The Climbing Addiction

I was at work earlier this spring, helping a gentleman decide on a pair of climbing shoes. He was in the market for something aggressive, as he was leveling up in his climbing. He was a bit older, I’d say close to his late 30s – though it’s tough to say with a mask, and I was never great at guessing ages, though these days I think I’m pretty good at it. He was a newer climber. “I just started at the beginning of the year, and I’m really looking at getting outside this season.” He had been looking into anchor building courses and trying to find places to plug into to get him on the rock. I gave him a few resources to look into and in general tried to amplify his stoke level.

I love that: Shared Psych. That’s what they call it at the gym I worked at. That symbiotic vibration, that yellow and blue makes green feeling you get when you talk climbing with another climber. Especially when they’re new. I fucking love that. People revert to their inner child whenever they’re in their climber state. It’s true. Look around at your climbing gym or crag: the way people move and interact with the world, then look at a jungle gym at a playground. The similarities are astounding. The differences pretty minimal, aside from the lack of gear and the oppositely proportional relationship to age and “I can do this attitude”. Meaning, a child will think nothing of climbing something 5 times their height with no rope, no gear, no training. Ask me to climb something 30 feet tall with only my shoes and a chalk bag and I’m like “what if I get hurt? Oh, Man, that looks pretty high. I think I’m too old. I’m not sure I’m strong enough.” It’s weird, ain’t it? But that’s another blog, for another rainy day.

Back to that guy at work: After he’d settled on the Solutions, we were talking about where he was at in his climbing journey.

“I’m still really new so I’m in that addicted phase” he said.

 “It doesn’t go away.” I told him. “Once it’s there, it’s there for good.”

And that’s true, right? I’ve met a lot of people older than me that ‘used to climb’, but they’re still hooked. Look at them in their eyes and tell me they’re not when they’re looking right on through you sitting there thinking about when they ‘used to be a climber’. So, I gave him the only advice I could:

“Your best bet is just to go with it. Path of least resistance, man.”

He narrowed his eyes in philosophical understanding and nodded, thanked me for all my help, and offered up a fist bump; as serious a gesture of comradery as any in these days of high-fear and pandemia.

I’ve always been into addictions. Some people call it a gene, some call it an addictive tendency or personality, whatever. I have a proclivity for both drama and adventure and when I get into something I allow it to consume me. Another way of looking at it is: I don’t do things half assed. And I think I’d rather look at how I am with climbing as just that: Doing something 100% percent; being all in.

It’s not like my other bouts of addiction, which were all about chasing the high, escapism, and self-hatred. Climbing is the opposite of all that. I feel that climbing is easy to write off as thrill seeking, or doing inherently dangerous things and taking far bigger risk than needed in order to “get high” “get off” or “get that fix”. As though leading 5.10 increases your chance of heart disease and an early grave as much as a diet steeped in cholesterol, trans fat, sodium and sugar. I don’t climb 5.10 but I know a of a lot of crazy fucks who have, and are old and in good shape while millions of people die every year from their diets, their desires, their addictions to substances and their insistence on a toxic relationship with the world. But I digress.

This spring marks my second full season climbing and with it I’ve recently sent my first few trad leads. Trad climbing was always my intention. When I first read about the different forms of rock climbing I said “I want to climb trad.”

I’m an epic self-critic and full time self-loather, so I found myself sitting with my thoughts the other day, reflecting on my last set of leads. The feeling I got, it was kind of like that first couple times I climbed, that hyper focus that I seem to have lost after a year of getting a little bored top roping everything. I began thinking how the novelty of climbing, like anything else in life begins to fade. It becomes routine. You become desensitized to the risk, the fear, the exposure and as you do all the “high” deflates.

But climbing hasn’t been a descension into the spirally chasm of addiction, it’s been an ascension to the next level. It’s been the path to a version of me I’m much more content with.

Climbing is a great way to deal with addiction. I think that’s true because it’s a healthy way to reroute a lot of those neuro pathways. I know that I need to have a need in my life, and that my identity will always be connected to what I do, and if what I’m doing is sending instead of drowning myself in poison then my connection to life is the one between my fingers and the rock and not my lips and the bottle. That’s organic. That’s natural.

The summer of 2016 I started drinking again after two and a half years of sobriety. A year later I moved back to Wisconsin broken and broken hearted. Shortly after I made the move my mom, knowing I was struggling again encouraged me to “get addicted to something good.” My mom really does give great advice. It took a few years, but come the spring of 2021 I’m back on the path of recovery. I’m grateful, excite to be, and thrilled that I am. My commitment to not drinking and not smoking cigarettes is deep, and has its foundation built on love, compassion, courage. And my commitment is a daily practice of all the lessons I’ve learned about life and myself from climbing.

And just like climbing, each day is a series of shifting moments. Life is cyclical, sure, but it’s never a loop, it’s never truly repeating itself. I go through a million different emotional reactions a day. Some days I know that not drinking is the best decision I’ll ever make and I spend the whole day thinking about how great it is. Some days drinking, alcohol, cigarettes, none of that even comes into my brain. Some days, hell, some weeks I can’t stop thinking about alcohol and having a drink and (twice now) some days or weeks have just been too much and continuing the struggle not to drink is just too heavy and I walk to the bar for a beer.

If you’re hurting, if you’re struggling with holding on to something you know is killing you, I encourage you to sit for a second and close your eyes. Don’t think about letting go entirely. Think about relaxing your grip on that hold. If you’re holding on to an addiction, or a habit, or a negative thought, or any kind of relationship that doesn’t suit you anymore, I invite you to trust your feet, relax into them and look for a different hold.

We are not our addictions. We are not our fears or our limitations. We are the crag monsters that those things run from.

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