Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Letting Go

I haven't written much in a while. I wish I felt okay using some lame excuse like "I don't have enough free time". That would be completely untrue though. Finding the time to write is almost always possible, it just takes a little more effort when I'm busy. Truthfully, this year has been one big storm of events that have made it challenging for me to write posts I feel good about publishing. It isn't one particular thing that's stymied me writing. Rather, it's a confluence of events and emotions that have changed the way I feel about climbing and more generally about life. Explaining how this has affected my writing still feels impossible. I'm going to give it a whack though; maybe my thoughts will resonate with a few people out there.

Last fall I spent a handful of weekends climbing with friends. I didn't have a ton of guiding work, and as a result I was able to go climbing with some of my favorite partners (the ones that aren't guides - guides always seem to work on weekends). I quickly realized how much I missed these experiences. Weekends are a special time for climbers - something non-climbing friends will attest to - because the only thing you're going to do if the weather is good is go climbing. It's a ritual that includes more than just climbing. There's socializing with close friends that you might not see all the time, sharing other's ropes at the crag, and there's almost always dinner and beers somewhere afterward. I almost always visited crags that I enjoyed, and afterward I didn't have to escape out the back door of the shop or leave the parking area immediately to avoid socializing with acquaintances about climbing. This, I thought, is how weekend warriors, who don't climb for a living, view climbing. They devour every moment and they're still psyched for their next day at the crag.

In a way, I felt like I had reclaimed climbing for myself. I didn't want to share it with anyone, I just wanted to experience it and move on. The whole experience was very existential, as much of climbing tends to be. We all love climbing at least partially because it helps us escape, divert our focus from reality, and live moment to moment in a very simple existence that's occurring inside the tiny sphere around us.

These experiences, along with a few others, caused me to question my vocational decisions. Was being financially hamstrung for the rest of my life worth it? $30,000/year with no health insurance and no retirement savings was starting to feel like a dumb decision. Among friends I began voicing my thoughts about a career change. Nearly everyone I spoke with was overwhelmingly supportive. After a bit of looking around, and a lot of internet research I decided on nursing or physician assistant programs. I am now taking prerequisite classes at a local college so that I can apply to accelerated nursing programs this winter. The door is still open for PA programs too. These classes have occupied a lot of my time. There is, however, still plenty of time to do other things (like write).

I was diagnosed with a common heart arrhythmia called atrial fibrillation last winter (2% or less of people my age have it). It was Christmas night actually, and I spent it in the emergency room. My heart rate had been irregular and over 100 beats/minute for more than a day. It would remain that way for more than three days before I converted back to sinus rhythm. I wish that had been my only episode of atrial fibrillation.

Throughout April I began having episodes every two weeks. They would last about 30 hours before my heart would convert back to sinus rhythm on it's own. In May it happened weekly. In June it was happening twice each week. Hard lead climbing was one of the main triggers. There's something about the combination of physical stress of hard climbing and the psychological stress of leading that was triggering my afib. Over the past months I'd quit drinking caffeine and alcohol, and reduced my exercise load drastically. Nothing seemed to help. Climbing was one of the main triggers of my heart arrhythmia. It seemed likely that I wouldn't be able to climb as hard as I wanted, or train hard for running ever again. I was crushed.

After an echocardiogram, a stress test, and numerous visits to the cardiology office in town I was prescribed flecainide and metoprolol. One drug would keep my heart out of afib, while the other blocked my cardiac tissue from absorbing catecholamines, thereby inhibiting an elevated heart rate. Both drugs suppress one's cardiac output. Flecainide has serious, exercise inducible side effects, and must be taken with metoprolol so that the heart rate is always suppressed. In layman's terms, I wouldn't be able to exercise as hard even if I wanted to. If I did manage to blast through the wall created by metoprolol I might be unlucky enough to induce another type arrhythmia that's even less desirable than afib and would most definitely require an ER visit.

I didn't quite know what to do with myself. I'd had a hard time admitting to myself that guiding wasn't a viable way for me to make a living. I was having an even harder time dealing with the fact that I might not climb the way I wanted. Not being able to run, something that I rely on for a daily escape, would absolutely kill me, or so I thought.

Ultimately, dwelling on these things was useless. After a while I just stopped giving a shit. I didn't care about the heart condition that came and went as it pleased and was caused by my family's genetics, or about being an amazing climber, or about making my living as an outdoor professional and athlete in an industry where that's only possible for a small set of individuals willing to sacrifice their personal lives in order to be successful.

I let go. It felt really good.

Defining myself as a "climber", or a "runner", or anything else for that matter, had been really limiting, but I hadn't seen that. I'm a person, like all the rest. I happen to enjoy climbing and a whole slew of other outdoor activities. They don't define me though, they just help me be who I am.

I decided to hold off on the flecainide and metoprolol until I can see a doctor in Boston. The afib continued to happen into early July, and I continued to exercise moderately. That's when I made a wonderful connection. 8-10 minutes of moderate exercise during an afib episode was enough to convert my heart back to it's normal (sinus) rhythm. Without drugs I have been almost 100% successful at managing my atrial fibrillation. I had been stressed about afib, and learning that I could manage it quite easily, without drugs, reduced some of the stress I'd been experiencing. In the past two months I've had one short episode that I converted easily with a short jaunt up the stairmaster in the Gunks.

Climbing is still a priority for me, but there's less value attached to grades, projects and big objectives. If I have a good partner I'll enjoy our time together regardless of the climbs. I've continued to run a few days a week too and my very deep fitness base has allowed me to push things a little bit recently. My interest in cycling has been renewed too. A friend encouraged me to join him for a few rides this spring and this helped rekindle my love for riding.

Coming full circle, it's hard to identify a specific event that's made writing harder for me. I've been busy doing other things and changing directions. I guess I don't want to feel like I have to share every climbing experience, like my living depends on it. I think it's good to step away every once in a while. I know, for me, that it helps me come at things from a different angle, with a new perspective.

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