Cliffs of Anxiety

It could be said that I mark my growth on the cliffs of Indian Creek, a line snaking upwards on the vibrant red sandstone. My growth as a climber, sure, but moreso my growth as a person. The walls hold stories – my stories, and probably yours too.

I first visited Indian Creek in the spring of 2012. I was 27, and it was my first ever climbing trip. As I drove into the canyon, packed in a Subaru with three friends from Seattle, I remember passing the first few Cottonwood trees with words of Lord Huron ringing, “I said we’re all gonna die but I’ll never believe it / I love this world and I don’t wanna leave it.” That sounded nice to me, but rather unattainable. The world was mostly scary, full of unknown people, crippling choice, duties and obligations and obligations and duties. A subconscious list of prohibitions steered me – no fun, no joy, no self – and fear was a powerful rudder. Anxiety.

When I talk about anxiety, I don’t mean just that stress we all know, the kind we feel over deadlines or relationship issues. I’m talking about something more akin to a worldview: it’s pervasive, and spinning, entrapping. It’s a convincing voice that won’t shut up, saying everything is wrong, nothing will be okay, and that most things are to be feared. People are scary, the unknown is terrifying, decisions absolutely paralyzing, and normal human emotions truly crippling. I can’t find myself in all of it; in fact, for the first 28 years of my life, I don’t remember having a self. I wished for someone to just tell me how to live, or live my life for me. To-do lists, volunteering, excessive business, and school obligations were thrashing arms and legs, frantically treading water to keep my soul afloat. Fragments of myself would shout from all directions, should, not allowed, what if: desires constantly being shot down. I’m in a race; my heart speeds, my mind spins, and in turn my hands and feet move too fast. I can’t find happiness, the fear is escalating, it’s swirling, I can’t sleep, can’t breathe, what if should can’t so scared oh no no no no NO.

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Stop. The red walls calmly hush me as the fleeing sun casts magic light on us all. Climb, eat, sleep, repeat. Our phones are off, lost somewhere in the van – that life doesn’t matter here. Spirit quests through the desert, lively campfires, new friendships, no job, no responsibilities, the nature of the climbing even takes away the guesswork. Extremes of day and night, warmth and cold, try hard and relax, keeping us on our toes in their own, gentle ways, providing a substitute for the extremity within me. My personal bondage stands out here, in stark contrast to this vast and expansive landscape with its unmitigated yet tame lawlessness.  Indian Creek embodies the wild and free, a direct antithesis to everything I know.

Over the following years, the cliffs of Indian Creek are a sounding board, echoes of my growth resounding off their walls. Each time I visit, the fragmented pieces of my self appear more whole; the minor key that I have written my life in slowly starts to lift, and I notice it acutely against the backdrop of the vibrant wingate walls. My second trip is marked with nerves, a trip with a new boyfriend – my first ever in my adult life – anxiety about who to climb with, fear reigning as I cast off on lead. This relationship would soon end, spiraling me into unchartered depths, showing me my need for help and change: the painful beginning of what I now see as my awakening. On my third visit, a few of us go on a psychedelic trip through Canyonlands, another first for me. I experience joy running through the landscape, possibly for the first time. I remember my braid flapping against my back as I run, heavy breath feeling cleansing and full. I intermittently imagine a bodiless dark tattered cloak chasing me, bellowing, “anxiety, seriousness,” wagging a armless sleeve, scolding me. My joy feels irresponsible, like I’m obligated to suffer. I go home and make art, it was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. My subsequent seasons, I begin to feel more at home. Like I’m allowed to be a part of this scene, this freedom, that once seemed off limits. I forge bonds, friendships I return to each spring and fall. I learn to try hard and not let fear cripple. I learn that it’s okay to feel happy, to not have any nagging worries, and to look at the world as a place that longs to invite and delight.

And yet, each stint in the Creek, I find myself driving to the mesa for cell service, fulfilling my personal commitment to a weekly appointment with my therapist. I know it’s good for me, but I wish I was like all the monkeys down below, free and blissful. And then I wonder if maybe they’re more like me than I think, and that we’re all struggling, at least a little bit.

This fall I return, now with my boyfriend Forest, a partner who compliments my whole instead of just a few of my fragments. It feels good. We drive the winding road at the last light of day, still listening to Lord Huron three and a half years later, and I reflect on what this place is to me. It showed me a better way, and subsequently has been a basal, a line in the sand, a waypoint in my desert life, reflecting my growth each time I return. I feel well, whole, connected to others and to myself. My gobies are less prevalent now, and on my fingers now instead of on the backs of my hands, a display of progression on the rock. But my soul’s skin feels stronger too, wiser, more grounded. More capable of fighting off the anxious thoughts that still knock at my door, as they likely always will. The hush of the fading light on the cliffs around me whispers “all is well,” and for once, I know it’s true.

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All photos by Forest Woodward

7 thoughts on “Cliffs of Anxiety

  1. Jenny, as one of those monkeys who was down below I can say that we do all have it in common: the ebb and flow of toxic doubt and blissful joy in what we do–what we live for. Your words add vigor and determination to my soul, so I thought I’d share with you here a perspective I had a few years ago after my first trip to the creek:
    View story at Medium.com

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