Climbing Didn’t Save Me

The author shoeing up on the Carriage Road in the Gunks, New York.
The author shoeing up on the Carriage Road in the Gunks, New York.

My anxiety didn’t start when I was in college, but it crested then. In middle school and high school I struggled with anxiety about my studies, about the judgement of my classmates, about meeting girls—I gather this is normal, but mine could get pretty bad. When things were at their worst, I lived in a headspace of bleak scenarios of my own creation.

Not long after I moved into my freshman year dorm in downtown New York City, things grew worse. Life came to feel deeply stressful much of the time. This stress affected my appetite, my sleep, my health.

I adopted mechanisms for coping. When I wasn’t in classes, I walked or skateboarded all over the city, burning off the worry and calming myself with steady movement. I sought out quiet spaces like the library, where I could hide and distract myself amongst the stacks. At night I listened to public radio to fall asleep. The calm, even voices (often British at that hour) were a lifeline of reality trailing down into my turbulent dreamscape.

And of course, I climbed.

I’d been climbing since I was maybe 12 years old, and I always found solace in it. I was most engaged by the challenge of hard boulder problems and sport routes, the way they demanded complete focus. The puzzle of each climb temporarily unified brain and body. The way a climb that seemed impossible and frustrating one minute became possible and exhilarating the next give me an inkling of something deeper: that reality is more a product of our minds than I’d previously suspected.

I worked in climbing gyms to more easily get my fix. Most weekends, I escaped the relentless downtown noise with trips to the Gunks.

For an overstimulated city dweller with anxiety issues, there was nothing more therapeutic than the combination of climbing, good friends, and being outdoors. The relief of a fall day on the Carriage Road was intense after many nights of fitful sleep. The brilliant orange sunsets up there had a way of evening out my palpitating heartbeat.

Those trips allowed me to get my bearings, to remain upright in a world that often felt like it was spinning out of control. The lifestyle of climbing, which required rigorous physical activity and frequent trips to the woods, was critical at that juncture. It helped me find an all-important quiet within myself.

Many of my friends were climbers at that time, too. They were confidants, supporters, encouragers. We talked through our thoughts while walking the dirt paths in the shadow of 300-foot conglomerate cliffs.

Eventually I learned that the calmness I found climbing in nature was actually something I carried within me. I read Zen stories and Eastern philosophy and the works of Henry David Thoreau and Marcus Aurelius, all of which suggested that the external world is almost always less the problem than our reactions to it.

It was when I was struggling most with anxiety and finding relief in climbing that I started to form the perspectives that underpin much of the writing on this blog. Sharing this perspective on climbing and on life has emerged (unintentionally) as one of the aims of The Stone Mind.

I called this post “Climbing Didn’t Save Me” not because I wanted to get persnickety with semantics, but because it’s so easy to look for solutions outside of ourselves. I think it’s important to remember that external things, no matter how positive they may be, can only point us to something that’s already there.

It’s been said that We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are. I think this is right. The act of climbing helped me to see things differently, to approach the world differently. The perspectives I formed via climbing allowed me to cope with and eventually leave behind the anxiety that had plagued me.

So I guess climbing didn’t save me, but it helped me save myself. Or maybe even better: it helped me realize I was never in need of saving in the first place.

A Climb for What Ails You

Couch crusher

The other day I felt like turds. Lethargic, with a headache, and just mentally and physically unmotivated to do anything. A symptom of too much work, maybe, and not enough rest and play. Still, my wife wanted to go to the gym and do a little bouldering and, it being her birthday weekend, who was I to deprive her?

The first couple of climbs went as expected: lousy. I felt like a damp bag of mashed potatoes. Every warm-up problem required an act of will to overcome. A little balloon of pain expanded and contracted rhythmically above each eyeball. After a rough warm-up lap, I lay back on the dirty pads beneath the bouldering wall and tried to focus on my breath.

About a half hour in, the tendons in my neck started to loosen, and I reconnected with the rhythm of the climbs. I started to finish some more tricky problems, coordinating funky body movements on steep walls. By the time we exited into the swelter of the mid-summer afternoon, I was transformed—a different man, if you will. It was a great reminder.

Often, we choose to do things based on how we feel at the moment. Thirsty? Take a drink. Tired? Take a nap. Overflowing with stoke and energy? Go climb. The problem is, we’re not always in tune with our own needs. Personally, my body tells me it’s always a good time for bad Chinese food, despite having learned repeatedly from experience that this is not the case.

Similarly, few of us grasp that when we walk out of the office or wrap up a marathon study session, despite what our exhausted brains are trying to tell us, we will actually feel better if we go for a climb or run or a bike ride up a steep hill. It’s counterintuitive, but by exercising, we can often feel less tired instead of more*. Climbing has taught me this lesson repeatedly over the years, but studies like this one bear it out, too. Sometimes, like one of those little hand-cranked radios, we have to move to generate energy.

It could be that this modern age—where we live in climate-controlled boxes, obsessively stare into screens, and eat food grown and processed in far away lands—has many of us out of touch with our bodies and our natural rhythms. When I went to the gym with Kristin, I was almost certain I’d climb poorly and feel worse. In reality, getting out and moving was the perfect remedy for my generalized malaise. Remembering that for next time won’t be too hard—but believing it enough to overcome the inertia of feeling like turds? That’s another story.

*Of course, there are times when we’re so wiped, so sleep-deprived or physically over extended that rest is the only answer—but that’s another story…