Coming Back

Taba Easton writes about living, climbing and writing with anxiety and fear of failure.

My fingers feel frozen but sweat beads on my forehead as I battle the waves of anxiety; I need to focus on the task at hand but my scattered brain seeks distractions and retreat. I'm not halfway up a route but sitting in an office chair in front of my computer in Spain, trying to make some sense of how I feel, and put it into words. The fear comes when I imagine somebody else reading it. The fear of failure, of nobody liking or caring about what I write has stopped me even starting in the past. So far today I haven't allowed it to.

A Dream of White Horses.  © Matt Crawford
A Dream of White Horses.
© Matt Crawford

I have often wondered what first caused my anxiety and fear of failure - a crippling fear that has affected every part of my life. I might have hidden it well at times with a careless attitude, but it has always been with me. Was there some childhood moment where evolutionary chemical reactions kicked in and forever linked a difficult moment with the sickening horror of anxiety, and told me to stop trying things, desperate to never feel that way again? The origin definitely doesn't matter now, only getting better matters, and idiotically no doubt to some, getting better in my own way is what I want most.

At times I felt climbing was my route to redemption and victory over my demons. I thought that doing things that scared me, succeeding and improving, overcoming my fear of heights - all of these would somehow make me better. I used to say to myself "If I can climb 10m above gear in a blizzard 4 hours away from the car park, I can talk to people at work without going red." It worked for a while, until the first feeling of panic rose in a social situation or supermarket queue that I couldn't stop. It was at this point that my anxiety whispered: "If you thought you were free of me, you were wrong." I think climbing does make my mental health better, in the short to medium term at least. The exercise, the fresh air, the friends you trust completely, but it compartmentalised itself; climbing mainly made me more confident at climbing.

Point 5 Gully spindrift.  © Robbie Miller
Point 5 Gully spindrift.
© Robbie Miller

To get past the fear of failure, I can tell myself I am just writing for fun, for the process, which is only partly true. I can lie in the same way I tried lying to myself at times that climbing was just for fun - it can be at times, but it's not the point. I play computer games for fun, it's very different. If I'm writing for fun and I never expect to make anything more out of it, which is what I tell myself, then why do I keep doing it even though it is so hard and scary? If I climb for fun and I never expect to make anything more out of it, which is what I tell myself, then why do I keep doing it even though it is so hard and scary? I suppose the first answer that comes to me now is I don't really write and I don't really climb. I first opened a Word document with intent a couple of weeks ago, and last pulled onto rock well over a year ago. Unlike climbing, writing has always been absent, and my attempts in the last few weeks to remedy that have reminded me why I never got started, despite some kind of longing for it throughout my adult life.

How can I have longed for writing without ever having tried it, in exactly the same way I have longed for the sea? I have visions of a small, white, sleek boat, with sail cutting up into the air. The sea is dark, almost black green below, the only slightly lighter steel grey sky above and as I draw back from the yacht, across the surface of the water, I see the depths below as well as the sky. Two huge and growing halves of colour, black-green and grey-blue, split by the surface and in the centre the ever shrinking white speck of the yacht, miles of sky above, miles of deep below. I yearn to be there, tossed on the cruel sea in a tiny refuge, and if I ever get there I may well wish I was anywhere else, but it doesn't matter. It is much harder to describe how I yearn for writing, because it isn't a vision, it is a feeling. A feeling of accomplishment, my thoughts finally ordered and expressed, a feeling of understanding myself and the world better, a feeling of progress in my life.

Climbing for fun?  © Matt Crawford
Climbing for fun?
© Matt Crawford

So what is the link here between climbing and writing? There probably isn't one but that is what you do isn't it, in an article, is this an article? Well the link might be fear of failure in writing and everything else, and fear of falling in climbing. I've climbed sporadically for almost ten years but I have only fallen a handful of times, only once more than a few feet. I have talked many times with partners about practising falling the next time we go to the wall, but it has somehow only materialised once or twice. It holds me back, and I have let it hold me back for far too long. But what do you do when you have told yourself off for something, made resolutions about something and then somehow, almost subconsciously, weasled your way out of it over and over? I suppose you try again, which is maybe in essence what I am writing about, trying again despite all the evidence that it's pointless - try it differently this time. I am desperate to climb again right now. I sit in front of my computer scrunching an orange stress ball in time to music until my forearms throb, or I run myself to painful exhaustion on the forestry tracks that climb the local hills, sure that it will all be different, better this time. I pore over all the news and podcasts and videos I have missed in the last year and try to imagine myself in all of it. I rage that my car is broken down so I can't drive to crags or go bouldering right now, but where was this energy a month ago when my car was working? I don't know.

