~by Guest Author Nikki
There are some of us who seem to come equipped with brains, the brawn and a natural ability for athleticism. I was not one of them. At least a few times a year since childhood, I would have “asthma attacks” that scared my parents enough to warrant a trip to the ER and at any given time, I was on a maintenance dose of Prednisone in addition to a nebulizer every four hours (including at night). By the time I was school-aged, my morning routine consisted of downing a number of pills and vitamins, taking a few puffs on my inhaler, and praying today my PE instructor wouldn’t ask me to run. Until I was almost nine years old, I was told this was due to “asthma” and I would “grow out of it,” but it just got worse. When an amazing doctor finally put the pieces together, I was told I would have to undergo major surgery for a congenital heart defect called a vascular ring. With the surgery over, I could finally be a kid and be “normal”…or could I?
It is hard to explain how growing up with a very limiting chronic condition changes one’s perspective on everything. Simple daily routines for most can be anxiety-inducing nightmares for people with chronic conditions. For example, when I went to PE, I had the option of A) Attempting to run a mile like everyone else. This option would lead to me both being the slowest runner (embarrassing) and also the person who a quarter of a mile in collapses mid-stride and has to be carried to the nurse by the PE instructor (mortifying), or B) Giving my doctor’s note to the PE instructor showing them I cannot run because I have “asthma” and being humiliated in front of the rest of my class by the teacher who thinks that people with “asthma” should run to “get better” and insists I’m just being a wimp.
You can imagine that experiences like these make one feel different, broken, isolated, and hurt. Every experience required consideration of my physical limitations by myself and my parents. Once those limitations were removed (though not entirely even after the surgery), the emotional and mental scars and habits remained. I had lived my life thus far by rules of what I couldn’t or shouldn’t do, not by what I could. This type of thinking eventually brought me into a deep depression in high school. The more I considered being someone different, someone better, the more I was shut down by the internal dialogue of “I can’t, I shouldn’t, I’m broken.”
Once in college, away from my family and all of my old ties, I was liberated by the bonds of being viewed and treated as “sick” and “limited.” College kids, especially those at Oberlin College, are not typically seen running a mile…except maybe after drinking a number of alcoholic beverages. I found my niche among the intellectuals, where I always excelled. Though feeling less out of place, I still had no need to push myself in the physical arena. I was comfortable. In fact, that was my favorite word to describe life during undergrad.
It turns out, though, that Martin Luther King Jr. was right about “comfort” when he said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” In graduate school, I was faced with the largest challenge and controversy I had ever experienced: supervision. I had spent so many years determining what I wanted to do with my life and decided after many twists and turns in the road that genetic counseling is what I would do. After being accepted to the only school I applied to, first and second semesters were a piece of cake. When I was thrown into clinic, however, I realized I was not so great at teaching simple genetic concepts to patients. I was also not so great at taking critique or improving based on constructive criticism. As you can imagine, neither of these weaknesses are so great for starting in a career. I came home frustrated and hopeless on a nightly basis and almost failed one rotation.
I was introduced to climbing for the second time in my life by another graduate student during a rotation. I hated it. It frustrated me to no end. She offered critique and I couldn’t use it; I couldn’t get up the wall (or even a couple inches). I kept trying the same method over and over again without success until I collapsed on the floor in sweat. My friend said “Why are you so angry?” I told her I was frustrated I couldn’t make progress, and she responded with “Why? It’s just a wall!” I realized she was unwittingly pointing to a profound truth: I wanted to blame external factors for my situation when in fact most of it was in my mind and moreover within my control. I decided then and there that this was my solution. As much as I disliked it, I knew I would find my answers in climbing. As soon as I got back home, I suggested it to my husband Dan. We took an introduction class and started with the easiest route.
A few times a week, I would get on the wall and vent my frustrations about rotation. Not only was climbing a good way to expend energy, I found that when attempting to send a route, my world focus would shrink to just the holds in front of me and getting up them. Clinic, supervisors, depression…all of those were gone temporarily.
At a certain point, I noticed my mood would change dramatically based on my success in a climb. I paralleled that with my clinic days: If my supervisors offered positive comments, I was on cloud nine and negative comments would color the rest of the day in the same light. I knew this was the wrong approach, so I actively evaluated what “success” actually meant to me. Though my definition since has become more specific, I came up with one that worked for me in that moment. Because I would so often give up when the going got hard, I decided success for me was to truly attempt a route that was (realistically) within my ability no matter how hard it got. When I redefined this one word, I found I was no longer confined by the expectation of perfection. I could now make more reasonable goals for myself and after accomplishing those feel like I truly had succeeded. I applied this to clinic. My goal for the day would be to take one comment a supervisor said and use it in one session…and then amped up my mileage day by day. A month in and I was noticing improvement in my counseling, my climbing, and my supervisors’ opinions of me.
Almost 2 years later and I’m an employed genetic counselor and still climbing, still working to improve myself and overcome fears and negative thought processes I have been using my whole life to cope. Climbing has opened doors for me that I never knew could be opened, doors I never knew existed. Climbing has allowed me to view the deepest darkest parts of me and my past, see them for what they are, and let them go. Moreover, climbing has brought me to a realm of physical abilities I never once dreamed I could achieve and thus has made me more confident in myself. Don’t get me wrong, I have a long way to go. Anyone who has climbed with me knows that my fears and self-doubt are far from overcome and some days are harder than others. It is a gradual process, one that requires constant perspective changes and re-evaluations of previously black and white concepts. Climbing is intensely emotional beyond physical and intellectual, which is also why it can be so therapeutic. If climbing can heal someone as broken as I used to be/felt, climbing can heal you too if you let it.
I’d like to end with a relevant quote from a comment on RockandIce.com. The article is about whether climbing “harder” matters. A very perceptive person named Rex Winn responded with this:
“I don’t know if it’s hard climbing or easy or even gym climbing. I’m always pleased no matter where I am (gym, rock, etc…) when that curtain that the wizard sits behind slides open just a little tiny bit and I get to see that climbing isn’t about the rock at all. It’s about me, what I’m going through. The pain, the joy the essence of everything we savor called life. Climbing is a mirror that shows me that it really is about me. In a simple humble way. It shows me if I’m being obsessive, pedantic, angry, to tense, etc., I think that for some reason climbing shows me just the things I need to see about myself and at the precise time I need to see them. That’s what makes climbing what it is to so many people. Climbing is there. It saturates who we are because it teaches us all the joy and sorrow that we ourselves manifest in our own lives and the lives of those we love. That’s the magic. We can always find solace in a climb because in that zen-state we see ourselves for what we truly are. Trust me it’s not so much “hard climbing” that matters. It’s more that “Life is very complex, mysterious, filled with pain and reward beyond imagination.” We climb hard because life is hard and when the climb gets hard it becomes a symbol of the difficulties that surround us. The more intense and difficult the climb the more it becomes a real tangible monument of our own struggle. We link life to a particular climb. We monumentalize our struggle in a difficult climb and then we always have it to go back to if we feel lost or vulnerable. The rock is always there and it gives us hope.” http://www.rockandice.com/news/2372-tnb-does-hard-climbing-matter
Next up, I’ll be writing about ways to use rock climbing to recognize your fears and begin to accept them in order to overcome them.”