A Lost Boulderer Battles Back From His Hardest Problem: Addiction

An honest account by Nate Draughn, a top climber who hit rock bottom.


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Damn! Where am I? I asked myself as I came to, after driving head on into the side of Denny’s. All I wanted were some chips from the gas station, but I missed the gas station and hit Denny’s instead.

I woke up as cops were pulling me out of the car. On me I had half a gram of heroin, 10 Xanax, a couple of morphines and three needles—enough at least for a year in prison. Not long after the cops started rifling through my backpack, Zach, my halfway house manager, showed up. Zach was fit, into fishing, and he had just gotten off his late-night stocking job. I think I had called him earlier in the night, to let him know I was going to be late, but I don’t remember. Somehow, he found out I was at the Denny’s.

The cops let me go with him. No charges. No nothing. I don’t remember where the drugs went.

I have no clue what happened to that Denny’s or the car I wrecked. The next morning I was kicked out of the halfway house and taken to detox. If I made it through detox, I could come back to the house. I was 27 years old.

(Photo: Andy Wickstrom)

What in the hell happened? Climbing was all I had. My whole life had revolved around it. I used to climb hard boulders with Brion Voges and Jimmy Webb. I was in the strong kids crew.

Now, I’ve sold everything I care about. All of my shoes, crashpads, chalk bags, other people’s gear, backpacks, harnesses, quickdraws, everything climbing is gone. I sit and watch old LT11 videos while snorting lines of Xanax and sipping wine. I pull up Facebook and look at images from the early days. I used to smile. Man, I loved being in the woods and trying boulders.

Now, I can barely even look at myself.

On my way to the detox facility, I ate a Valium I found in my pocket and spent the next four days sleeping and disagreeing before they kicked me out. I had nowhere to sleep, but somehow I got to my aunt’s house in Asheville that night. I don’t remember how. Her wife said I could spend one night. I was sick. I was shaking from the alcohol withdrawal and kept getting hot and cold flashes from a similar lack of heroin. My stomach wouldn’t stop cramping and I had multiple seizures from the Xanax withdrawals as well. The seizures and shaking didn’t really scare me. That had become normal.

Aunt Martha, my dad’s youngest sister, noticed the seizures. I was frail and out of it, laying on the front porch. In between seizures I pleaded, “Please don’t call the ambulance Aunt Martha. I don’t want my parents to know I’m in the hospital again. I’ll be fine. Just please let me sleep here! I’ll leave tomorrow. I promise!”

I was exhausted from everything. I must have looked awful. The next morning I called my brother, Tyler, who had been in recovery for a few years in Greensboro, North Carolina. I didn’t have anyone else to call. My friends didn’t want to talk to me and my parents had written me off. Tyler was my last hope. Before he showed up, I stole a bunch of Prozac and drank a bottle of wine, since that was all my aunt had. I got in the car and we started making the two and half hour drive to Greensboro. It was mostly quiet.

At the time, I didn’t know how to talk to people. I didn’t climb anymore. I used to climb V12 and hang out in the woods all day scrubbing and sending new boulders. I used to get stoked. Now I couldn’t even go to a boulder field without being trashed. I hated myself. I didn’t know how to care about anyone anymore. I was a walking shell of a human.

Growing up, I always felt different. It took a lot of energy for me to feel happy or ok with myself compared to other kids. I’d beat myself up if I wasn’t as good at something as I thought I should be. I didn’t know how to cope with that. Depression also runs in my family. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be alive or have good things happen to me. I can remember always giving one of my younger brothers the front seat on the way to school. I thought I deserved to be in the back.

I’d done a little bit of drinking in high school, but it never grabbed me. I could put it down. All I knew was when I drank, I wanted to be hammered and the center of attention. But it made me worse at climbing, so I quit. Quitting alcohol, or drugs, for rock climbing worked back then. When I was 18, I got prescribed Adderall for school. The first time I felt the high of that pill or any upper, I finally liked myself. I had found the missing part of the puzzle. It fixed everything. I was confident, driven, didn’t compare myself to others, and was able to make everyone happy. I was no longer afraid of the world. It went hand in hand with making things chaotic and spontaneous. I could climb for days without rest. But it didn’t stay that way. At some point it got sad and I couldn’t stop.

Where did I go wrong? It’s got to be my fault! Maybe if I take this combination instead, or try to plan how much I take, I can still climb and live a normal life. Maybe if I just hang with regular people, I can casually drink and smoke weed like them. Maybe if I do some hard boulder, I won’t feel hopeless or lonely and I won’t need as much dope.

