I’ve had many passions in my life, but none so sustained as my love for climbing. In primary school, logistical oversights spelled curtains for my earthworm collection. As a gap-toothed ten year old, my enthusiasm for football dwindled when I was dropped from the junior team. My misguided attempts to build a hamster gym in my childhood bedroom were repeatedly quashed by my long-suffering parents, but when I started climbing, the sport quickly became an integral part of my life.
I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression since adolescence. In my first year of university, newly independent and struggling to recover from assault, my health deteriorated. I was waging a war against the voice that told me I couldn’t cope but feelings of hopelessness, low self worth and a crippling fear of almost everything led me to an episode of depression and substance abuse that nearly took my life. Perhaps this seems an unlikely time to take up an intensive full-body activity, but in the spring term of my second year, I registered at a bouldering gym.
When I started climbing, the experience of fumbling up plywood walls took on a colossal significance. Undernourished and climbing in a pair of £28 Decathlon rock shoes, I was weak and clumsy, but climbing became a refuge and I took to it fiercely. For me, pushing myself to progress in a sport that demanded mental and physical strength reframed the notion of struggle and my ability to face it. The inherently social dynamic of the climbing gym pushed me to challenge the belief that anxiety would always isolate me (though I still remember my first conversation in the gym, and do still wonder if it had anything to do with me that I never saw them there again). Striving to improve my strength and technique gave me a meaningful project, something I could take control of and nurture. As I continued to climb, my relationship with my mind and my body made small shifts, adjusting to accommodate the values of endurance, courage and self-belief.
Learning to treat myself with patience and compassion has been a long and rickety process, and that process will likely never be complete. Just like climbing, managing my mental health has taken courage and dedication. I still struggle with poor mental health, and there’s a whole host of new emotions that come with climbing itself which I’m still learning how to juggle.
Frustration with plateaus and injury play big roles in my current experience of bouldering, I’m yet to take the mental leap into sport climbing, and I’m still learning how not to compare my own strengths and weaknesses to those of my 6’4 partner or my mind-bogglingly strong and bendy friends. I still have to remind myself that the measurable achievements in climbing aren’t always a certain colour circuit or grade, but the progress I’ve made in accepting who I am, or how much stronger my body is now.
Climbing hasn’t magically usurped my depression. Some days I’m still afraid of everything and everyone. Only recently I burst into tears in front of a whole meeting room of people eagerly awaiting a presentation on blog strategy, but pulling on resin holds or clinging to gritstone boulders on the wind beaten edges of the Dales will always carry a positive weight in my mental health journey. Climbing is my constant reminder to appreciate that, despite my fears and my weaknesses, I am able.
It encourages me to value my body and acknowledge pain and fear as opportunities for growth. For as long as I can pull myself up boulders for no reason other than to sit on top of them for a few seconds, I will have a refuge from my mind when I most need it and the hope that even the most challenging obstacles can be overcome.