The energy and obsessiveness scares me in a way, because this is how I have felt many times before while comfortably a long way from actually climbing, then I've felt that energy turn to sickly fear as I trudge upwards gazing at the suddenly terrifying grey masses of rock above, dropping my head to stare at the stones on the path instead. I would still climb, but the joy and triumph I imagined was more often desperation and relief, more powerful as an experience perhaps, but so tiring that I would be looking for excuses to finish the day early. I would return to the safety of home and something of the energetic obsessive would begin to appear again, shaping the memories of the day into something quite different, but beneath that a part of me was sickened by my cowardice, and the whole cycle would leave me drained. The only exception to this is the times I got to go climbing a lot, in a shortish space of time. On those rare occasions that I can climb at least once or twice a week outdoors for a few months, I would become at home with the heights, exposed scramble descents no longer gripping me. I could climb above gear trusting it, and the obsession would be replaced with a more pure experience of the moments, the routes and the moves. Sometimes I even had fun, and in the evenings I could really relax and switch off. This is what I want from my climbing future.

'I want climbing to be a big part of my life, but I also want to be less tied up in it.'  © Matt Crawford
'I want climbing to be a big part of my life, but I also want to be less tied up in it.'
© Matt Crawford

I am lucky enough to be able to earn money on the move. Trading shares on the stock market is a kind of sick counterpoint to my left wing politics, but it offers a hope of the life I want, so I suck up the hypocrisy and short sell away. I plan my return to the UK, to simplify my life, to live in a van, to surf, to write and to climb, to try new things and old things, to grasp them and let them go. I want climbing to be a big part of that, but I also want to be less tied up in it. I want to use less energy obsessing over it and imagining it from behind a book or monitor. I want to do it without hoping it will fix me. Maybe in ten years I will be able to write without hoping it will fix me.

For information on dealing with anxiety, visit the Mind website.

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30 Jul

Nice article, thank you for sharing.

I hope you get back on rock soon.

30 Jul

Well it's no small accomplishment to overcome your anxiety enough to put writing on this website, thus opening it up to the possibility of torrents of unhelpful comments, which often litter these forums. Well done for that.

You write well, and I was dissapointed that the piece ended just as I was getting into it. Climbing media these days is all too often filled with vacuous self promoting rubbish, and it is always refreshing to see someone writing about something a little deeper. Write about your experience, and you'll always have a contented audience in me.

Personally, the combination of climbing, and then writing about my experiences and motivations to have them after the fact, has been central to finding an intrinsically oriented approach to life, and thus a reduction of an anxiety which was also once rather crippling. When my motivations come from within, anxiety has little power over me, but when my motivation comes from out with, anxiety always has a stronger hold.

Finally, I'm not sure if you use it, but after writing and climbing, the single best thing I have done to tackle my anxiety is to quit social media. Some people see this as avoiding the problem, but I can only speak from my experience, and my life is far better without it. I've not looked back for a second.

30 Jul

Well I thought that was an excellent piece of writing, well done. And I think it’s a fascinating subject matter too, one that, perhaps ironically, you seem to have a really good understanding of. To that end, I can’t offer you any advice, the questions you pose in the article are followed by the answers that I would have provided.

All I can do really is share a part of my own story. I feel like I’m emerging from a ten year coma. For the best part of a decade I’ve battled with muscle imbalances, with constant pain and discomfort, and felt completely lost because of it. My identity as a climber, as an athlete, as someone who thrives on physical work, disappeared. And as a result, I retreated within myself. I talked to people less and less, and became more insular. I tried to find solutions to the problem through physio but it’s only been in the last two years that any progress has been made. And it was so microscopic that it didn’t really change my day to day outlook. And then a few months ago, I had a major breakthrough and almost overnight regained the body I used to have. The effect that this has had, and continues to have, on my attitude surprises me daily.

I find myself engaging naturally with complete strangers, colleagues, family and friends in a way I haven’t for a long, long time. Without any real thought, I’m doing things in the hills that I couldn’t even have contemplated before, and I’m returning home from long days of training and work feeling energised and wide awake. And funnily enough, I feel more now than ever I could walk away from climbing because it would be my choice. It’s not being forced upon me. But that’s my story. I don’t know what will work for you, but it sounds like you’re on your way to figuring it out. I wish you luck. And keep up the writing.

Hi Patrick,

what was it that gave you your breakthrough with your imbalances and pain?

From a fellow sufferer.


31 Jul

I can empathise very strongly with this - I'm very familiar with the feeling of enthusiasm that deteriorates to dread the closer you get to the rock, the anxiety that sabotages your enjoyment of the climbing... particularly on 'famous' routes like Left Wall or the like.

I practically gave it up for a year or two because of this and am slowly coming to terms with it, mostly by sticking to safer routes, mixing climbing with hill running and channeling obsessiveness into training... but it's hard.

Thank you for sharing.

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