Why do I get so hooked on chasing a feeling? Why can’t I just be like my friends? Why can’t I allow myself to just feel what I feel?

I wanted to like myself so badly. Why can’t I do it?

Sticking the massive jump on Third Eye Awakening (V14), a 2017 Taylor McNeill first ascent. Unfortunately, the problem was closed down in 2020 due to access issues. (Photo: Ian Dzilenski)

This is how it goes as a dope fiend. Always scheming. Always trying to stay high and never run out of dope. It’s romantic, figuring out a way to find it. It was a game I fell in love with, like climbing. The game felt very similar to figuring out moves on a boulder problem. Right when you want to give up, it gives you a little bit and pulls you back in.

Being consumed by something that never gives up on you is a special thing. No matter what, it’s always there. It loves you. It accepts you. It’ll never say no to you. You can scream at it, you can compliment it, you can act however and it never tells you to act differently. It accepts you for who you are no matter how you’re doing. I loved that feeling of diving in. The further I went, the more I felt love and acceptance. I let drugs use me, much like a rock climb. Selling everything you own for a pill or dropping everything to go send. They both gave me a sense of direction in my life. They made me feel less alone. I didn’t need friends or people close to me. Drugs were my girlfriend and best friend. No one had control of it or could take it away from me. A relationship with rock climbing can be the same way.

When I started climbing in 2001 at a gym in Raleigh, North Carolina, called The Raleigh Rockyard, there weren’t many kids my age that rock climbed. That made it cooler. I never felt like I fit in and climbing gave me an opportunity to get to know myself at whatever pace I needed, without feeling pressure from my peers. It was truly the only time I felt comfortable in my own skin.

The Rockyard was in a bad neighborhood, in an old, poorly lit warehouse. It didn’t have air conditioning, and the pads were foam scraps picked from the dumpster next door. It was your typical early 2000s gym. The walls were about 12 feet tall, and all homemade. It was the perfect thing for a 13-year-kid who lived in backwoods North Carolina and didn’t like football or baseball. There weren’t rules—I could do it whenever or however much I wanted. It never said no to me or questioned why I was weird. I was hooked immediately.

I can remember sitting under the 60-degree wall at the gym with my chalk bag, those dirty dumpster pads, an RJD2 CD playing on the surround sound, my blown out La Sportiva Cliffs and the boulder I was trying, with a clear mind.

Draughn taking it all in, after a send of Wet Willy (V13) at the Dump boulders, North Carolina. At an altitude of nearly 4,000 feet, The Dump hosts excellent sport routes. The crag gets good sun too, prime for winter climbing. (Photo: Andrew Kornylak)

Two new buddies, John Provetero and Rodney Biddle, introduced me to climbing outside. They were in their forties. The local crag was Moore’s Wall just outside of Winston Salem, NC about two hours west of Raleigh. I tried to get out with them as much as I could. If I didn’t get out, I was at The Rockyard all day, everyday.

As we got closer to Greensboro, Tyler turned to me and said, “This is it dude. You don’t get clean this time, I can’t talk to you anymore.”

He had a few friends at a new Oxford House (a community-based approach to addiction recovery, which provides an independent, supportive, and sober living environment). Each house is based on three rules: no use of drugs or alcohol and no disruption; the house must be run democratically; and pay the Equal Expense Shared (EES) cost or any fines. It costs $100 a week to live there.

Tyler and I are very different. He’s three years younger and now has a Masters of Science in Cybersecurity and Information Assurance. In high school people always thought he was older. He had a beard at 14 and girls loved him. He was popular, smart, and can focus on anything. He’s really good at taking things apart and learning how they work. Growing up we didn’t get along. He was deep into his addiction by the age of 15 or so and in jail by 20. I saw what drugs had done to his life and didn’t want anything to do     with them. I was also so obsessed with climbing that I was oblivious to most of it. Towards the end of his addiction we got high together, but we didn’t see each other that much. He was in and out of jail for most of my early using.

When Tyler came to pick me up he was about three years clean.

“I’ve set up an interview for you,” he said. “All you have to say is you’re ready to try something different…Do you want to get clean?”

I mean Yes, I wanted to get clean, but I hated everything I had become. I had nothing. How do I deal with that and not get high?

He then said some of the most simple yet profound words I’d ever heard. “Just sit there and watch.” Watch what sober people do. Watch how they interact with other people. Watch how they work through normal, everyday struggles. Watch how they go to work consistently. Watch how they take care of themselves. Don’t make any decisions in early recovery. Just jump in the car and go to meetings with your housemates. He made it sound easy. So I said, “Alright. I can sit and watch. I’ll try.”

