I’m a rock climber, but for the past year I’ve been unable to climb due to injury… an injury that had no definable cause.
After a year of researching the cause of back injuries, I realized that the injury resulted from the mental pressure that I put on myself. For years, my mind bullied my body into carrying the burden of its worries, and eventually, it became too much.
I wrote about this experience for Korea on the Rocks Initiatives:
You love the sound of a PBR can opening after you send a project.
You bench press to avoid shoulder problems. You do forearm exercises to avoid tennis elbow, which you think should definitely be called climber’s elbow. You own a Backnobber, an Armaid, and a handgrip.
You’re always planning out your next trip. You wait for the bell to ring on Friday afternoons then set off for the crags.
You do it because rock climbing is your own form of heroin. There is nothing better than the way it feels to be in it, and when your not, it’s all you think about. It takes you to that place where it’s just you and the climb. Where nothing exists but your movement and your breath.
Then, one night, it’s taken away from you with no explanation. You awake in the middle of the night. When you try to sit up, it feels like you’re getting stabbed down your left side. It’s the worst pain you’ve ever felt, and you can feel it down to the tips of your left toes.
You think, sh*t, I’m supposed to leave for a climbing trip tomorrow night. You pop six ibuprofen, and you spend the next five hours watching climbing videos on DPM hoping that the pain will go away. It doesn’t.
You move across the floor on a blanket like a snake, the way you used to as a kid. You move like this until you get in your friend’s car to go to the hospital. You never figure out what happens to the blanket.
You get the diagnosis. The doctor talks a lot, but all you hear is no climbing. Then you hear months and years. You hear something about staying in bed for a month. Surgery.
You tell your friends that you’re in the hospital, but you’ll be back to the crags soon. You put on a brave face and pretend like the rest will be good for your fingers.
A week later, you’re still bedridden. You can feel the strength draining from your fingers. You feel like you have developed a beer gut over night. You cheer up for your nurses and friends, but at night you break down. Your life is climbing. When people ask you what you do, you tell them you climb. The job is just there because you have to subsidize your REI account.
You don’t know what to do.
Climbing was an escape, and the dirtbag community of climbers that you surrounded yourself with kept you from facing the real problems in your life. You lost your escape, and you realize that your life is cruxier than any climb you’ve ever faced. You are resentful because you can’t climb, and you’re jealous of people who can, including the kid in the park on the monkey bars. You avoid hanging out with the climbers because you can’t stand being part of the pity party.
Severe herniated disc to your cervical spine. A friend with a similar injury tells you that it’s stress related. You learn that this injury had nothing to with climbing. It had everything to do with setting up a life where climbing was an escape instead of building a life that climbing enriched.
You think something has to change, so you start swimming. You go for long walks. You’re patient, and you let your body heal.
You think you might be ready to climb again, but you avoid it because you’re scared. You worry that people will judge you because you’re not strong anymore. You are afraid that you’ll get on that warm up climb and not be able to send it.
Then one day, you notice your hands. You can see the old crack climbing scars, but your hands are smooth and callous-free. The campfire smell on your bubble jacket is almost gone. You feel like a phony when you wear your Prana pants because you don’t climb anymore.
That makes you think that it’s time. The day ends with your ego screaming at you because the climb that used to be easy was just not that easy. You’re frustrated because you realize that you can’t climb with the strong kids anymore.
But you must accept that deciding to climb again after injury is a big mental step. You can’t expect to bounce back to 100% right away. Comeback climbing is hard. It tests your patience and vulnerability. You have to take 500 steps back from where you were, and take baby steps towards your climbing progress. It is humbling to get on an easy climb while watching your friends send your old projects. But recovery is all a part of the journey, and it teaches you that the importance of climbing is the climbing, and not the grade.
Whatever your injury, however long your recovery is, the rock climber will always be in you. The memory of the movement stays with you, and the strength will always come back. What you miss most about climbing isn’t sending hard climbs or pushing grade. You miss the community. You miss the excitement of packing up a car to head out to a crag. You miss the nights around a campfire with close friends.
Spend a day climbing, just to climb. Enjoy the sound of your rope clipping into a quickdraw. Love the fact that everything you own is always covered in chalk. Appreciate the feeling of the wind on your back and sunshine on your face. In the end, these are the things that matter.
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