In response to our series on climbing and body image (parts one, two, three), guest contributor Madi reached out to tell her story. Today she shares her personal experience with climbing and her eating disorder.
Climbing saved me from my eating disorder. When I was introduced to climbing at the age of 18 things were not going well in my body and mind. Ninety percent of my conscious thought revolved around counting. Counting calories consumed, calories burned, minutes until I would let myself eat again, minutes on the treadmill; keeping track of the lies I had told in order to exude what I thought was an air of normality; re-counting calories consumed because I had probably made a mistake, “I should round up,” I thought.
It had been a year and a half of struggle at that point and I was still in denial. Then climbing appeared. Did you know that climbing is really, really fun? I personally had no idea — wow, my hands shake as I type this — no idea that people even did this. Climbed up rocks. Vertically? The next weekend I bought a harness and the relationship began.
At first I was good. Light and strong, having been a rugby player back in the day when, if I hit you, you were the one to fall down, not me. The eating disorder had taken rugby from me so I was primed to absorb something new. I went out climbing as many times as possible before the season ended and began to spend more time in the gym than at home. I had fallen in love, and fallen hard. Though the struggle with my eating continued, it seemed to park itself at the door of the gym, right out there in the cold waiting for me. Climbing was different. It took everything I had. All of the mental energy and certainly all of the physical energy, as that was in rather short supply in those days. There was no room left for counting.
Waltzing up through the grades I was getting compliments that were not, “Hey, you lost some weight, you look great.” I made friends who didn’t know about the change my body had recently gone through, and they never would. Climbing was not exercise, I wasn’t sure what it was, I didn’t stop to think about it. All of a sudden I was excelling, creating a social life, and having a lot of fun. But then I would leave the gym.
In hindsight it was a combination of the 5.10 plateau, and an invitation to the burrito restaurant down the street that let the monster in. There wasn’t energy. I had hit a tangible manifestation of my restricted eating: I could not climb 5.10. And burritos!? What were these new friends of mine thinking? I was never going to eat a burrito, just the thought of it made me sick; all those calories! So I lied. “I can’t, there is someone waiting for me…”
Then, climbing became exercise. I started counting inside the gym. Counting number of routes and time taken, climbing through fatigue, climbing for calorie burning reasons, comparing myself to the standard of body image that a room full of climbers inadvertently sets. This went on for a few weeks before I realized what had happened. The monster was interrupting my climbing and that was not okay with me.
I took two weeks off. The will power needed for those two weeks surpassed any I had drawn on in two years of drastically restricting my caloric intake, and it was hard. For two weeks I had no outlet and lived all the time with my monster. The purpose of those two weeks was to disassociate the two parts of my life, to separate the old eating disorder from the new passion with the hope that they would never meet again.
At the end of my self-imposed timeout, things had changed. My ability to disassociate had disappeared and there was no option but to climb with my monster by my side.
It has been five years now since I started climbing. Climbing has shaped my priorities and relationships, and is as much of a driving force today as it was five years ago. My awareness of eating disorders in and out of the climbing world is inescapably acute. And though my mind and body have been steady for about three years, I believe that an eating disorder is something that never leaves you completely. It is painful to see people accept their monster as a manifestation of the wish to climb harder, though I most certainly understand it.
I learned a lot from the process of digging myself out of that profound hole. Climbing is a powerful force. The places it can bring you, the people it can unite you with, the attention it can draw from your body and mind, these things are what is important to me. It turned out to be less important how much I weighed; it turned out that in order for climbing to give you all it has to offer, you have to do your part. You have to take care of your mind and body, giving yourself the nourishment and care that you deserve. My first 5.10 was a victory far greater than my belayer was aware of.
Thank you Madi for so openly sharing your story with us today.