What did I have to lose? I was homeless and had nothing.

I had tried plenty of times in the past, but this time I let someone else show me how to do it. That was the most important thing. I had to admit defeat and be willing to accept my way wasn’t working.

I got a sponsor, someone in the recovery community who you trust and feel you can relate to. They help guide you through the 12 steps and teach you how to live life on life’s terms. As my first sponsor Cameron put it, let yourself get brainwashed for a little. He was one of my brother’s first friends and roommates when he got clean. We didn’t have much in common, but Cameron learned how to get through life without drugs. That’s what I needed—someone that didn’t get high. I didn’t need a best friend.

It was the first time I’d ever decided to listen to someone.

Giving it hell on the steep Third Eye Awakening (V14) in the backwoods of the North Carolina-Tennessee border. RIGHT: On another perfect highball, The Fin (V6) at Area E. (Photo: Ian Dzilenski )

In the beginning stages of recovery, I was always exhausted. I gained around 30 pounds. I didn’t care about anything, yet I was terrified of everything. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. I lived with people that didn’t climb. I had to take the bus everywhere. I wasn’t near any rock. I hated it. I was so bored. I hated NA meetings (NA stands for Narcotics Anonymous). I tried to just keep repeating what my brother had said, “Sit and watch.”

A few months went by and I just kept sitting and watching. I learned how to do chores. I learned how to sit on a couch and watch TV again without drugs. I was learning how to be ok with routine. I slowly started having glimpses of things I liked about myself or remembering things I enjoyed. I was showing up to things I had committed to.

I even got a job at the local Greensboro climbing gym, Tumblebees, teaching belay classes 20 hours a week. It was a weird feeling to accept how everything had come full circle. In high school, I used to dominate competitions at the gym. Now, I’m 28 teaching belay classes for minimum wage, taking the bus to work and answering to a curfew and drug tests.

Working at Tumblebees was a lot in the beginning. My brain chemicals were so screwed. I couldn’t complete sentences sometimes or I’d forget where I was. I couldn’t remember how to tie a figure 8. I had tied this knot a million times and for the life of me, couldn’t do it.

The gym had an outdated POS system. I knew it’d be easy to steal from and get away with. I could also manipulate my way into a fellow co-worker’s Xanax script. I had a plan. It’s crazy how my addictive brain can forget that just a few months ago I was having seizures on my aunt’s porch and begging for a place to sleep.

Do I deserve to be happy? This place just gave me a job. I know this kid remembers me from our youth competition days. He probably still thinks it’s cool that I used to be strong and would love if Nate Draughn was his friend. And then, for the first time, I thought I deserved a better life. I shared about those temptations in NA meetings. Fellow addicts understood it. It was therapeutic.

Eventually, I started routesetting a few times a month and forerunning in my sneakers. That was the extent of my climbing for the next year or so. I was still too afraid to take climbing seriously.

How would I handle it? What if I felt heavy or weak? What if my ego started telling me I was stronger than everyone? What if I felt like I needed to impress people?

I just wanted climbing to be how it was when I was a kid. It was so care-free. I didn’t care what it was as long as I was pulling. I wanted that feeling again, and so I avoided it.

One day I was sitting in a meeting and a heavier set gentleman started sharing about loving cars and being a mechanic. He had on baggy pants, a loose fitting shirt, some Etnies and an Atlanta Braves hat. The lights were turned off, only a small candle in the center of the room. Darkness helps people feel more comfortable to share. All you could hear was the coffee pot brewing. The man talked about his dream job, working on BMW’s and owning a shop just outside of Greensboro. He had grown up in addiction his whole life. He used to get high with his mom and didn’t know his dad. He liked going to the state fair, the mall, football games, haunted houses at Halloween, things like that.

On the outside he and I were very different. As he continued to share, however, he started talking about not being able to understand how he lost it all. It was at that moment I realized, I may not go to sporting events or enjoy the state fair, but I loved rock climbing. And drugs took that from me and I didn’t understand how. Drugs took climbing, my identity, my friends, my family, my self worth. All gone. His love was being a mechanic. My love was just a different thing.

I could relate to everything he shared. All the sadness. All the fear, the loneliness, the confusion. There was hope. I dove into recovery. I started to become someone I was ok looking at.

Slowly, people in the recovery community found out I was a climber. One of my brother’s friends, Chase, had just gotten psyched and kept asking me about going to the little university wall. After bugging me three or four times over the next couple weeks, I said screw it, I’ll go. I can do this sober.

