Stepping Back from the Edge

Rock Bottom:
The view was certainly good from up here, even though it’s not the type of high-angle view I’m accustomed to, I had to give it that. You could see all three hallmarks of Houston from these parapets, and I took a minute to survey them all. The downtown, medical district, and even the stacks of the refineries were visible, lit up by the midnight hour in their productive glow. I was a long way up. Looking down from the walkway at the concrete, I knew this place would do the job. But then I’d thought that out long before I ever got in the car and drove out here. Ten floors plus a little extra to land in the concrete pit just below the base of the building. I had come here to die.

The calculation was brutal. Midnight, so there would be fewer witnesses troubled. I didn’t want to make a scene, but this was the only place I could be certain. Ten stories, because I’d already survived a fall from 3 stories up (in a thoroughly un-desired climbing accident). Tripling that with a hard landing zone would make the end quick, relatively painless. Once I tipped over the edge, there was no chance of survival. None.

I stayed up there for perhaps an hour, trying to feel it out. Sometimes I sat on the ledge, looking down, sometimes I stared at those familiar horizons gleaming in the dark. I’m still not 100% sure what tipped the balance in my mind back towards the elevator. Some part of me, deep down was fighting to stay alive even though the parasitic thought patterns in my head were pushing hard to storm the castle and achieve their insidious victory over life. I don’t know why I walked away from the precipice while so many others committed. Perhaps it was luck?

“Can’t see the sky, nothing’s on the horizon
Can’t feel my hands and the water keeps risin’
Can’t fall asleep ’cause I wake up dead
I just keep rowing, I just keep rowing

Don’t know where I’m going I just keep on rowing
I just keep on rowing, gotta row”

I guess you do just have to keep on rowing, even when you don’t know the outcome. That track (Rowing, by Soundgarden) got me through a lot of tough times.

That was my only serious attempt at suicide, the only time I came close to letting the darkness win and actually ending it. I do remember a long, long history of wanting to die and pushing through anyway. In one of my youngest memories I sat on the couch in my family house and tried to choke myself to death with my bare hands while no one was around. I don’t know how old I was, but I was too young to realize I would eventually lose my grip. I recounted that story in a counselor’s office not too long after my rooftop ordeal, and he asked why I felt so strongly that I wanted to die…. I’d thought about it a great deal, why did I want to die? The events in my life were not particularly rough, I didn’t have a horrible past, the obstacles before me were possible to overcome, and I knew all of this. I didn’t think I had any good reason whatsoever. I didn’t even have a bad reason.

The greatest moment of terror in my life was realizing that there was no reason for my suicidal tendencies. If there was no reason, how could I fix it? At that point, I estimated my odds of surviving another year at 50%.

Falling

I’ve been around these United States of ours in a wild way this past year, and I’ve seen that we humans are all frighteningly similar. No matter where I go I find amazing people, people who have survived great hardships of mind, body, or circumstance and, frankly, they all kick ass. Learning to overcome these sufferings makes you a powerful survivor. Even if you’re not out of the woods yet, you’re still surviving. I’m going to say right now that I love you all, more than you’ll ever know. The more people I meet, the more convinced I am that these internal struggles are just a part of the human condition, and the most interesting and beautiful humans I’ve ever met seem to have the most vicious fights for survival. I think it’s part of what’s made them so strong. Those with the demons inside have to be or become strong. The alternative is to perish. These people are beautiful in their awareness of others and the world, but perhaps being aware comes with a cost. Not only are you attuned to the good in the world, but also the frightening bits within you. And biology has us hard-wired so that fear makes a loud noise. I think most folks have wished at some point that they didn’t have to deal with life, wished they were never born, or wished that something would end it for them. These are just steps along a continuum, and it’s a small slide on the scale to think “I wish I could kill myself” or “I’m GOING to kill myself.” And then it’s only one small step for a man to actually do it.

