This is why I am on a mission to talk about outdoors and mental health

 

I share my experience dealing with anxiety and PTSD and how rock climbing was a key tool for my recovery.

10 min read


 
 

I thought that starting with my own story would be the right introduction for you to understand the motivations behind this blog. This long format article is mainly targeted at those who struggle and need to read about people who went through similar scenarios to feel less weird and less alone. If you are looking for just photographs and short captions, visit my Instagram or read my short bio.

Here we go.

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(By the way, this is just a (long) summary describing the relevant parts of the story. As you can imagine, there is a lot more than this.)

It all started with a phone call

That Sunday of April 2016, Reuben and I were driving down to Sydney from one of our regular “weekender” climbing trips to the Blue Mountains. As usual, and for almost 3 years then, I would spend my weekend days at any of the popular crags, fighting to send projects and hanging out with the climber crew in Blackheath. Only one thing was different: my mum's behaviour seemed different and for the last 3 or 4 days, I was trying to make phone contact with my mum with no success. That was definitely not normal.

That Sunday, I was cooking dahl for the next weeks’ lunches. I clearly remember the cumin scent and the yellow hue from the turmeric. I received a call from a Spanish number. It was dad delivering the news I feared: my mum had passed away, taking her own life.

Before coming back home

I wasn't able to sleep for the next night. I texted many friends back in the country and received condolence messages from all kinds of people who knew me - even people that I hadn't talked to for 10+ years. The news spread in my little town and now everybody knew what and how it happened. Everybody was as shocked as I was. How could someone who preached to be always positive and led an independent, spiritual life, have taken her own life? For the last years, she was studying to become a “life coach” and other natural therapies. She even dared to travel to the UK to be a short-term nanny and improve her English at her 55 years old.

And now she was gone because she decided to. I could only blame herself in an act of madness and insanity.

I agreed with my family that it didn't make sense to fly in straight away. We would do the ceremony after a few weeks when it was a better time to do all the bureaucracy and paperwork (I don't have any siblings so it was all depending on me). Until then, I didn't feel much apart from some sadness and perplexity. I was able to keep going with my normal life in Sydney: go to work, go to the climbing gym, eat in and out, sleep sound.

I always was a skinny one but this time it was just too much. Here trying Hairline at Diamond Falls when I started losing weight because of digestive issues. Photo: Matt Burnett, sometime in April 2016

I always was a skinny one but this time it was just too much. Here trying Hairline at Diamond Falls when I started losing weight because of digestive issues. Photo: Matt Burnett, sometime in April 2016

The crack

Reuben and I decided to spend the first couple of weeks in my town to then head for a few days to Ceuse (France) in the search for some and tranquillity while doing what we loved.

My time back home was hard. I had to deal with visiting and arranging my mum’s home, chat with my family about all this, see old friends and organise legal stuff. The mild digestive issues that I had been experiencing during the last 8 weeks (when I started to worry about my mum’s behaviour) grew up to include some sort of general body tension. My diet had been reduced to a few vegetables and yoghurt. What was wrong with my stomach? It was just not improving.

Lucky for me, I thought, we would have a few days away from all the traumatic scenarios that reminded me to my mum.

The first couple of days in Ceuse were great. We stayed in this cute little caravan and we familiarised ourselves with the technical slabs and spooky run outs of this world-class climbing destination. I noticed that when I was climbing any of the routes, the general body tension and underlying worry about my digestive health was gone. Perhaps was the high level of focus that momentarily overrode all those symptoms?

The first day in Ceuse right before the dark times got started.

The first day in Ceuse right before the dark times got started.

The tipping point arrived after I tried the famous route Makesh Walou. I was really, really close to sending it on my second shot but I fell on the top crimps arriving at the anchors. What a shame! After all I went through, I was quickly climbing at my top level in a foreign crag.

I lowered off to belay Reuben. But I started to feel dizzy, as if I was about to lose my conscience… I had to ask an Italian climber around to give him a catch because I couldn’t do it safely. On the walk down, lots of questions came through: what was going on with my stomach, was it really that bad? Maybe I was not getting enough nutrients? Maybe it was a really bad illness? I was terrified.

The next day we went to Gap’s hospital but they just told me that any digestive procedure would take weeks. I would have to wait to be in Australia to properly look at what was causing all this physical damage. After that, I had to renounce to climbing and even hiking up to the crag base. My nights started to progressively turn sleepless. It was time to take the 26-hour flight back home to Australia.

The diagnostic

The flights were painful. I was feeling worse and worse to the point of paying 2 visits to the emergency room at the hospital. The weakness, dizziness and general illness became unbearable. I lost 8kg from my regular weight. Of course, I was trying to explain that it all started with my digestive problem so every doctor I saw would focus on my symptoms and its connection to the stomach.

