease,” explains Samet, “a singular, brilliant, blood-blasting, pathological breakdown.”

Samet’s anxiety originally stemmed from pressures he associated with work and climbing. They eventually led to an addiction to benzodiazepine tranquilizers. In an attempt to dull the intense psychological bombardment he was experiencing, he consumed a cocktail of various prescription medicines which inevitably destroyed his life as well as his climbing career. It took Samet years to pull back from the void, and he believes that nobody is safe from the spectre of withdrawal.

“Reality can be reduced, at its sparest, to chemical reactions, our body craving the release of GABA, oxytocins, endorphins, serotonin, dopamine. It doesn’t care about their provenance. It just doesn’t. Cut off the source—any source—and you will pay.”

I know you can’t prove anything with anecdotal evidence, so let’s return to the literature. The following is a list, outlined by DSM-5, which “describes a problematic pattern of use of an intoxicating substance leading to clinically significant impairment or distress.”

Let’s replace the word “substance” with “climbing”. Play along at home!

  1. Climbing is often done in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.
    2. There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful effort to cut down or control climbing.
    3.         A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to practice climbing or recover from its effects.
    4.         Craving, or a strong desire or urge to climb.
    5.         Recurrent climbing resulting in a failure to fulfil major role obligations at work, school, or home.
    6.         Continued climbing despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of its use.
    7.         Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of climbing.
    8.         Recurrent climbing in situations in which it is physically hazardous.
    9.         Climbing is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by climbing.
    10.       Tolerance, as defined by either of the following:
    a.         A need for markedly increased amounts of climbing to achieve desired effect.
    b.         A markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of climbing.
    11.       Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following:
    a.         The characteristic withdrawal syndrome for climbing.
    b.         Climbing (or a closely related activity e.g. bouldering) is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.How many did you tick? Do your results seem excessive? Keep in mind that only two of these symptoms exhibited within a twelve month period indicate a “problematic pattern of use”. Turns out, we’re all fucked.

I can’t even begin to estimate the amount of cash I’ve spent (wasted, some may argue) on food, gear, flights and beer in order to fuel my habit. I’ve definitely blown off social engagements and probably family occasions as well. I’ve broken my leg and sprained finger tendons in what I consider to be a fairly charmed career in terms of avoiding injury. And a “craving, or a strong desire or urge to climb” is so ubiquitous among climbers that we may as well call that entry a mulligan.

So what’s the story here? Is climbing the Devil? What’s worse for you – climbing crack, or smoking it?

“I can quit whenever I want…”

There’s no real grey area as to why the DSM has such a specific focus on substance abuse rather than the more ambiguous addictions displayed by those obsessed with sex, food or gambling. It all comes down to priority of effort, triage if you will.

The simple fact is that drugs exert a far tighter grip upon individuals, and do so over a far greater number of users. Heroin will trump hamburgers on any day of the week. Even drugs themselves vary greatly in their level of addictiveness and the negativity of their side effects, and it’s the combination of these two elements that designates just how dangerous a drug truly is.

Anything pleasurable can prove addictive, even something as innocuous and seemingly beneficial such as climbing. For the vast majority of the population, however, it just ain’t so. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen, and that it can’t be a serious problem. Matt Samet’s tale reminds us of that, just as the automatons locked in the neon embrace of Vegas’ One-Armed Bandits remind us that gambling can also form a serious addiction. We ignore these “non-substance” addictions and their victims at our own peril, for the same demons dwell within all of us.

For the most part, even the most voracious climbing appetites wane over time. As the passion of youth begins to dwindle, other priorities begin to be given greater credence. Careers, families, creature comforts, all the trappings of regular life… there simply isn’t enough time for all of it. Very few climbers maintain the dedication and zeal that characterised the heady days of their youth.

Instead, what they’re left with is a healthy addiction – a passion tempered by moderation (enforced or otherwise). A modest obsession allows one to wring the very best out of the sport – fitness, fun, challenge, social interaction, natural beauty and, perhaps best of all, escape.

When it all boils down, any addiction begins because of a need to escape from the realities of life. In the instance of substance abuse, this is achieved with drugs. But escape needn’t always carry such negative connotations. Yoga, hiking and climbing can all provide positive, creative methods of meditation through purpose, a means of escaping the everyday with the single-mindedness that comes from practicing one’s craft in a state of undivided attention. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I’m not even going to pretend to know how to pronounce this name) called this state of being “Flow”. He describes it like this:

“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Sound familiar? We’ve all been there. Some days you’re cruising, in the zone. Suddenly, five hours have fallen by the wayside and you’ve no idea where they went.

Many therapists believe that “mindfulness meditation” such as tai chi or yoga is beneficial on the road to recovery for sufferers of addiction. A 2000 study suggested that “Mindfulness practice may positively affect the amount of activity in the amygdala, the walnut-sized area in the centre of the brain responsible for regulating emotions. When the amygdala is relaxed, the parasympathetic nervous system engages to counteract the anxiety response.”

Climbing is undoubtedly a method of achieving that state of mindfulness, and a means to instil its users with a sense of purpose, identity and community to boot. Perhaps climbing is the good guy after all.

It may be that climbing, our quasi-addiction, could help others cast off the shackles of true addiction. It could help diminish their anxiety, their depression, their despair.

That, my friends, is a powerful gift indeed.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
January 2017

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?