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Climbing Out of Anorexia

By Josie Brown

Since I was 14, I’ve identified as a climber and poured my heart and soul into the sport. Climbing taught me to appreciate my body for what it was capable of doing. It was my medicine, my rock. When I thought I had nothing else to live for, the thought of sending (To successfully climb a route from start to finish without falling, cleanly and without any assistance) kept me going through my darkest times. However, climbing was also a way for me to punish myself, to beat my body until it literally had nothing left. It was a way for me to compare myself to my peers and critique every minute flaw. It was part of my illness. 

Looking back on my history with the sport, I’m surprised at how far I’ve come. I went from the mindset that I had to dominate the wall, that I had to push and push and push myself to be the best, and that if I didn’t make it to the top of a route, I was a failure, to the mindset that climbing is just a way for me to connect with others and with nature. That it’s ok to not send 5.14 (the grade that puts you in the top 1% of climbers). All that matters is that I’m having fun and learning about how my body works in relation to the world around me. I stopped competitive climbing because I knew it was detrimental for my mental health and I got no pleasure out of it. Do I sometimes wish I could be a world class climber? Yes, but I know that life isn’t for me–and for me climbing means more than just sending a higher grade. 

For me, climbing is more of a moving meditation and I enjoy just going outside with friends and climbing whatever random route strikes our fancy. I still sometimes find myself going back down the hill of self -loathing when it comes to how well I think I should climb, but I am learning that what’s holding me back is not my physical ability, but rather my mindset and my ability to trust in my body. When I can let go of the thoughts in my head telling me I am not good enough and that I should give up and let my body do its thing, I enter a kind of beautiful bliss, the flow state, and I find the peace and power within myself. 

Climbing has helped me challenge my fears head on and has become an allegory for my life up until now. In life we have two choices, to hold on desperately to some fictionalized ideal of who we should be or to let go and embrace the person we actually are. If we let fear guide our path, we are bound to fall; but if we can learn to let go, to breathe, and to appreciate our bodies for what they are capable of, then we can find that life is worth living and that there is beauty out there. That is why I climb on, for the fun of it, and because I love the sport even though it can be frustrating and exposes the parts of me I often keep hidden. Climbing has been such an integral part of my eating disorder recovery and has helped me in ways I believe no therapist ever could because it pits me directly against that which was holding me back: my mind. It has been a long, run-out, flapper-ridden, choss-fest (crumbly, loose rocks) at times, but I do think I would not be where I am in my recovery if climbing wasn’t in the picture.

For additional perspective, here is a recent documentary video about eating disorders in the climbing community: 

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  1. Justine

    Your story resonates with me on so many levels. I am so glad you have found some inner peace when you climb. I hope the feel of the rock, the closeness of your soul and body to the rock, the rhythm of your heart and breath when you are near it, speak healing words to you for the rest of your life regardless of how far off the ground you are.
    With admiration,

  2. Elisabeth Denizot

    Wow! So beautiful. So beautifully writtten. So true. “In life we have two choices, to hold on desperately to some fictionalized ideal of who we should be or to let go and embrace the person we actually are.”
    Thank you Josie for sharing your truth so clearly and genuinely.

  3. Victoria C

    Thank you for sharing your story , and you have so eloquently deciphered the struggle of sports women and their recoveries . You are certainly right that you do not need to be competitive to enjoy every minute of your achievements in climbing and I am sure this sport will be a touchstone throughout your life . Your knowledge will increase every decade that passes and in years to come you will look back at your physical strength and the amazing mental resilience you have accomplished . Awesome work .

  4. JEM

    Thank you for this fresh perspective. It is helping me understand my own daughter (who is a climber) and her struggle with anorexia. I’m hoping that she will find a similar path, up and out of her pain. I appreciate the link to the documentary too. Your courage and insight gave me light on a very dark night.

  5. Jenni Gaines

    Thank you so much for writing and sharing this, Josie! You offer incredible insight and inspiration through your experience with climbing. I am encouraged to know that a sport that was once a part of your eating disorder became integral to your recovery.

  6. Elizabeth Ewing

    So very well written and meaningful, Josie. Up and down, over and around! 🙂 Looking forward to scrambling with you someday in S.D.

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