Years of abuse. Threats. A desperate escape. A false trail of breadcrumbs. A restraining order. A suicide. A life burned to the ground and a woman torn down to almost nothing. I barely survived. Then I thought I could climb my way out of the trauma.
Outdoor healing. It’s all over social media, in trail running, skiing and climbing in particular: when you #optoutside and push your limits and experience landscapes that take your breath away, you heal your wounds, you feed your soul, you are content. You find the flow and you transcend.
A big portion of what the outdoor industry is selling is based on an oversimplified picture of recovery, and by “recovery,” I mean the process of regaining control, personal agency and some semblance of stability after experiencing trauma. The idea that the outdoors can “save” is good messaging—and advertising. It inspires stories and documentaries that move us, and this ideal has become entrenched in the culture of climbing.
Climbing has this thing, this mythic glob of push-stoke-enlightenment that resonates like some deep, ancient magic. I feel it. I love it. I’m drawn to it. But the glob has taken on a life of its own and morphed into something people lean on to resolve things like grief, trauma and deep, personal pain. Individual climbers perpetuate this idea through carefully curated snapshots on social media, and it shows up in everyday conversations, as if scripted. Some describe the glob as therapy, as something that saved their lives, as if this particularly difficult and consuming hobby instantly cured a health issue sometimes decades in the making.
The fantasy is delicious in its simplicity, and it’s so, so sexy. I’ll admit that I love climbing so much I indulged in and spread this glob for a while. But as much as climbing contributes to my recovery and enriches my experience as a human on this earth, the hard truth for me is this: I survived the sort of trauma that utterly breaks people, and climbing by itself isn’t a silver bullet for recovery.
I lived, despite the mass of statistics that point to a single, glaring outcome: If I tried to leave, my abuser was 7,000 percent going to take us—me and my dog—with him. It’s a staggeringly common, though usually hidden, public-health issue; by one CDC measure, 43 million women and 38 million men in this country experience psychological aggression by an intimate partner. One in four women and one in 10 men have experienced sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking from an intimate partner.
My story started, as many do, when I was a teenager, a 15-year-old ballerina smart kid who fell into the hands of a 21-year-old, grown-ass man. He used manipulation, threats, gaslighting, intimidation and physical abuse to keep me frozen in carbonite for years. Over time, he shut down any source of possible confidence or connection with the outside world, including climbing, running, cycling, ballet, friendships, family. As is often the case, when I was ready to leave, he unhinged on an atomic level. He let me know that there would be skulls smashed into concrete, animal cruelty, gunshots and suicide if I tried to get away.
I’d been so numb to threats for so long, the gravity of the situation didn’t really register until he threatened the damn dog. Then I moved. Fast.
By some miracle of timing, I had about a 48-hour window when he was out of the house, and in that time, I found a DV advocate, wrote the legal documents and went to court to tell the story, got a restraining order, changed the locks, packed up his car with his things, put my neighbors and my employer on notice of the whole embarrassing shit show, arranged for coverage at work, sent out a process server for the morning I was leaving town, let a few trusted friends know what was going on, and prepared my family for the coming avalanche of bullshit manipulation. After two days of non-stop, panic-driven and frantic logistics, I packed up my car, loaded up my dog, and we got out. Less than 10 people knew where we were, and I even threw him off our tracks with a couple of diversions.
He spent about three days trying to smoke us out. But the dog and I were safely hidden two states away when he gave up and ended his own life. A lot of women don’t survive these things. My abuser had almost every statistical indicator of lethality, and it turned out he was lethal. But this girl, she lived.
The Get Up
Within two weeks, I was in intensive, trauma-specific therapy and count myself lucky to have access to those resources. Even though I was deep in the fog of shock, there was this clarity inside that told me to get up. So I got up. I worked hard to do the painful, everyday, incremental things that form the foundation of real recovery; I started taking care of my health in all kinds of ways, and to feel like me again.
Then, as many of these stories go, I heard someone talking passionately about climbing and the outdoors, pushing the idea that stoke from climbing was all the therapy you’d need. As I started to follow climbing, I was pulled in by the sweeping images and powerful stories of these humans defying gravity and weather and obstacles and odds. The narrative fit neatly into the raw and sad part of me that needed answers. And so, “my life changed” when I found my way back to a climbing gym.
I had grown up climbing around Tahoe and Donner Summit with my dad. Green Phantom, Snowshed and School Rock were just down the street from my family’s little cabin and we’d go there for the old-school, single-pitch granite and stunning lake views. I was 18 when my dad died, but before that, we had a regular thing hitting the local climbing gym together. I loved the movement and the freedom from the rigid existence of classical ballet. When I came back to climbing again after the trauma, I was out of shape from years of numbing the abuse with food and booze and overworking. I didn’t know anyone in my city who climbed, and I couldn’t remember how to belay. But I went anyway and I found people and I learned again.
