Bottles Down, The Bod
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Keep Climbing: How Bouldering is Similar to Recovery


(Photo credit: Andy Kropa)

Athletic, I am not. Drunk or sober, it makes no difference — “active” activities have never been an important part of my life. They’ve never been a part of my life period, with the exception of reformer Pilates, which I only recently started seriously practicing on a regular basis.

I was into doing at-home yoga for a time, but that was back when I was often quite sauced, so my video-guided workouts consisted of a few cat/cow poses, maybe a couple of downward dogs, followed by a straight-up vodka martini while I sat back on my mat and watched the rest of Rodney Yee’s masterful technique.

It was just a couple of months ago that my husband convinced me to try indoor bouldering, courtesy of Groupon’s discounted class and weeklong membership to Brooklyn Boulders.

And THEN I remembered that I not only liked it, but I had also made a metaphorical connection to recovery while our instructor was explaining the basics of the bouldering technique. And once I hit that climbing wall myself, I realized just how right-on my analogy was.

While it may appear otherwise, this sport is not about stepping on and grabbing at whatever manmade plastic holds (created to mimic real-life rocks) that you can to make it to the top. Rather, the wall consists of carefully plotted, color-coded sequences called “bouldering problems,” which you must follow in order to complete a specific path to the top.

So before you do anything, you need to take a good, hard look at the wall, pick the “problem” you want to try to climb, and make a plan to carry it out.

While our instructor was explaining this, I immediately thought about some of the recovery tools I’ve learned over the past 22-plus months to cope with alcoholism — skills I did not have when I was drinking. Back then, I didn’t do much thinking before acting. I jumped right into any situation put before me — some good, some bad, but never with any thought of result or consequence. If you do this when bouldering, you’ll fall backwards onto the mat almost instantly. And in a way, that’s what happened to me when I hit my alcoholic bottom. Unfortunately, I didn’t hit it in an instant. I tried climbing that wall in my own stubborn way for far too fucking long.

But back to bouldering: You have to go fairly slow while climbing, in order to ensure you’re following the correct color sequence. But if you realize you’re on the wrong path, all is not lost. You can stop and take a minute to see where you are, what steps you might have missed, and attempt to readjust your strategy so you’re back to where you need to be.

This is one of the greatest gifts I’ve learned in recovery that anyone can apply to their life. It’s important to take a pause (or several, if needed) before making a decision; to assess where you are, what you need, where you want to go and why, in order to make smart decisions and take the right path.

Addiction specialists say that a relapse begins to occur before an alcoholic actually picks up that damaging first drink. We call it “relapse mode” in my recovery group, and in some ways it can serve as a good thing, because if you (or your loved ones) can spot the signs and signals early on, you can make a plan, turn your thinking around, stop the process in its tracks and avoid losing your sobriety.

Similarly, if you’re paying close attention on the bouldering wall, you will spot the missteps you make sooner rather than later. And if you haven’t gone past the point of no return, you can rethink your sequence, figure out how to return to your original route, and keep on climbing.

Personally, I know I’m going to make many mistakes, probably a million of them, both in recovery and while I grab at fake rocks inside a stuffy, sweaty gym. But if I take a minute to stop, look at what I’m doing and listen to the sane, sober part of my brain, I can try to figure out the best (and healthiest) course to take.

It’s about progress, not perfection, after all. Now I stop. I think. I adjust. Whether it’s my footing or my feelings, I always make sure I’m being mindful. And if I do fall, I’ve got a huge support system to catch me, as well as a safe, plush mat at the gym.

This piece was originally published October 2013.


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