I did not always like exercise and still have a general tendency to avoid movement (my bed can vouch for me). At school, I developed a love of winning competitions but simultaneously dreaded participating in them. The memories of athletics are usually accompanied by a dark and damp atmosphere: I would throw a discus with a reddened, icy hand and then return to the sidelines shaky and embarrassed. The athletics track spawned a judgy teen silence that made me coil my hands up into my hoodie sleeves, desperately waiting for hometime. I kept up running for a little while longer only because I was relatively good at it, but the day my parents let me quit was the day I scrawled F-R-E-E-D-O-M in my top secret Paperchase pastel diary.
By the age of fourteen, I was old enough to use the I need to revise weapon. I argued that my studies were of utmost importance: running who? I did not have time for such an unacademic activity. What I failed to mention to my parents was a deep-seated insecurity about my body. I felt awkward about every limb, about how leggings looked on me, and how embarrassed I was to sweat around other adolescents. My embarrassment about exercise came from the fear of being exposed. I have already spoken a little on my obsession with invisibility, so for me it is unsurprising how I’ve averted from physical activities that render me all too visible. The next phase of my life, I decided, was going to be a largely static one. My body existed in the private-sphere of my room, specifically at my desk, and my movement range was contained wholly in the exercise of typing. The next few years spelled out colours of safety: the faded blues of baggy jeans, the off-white of graphic tees and charcoal greys of oversized hoodies. My being was safe from both exertion and exposure – I could focus fully on hiding myself inside the realm of ideas.
Arriving at university, I initially did contemplate moving myself out of the bubble I’d created, especially when welfare officers encouraged me to do so. I went running on occasion during my first term and even did a bit of yoga, but eventually the you need to study voice wore me down. However it wasn’t only this voice that switched me off from exercise once more. Having to be with just my body had became a dreaded thought; I didn’t want to be alone with myself in that way. I remember trying to run for the sake of my mental health, but things seemed to get worse. During depressive episodes, jogging past the Isis gave me thoughts of drowning in it, and it started feeling all too easy to run straight into the road. My intrusive thoughts tampered with my ability to feel like exercise was helping, something extremely worrying when so many people were saying it would fix things. Ultimately I felt like the problem had to be me: my brain was immune to responding positively to any self-help. I was doomed to feel bad forever and no amount of exercise was ever going to change that.
However, in the last couple of months my perspective has completely changed – I might just have found an outlet of sport that works (for me). The idea to start climbing happened on a walk, where we scrambled up the side of a small waterfall. It was the first moment in a long while, upon reflection, where I was not disassociating. During that climb I felt fully inhabited in my body and everything felt comfortably real. The feel of shiny pebbles and the sound of trickling water, it all seemed to materialise in that moment. I decided then that I didn’t want to let that feeling go, and as soon as I got home booked a session at the nearest climbing gym.
The first aspect of climbing I fell in love with was, unashamedly, the outfits. Now I am not arguing for the importance of having an exercise aesthetic, but honestly any sport that lets me wear cargos is automatically more enticing. On top of this was the indie playlist floating down from the speakers, covering the whole gym in an aura of chill. If I was going to take up a sport, I may as well choose one that shared my taste in music. But more than this, I fell in love with how climbing has helped me cope with dissociation in a way no other type of exercise has. When I am climbing, it is just me and the wall. I can’t get lost in thought because I need to concentrate entirely on the boulders in front of me. The slight danger that comes in free-hand climbing has also made me feel more safe in my body. Knowing that I could quite easily fall and injure myself if I were to space out actually makes me feel very real as a body. In turn, when I feel real I feel more safe, I feel my body to be real enough that it needs protecting. Being on the wall is a vital way of coping and combatting my disassociation and I am very grateful to have found it.
If you are interested in climbing in Oxford, Brookes Sport Centre has a bouldering gym! Furthermore, if you are interested in climbing as a form of therapy, I would recommend these articles below: