by Esha Mehta
It is the gross, icky underbelly of the world we live in that many would rather not address. The reality of childhood trauma lies in the dark corners of shame that sneak out when you are least expecting it. It grabs you by the neck and forces you to take a good look into its ugly face. Staring into this monster’s eyes could destroy you, or worse, force you to face realities that you may not be ready to face. The effects of developmental trauma seep into your veins, like icy water that shocks the system. It follows you daily with its trigger that cause dissociation, a very real disconnect with reality.
Dissociation can take on many forms. It is an experience that can be as harmless as finding yourself at home after a long jaunt in the woods, safe and sound with little to no recollection on how you made it there. It could be an experience of missing your exit because you checked out for a few moments. Both of these are examples of dissociation that we all experience. On the other end of the spectrum are experiences such as symptoms of flashbacks – reliving traumatic experiences in the “here and now” as if you were back in the “there and then.” When I am caught in a flashback, every fiber of my being is reliving a traumatic event from the past. I am transported back to the scene, with all the smells, textures, sounds, and even tastes from that moment. Reality and I have separated, though what I am experiencing is extremely real. The far end of dissociation is Dissociative Identity Disorder—arguably the most preventable mental health condition. Once known as Multiple Personality Disorder, or MPD, DID is formed during the ages of birth to about 9, when it is said that a child has fully integrated their personality. DID is caused by severe and prolonged childhood trauma of any kind and is marked by the person having two or more distinct alters with their own likes, dislikes, mannerisms, voices, and overall identity. It is important to note that DID can be caused by traumas other than abuse, such as natural disasters, medical procedures, or anything prolonged that the child’s mind deems traumatic enough to form alters. In my experience with DID, staying present is an extreme challenge. Along with traumatic flashbacks, nightmares, and other symptoms that accompany PTSD, DID adds a complexity that makes staying in the body, in the “here and now,” even harder.
Esha climbing at club in Golden, CO. Photo by Cody Sowa
To me, rock climbing is so much more than a sport or hobby. It allows, for even just a little bit of time, connection with the “here and now” that is so hard to do otherwise. There are moments when reality starts to fade, but with the belay end in hand, all of my senses can be tuned back to the task that I am focusing on. When climbing, the texture of the holds ground me to the present. Every muscle feels engaged and activated as I anticipate my next move and for a moment I feel in control of my present situation.
When I first started rock climbing I didn’t anticipate how helpful it would be to keep me grounded in the present. The concentration required for climbing allows me to for that moment feel safe in the here and now. I remember my first climb night being so liberating from trauma symptoms. With gum in my mouth, hands touching each hold, and ears tuned to the beta my caller was giving me, nearly every sense is focused in the present. One of my favorite grounding techniques that I’ve learned over the years is paying attention to the information I’m getting from my side senses and naming them out loud. This forces me to be in the here and now, and allows me to know that in this moment I am safe.
For all of my alters, including myself, climbing is so much more than a sport. It is life-giving, it is hope, it is mindfulness at its best, it is symptom management, and it is always, more than a climb. Because climbing requires intense focus, just for that moment, my symptoms and dissociation fade slightly. Traumatic memories and flashbacks take a back seat.