For me, the desire to die was nothing new, it was old-hat and had been around my consciousness as long as I could remember. I don’t know a single moment in my life where the ghost of suicidal thinking was completely gone. I had come to think of it as part of me, it didn’t scare me anymore. What scared me was the day that I stopped enjoying climbing.

Turning Around:
I went to four different counselors in total over the years. It’s not that any of them were inadequate, but imagine learning a complex subject from one single teacher. They have a great depth of knowledge, but perhaps they don’t know how to phrase it in just the right way to make it “click” for your learning style. Seeing multiple therapists helped me find the one that clicked. Today, I don’t even remember his name, but he gave me the single most crucial insight of the whole journey. I am not depression, I am not depressed, the depression is OF me, but it is not me. It’s more like a cancer.

Most of you are familiar with the idea of a computer virus. Depression is like a mind-virus, a series of repeating processes that disturb the normal operation of an otherwise healthy system. The mechanism of depression is to shrink your world. Depression shrinks your world by eliminating the things that make you happy. Depression wants to eliminate your friends. Depression wants to eliminate your daily functioning. Ultimately, after your world is gone, depression wants to eliminate you. Depression is the mechanism of suicide. Lucky for me, my counselor caught on that I was a somewhat self-aware individual, and accustomed to following my thoughts. I suppose it’s hard to be frightened by your mind if you never notice it. Perhaps if I wasn’t self aware, I wouldn’t have entered this state to begin with. But then I wouldn’t be writing this article either. The key is to simply notice passing thoughts, and to notice when a thought was coming from my desires, and when the thought was coming from my depression. Did I want to sit around the house all night, or was that the depression trying to eliminate more of my world?

Fuck you depression, I’m going climbing.

And so I went back to climbing, and I began training hard. I threw myself back into climbing like my life depended on it, because it did. I knew 100% that I was doing it for me, and not for the depression. All through this time I maintained my penchant for runout climbing, and for soloing as well. The depression wants to eliminate the things that make me happy, I wasn’t about to let it take that away from me. When you’re 30’ above your bolt and a foot slips, in that moment of surging adrenaline you truly come to know how strong your will to survive is.

For me, climbing is the one time where my mind shuts down. There is no me, no depression, no elation, just the next move, the hold I’m on, the feet I’m using for balance, and the core tension keeping it all together. Soloing has taught me to look inward and observe my thoughts to see when a climb feels right, and when I should back off. For me, soloing furthers that sense of still calmness for me in a way that nothing else can, and I can tell you I’ve never once considered letting go on a route. I would be far to pissed off if my epitaph reads “I told you so” to ever consider that.

You are not alone:
Soloing, saved my life. It gave me the power to fight back against my depression and take back what’s rightfully mine, and it gave me the mental tools to look inward and inspect my own mind. But that’s nothing unique to me or soloing, I’m not particularly special, and I’m NOT advocating soloing as a way to overcome depression. But everybody who’s dealt with this has that one thing they gave up to the depressive state that shrunk their world… I know friends who were similarly saved by triathlons, painting, cycling, writing, climbing, swimming, playing guitar, and a myriad of other pursuits. Many of them had far worse trouble to overcome than I did. Shit, even Tommy Caldwell contemplated suicide.

“Free soloing El Cap” is sometimes used as a euphemism for suicide in certain circles because it would mean certain death to attempt. “Hanging out on the summit in a thunderstorm? You might as well free-solo el cap!” In the aftermath of divorce Tommy considered attempting the feat. Granted, he’s one of the few humans physically capable of such a thing, but even for him it could easily have resulted in a swan-dive. Either he’d succeed and become the first human to free-solo El Capitan, or the emotional pain would end… He sat above the rostrum (a site famous for Peter Croft’s solos) contemplating the idea… And that’s when the Dawn Wall was born. Instead of choosing to be consumed with something that would destroy him, he chose the project that would save him. The Dawn Wall saved Tommy’s life. That’s resilience.

Steph Davis, a high level soloist and BASE jumper, went through similar bouts with depression and suicide. After the death of her husband in a BASE accident in Italy, she considered jumping without the parachute… but in the end she too saw herself separate from the darkness and BASE brought her back to life. She deliberately chose resilience.