He picked me up and we went bouldering. I rented some shoes and we played around. The session was actually really fun. I mean, the last time I pulled on anything, I couldn’t do 10 pullups. I didn’t stick to certain routes. I grabbed whatever. It was amazing to feel my body and remember how it moved. I was able to notice what it was like to shift your weight onto your toes and high step, or turn your hips into the wall so you can move off that crappy side pull to the nothing sloper without barndooring! It felt like I was relearning how to climb.

When you’re high, you don’t get that presence. Sticking the next hold was the only thing on my mind. This was real. All my anxiety, ego, self doubt—it started slowly disappearing. I hadn’t felt that kind of mental clarity since the early days of finding climbing. It gave me everything drugs had promised.

I started going once a week with Chase. I taught him how to heel hook and turn his hips in, stuff like that. I was helping someone. I was a positive presence in someone’s life. I was a part of something I cared about. I had a friend.

On another perfect highball, The Fin (V6) at Area E. (Photo: Drew Mercer)

I used to try boulders with Jimmy Webb. Now, I’m wearing rentals, and weak as shit. I used to be super strong rock climber, Nate Draughn!

That’s what my ego was telling me. But in all honesty, I had lied about doing so many rock climbs. When I was in active addiction, I was a shitty friend ,too. I stole from climbing gyms, stole from friends, stole from anyone I thought I could take advantage of. I didn’t think very highly of myself without drugs and on drugs, I would just numb to everything. I assumed you weren’t going to like me anyways, so why not make sure that definitely happens. And if I was high, I wouldn’t have to feel any of the pain I was causing you.

The weekly session with Chase was the first time in a decade that I climbed without being high. He saw something in me that he liked, enough to hang out with me.

Maybe I wasn’t that bad of a person? Maybe I have some ok qualities? This kid can’t be crazy, right?

But I was present. That’s all that mattered. And the fact that I could notice that meant something was working.

About a month later we went to the local crag, Moore’s Wall. Moore’s is a quartzite spot just north of Winston Salem, North Carolina, known mostly for its trad climbing. But thanks to old school locals like Eric Zschiesche, John Provetero and Rodney Biddle, Moore’s Wall has become a bouldering hot spot in North Carolina.

We met up with Taylor McNeill, an old friend of mine, who’s also from Raleigh. Taylor is one of the more psyched climbers I’ve ever met and has an eye for first ascents. He was trying a project called The Method, while Chase and I played around in the main area. A few years back when I was at the end of trying to balance being a drug addict and a rock climber, before drugs completely took over, Taylor had told me and another good friend, named Rami Annab about The Method project. He showed us a few pictures and we got psyched. We built a landing, cleared out a bunch of rhododendrons and thorns, cleaned it up and started turning it into a rock climb. At the time, it was going to be one of the hardest boulders in the state. A few years later after we had given up, we showed it to Jimmy Webb and he was able to bring The Method (V13) to life. Since then, a few local crushers have been able to do it, including myself.

Draughn cruising Dungeon Overhang (V3), at the Dungeon Boulders, one of the top areas along Route 221, in North Carolina. Note the thick rhododendrons: they ensure privacy and difficulty in finding the boulders. (Photo: Drew Mercer)

I hadn’t seen Taylor in almost a year. It was weird to hang with a really close friend, but feel so awkward. I was always high when we hung out. He was one of my closest friends, but I felt like a stranger. Drugs had distorted my reality. He had started climbing after me, was from my home area and was now stronger than me. At first, I was crippled by ego. I hated it. It made me feel like a shitty friend. But if I noticed all of this, that meant I could change it. I didn’t have to snort a pill or put a needle in my arm, in order to make myself believe this false narrative and make sense of my egotistical thinking. Drugs made me feel like climbing needed me in order to go on, when in fact it was the very opposite. The world of climbing was just fine without me. I wanted to feel grateful again.

Drugs had been a major part of every aspect of climbing for me, except sport climbing. Lucky me, the local climbing gym had a better sport wall than bouldering. I bought a harness, some shoes, Grigri, a rope. I wanted to learn a new skill that hadn’t been altered by drugs.

How quickly do I actually learn things? How much can I retain? Is it fun? Do I have to be very good at it to have fun? Can I just enjoy it?

I wanted to be a beginner again. Sport climbing was different. As a boulderer, I didn’t get that feeling of mystery anymore. I ran into people in sport climbing that I hadn’t seen in over a decade. The tactics for sending were totally different. It was slower. It was a team sport. Bouldering is a very solo journey. Bouldering is about doing moves and raging. Sport climbing is about efficiency and calming yourself down.

