Members stories of the pandemic and mental health

Posted by James Mchaffie on 08/07/2020

The pandemic, lockdown and economic outlook has had a deep effect on many peoples mental health, from much higher anxiety to dealing with depression. We asked members to send in their story from dealing with the last few months and have been delighted in the response we have had, thanks so much to everyone who submitted theirs. In this article we share six of their stories.

Story 1: "Climbing doesn't just help me manage the physical challenges I face, but mentally and emotionally, it is like therapy for me"

My name is Jeantique and I am a 26-year-old paraclimber from London.

I am currently bronze medalist in the BMC Paraclimbing Nationals (2019) and I have a condition called hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hEDS), which is a genetic connective tissue disorder that affects about one in every 2,500 individuals. It falls across a broad spectrum of severity and causes chronic musculoskeletal pain, loose, unstable joints, dislocations/ subluxations, and a broad range of comorbid issues such as digestive, bladder, heart, and other conditions involving connective tissue throughout the body.

There are some interesting overlaps between hEDS and various mental health difficulties, and this is something that I personally relate to as I have struggled with my mental health for a long time. Ultimately, the main thing that has kept me afloat and helped me stay out of the total darkness of mental illness in recent years has been climbing. Especially as I am not currently able to work due to my physical health limitations, and have minimal daily structure besides medical appointments, climbing really has been my "saving grace". I know I would be in a much worse off position - both physically and mentally - without it.

I understand that it can be hard for people to understand how someone with my disability can climb, yet be unable to work, but it is without doubt the best form of physiotherapy for my body. Mentally, it also gives me structure and purpose to fill my days, when I might otherwise struggle to leave the house. That is not to say that it isn't challenging of course; having hEDS, there are a number of adaptions I have to make in order to make climbing as safe and practical as possible. But living in London, I have been incredibly lucky to find a diverse community of paraclimbers who have a wide range of both physical and mental health conditions and have become my close friends for life. We understand each other's disabilities and neurodiversity and adapt to one another's needs to ensure that climbing is as accessible and fun as possible for all of us. There is also fantastic LGBT+ representation in the paraclimbing community, which makes me feel even more at home there.

JOIN: Our BMC Paraclimbing Community Facebook group πŸ’¬

And climbing does not just help me manage the physical challenges I face, but mentally and emotionally, it is also like therapy for me. When I am on the wall, all the forms of emotional turmoil I experience on a daily basis fade away - and it becomes just me and the wall. When I am climbing, I am at one with the world and at peace with myself; it is probably the one time I am fully in the moment and so grounded in reality that I even forget about the concept of time. When I am climbing it is like I have the remote control of the world to put everything else on hold, to allow me to have a moment to breathe and to smile an inner smile. My friends tell me I am always grinning from ear to ear when I am on the wall!

I think the process of rock climbing is a fantastic analogy for life: it is not easy, it involves a lot of trust in yourself, and a lot of trust in others. Sometimes you have to be brave, sometimes you have to be careful, sometimes it involves planning, and sometimes you just have to wing it a little. Sometimes you might fall, and sometimes you might even get hurt; the important part is that if you fall down, you don't give up, you get up and you try again, and you keep trying with everything you have and whoever you need to help you, until eventually, you make it. You might be slightly bruised and you might be slightly battered; you might even shed some tears or need to take some rests along the way (and that's okay!), but the feeling when you do get to the top is indescribable. Nothing can beat that, and being able to share it with the people who helped you get there too - that's the best feeling in the world.

And so, that's why, after too long of being caught up in the Covid-19 pandemic, my family finally caved and decided to let me build a home climbing wall! In the past three years prior to lockdown I had been climbing on average five hours a week, five times a week. Unfortunately, after just a few months without, my physical health has deteriorated quite drastically (I’ve lost a lost of weight, strength, and muscle, and my joint issues have worsened significantly due to my hEDS), and my mental health has also suffered. Our climbing wall is not quite finished, but it's a beauty in progress - and very soon I should be able to go back to what helps me most: getting back on the wall and letting the rest of the world melt away, so that my mind and body can get strong again.

Story 2

Leigh Kimber: "Through hard times there is a way to find yourself again" 

I have never felt more alone, than the time I had to stand up at my Dad's funeral and read out a heart felt poem. This was in November 2019, after he had lost his short battle with a rare stomach cancer which took him away from me and my sister. Earlier in the year I also suffered the loss of my mum who fought cancer for 4 years and who I loved with all my heart. I miss them both dearly. 2019 was a year I will never forget and I will be healing the wounds for many more years to come.

My life at this point had taken a dramatic turn for the worst, I didn’t know how to feel, or how to act or how I was going to just continue on living as normal. I became depressed, resentful and life was an emotional roller coaster, I had lost my sense of purpose and felt as though I had nowhere to go. Work became too stressful and I found myself in a desperate hurry to regain my personal strength and belief that everything will be ok.

I was lucky that I already had a deep passion for the outdoors and in previous years used it as a way to connect with my inner self. Whether I’m walking over mountains, paddling down rivers or climbing crags I find I can loose myself in whatever activity I’m doing, and for a time I have some peace from all the negative thoughts. There is a unique relationship between the soul and nature that has healing qualities and this is what I have reconnected with since November.

In January 2020 I had taken sabbatical leave from work and embarked on a journey to Snowdonia. This is where I started a four month outdoor instructors course and where I would be able to reconnect with the outdoors and rebuild my life. My intention is to gain more knowledge and experience to help others who may find themselves with mental ill health or those who need a place to escape and find themselves again.

I finally found my inner calling and albeit with a few dark days of combatting the underlying depression and anxiety, I started to feel stronger and felt as though good things were happening. I had relit the candle that had been put out previously, and I now had something to work towards.

The course was unfortunately cut short due to the virus outbreak in late March, which was when my assessments were booked and where the nation found itself in uncharted territory. A very unsettling and frightening time for all, and if It wasn’t for the journey I had been on over the past few months it could have been a very bad place for me to be. But thankfully I had built up resilience and had a pathway that I could focus on while being at home. I had to find other ways of connecting with my passion and straight away I started a courses in First Aid for mental health and safeguarding, which has not only taught me ways of helping myself but most importantly how to help others through what can be very hard times.

It is with both the outdoor instructing and knowledge of mental health that I plan to peruse a life of helping others connect with the outdoors and find other ways of healing wounds in ways that cannot be prescribed by a GP. I want to give people what I have been given and let everyone have a chance to experience nature's healing qualities. I hope my story will show others who are going through hard times that there is a way to find themselves again and that we are not alone.

Story 3

From a frustrated mountain leader living with menopausal anxiety and teenagers during lockdown
 
I’m in my early 50s, have a full-time demanding public sector job and I’m Mum to two teenagers. I am also a mountain leader, keen hiker, cyclist and all-round lover of the outdoors. So my lockdown should have been easy, right? No loss of income, able to work from home, good wifi, big house, small urban garden and able to walk, cycle, run from the doorstep. Yes, I am privileged and grateful. But the demands of suddenly switching to doing my job entirely in front of a screen in my dining room, while simultaneously supervising the home learning of two teenage boys, volunteer shopping for shielders, keeping in touch with family and friends around the world while concerned about their well-being in these tumultuous corona times has been quite a change.
 
Then the disappointment of having to cross off the calendar regular hut weekends with my BMC-affiliated club, DofE expeditions, mtb volunteer trailbuilding, summer guiding trips to the Alps and Snowdonia, as well as plans to finish walking a national trail at Easter has been frustrating. My teen sons had just been getting into the youth coaching at our local bouldering wall when it closed and they disappointedly hung up their newly acquired rock shoes. Add into the mix ‘officially’ reaching menopause on my 53rd birthday and applying for divorce all in the same week of May. Even though the divorce is amicable, by mutual agreement and after several years of separation it’s nonetheless tinged with sadness, grief and is a major life event.
 
Photo: Shutterstock
 
So it’s fair to say lockdown has been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. On the bad days I’ve been angry, tearful, woken up feeling sick with anxiety, not sleeping well and/or had enough of being with my boys. I know that exercise and especially exercise outdoors is good for me. So I’ve tried to walk, run, cycle or do vigorous gardening/DIY every day. I’ve even done PE with Joe a couple of times – taking the laptop outside so I can look at the clouds while doing sit ups using a mat laid on the concrete driveway in front of our garage. But the app on my phone tells me that my average step count is way lower now that I work from home compared to when I actually went out to my work place.
 
But we’ve been enjoying outdoor exercise, especially in the (mostly) good weather, and the long evenings do help. In fact it’s vital and I’m now selfish about that me-time. I’ve enjoyed renewing acquaintances with our nearby parks, playing fields and cemeteries. I live in a city with a 30 minutescycle ride just to reach open countryside. Those days that I’ve been able to go for a longer bike ride have been heavenly on blue sky days, but there were days when it was too windy and I was too low or tired and I didn’t get further than a couple of miles from home. Even then, just stopping and sitting on the grass surrounded by trees, in the open air and just being not doing, doing, doing helps rebalance things inside me physically and mentally.
 