After 5 days of sleep deprivation, body aches, tension and growing overall pain I finally found a doctor who had the right diagnose: severe panic attacks and anxiety linked to PTSD by dealing with my mother’s horrible passing. I had to take serious sleeping pills and Valium to cheat my brain out of the constant “fight-or-flight” mode that I had been living with for the last few weeks. I was prescribed psychology therapy to work through whatever made my mind fall into such severe state that was tearing my body apart.

Getting back to life

After a couple of weeks, I was able to function and believe that I wasn’t dying anymore. I still was on a small amount of Valium to help the brain re-write the "fight or flight" mode and give the body a break from all the tension and pounding heart. I discussed with the doctor that the fact of depending a drug made me a bit nervous and I wanted to participate in alternative methods as a complement to the prescriptions and the therapy sessions.

I started with daily meditation and guided relaxations. They became a powerful tool as they had a similar effect and goal to the Valium: to make my mind and body “let go” of the tension and fretting and let the body remember how it felt without it. Even if it was for only 10 minutes, it contributed to the progressive work towards a peaceful feeling of rest and tranquillity.

I soon incorporated bouldering and rock climbing as part of the alternative routines. After some weeks out of the game, I couldn't wait to get back into it and feel the physical power and engagement. The climbing gym was such a good way to start: I could start to slowly build up my muscle and confidence in a controlled environment.

However, facing the social aspect was a bit hard at the beginning because I didn't know how to handle it. I felt powerless when exposed to questions like “How are you?” and “I haven’t seen you in so long, what has been going on?”. In many cases I would just reply with a “Yeah all good, you know, I've been back to Europe for climbing…” so I could easily get away without telling all my drama. But sometimes I decided to open up and just say that I was feeling shit and tell my story during the last months.

I had the most amazing conversations after opening up like this in the casual intimacy of the bouldering mats. Getting out there and telling my story, accepting all the facts, showed me how much good this sport was doing by contributing to my healing process. It was really awesome to bring some conversation further than the usual “this is my new project” or “I do the crux like this”. It was really healing for both sides, I believe.

Two months after the diagnose, my strength was back, and so was the desire to start climbing and projecting routes outdoors. The sun, the people, the focus and the goal-setting played a huge part on my recovery towards a “normal”, functioning independent life. I was able to come back to work fully engaged and live a life not depending on regular use of treatment drugs.

The weekends away were such a great way to heal. Here having brekkie with my awesome Spanish climber friends after camping in Nowra.

The weekends away were such a great way to heal. Here having brekkie with my awesome Spanish climber friends after camping in Nowra.

The new mental game

Even though the darkest hour seems far away from today, there is a new factor that I have to play with now. Anxiety, like many other mental disorders, may never disappear. Even though it does not manifest for most of my days, sometimes it fires up and brings symptoms like insomnia, fretting, racing heart-bit and muscle tightness. This is, apparently, normal, and I just have to learn to live with it.

I wasn't totally fine with it until I learned to accept it and to understand that it would impact my lifestyle every now and then. For example, my body and muscles may be extremely sore after a night fretting. Or I will feel totally shit on a day because I couldn't have a decent sleep. This has sometimes made me feel helpless and frustrated, as I couldn't perform the way I wanted, I couldn't train as I should have or I just felt that I threw a beautiful day of climbing to the bin. This created more anxiety and worry on top of what I already had, and it wasn’t good.

It took me a while to learn to read my new mental game and accept that the rules are not as they used to. I had to learn to live my world in a different way, looking at this in a positive way. It is not the end of the world. It is just me, with anxiety. And my future life goals, climbing ones included, will have to adjust to include this.

My message

Coping with mental health issues is not easy. Talking openly about it may feel even harder. But as I try to say with my story, there are simple and accessible activities that can help find moments of inner peace and contribute towards a healthy mindset.

Being outdoors, bouldering and rock climbing reinforced my journey towards recovering the joy of life. I believe they helped me focus on a brighter future and re-structuring the bad thought patterns by providing a space for mindfulness, social interaction and connection with nature. It was a great tool to feel empowered and motivated.

I believe that anyone can use rock climbing and other outdoor and creative activities to build up positive mindsets. My mission is to spread the word and make this accessible to everyone.

Sending projects is awesome but being healthier and having fun regardless of the performance feels even better. In the photo, having some fun at Shipley slabs. Photo: Adam Kubalika

Sending projects is awesome but being healthier and having fun regardless of the performance feels even better. In the photo, having some fun at Shipley slabs. Photo: Adam Kubalika