Let’s try something. Blink. Now take a look at the letter “o”. Look into the middle of the letter and blink. Repeat that same thing for any of the previous a’s, p’s, and g’s in this sentence. Rub your thumb against the side of your index finger. Look at the corner of whatever device you’re reading this on and blink again. Kind of a pain, huh?
This all may seem strange because it is. But for me, this is my normal. At the beginning of the year I began to notice some odd things going on in my head. I’d backtrack on sentences while reading books in order to blink at certain letters until my brain felt soothed. Don't even get me started on reading my Twitter feed. I’d started finding corners within the regular world, like door jams or pillow corners, and blink at them. I'd form triangles within these natural corners in my head. I began rubbing my fingers together and against my chest when I felt stressed, and especially during runs to distract my brain. These are my OCD rituals, and this is the story of finding my remedy.
I remember the day I felt something was wrong. I was driving to work and noticed myself turning my head to seek out corners to blink at. It was to a point where I could have caused an accident because I felt such a compulsion to seek out corners. The night before I remember consciously realizing my eyes were darting back to specific letters while I was reading in order to blink until I felt satisfied. I knew something wasn’t right.
I remember typing in “blinking disorder” into Google and seeing all of the OCD results pop up. I was in shock as I sat at my desk crying, reading through symptom after symptom, most of which I reluctantly knew I had. I spent the rest of the week dealing with an identity crisis. As someone who is a perfectionist, I couldn’t bring myself to accept that something could be wrong with me…that something was wrong with the mind I’d lived with for 26 years.
I remember OCD being something you’d joke about back in high school. Casually saying “Oh I’m so OCD” because you organized your papers a certain way, or because you had your specific seat in class. It was fun and lighthearted back then. It’s not really that fun now.
Crying, afraid, and in denial, I learned that OCD can come in many forms…in behaviors I was all too familiar with. Physical and mental rituals, symmetry obsessions, ordering, counting, checking, intrusive thoughts, contamination and even hoarding are a few. I learned of disorders that stem off of OCD that I’ve suffered from, like Body Dysmorphic Disorder and compulsively rubbing and biting my hair.
With the exception of contamination, I deal with all of the previously mentioned OCD types I on a daily basis. I have rituals that have weaved their way into my daily routine. You wouldn’t notice these happening unless I told you they were, but they’re happening. I’m often late to work because of checking…performing actions like running back upstairs to make sure my hair straightener is off, or running back to the house to make sure I locked the doors…every single day. I already show signs of hoarding tendencies that I try to suppress, and often suffer from intrusive thoughts manifested by fear. This fear fosters most of my rituals. I have a ritual that I do before I leave for work because I’m too afraid that if my ritual isn’t performed my house will burn down, I’ll get into a car accident on the way there, or that something will happen to my love ones. I have a ritual I do before I fly or I’m too afraid to board a plane. I have a separate ritual I do while I’m sitting on a plane waiting to take off. I have rituals before workouts so I don’t get hurt, and rituals during my runs.
My complexes stem from my anxiety, which I’ve lived with for most of my life but never understood what it really was, never understood what the feeling actually meant. This past year I made an extreme effort to start recognizing my anxiety, triggers, how it makes me feel, and learning how to keep it under control. I began to recognize when my throat or head would begin to tighten up, or when I'd feel my body tingle. I guess OCD was one of the methods my mind decided to use to soothe and suppress my anxiety, but OCD is this weird monster that has the ability to sooth and trigger anxiety at the same time, and I’m still getting used to recognizing the feeling.
Luckily, I found climbing.
Most of my past blog posts are focused on running. Running is what I’ve done for the past decade as my outlet, my alone time. It has allowed me to grow as a person in immeasurable ways and has introduced some of the most influential people into my life. I could talk, and have talked, for days about how much running has changed my life. But even running isn’t safe from my rituals. Luckily, climbing was.
I should specify…rock climbing isn’t something new to me. I first began climbing back in 2013 while in college. We had this tiny little climbing wall built in the basement of one of the dorm buildings. Our crash pads were old mattresses. We’d spend Thursday nights building routes, blasting “Sail” by Imagine Dragons (it was 2013 so it was cool, ok?). The room itself was only maybe 9 feet high so you could only traverse, but it made us strong. I got to hang out with my friends, laugh, and problem solve.
I remember thinking about how beautiful professional climbers always looked. It was like this stunningly rugged, choreographed dance. I was never able to climb that gracefully. But there was always this thought in the back of my mind…this thought of “I want to get good at this. I really want to be good at this”.
After college I shied away from climbing. I would go sporadically and top rope with my mom if she was up to it. If I went, I had a routine; stick to top rope, and boulder as a cool down. I never climbed outside, only in a gym. I was always afraid during my first climb up, and then I’d get over it. I discovered I had a sincere fear of heights through climbing, and I think that’s why I never really stuck with it.
