You will be asked early, and often, how you got into climbing. I imagine this is true of any sport, but don't actually know because I am not into every sport. For climbing there's a set of stock answers:
- You had a buddy that was into it, and you tried it out, and just got hooked.
- You made some New Year's Resolutions and it seemed like a cool thing to try, and just got hooked.
- You are into extreme sports, and it seemed acceptably extreme, and now you are hooked.
- There was a Living Social Deal, so you thought "why the hell not" and obviously, now you are hooked*.
Now of course I get asked this question on the regular and I make up whichever answer suits me at the time:
- I am dead set on recreating the Cliffs of Insanity scene from The Princess Bride.
- The inspirational message on my tampon wrapper told me climb every mountain and I am very literal.
- I have a lifelong feud with a big horned sheep and there is only one way to settle our beef. Our rather, our mutton. You hear me sheep? I'm coming for you.
- I'm really into hooks and I just got hooked.
Because the real answer is a secret that I keep entirely to myself. I got into climbing to try and battle my lifelong battle with crippling depression.
TRIGGER WARNING: DEPRESSION
I wandered into my climbing gym nearly two years ago wearing a rumpled shirt and unwashed yoga pants. Not because I knew those would be best for a workout, but because I hadn't done laundry or showered since who knows when. My greasy hair was thrown in a sloppy bun for the same reason. A freckle faced guy of about my age handed me a waiver and talked me through the 57** different places where I needed to sign with an easy lopsided smile, leaning in like everything was a secret inside joke between the two of us. That first day, I could barely get off the ground, my terror of heights was so overwhelming. You are going to fall, you are going to fall, was the voice in my head. But that's what the voice says about literally everything. You are going to fall.
I picture my depression as an inky black monster that swirls around me. Sometimes I see him as Jabba the Hutt like blob chewing on spools of my brain, and chuckling to himself. Sometimes I see him as an oil slick that has covered my face while I fight to breath. Most often he rides around on my back, reaching out with galaxy arms around my neck. I cannot breath. I cannot call out for help. I just watch, helplessly.
The fear of falling turned out to be one of my greatest allies actually, because it took so damn much focus to push through it. Balance, focus, grip, stance, breathe. I learned to channel my entire body and mind into the task at hand, and the harder I climbed, the more I reclaimed myself. When I aimed whole essence on accomplishing the task, shifting my weight, flagging out with my leg, twisting with my hip, gripping with my fingertips, then I could slip out of the dark. I had stretches, just minutes at first, then hours, where I was myself again. Where I was a strong woman, a woman who chooses color over darkness, a woman who chooses to reach upwards. A woman who chooses to be proud. Chooses to laugh. Chooses to make choices.
And climbing is so sensory. Depression is none, nothing, numb. Climbing is holds that are sandpaper rough and grips that are sweat slick. Climbing is the soft powder of chalk showing my fortune through the cracks in my hands. Climbing is callouses, blisters, the sticky tape around your knuckles, smooth rubber across your feet, sweat dripping down your neck, the braid of rope in your hands. The soft fuzz of the mat, and that constant static shocks. Small details that remind me, today you are not numb. Today you feel. Triumph, sore muscles, a moment of swinging, frustration, adrenaline, endorphins. Today you are pushing. Today you feel.
Climbing is colors. The bright tape marking the way upwards. Neon spandex. Walls littered with periwinkle, chartreuse, violet, and yellow holds in every shape. There's a color we call "electric watermelon." It's all bright warehouse lights and delicate Christmas lights.
And climbing is community. You literally cannot do it alone. You must trust, you must communicate, you share, you encourage, you are not alone.
I couldn't fight it off yesterday. The depression. It's been gaining ground back for months now. That worm that chews on my brain, and wraps around my vocal chords, and makes gravity so much heavier.
When I got to the gym, the door was held wide open for me, even though I was still far down the sidewalk, and holding open that door was surely letting in blasts of polar vortex. There was a chipper greeting that went unanswered. He walked with me to the front desk, leaning in immediately like the whole world was a conspiracy just between the two of us. It's the same guy from the waiver. He puts his hand in front of the member scanner so I'm forced to look up at him.
He says, "Look at me," but I don't. The blackness has gotten into my eyes and they're just staring blankly.
He says, "Please talk to me," but I don't. The darkness stole my words.
He says, "Something is wrong. This isn't you." But it is.
I can't think of what I would have given to smile at my friend at that moment. To talk to him and explain. To reach out and ask for help. To be the me he expected to see. To smile. It's such a small thing: smile for your friend. But instead I sat on a bench, pulled my harness out, and just sat for an hour.
I don't know where the fight is going to go from here. I have to make some choices about how I go into battle against my own brain. This isn't even what I had intended to write about today. But whatever happens, I wanted my friend and community to know I'm still here. Please don't give up on me.
*I want to make a joke about heel hooks at this point which is a solid climber pun, but really only works if you are a climber too.
**Possible exaggeration, but not by much