After a month or so back, I was able to do 5.12 pretty consistently in the gym. I started volunteering at local competitions. I remember tagging along and helping coach the Progression Climbing team out of Chapel Hill, North Caroloina for a divisional in Charlotte, at Inner Peaks. Giving back reminded me how amazing climbing was in the early days. How awesome it was to go to competitions and get completely wrecked with your friends. It was special to watch others experience that.

The new generation also remembered who I was. I don’t know why that felt good, but it mattered at the time. I guess I cared if people remembered me. I started going sport climbing at Moore’s Wall and making new friends. I had a little project called Zeus (5.13b) and a bouldering circuit I could do by myself. Zeus is a steep bouldery route that sits at the top of a cliff called the Hanging Garden. It climbs straight out the cave and overlooks all the boulders below. It sits in the shade until 3pm and gets a consistent breeze. It’s a great summer crag.

At the time I had a full-time job and could only try Zeus on weekends or randomly during the week if I could find a ride. It was the first time I had ever stayed committed to routine. In the past, if I wanted to go climbing and had to do school or a job or really anything else that got in the way of what I wanted to do, I quit. Zeus was great practice in patience and learning how to deal with not getting what I want all the time. I was terrified of routine and structure, but I knew I needed it. It was fun to look forward to the weekend and train during the week. Each weekend on the route was another boost in confidence.

I made it! I stuck with a schedule. I went to work. I trained at night. I went to my NA meetings. I can be like normal people a little bit.

Zeus took me a month or so over the course of four weekends. I pieced it together faster than I thought I could. It was fun to embrace the process of finding and refining beta. I enjoyed just being out there. That was something drugs had taken from me. Topping that route gave me the faith to keep going. It was the first thing I’d projected without drugs. I was proud of myself.

I was climbing for myself again. I didn’t care what people thought. I wasn’t wondering what my friends thought about me sport climbing or if I did Zeus fast enough. I was just out there climbing. I started noticing color again and my other surroundings. When you’re high all the time, things are gray and black. I started to notice the trees and striations on the rock. I noticed waterfalls and flowers.

I wanted to be on the road, completely immersed in climbing. I had enough money to buy an old 1994 conversion van. A few friends helped me build a platform in it. The Red seemed like the easiest spot to go. I got a job at the Rock House and could climb 5 days a week. I could survive paycheck to paycheck and figure it out from there. That season I fell back in love. I was getting it back.

I had been clean for a little more than 2 years.

(Photo: Andrew Kornylak)

After chasing good sport climbing weather for the next three years and continuing to live in the van, I decided it was time to sell it and move to Boone, NC. I realized I needed a home base and a little more stability. I wanted to boulder again. I went on a tear and started getting redemption on every boulder I lied about sending. I think I have three left. I started with 30 or so. Maybe I’ll get them all done. Who knows. That’s not the point. Climbing has saved my life time and time again. I don’t know where I would be without it.

I also started to become more involved with the mental health side of rock climbing and the positivity it can bring. Recently, with the help of Strati Climbing and Mad Rock, we were able to do an event with Urban Peaks, a non-profit through Metro Rocks in Boston. In all, $1,500 was raised to help with substance abuse awareness and making climbing accessible to underprivileged youth. I’ve also done a little bit of work with a pay-as-you-can facility called Memphis Rox. My main goal with this is to help people see they aren’t alone. Climbing should be for everyone. I don’t claim to be the voice of sobriety or an example for everyone to look up to. There are far more qualified people who have come out the other side much worse. I’m simply trying my best to help get the word out and get the conversation started. With the help of foundations like Urban Peaks or gyms like Memphis Rox and companies like Strati Climbing and Mad Rock, I feel we have started to build a non-judgemental platform for people to feel safe enough to be vulnerable and accepted.

Nate Draughn on the second ascent of Bonesaw (V13) in the Linville Gorge, North Carolina. Draughn fired it just after his friend and fellow crusher, Taylor McNeill, nabbed the FA. (Photo: Andrew Kornylak)

Substance abuse is a mental health issue and not a flaw in someone’s character. My life isn’t perfect and sometimes I still crave the burn of Adderall going up my nose or not remembering the last few days from a diet of Xanax and wine. It’s a blessing to know drugs are not the solution to my problems anymore. Yes, it will always be a part of who I am. I struggle to stick with healthy boundaries and often need to run my thinking by someone close to me, before I act on it. However, I’m fortunate enough to know there is another way of dealing with things today. I’m grateful to be able to feel today. Good or bad, that’s important to remember. I’ve worked really hard to reprogram my brain to function without substances. And just for today, I’d like to keep doing that. I deserve a good life today. I deserve to feel loved and to return that to others.

I’ve been clean for 6 years now.