Periods of injury can be trying for climbers. You may feel a range of new emotions that are difficult to understand. You are not alone. The Kubler-Ross model, most commonly applied to grief and loss, can also be observed in injured climbers during climbing withdrawal and recovery. These 5 stages are meant to guide you through your grief process, better equipping you to cope with your injury and loss of climbing. Proceed through your journey with an open heart and remember your injury is as unique as you are.
Stage 1: Denial
“What pain?” you ask yourself, after feeling a tweak going for the mono on your project for the 15th time that day. “It must not be actually injured, since this fistful of Ibuprofen seems to be helping.” At this stage, because you are in denial, you keep pushing it, since you’re clearly not injured. Your climbing routine doesn’t skip a beat, so you put on a brave face and embark on your hangboard workout the next day. Forget going to the gym and “taking it easy,” you don’t need to change a thing! You may not realize you are experiencing this first, and very important stage. When you do, let yourself experience denial, as it is the first step to pass through on the path to healing your mind and body.
Stage 2: Anger
Now you can’t make the crux move on your project without pain that even you can’t ignore. You then experience an uncontrollable urge to shout excessive expletives while on the wall. When you’re finally lowered off, you angrily tell your climbing partner, “Why would anyone put this move on this climb anyways? This climb is the worst. We should have left hours ago, before I even got on it.” You then silently curse your climbing partner for inviting you out and silently curse the weather for being sunny and 70 degrees with zero humidity. Do not be afraid to let yourself feel anger, as it is a true expression of your love for climbing. There is no need to apologize to yourself for feeling angry, but do apologize to your climbing partner, who’s day you may have ruined.
Stage 3: Bargaining
As you plunge into despair, you plead with the climbing gods, “I promise I’ll tape my finger every time! I’ll eat more kale and drink less beer! I’ll do more yoga!” After a few weeks of improved diet and sleep doesn’t do the trick, you finally make a doctor’s appointment. After explaining what rock climbing is and why you love it so much, you beg for that physical therapy referral which may just be the fix you need to “actively heal.” However, note that your doctor may give you the standard “take 6 weeks off and rest” recommendation, which may cycle you back to Stage 1. Where ever this stage leads you, remember that you cannot wish your injury away or go back in time to a younger, healthier you. Proceed with a kind heart into the next stage of your journey.
Stage 4: Depression
Without the endorphins from your climbing sessions, the climbing withdrawal induced depression is palpable. Doing 50 reps of stretch-band physical therapy exercises becomes so mind-numbing that you start drinking alcohol again. Since all your friends are out climbing or training together, you sit at home and feel a deep sadness and loneliness. Your friends take pity on you and ask if you want to go out for a “non-climbing” activity, but this idea plunges you into a deeper depression. The emptiness may feel like it will last forever and become who you “are”. It’s important to understand that this, like the other stages, will pass, and there is no need to seek comfort in another inferior activity, like slacklining. During this time, push yourself to reach out to the loved ones in your support system, as they care deeply for you whether you are on the wall or off.
Stage 5: Acceptance
After finally seeing the carnage of your injury on an MRI, you finally realize that some rest is in order. You slowly adapt to a schedule involving less climbing and dabble in the hobbies you had before you started climbing. You catch up with your non-climbing friends, and call your mom and all other friends and relatives who have left voicemails while you were out climbing in areas without cell service. You even venture back to the crag, and find the joy in taking a newbie friend out for the first time. You truly accept your reality and begin to live again, knowing that things will never be the same, but that you will climb again.
Climb on, and stay healthy!