Robin Williams fought with it too. It’s not always obvious who is suffering.

I remember a scene in the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” where John Nash was accosted by a hallucination, a symptom of his schizophrenia. He turns to the imagined person and says “I’m sorry, but I can’t talk to you anymore.” The delusion wasn’t gone, but he was much more able to function by simply choosing not to interact with it. And so it is with me and my depression, that mental cancer is still there. I haven’t exorcised the demon, and judging from my childhood memories, it may always be within me. But now I can recognize those thoughts, I can see when the depression is attempting to influence my behavior, and I don’t talk to it anymore. I just recognize it as an old friend that I can’t engage.

The worst battles I have currently are with anxiety. Coming that close to death leaves an imprint upon you, and now that imprint is mixed with any feelings of sadness that come across my mind so that they trigger a wave of fear and terror. Sadness? Oh shit, depression is coming back! But now I’m learning to recognize that as just another trigger, just as I would recognize a wave of fear mid-solo as irrelevant to finishing the route, I am beginning to recognize these irrational waves of anxiety as separate from me. I box them up and file them in that same corner with my old friend, and we don’t dance in circles so much. Soon, I won’t talk to them either. Sadness, I know, is part of the human condition. It comes and goes, but sometimes it takes longer to depart and we wonder how long this winter has to last! But spring will come, it always does.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that nothing lasts forever, eventually spring will come. Depression, suicidal thinking, eating disorders, anxiety, substance addiction… almost everyone I know has had something to deal with because we’re all human. The more I travel around the country, and the more amazing people I’ve met, the more convinced I am that this is a universal battle that we all face to some degree or another. We all lie somewhere on the continuum. Reach out to those around you, you’d be amazed how many can understand what you’re going through. For those of us who battle our own minds: You are beautiful! How amazing is it that you’ve been able to survive something this long that has taken so many wonderful people from us?

You are amazing. You have a beautiful mind. You are not your demons any more than I am. And you are not alone. We are not alone. We are many, and we will be okay. Spring will come, because the only thing constant in this world is change. Tune into that change, and ride the wave. This is life and death. This is war. Don’t let the mind virus win. Give it hell.

But if you can’t do it alone, that’s okay too. In fact, it’s normal.

In “Deep Survival,” Laurence Gonzales notice a tendency among those who survive life and death wilderness situations: They are able to see the world around them as it changes, they are not caught up in preconceived notions of how things *should* be, they simply see them as they are and move forward with a plan that fits the new reality. There is no particular way that humans should be, we are so beautifully diverse that practically anything could be considered “normal.” and as the Buddha said: “Suffering is.” Don’t be afraid of sadness, or a certain amount of despair, for those are normal human conditions to have from time to time.

Gonzales estimates the percentage of the population that have this natural born ability to ignore what they think “should” be and survive is only about 20%, but there are countless anecdotes of group survival. All it takes is one member of the group standing up and taking the initiative to inspire the others and buoy them up as well. That’s 80% of people who need a little help to see that they can make it out of the woods, but the point is that they DO make it out!! So for the sake of 80% of those still stuck in the woods, if you’re surviving…. Don’t hide it. Let everyone know, and be that beacon in the night. You might even help me some day.

Saying these things publicly is a bit scary for me, and this is the first time I’ve done so. It’s amazing what people are capable of if they only know that it’s possible, and so I feel I have a duty to display my struggles as an example. If it helps even one person, that’s well worth making my story public. For that reason you have my permission and encouragement to share this article anywhere you can. Those of us still in the woods need to know they are not alone.