Moving out to Colorado in 2015, my boyfriend and I joined a climbing gym up the street from our apartment. Again, I mostly stuck to top roping with bouldering as a cool down. This time I began having anxiety attacks my first few climbs up as I succumbed further to my fear of heights. I would scream with panic in my voice…“FALLING!” before repelling down, constantly terrified. We slowly stopped going and cancelled our gym memberships.
This past spring after watching Free Solo I decided to start climbing again. If Alex Honnold could climb 2,000 feet up El Cap without ropes, I could climb a single pitch in the gym with ropes and someone I trusted on the other end. My first time back was a revelation. My fear of repelling was suppressed. My fear of heights was still there, but I had a rope and I felt safe. I felt confident and refreshed. This was a new beginning.
The only problem is that to top rope you need two to tango, which was non-existent for me during the week. So, I turned to bouldering. I was never really good at bouldering. I was always apprehensive, afraid, and self-conscious. With my fear of heights, I didn’t like the idea of falling so far onto just a pad. So much could go wrong. But if I was to progress with climbing like I wanted, I needed to start climbing consistently. So, I got a membership to a gym close to my office and began bouldering three times a week.
I started off easy and slow. When I would get to a certain height, I’d let go and fall, because I couldn’t bring myself to go any higher, or to fall any further. I never topped out. People would give me advice on how to complete a problem, not understanding that wasn’t my issue. I was just too afraid to climb any higher. But after a few bouldering sessions I realized something more magical than just attacking my fear of heights was happening. My brain was becoming distracted.
Climbing and OCD:
You wouldn’t outright notice this, but my OCD is always there. My OCD is there when I’m working. It’s there when I’m driving. It’s at the gym. It’s with me on my runs…even the 4 hour ones. It’s there when I travel. It’s there when I’m relaxing, watching TV. It’s there when I do homework. I’m always blinking, always seeking out corners, always checking, always counting. It’s always there. Except when I’m climbing.
As I began climbing, even though I felt the anxiety from my fear of heights, I wasn’t feeling the fatigue in my head and responsibility in my body that kept me chained to my OCD. I wasn’t seeking out corners, I wasn’t running my fingers together in a specific way until my brain felt OK, I wasn’t compulsively blinking. There were no rituals. There were no thoughts. There was just routes and problems to be solved. It was my time of freedom, and I needed to keep it. My mind is so focused on where my hands are going, where my feet need to be, and what the problem in front of me is that my OCD just goes elsewhere. And I feel relief.
It’s the strangest idea to me that climbing, the thing that used to cause me so much anxiety and fear, is what has helped my OCD the most. I’m afraid of heights, so you would think that climbing would be an anxiety trigger. I won’t lie, it still sometimes does. I still get afraid rappelling my first few goes. I was incredibly afraid to climb too high my first time bouldering outside. I am always afraid I’m going to miss the crash pad, or that I’m going to completely rip the skin off of my hands or that I’m going to bonk my mouth off of a hold and lose my teeth. But all of that is worth it to feel a little free (and pretty badass at the same time).
Sometimes I see Alex Honnold at industry trade shows. I've met him before, but tend to get a little starstruck every time. (One time I even accidentally interrupted a podcast he was doing in a random hallway of the convention center...) I have this incredible urge to thank him for how much his movie and his feat helped my climbing mentality, helped me get back into it, and ultimately helped my mental health as a whole, and I think the next time I'm around him I'll tell him thanks (and also apologize about the podcast thing). If I hadn’t watched Free Solo I wouldn’t have gotten the courage to start climbing again, and I never would have known the magic it could bring to my life. I never would’ve known that this thing that has brought me so much fear for so many years could also bring the greatest relief to my life when I needed it the most.
I’ve wanted to write this blog post for a while. I’ve wanted to spill out everything I was feeling about having OCD. I had plans to write something during Mental Health Awareness Month, and had a few pieces written on this topic when I was really struggling a few months ago. But it just wasn't the right time, and they felt sad and defeated. I hadn’t yet come to terms with the world seeing me as having OCD. I hadn't come to terms with how I saw myself with OCD. It was never something I thought I would identify myself with, and I didn’t think I’d ever be ready.
This is all so scary for me, but the more I learn about it and the more I accept it, the more I feel it as a part of me. I’ve begun to manage my rituals and to leave time in the morning for my checking. Knowing what this is has allowed me to understand why I often behave the way I do, like why I become anxious when things are not organized or put away “properly”, or when I have trouble parting with something as trivial as an old shoebox. The more I hear of other people’s stories and battles with OCD, from friends, coworkers, and even celebrities, the less afraid I am and the more prideful I become. There is no shame in this, no matter how mild or extreme, unless you let it be so. Besides, my OCD brought me back to climbing, and I can’t really complain too much about that.
If you suffer from OCD or think climbing can help you through something you’re dealing with please don’t be intimidated and give it a shot. Stop by your local gym, rent some shoes, and let your forearms burn for a little bit while your mind gets lost.
*Special thanks to Tom Milam for getting my butt outside, showing me the ropes (lol), for all of the advice, and for always taking the best pictures because #picsoritdidnthappen