How to Stay Positive in the Face of Adversity
What gets you up in the morning? What is your main goal in life? What helps improve your mental health?
These are questions you should ask yourself regularly, or even better, daily. There are defining moments in everyone’s life that will help to form the person that we eventually grow into. If we’re fortunate, these will mostly be positive experiences but there will also be setbacks and challenges along the way. Over the course of the following paragraphs, I will share the defining moments that I’ve experienced. This blog post is in no way an invitation for sympathy. These moments have made me into the person I am today and helped me to gain knowledge, experience, and a real passion for life.
First, let’s take a trip back to 1998
The internet was still running on dial-up, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released on the N64 and the Millennium Bug was still perceived as a very real existential threat. I was 5 years old in 1998 and experienced my first major moment in life.
I was born with a ventricular septal defect, which in layman’s terms means I had a hole in my heart, and spent a lot of my early life in and out of hospital. This did have one key benefit - hospitals do not phase me in the slightest! The doctors monitored my heart defect throughout the first few years of my life but, at the age of 5, it was decided that to give me the best chance of living a full, healthy, and active life, I would need to have open heart surgery to fix the hole. Looking back now, I appreciate how much of a big deal this was but at the time, I was young and took it completely in my stride. I was admitted to Great Ormond Street hospital for the surgery and discharged around a week later without any further complications. Hooray, I can now put the trauma of open heart surgery behind me and go about living my (active!) life.
Fast forward to 2018
We were running on broadband, the Millennium Bug never came to fruition and Corona was still just a beer. At this point in my life, I’d enjoyed 20 years of good health but there was an underlying issue that just would not subside. After months of travelling to hospital appointments in London, feeling a general lack of energy, and what seemed like endless blood tests; I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and was told that I would need to have chemo to treat the disease.
I knew that something was not right with my body and although I was in complete shock, there was a sense of relief that I finally knew what I was dealing with. I started chemotherapy in December 2018 to stop the progression of ‘large B-cell Lymphoma’ and the treatment carried on until April 2019.
The ensuing months of chemo felt like they would never end. It was, without doubt, the toughest experience of my life but as I said previously, it has made me into the person I am today.
There were times where I'd hit rock bottom. My body was at 1%. I couldn't sit up for longer than a few seconds without feeling physically sick and emotionally void. I ached all over, in my muscles and in my bones. I felt nauseous and annihilated by all the drugs in my system. The thoughts racing through my head were terrifying at times. However, there was always one thought that reminded me what happiness felt like, one thought that kept me going through the darkness, Rock Climbing.
I made it through the other side with a renewed sense of purpose, increased resilience, and a mental fortitude that I didn’t know was in me.
My 2020 vision
If you’re ever having a bad day, imagine, like I did, the feeling of sheer joy that your next climbing session will bring; the power of the mind is truly amazing.
There are a number of reasons why I'm so passionate about climbing. I love the thrill of taking a big fall on rope. I love the feeling of excitement and overwhelming happiness that you get when you send a route you've been projecting. I love the beautiful feeling you get when you're among friends, having fun and spending those hours together laughing, and sharing stories, while climbing.
I've got goals in climbing and a renewed hunger to achieve them! I'd love to send a 7b sport climb and send a multitude of 7a and 7b boulders but these goals are not my main priority.
My experiences in 1998 and 20 years later in 2018 have shifted my focus. My priority is to enjoy times spent with friends, while making new ones along the way. The rock climbing community is difficult to explain to those who don’t climb. It’s difficult to articulate fully but I feel that the climbing community provides a safe environment for everyone and elevates confidence among its members, which allows people to really express who they are when climbing. The support I received whilst going through treatment was remarkable and I will forever be thankful for that.
After chemo, it seemed to take forever for my body to fully recover from all the drugs that were flushed through my body for 5 months. Once I started climbing again, I quickly progressed back to the point of achieving similar grades and I was as strong as I was before chemo after just 5 months. It was tough to get back to that point and I felt weak and got easily frustrated with myself that I couldn't climb the same grades as I used to. It was a ridiculous thought to have, given everything that I'd been through and I quickly realised that what needed to change was my mind-set.
Once I realised this and flipped the mental switch, I decided to work on being more positive towards myself, and this was incredibly beneficial to my mental health. I found myself being more confident on climbs and felt much happier. I started creeping up the grades again, slowly but surely. A year on from when all the drugs were out of my system, I sent my first ever 7b boulder problem. I can't even begin to explain my disbelief and excitement when I sent it. I held my head in my hands and let out a big long sigh of happiness. I smiled towards my friends and shouted "did I really just do that?". That's the feeling I'm talking about and it is heavenly.
I am now stronger than I have ever been and my mental health is on the mend. I've had days where I've been really low thinking about the possibility of a relapse in the future and having to go through all those ups and downs again. The difference is that I have learnt how to appreciate those thoughts. They are there to remind me how tough chemo was but how much stronger and fortunate I am that I'm still here, climbing in beautiful locations with even more beautiful people. I smile whilst writing this because all those wonderful memories are flooding back to me and reminding me climbing, to me, is more than a sport, it’s a way of life. It’s my way of life!
By Megan Willmott