It was September 2016. I had just moved into a cozy flat in Edinburgh with a view of the castle, three amiable roommates, and a small dog whom I immediately dubbed my best friend. I dedicated my first week to unpacking and decorating my room, and in an attempt to hang a tapestry on my wall, I found myself precariously balanced on an unreliable, and unreasonably tall, metal ladder.
In a moment true to my clumsy nature my foot slipped from the ladder and everything quite literally came crashing down on me. Not only did I fall off the top of a 10-foot ladder, but the ladder quickly followed, landing with a loud crash on my rib cage.
I lay stunned for a few minutes, deaf to the friends and roommates calling from down the hall and numb to the throbbing wound in my side.
My roommate and wannabee nurse soon came to check on me and bandaged the cut with Steri-Strips. Over the next few weeks I went through various stages of bruising and scaring, but soon enough I was healed. Or, at least, I thought I was healed…
Simultaneously, I was becoming increasingly obsessed with rock climbing
It was a hobby I took up in an attempt to impress my boyfriend, but it soon ceased to be about him. I fell in love with the freedom that pulsed in my veins as I defied gravity and moved my body higher and higher up the rock. I savored the feeling of invincibility that followed the successful completion of a problem I thought was beyond me. I craved the exhausted satisfaction of pushing my muscles so far past their edge that they swelled twice their normal size and throbbed each time I tried to grip a pen or open a door.
When work and school would allow, I was going every other day. I loved nearly everything about it. Nearly. There was one thing I didn’t love.
I didn’t love the strange aching that appeared on my left side body every time I went to the climbing gym.
But I chalked it up to the fact that I was working my core muscles in new ways and managed to ignore it steadily for far too long.
Eight months into my year in Edinburgh, the pain became unbearable
It was a slow build, but a build nonetheless, and soon it got harder to ignore. The aching became a sharp pain. Then two hours of pain became two days. As the months passed, it was no longer just climbing that ignited the biting, shooting pains in my side. A simple core workout; a yoga class; eventually even sitting for too long was enough to send my body into a state of pain that confused and scared me.
One day, while working at a coffee shop, I felt a sudden stab in my rib cage followed by a pain so intense I was immediately sweating, shaking, and attempting not to faint.
The next few months were spent being handed from one doctor to another. CAT scans, MRIs, blood tests, ultrasounds; no one could place the source of my bizarre symptoms. No one, that is, until I went to a nerve specialist.
“Have you been kicked by a horse recently?” He asked.
I laughed, “Not that I can remember.” I paused. “But a ladder fell on me awhile ago. Would that do it? I mean, it was practically a year ago.”
“That would definitely do it. How long have you been experiencing these symptoms?”
That’s when it clicked. The two of us discussed my progressive symptoms and traced it back to the day I lay bleeding under a large metal ladder. In that moment, I had done minor damage to the nerves between my ribs. That minor damage had been too small to notice, so I didn’t, and I kept going at full speed. Which is why that minor damage became major damage.
The solution, he told me, was a minor surgery to permanently numb the nerves in my rib cage
It was an in-and-out procedure and the recovery was a relatively-manageable three months of limited activity. However, between the months of undiagnosed pain, the weeks surrounding surgery, and the months of recovery, it was nearly half a year before I returned to the rock.
The first time I went to back to the climbing gym, I jumped on the wall, ready to be back at it. I started climbing up and immediately froze. My muscles shook as though I’d been working them non-stop for the past hour. I crumpled and fell onto the crash pad. I laughed and shrugged at my friend, “Guess it’s been awhile since I’ve used these muscles!”
But it wasn’t the muscles that were holding me back. The minute I got more than a foot off the ground, I began to panic. What if I fall? It was a fear I had never had in the climbing gym before. What if I fall and land on my ribs and damage my nerves? I knew from my conversations with my doctor that what had happened to me was a freak incident and could not happen from falling a few short feet onto a cushioned pad. And yet, my inner hypochondriac shook in her climbing shoes and begged me to get out of there.
I sat facing the wall the way I used to face roller coasters as a child. On the one hand, I was petrified. On the other hand, that very fear fueled my determination. I had to prove I was stronger than my fear.
So I went back to the wall and climbed one hold higher
Just one hold. That’s about 6-inches. Then I jumped off. Then I went again, only this time one hold higher. I did this again and again until my palm made contact with the dusty top of the wall. I looked down at the pads below me and cringed. Then, I leaned back, let go, and fell.
I landed in a cloud of adrenaline and giggled for a solid minute. The fear was still there; I could feel it itching in the back of my brain; but it was hidden under the feelings that had first driven me to the sport. The freedom, the invincibility, the satisfied exhaustion; I was back on the rock and it felt oh so good.
Every time I went climbing after that I climbed a little higher and a little longer. And every time the portion of my brain dedicated to fear got smaller and smaller. Until, eventually, it was gone. With the pain in my side gone as well, I could finally climb the way I had wanted to since I first put on a pair of climbing shoes: without holding back.
Whether it’s fear, ability, or just plain old nerves that hold you back, I dare you to get out there. Get on the rock. And go for it. When you think you can’t do it, try anyway. Then try again. Because eventually you’re going to realize you’re stronger than you think.
About the Author
Sarah Dittmore, the Director of Operations at True Nature Travels, is always seeking a new adventure. When she’s not barefoot hiking in the mountains of Peru, kayaking around an island off the coast of Italy, or camping in a rainforest in Costa Rica, Sarah writes about her adventures on her travel blog, Autobiography of an Adventurer. Join her as she travels the world and documents the wild and wonderful things she discovers along the way at www.autobiographyofanadvent