Mathew Sturtevant The Topography of Fear

Taming A Dragon Named Fear

An interview with off road motorcyclist and author, Mathew Sturtevant

Interview by Jeremy Lux, article written by Eric Z. Gasa

We won’t lie, the Mathew Sturtevant story is a bit of a strange one. A self-described agoraphobe raked with crippling anxiety, he’ll be the first to admit that his life was once dictated by fear. He had a terror for flying, cramped spaces, crowds, Johnny Depp, and countless other things, yet here he is today with a book tackling the exact fears that kept him up at night. It’s called the Topography of Fear and believe it or not it’s the amazing story about how he rode his motorcycle 6,000-miles across the United States.

The latest guest on the Life in Motion podcast, Sturtevant chatted with Jeremy Lux to discuss living with anxiety, the wonders of cognitive-behavioral therapy, and the insane time his therapist handcuffed him in a closet. Seriously.

For someone with a fear of the world, Sturtevant sure loves the outdoors, mountain biking to be exact. As he puts it, “If I'm on a bicycle or hiking, I notice the crackle of, leaves, the temperature of the pine needles under my fingertips. Whereas if I was just in a car or sitting on the couch, it's the same as yesterday.”

For Sturtevant, the world is just too big and beautiful to pass up. But it’s just not the world that he is amazed by, but the people and culture in it too, which explains his fascination with music and musicians. He also has another book titled, The Sound of Austin where he interviewed and photographed many big-name musicians at the SXSW Music Festival like Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett. 

Mathew Sturtevant The Topography of Fear

While attending SXSW one year, a publisher approached Sturtevant about his book and pitched him an idea for another one.

“I asked him, ‘What kind of stuff do you publish?’ And he said, ‘Motorcycle stuff.’ I was like, ‘No way.’ I blink and then the next thing I know I'm out there doing the Transamerica Trail with two buddies.”

It was a chance encounter that would put him on another great life journey. For the uninitiated, the Transamerica Trail is a sprawling 4,253-mile minimally paved journey across the US intended for touring bikes, motorcycles, and ATVs.

Though Sturtevant enjoyed his journey there were a lot of things he couldn’t do because of his anxiety. It was a stark realization that brought him face to face with his mental health. But he was steadfast in his pursuit to not only conquer the trail but his own fears as well. According to Sturtevant, one can overcome fear by taking it in small doses, baby steps if you will, but for some, taking on the Transamerica Trail might as well have been like jumping into the deep end of the pool.

Mathew Sturtevant The Topography of Fear

In one instance he got lost on US Route 50, aka The Loneliest Highway in America after his GPS gave out in the scorching 110-degree heat. Another time he found himself backpacking in Copper Canyon, Mexico unwittingly while drug lords killed a sheriff with assault rifles nearby. Though it was difficult, Sturtevant was able to face fears and uncertainties that would’ve left a past version of himself mortified.

His ability to keep his cool despite the agoraphobia and anxiety probably comes from treatments he received from his unconventional yet effective therapist. Sturtevant describes his first visit as nothing less than “horror.” One step into his office and you’ll find crooked picture frames to trigger OCD patients, spiders in jars, and a plethora of other terrors.

“So, I come in and I’m paying this guy $150 an hour okay,” retells Sturtevant, “And he’s like ‘Okay, we’re going to do something a little weird.’ So, he takes me into the closet in his office and handcuffs me to the file cabinet. Then he just closes the door, puts a chair against the door, and goes out for coffee.”

Yeah. If you’re familiar with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, it certainly doesn’t start off like that. Sturtevant was obviously terrified, but he says the induced panic is an exercise in sitting with fear.

Mathew Sturtevant The Topography of Fear

“The point is to trigger your fear and sit with it. And when you're in fear, your body's, nervous system, your fight or flight system, kicks in. So, the blood leaves your extremities, and your heartbeat accelerates. And it's meant to make you smarter, faster,” he continues.

The therapist then took it a notch higher. He sat on Sturtevant’s legs then made him hyperventilate. Sturtevant’s body instantly went into red alert.

“I was thinking in my head, ‘How is this legal? Shouldn't I have told him a safe word or something?’ And he says ‘No, we're just gonna sit here in the fear.’ And you know what? He was right,” he admits, “It tames the dragon, man. It's wild. But if you do this enough you rewire your brain’s reaction to fear.”

Though Sturtevant probably doesn’t recommend folks to let their therapists handcuff them to file cabinets, he does encourage people to seek professional help so they can conquer their fears. If fear shrinks the world, then overcoming it only expands your horizons.

Mathew Sturtevant The Topography of Fear

Such is the ethos of his book, a testament to how one can inherit the world by embracing our fears and not letting them rule us. But the first step in taking on fear is just asking for help, and often that’s the most difficult step of all.

“It’s okay,” he assures. “You’re not a weakling, you’re not a wimp. If you struggle with anything that’s because you’re a human being.”

Sturtevant himself will be the first to admit that he couldn’t do any of this on his own.

“For those whose world is shrinking, I hope that some of them can hear my story, and maybe their world gets a little bigger,” he continues. “It’s a weird time to be alive and we only get to go around once.”

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Mathew’s interview was chock full of too much good material to fit into just one article. You can connect with him on his website and Instagram. For his full story including how he got over his fear of flying, navigating North America on a motorcycle, and more great advice on getting therapy, check out his full interview with Jeremy Lux on the Life in Motion podcast available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.