Climbing & Mental Health

To say that climbing has given me a reason to live isn’t hyperbole.  When things get tough, when I’m not able to “show up” for people, when I can’t handle anything–that’s when I go climbing.

The climbing gym is my temple.  My meditation is the climb.  The motion, the focus, the effort; in combination it becomes my zazen, my moving meditation.

You really get to know someone for who they are when they’re at the absolute peak of their effort.  When they hit a wall, when they’re way out of their depth, what’s their reaction?  Do they put one-hundred-percent focus and effort on the motion?  Do they analyze their options?  Do they “just go for it”?

What’s your reaction when you fall?  I’ve experienced so many varied emotions after taking a long fall on a climb that demanded more than I thought I had.  More strength, more strategy, more technique, more everything.  Anger, despair, even cacophonous laughter (my climbing partners might instead argue that I bordered on mania, but that’s a whole different discussion).

Climbing is the magnifying lens through which I can truly see myself.  The way I respond to others (and myself) under stress and in the face of repeated failure gives me a clearer picture of myself than my mental illness would let me normally see.  It points out in no uncertain terms that I am most definitely not a failure, that I am worthy, that my efforts aren’t in vain, and that I’m progressing.

In the past, PTSD would take my thoughts into some really dark places.  I wish that I could say that my worst days are behind me, but I know that really difficult days can appear anytime.  There is no schedule, no “tell”, no signal or sign.  But working through those days and experiencing them while climbing has given me an appreciation for the sport and the people who engage in it that I didn’t have before I started climbing.

The most rewarding climbing days aren’t necessarily the days I send a 5.12 on lead or figure out the “intended beta” for a boulder problem.  It’s the times I’ve been able to work through fear, push past adversity, and really have the support and understanding of my climbing partners that make those days really shine.

It’s telling to me that the most intense and intimate experiences I’ve had in my life have been in conversation with other climbers.  There’s an intensity there–a camradarie and openness that’s cultiavted when you’re “out on the sharp end”.  When climbers get down to brass tacks and really communicate, it’s utterly without pretense and completely unvarnished.  If you’re doing something dumb, you’re going to find out real fast.  If you’re progressing and pushing, you’ll know it.  It’s helpful to have someone else right there beside you.  Even bouldering by myself these days, my life and my attitude are improving by degrees.

In short, I don’t think there’s another group of people on Earth I’d rather spend my waking hours with than climbers.  There isn’t another pursuit that I can think of that I’d rather give my time and effort to, especially when it’s given me so much back in return.

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