There were some awkward sessions at first where I fumbled and gripped so hard that I’d give out halfway up the baby wall with the dinosaur holds. But then I felt just a moment of flow, where you focus so completely that you move and breathe to the beat of your own heart and you are just you. And in that moment, the raging wolves of guilt and shame and anger and doubt in my head quieted. After the flow came the surge of dopamine at the top, where your heart yaups for joy after getting up something you’d gaped at moments ago, thinking, “No way.” For me, there was something molecular about the physical rise, as if finally my tired and torn body could take back its power and manifest the little voice inside calling me, pulling me, imploring me to get up.
I ran with it. Climbing felt like a revelation, religious in its lucidity, a sanctuary from my pain and my past. I believed in its power and bought into the fantasy so completely that I stopped going to therapy. I looked to climbing as the focal point around which I could rally a complete recovery: All I had to do was climb, out of that dark, dank basement where abuse and trauma reside and into the light of day.
Holy shit, I’d found the answer.
I took every class I could. Learned the words and spoke the language. I met climbing partners who shared my “stoke therapy.” I bought gear. Moved to a climbing hub. Got strong and lean. Tried hard. Rediscovered Donner and Tahoe, and found The Leap, Bishop, J-Tree, Alabama Hills, Red Rocks, and my god, Yosemite Valley. I started with simple toprope routes, then led sport, then trad. It blew my mind. It still does. All of it. Especially the part where you stand in the freezing cold with other like-minded humans; waiting, laughing, sharing beta, sharing stories, flaking, untangling, focusing, racking, placing, solving, moving and ultimately ascending. I texted and posted climbing pics with inspiring quotes and brand hashtags as proof of my happy ending. Look what I climbed. I climb…a lot. I’m healed. Nothing more to see.
Of course there were cracks all along, because recovery is complicated. While a lot of us have looked to climbing as a way to muscle through some of life’s struggles, mental-health issues are not sorted out by sends, redpoints and summits. Films don’t devote much time or space to what recovery really means: deciding you’re worth saving, taking ownership, and confronting pain and old patterns and changing them, slowly, incrementally. What my climbing pics didn’t show was that despite all the smiles and sends and summits, I was still caught in a whirlwind of destructive behavior with my real drug of choice: abusers.
When I finally decided to see the same old patterns in my beloved sanctuary, it knocked me on my ass. How could fellow climbers be anything but the altruistic and enlightened beings I’d made them out to be? How could a climber experience the glob, the flow, the transcendence, and still be a shitty human? And the real burning question: How, among all of the truly brilliant, shining souls who choose to go the most difficult ways up hunks of rock, did I manage to find and befriend and accommodate the ones who had no issue with stepping on me?
My sister says it’s because when you’re magnetic and shiny, you attract all kinds, even the shit. But also, I’d spent so many years submitting to abhorrent behavior that I couldn’t consciously distinguish the diamonds from the lumps of crap or really set and enforce reasonable boundaries. And climbing alone just wasn’t going to change that.
I had one climbing partner who saw how new and into climbing I was and used the glob to his advantage, offering to “take” me climbing and “teach” me how to lead trad and climb cracks. In return, he’d expect to be able to paw at me any time he wanted and even if I froze and clearly wasn’t into it. Perhaps most surprising was that abusive behavior could come from another woman, someone who’d profess on social media how climbing saves and empowers women. When I caught her in a flat-out lie, she played victim, and said I owed her for teaching me to climb.
I’m just starting to understand: While climbing has been an incredibly effective tool in finding strength and confidence and community post-trauma, it’s not a miracle-cure for PTSD.
Climbing helps my body fulfill this powerful physical need to reenact my rise up out of the basement; it puts agency in my hands and reminds me to be grateful for the freedom, self-reliance, resilience and privilege that have shaped my life. But there are hard lessons in it, like anything worth pursuing. Not all climbers are enlightened beings. They are humans, some of them beacons of light, some of them cold and suffering, most of them all of those things combined at any given time. My blind adherence to the belief that climbing was therapy to the exclusion of professional treatment set me back; I still had the same toxic relationships (albeit in a way prettier setting), but because there was so much glob in the way, I wasn’t able to see them for what they really were.
More aware and back in therapy, I now work hard to notice and acknowledge the old patterns, set boundaries, and regulate the powerful jolts of emotion that flood my system when someone messes with me. I can safely say I now (mostly) either flee and (literally) run to safety when I sense abuse, or I stand and face the behavior with calm conviction.
What I know now is that real recovery is multifaceted. It’s uncomfortable, slow, and frustratingly non-linear. While climbing is life-altering in many ways, redemption has to come from me. In other words, climbing didn’t “save” me. I saved me.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 267 (January 2021).
Megan Starich continues to recover and write and explore what the outdoors mean to her. In climbing and skiing and writing and everything in between, she’s grateful for a life filled with joy and love and adventure and food and family.