The fist time I had something to drink I was 12 years old.
I stole two beers from the cooler at my dads 40th birthday party, a Heineken and a Corona, ducked away from the adults at the party, ran around the side of the house and up the ladder waiting for me to the rooftop. My two best friends, were waiting for me.
We sat with our feet dangling over the edge of the house, watching the adults below as we sipped our stolen beer.
I hated the taste, but I liked how it made me feel.
Each of us laughed and made too big of a deal out of how we felt. Yelling about how drunk we were and purposefully slurring our words. The party below was so loud that no one could hear us anyway.
A few months later I was 13, maybe 14. A friends older sister bought us a 6 pack of corona and a bottle of Don Julio. We stayed up all night drinking in her room, texting boys and laughing. Sometime around 2 am she started puking and we stopped laughing. I laid awake all night on the floor clutching my stomach and staring at the ceiling, I was terrified to throw up.
Growing up, alcohol was a secret pleasure. One of those things I could get away with because I was smart enough to navigate the rules and bold enough to brake them. Meeting with friends in dark places with cups of beer, stolen handles of vodka, and water bottles full of our parents liquor.
Turning 21 took the thrill out of it, but it didn’t change how it made me feel.
Beer. The sweet, golden, bubbly taste that made life easy. Bars and breweries were just places I could go when everything else sucked. New friends were just a $7 pint away, and no matter how much I drank I could always go for one more.
Alcohol became the cure all to everything that hurt. After a bad day at work the remedy was to watch Kung Fu Panda 2 and drink an entire bottle of wine to myself. I cried myself to sleep and then woke up with a hang over.
It’s normal to drink with your friends, its accepted and even encouraged to shell out $15-$45 a night on drinks, or $13-$30 on a bottle of wine.
Our collective holidays are soaked in booze. Just take a cultural stereotype, add a few gallons of alcohol, a day off work and you’ve got a good old fashioned American Holiday.
At what point can you declare your alcohol consumption a problem? Is it one drink a night, every single night? Or do you have to be driving drunk at 10am on a Tuesday to qualify? My days were filled with work and relationships, and my evenings were a hazy wash of incandescent lights and suds.
In 2017 I ended a long term relationship. With that breakup I lost everyone I had felt close to. All those $7 pints bought me an empty house and a silent phone. Instead of diving in to glass after glass of self loathing, I decided to wield sobriety like a knife. I carved chunks out of my heart with my undampened anguish. The pain was sharp and clean.
I drove my van into the desert, and I didn’t drink. I spent nights alone in my van listening to the sounds of people slurring their words and signing late into the night around a campfire. I met a mormon girl with a German Shepard and we woke up at 6am to watch the pink sunrise with mugs of tea. The startling clarity of the morning sunk in through my eyes, my ears and my mouth, and it woke me up better than any cup of coffee.
Like a wounded animal I ran deeper into the heart of the desert, and I didn’t drink. The sand was red and bloody, it felt good to see a landscape that mirrored my insides. I sunk into the sand and the rocks and I didn’t drink.
It was in this raw and vulnerable space that rock climbing found me. And it was the sweetest drink I’d ever had.
This wasn’t sobriety, this was better. If I had been wielding sobriety like a knife, I was now holding rock climbing like a sledge hammer. I smashed my old life apart with reckless abandon. This was something I could destroy myself with and call it growth.
The fear that comes with climbing burned me clean. The terror and the joy felt like nothing else and brought my world into a new kind of clarity. My hands ripped and bled, the pain clean and true, no longer the fingers of an office worker but someone else, someone I wanted to be. My clothes destroyed themselves and became utilitarian instead of fashionable. The strain on my muscles carved out a new shape of my body and fat fell off in clumps. I was harder, leaner, harsher, less concerned with the superficial, more concerned with things like living and dying. I did start to drink again, every so often, but the buzz was gone.
It interfered with my climbing.
The alcohol buzz I’d once had, felt dull and softened the blow of that sledge hammer. I wasn’t done demolishing parts of me that interfered with climbing.
My old friendships began to die, one by one. I lost clients, I lost money. I isolated myself in this new world I had created and my happiness hinged on whether or not I succeeded at this strange sport. I drove tens of thousands of miles to chase it. I spent thousands of dollars on gas money and van repairs. Any cost was worth this.
Let it all die.
Let the old me burn up.
Just let me climb.
At what point can you declare your obsession with rock climbing a problem?
Around year two of this obsession my hair started falling out. I gave myself food poisoning from eating rotten food out of the dumpster. The scars on my hands have started changing the shape of my knuckles. My vans transmission failed and I demolished my savings and skyrocketed my credit card debt in order to keep going.
I had been smashing the old me a part with a sledge hammer, but where was the line? Was this masochism a form of growth or a form of self destruction? From the outside people applauded my independence, my daring, my weight-loss. Beneath it all I couldn’t help but wonder if they were encouraging self harm.
What I know about myself is I cope with emotional pain by bringing it to the surface in a physical way.
A friend passed away this year and my first response was to throw myself back into climbing. I cried on the phone with my mom while she told me about his death, and then I thrashed my body in the Alpine. I sent my hardest climb to date with the thoughts of his death on my mind.
My climbing success is directly related to my emotional pain.
I can push away the fear by focusing on the pain, I can dig deeper and try harder by focusing on the pain. I can tear my knuckles apart and scream and sweat and strain my body to the point of exhaustion, and when I sit down on the ground I know the endorphins will sooth my heart. What it does for my nights is even better. I know I won’t lie awake in anguish, thinking of what I should have done or could have said, the physical and mental exhaustion will knock me out and spare me that sleepless torment.
The question that sits at the front of my mind on days like this isn’t ‘is this healthy’ but, ‘does is matter that it isn’t?’
Does it matter that I’m treating rock climbing like my own personal therapist? Does it matter that I’m numbing my pain by putting myself in semi life threatening situations? And finally; is this better than drinking?
In days gone by I would remedy with a bottle of wine, or a shot of whisky. Today, I remedy by climbing a mountain and putting my life at risk.
One might kill me, the other might kill me faster.
I don’t have answers to these questions. But I have started drinking periodically. Today I can have a beer or a shot, and even go to the bars with friends for a night out and not lose myself. Drinking doesn’t hold the space for me it once did. Climbing has replaced that.
In years to come maybe rock climbing will take a back seat to something else, or someone else. Maybe this is what it is to be an adult, to grow, to discover yourself.