Fighting the Terror of Climbing
Imagine your deepest, most agonizing fear, the one thing that makes you feel utterly alone and exposed and vulnerable to the world, the one thing that paralyzes you with its impossibility. Now make it a competition. In front of strangers. That was my situation.
Late Monday night before my friend Emily and I met up ridiculously early on Tuesday morning to climb, I psyched myself up for it. I wanted a breakthrough in my acrophobia and to feel like after a year of climbing I had somehow improved as a climber and had more control over my fear of heights, so to pump myself up for climbing the next morning I watched Youtube videos of climbers doing amazing things and read my "How to Rock Climb!" book and watched parkour videos and I was excited, so excited, to try something bold.
"Do you think I could do parkour?" I asked McCrae, my eyes still glued to the Youtube video on my laptop.
"Liz, you can't even stand up on the railing of our deck, why do you want to do parkour?"
"I can too stand on the deck railing!" I exclaimed, and at 10pm while the neighborhood was dark and everyone else was going to bed I went outside to prove that I could do it. I swung my leg over the deck railing and tried to hoist myself up, but I just hugged the rail, clutching it close, close, closer, unable to let go.
"Oh Liz," McCrae said, and I retorted, "It's wobbly! Fine! You try it!"
And he did, with just a little bit of effort, stepping up on my car to get some leverage to stand up. I hadn't even thought about using the car to get a leg up; I had just tried to stand up with nothing to help me balance, and so I told him to get off the railing and let me try again.
I managed to stand up that time, but I had to keep a hand on my car or on McCrae's shoulder in order to do it, and McCrae laughed and hugged me and pulled me down to the deck floor.
The next morning though - the next morning was tough. We got to the climbing gym and it was a "Technique Tuesday" meetup with one of the instructors recruiting meetup attendees for some small group lessons. Since we'd seen the instructor regularly at the gym he asked us if we wanted to join, and we said sure - Emily much more enthusiastically than me. We were split up into separate groups to get to know some other climbers and the instructor explained the activity: we'd be bouldering and it would be a competition. For every V0 completed you'd get half a point for your team. For every V1 you'd get one point, V2 two points, etc. Only one person from the team could climb at a time, and you could only climb a route once per person. It took a couple routes for me to fully comprehend the horror of the situation - that I didn't have time to get comfortable with a route, that I felt the pressure of competition and performing well, and even worse, that I'd have to do all these things while facing my phobia of heights in front of people I didn't know.
Forget slasher films, this was the definition of horror for me, and I'd be trapped in this nightmare for most of the morning. Imagine your deepest, most agonizing fear, the one thing that makes you feel utterly alone and exposed and vulnerable to the world, the one thing that paralyzes you with its impossibility. Now make it a competition. In front of strangers. That was my situation.
I have a deep-seated phobia of heights. It's irrational (that's why it's a phobia) and it's paralyzing. One minute I'll be climbing just fine and the next minute I'll be plastered to the wall in a panic, my arms burning with my death grip on the hand holds despite my rational brain saying, "Relax, you're fine, you're in a harness, just move." There is nothing rational about the phobia, and so I just try to push myself and my comfort zone to try to control it. Even so, it's a horrible uphill battle, and trying to work through that fear in an uncomfortable setting was agony.
At the end of the game Emily asked me if I'd had fun and my answer was an emphatic, "NO."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I knew you wouldn't like it, but it's good for you. It's good to push your comfort zone. You're so brave."
Brave. I don't think that's the right word. We talked about the experience and pulled off our climbing shoes near the cubbies and one wet hot tear dripped down my nose and onto the floor next to where I was untying my climbing shoe laces. No, brave wasn't the right word, just as tears weren't the right response. Those weren't fearful tears, or sad tears, or anything else you might expect. They were tears from wanting something so very badly, of wanting to climb and swing free and happy from some rock ledge, and being ashamed at my barriers both real and imagined. They were a manifestation of my vulnerability: an open, gaping wound for the world to see my true self - a soft, petulant thing with fears and inhibitions - rather than the bold, adventurous and idealized version of myself that I cling to every day.
It wasn't weakness. It wasn't bravery. Rather, it was the horrible confrontation of my truest self, and the battle to become my ideal.
That's it - it was a battle. A battle of self against self, of what I wanted - so desperately and passionately wanted - and what I told myself from the dark corners of my brain. I wanted to climb. I wanted to! I wanted to haul myself up the rock wall powerfully, effortlessly, bravely, and to be this strong independent version of me that I imagine myself to be. But the other voice in my head told me, "Stay on the ground. You can't do that. Stay on the ground," and it was so difficult to listen to my wants and to tell fear or society or inexperience or whatever those cautionary voices were to shut up, shut up, I can do this!
No, it's not bravery. It's a battle. Some days I win the battle - my desires are fulfilled and I feel strong and capable - and some days I have to just learn from the experience and come back stronger, cleverer.
The plan most recently with climbing is to just climb the same routes over and over again until I feel comfortable on them, until I know every move by heart and can dispel all my self-doubt, so that I can take all the evidence of my physical and mental strength and say to those doubting voices, "See? I CAN!" and feel vindicated by the proof. Like so many other women (and others) I feel the need to be overqualified before I can feel confident enough to push myself to advance. I could do more - I could! - but I have to perfect every little detail, feel perfectly capable in every scenario, in order to feel qualified or confident or worthy - in order to silence the doubting voices and shout even louder, "I can! I will! I want to!"
When I came home from the climbing gym to an empty house except for Ryder sitting by the door I kicked off my flip flops, straddled the deck railing, leveraged against the car, and I stood up. I stood up on that railing, that stupid little three foot deck railing, wobbling and shaking, and I let go of everything. I stood up, precarious and feeling a little foolish at the small gesture, but I stood on my own and it was a start.