The mind is a powerful thing, it can help you or hurt you. The mind can be controlled, or controlling, and like any complex system… it can be hijacked and derailed. Here are a few links, consider them my starter survivor’s tool kit:

When it’s right

Looking up at the wall, it was hard not to feel small. It’s one of those boogeymen around the corner, and legends still persist from the race for the first ascent. Rope gouges a quarter inch deep burned into a belayer’s palms and dashing backwards hard to pull in rope were the only thing that de-escalated the situation to a simple broken back. It could’ve been a broken family instead. It’s a good thing that legendary belayer didn’t care much for his palms, and it’s a good thing he wore his running shoes to the crag. Two hexes and a pair of balls were all that protected the lead during that prehistoric bid for the first ascent. A snapped spine was the consequence. Modern gear brings the route down to a modest “PG-13” rating, though some insist on the “R.” At the time of the FA, before the widespread use of cams, it was a full-blown X-rated horror show.

Fear of Flying is burned into the psyche of central Texas climbing. I swear sometimes it seems folks are afraid even to toprope the line because of its reputation. The higher you climb, the wider it gets. The crux is at the top of the route in the last body-length where the crisp laser-cut corner becomes rounded and sloping from wind erosion. That means the hardest individual moves are at the precise point where you are most exhausted and the farthest run-out from your gear. That’s enough to entice a fear of flying even in the most committed climber. Reports on rockclimbing.com once listed the route as 80ft tall, and I’d often hear climbers swear till they were blue in the face that it clocked in at 100. I took a 200’ rope and measured one day…. The line is only 53ft tall, but the impact in your head is much bigger than that. When your back is turned it tends to grow a little, only to grow a lot more when you come back to face it. Turning to face it with only a pair of shoes, a chalkbag, and cajones for fall-protection it suddenly seemed much, much taller even than the internet reports. Back to that X-rating again. I swear it’s at least 120’ tall.

FOF_FA
James Crump on the first ascent of “Fear of Flying”

It’s a hell of a thing to stand at the base of a climb and look up knowing my life will soon hang by my fingertips on that stone which towers overhead. My heart was thumping in time with some 1980’s Metallica just from letting the thought skate around the edge of my consciousness. I’m tying my shoes, I’m adjusting my chalkbag, I’m shaking out and getting warmed up, I’m adjusting my chalk, I’m scratching itches, I’m smelling the rock, I’m ready to solo Fear of Flying. Fuck! There it is, no denying it, I am about to solo Fear. I’m here to go one on one with the bogeyman. No running belayer, and no rope-gouged hands will save me from my folly if I’m wrong.

It’s not something I set out to do, but I’m always training and always re-visiting old lines that have provided inspiration. One day I can toprope it, the next season I can lead it, a year later I can lead it on command, finally one day I can just feel it click. I’m one with the line, I can smell the scent in the air. Electric life fills me to the brim and I realize that I’m primed for the solo, but not today. All at once I realized I could do it, but too much electric life makes one edgy, and edgy is bad mojo.

When the time was right, I returned for the solo. I am afraid, but I know there is no reason to be so after all the practice and training I’ve invested towards this unintentional goal. And besides, I had a secret weapon. Using my entire REI Dividend, a seasonal 20% off coupon and a couple Christmas gift certificates I’d managed to score a pair of TC Pros. After taking one of those silly quizzes on Facebook (I blame the Tequila Monster for that) I learned that Tommy Caldwell is my spirit animal, with his specially designed shoe I knew I could climb more impeccably than ever. At that point, I’d soloed 5.9+ slabs and almost every 5.10 crack in the park. Physically, I was beyond prepared. Psychologically, however, I couldn’t just walk up to the boogeyman and expect passage on my own merit. What I needed was a magic weapon pulled from the stone. When I pulled Excalibur those shoes on, I knew the time was right.

Fuck. Turns out the camera was turned off. I should probably do it again for posterity…. It’s all about safety through control, and that control means being able to do it on command. Right? After all, any asshole can get lucky once. Second time’s the solo.

No Fear of Flying from Austin Howell on Vimeo.

I’ve never paraded this video around, because I shied away from the negativity one incurs through soloing. Only reason I took the video at all is because I believe this was only the second (and third) time the route had ever been soloed. But the video is goofy, and it’s my record of a moment that just felt right. Any negativity can stuff it for all I care.