Since we’ve been allowed to drive for exercise I’ve been going for a longer hike once a week if I can. A couple of places were too busy such as a local multi-use rail trail/sustrans route that goes to the coast and the nearby start of a national trail. I’m now avoiding them and have set myself to walk/cycle/run (and maybe kayak if I can find a buddy to do so in a suitably socially-distanced manner) the length of our local river from estuary to source. It’s been blissful with some fabulous moments of peace in the empty flatlands of Eastern England: big skies, water, wind, encounters with deer, a fox, geese, cows, sheep. A reminder that this land has been here far longer than the current pandemic, our village churches that populate the landscape have survived earlier plagues and the rolling hills have seen pestilences pass. Then it feels good to be alive. It’s an escape from the tyrannies of modern life at the beck and call of emails, Whatsapp, Insta, Facebook, voicemail…. Of course I miss the hills and mountains but they are still there. 

Story 4

I'm Cat Mackenzie, 18 and from the tiny north west peninsula Coigach, Scotland. 

My passion is in the outdoors, I love hiking, kayaking and camping but before lockdown started I was also getting into climbing. I now don't think I'd even be able to lift my own body weight.

2020 was going to be the best year yet for me, adventure-wise, I had applied and been accepted for a job in adventure company in the South of France from April through till August, and had also planned to spend three weeks in Sweden, hiking the first leg of the Kungsleden (King's trail) by myself. It was going to be my first proper long hike. 

Unfortunately, the virus swept in and cancelled both of these plans though I took it upon myself to try be content with the hills and wilderness around me at home. 

I enjoy being at home and having the ability to still get out on the hills, do a bit of kayaking and even camping BUT I have found the last few months very difficult. My home life isn't the best, I stay at my uncle's house with my dad and I never stay for very long as I've found it's not a good environment for my mental health. I have no friends here and after being so excited for the year I was supposed to have had, I find myself often getting upset with the lack of things I'm able to do. 

My escape recently has been going away up the local hills and just sitting and marvelling at the views... wishing I was some place else.  

I've had an eating disorder (bulimia) from a very young age (10) and I find it really difficult a lot of the time to eat without feeling guilty or the need to go on a three-hour long walk.

Since lockdown I've found the isolation and being stuck at home has made this even worse and when I do go camping I'm seeing it as an excuse not to eat as nobody can see me.

I don't enjoy that the things that I would usually love and enjoy more than anything in the world, are now the same things that I'm using in a more toxic manner. 

I have better pictures of when I'm hiking but I took this picture while inside my tent the other night, wondering why I had chosen to spend the night in a midge infested and rain soaked tent rather than be at home... the answer I came up with was to escape. 

I find that camping and being away from home even just for a few nights is like therapy to me.

JOIN: BMC Blackdog Outdoors guided walks in 2020

Story 5

Evie Stripp: "Be creative with changing location"

I usually manage my mental health by changing location. I will stay in a place for as long as I can deal and then I’ll need to make a change. It gives me something to look forward to. One sneaky suicidal thought or bad memory or urge to check something and I “flee the scene”. I learnt this in CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) the year before last, but I have been doing this to a lesser extent for a very long time now.

Before lockdown, the place that I most liked to escape to was the local climbing wall. I am an open university student and it didn’t matter that I didn’t always have time to climb for very long and that I could read and study at home. Home lacks distraction from the memories and the pain. The hot chocolate isn’t as good. At the wall it is served with a smile and small talk.

On bad mornings I would arrive at opening and stay all day (ten hours) yo-yoing between studying or resting in the café and climbing. The café was comforting, its background noise offered companionship and I would see and chat to many familiar faces. Climbing provided an entirely new escape, the focus and determination required pushed all other problems away. When I achieved, I felt ecstatic and when I failed it was still easier to handle than my other problems. 

So, when lockdown started and the wall closed, I was completely lost. At the time, I was trying to deal with several other recent triggers on top of my usual ones and my main and most practised coping mechanism was suddenly illegal. That was incredibly hard. I stopped sleeping until the very early hours. I avoided studying. I was angry towards my family. I was sad and weepy, and I spent a lot of time staring at nothing. My mind revisited very unpleasant memories from a traumatic experience I had in my mid-teens. During the first two weeks of lockdown I wanted to die.

I survived the next twelve weeks though. Social media said to reach out to people, so I checked in on people, even some that were only acquaintances. I tried to keep the conversation positive because I found that if I couldn’t deal with me, neither could they. Reaching out to people gave me a purpose and I felt less alone.

I also called the TALKWORKS service, which I have used twice before. I have been placed on a waiting list. Not ideal, but the idea that there is a timeline to help has meant that my suicidal thoughts are less powerful. There is something to “look forward” to.

Most importantly, I adapted “changing location”. I read a lot more because books can guide your thoughts to other places and reading feels more productive than Netflix. I listen to music to set and change the mood and thus the “location”. I wander my “doorstep area” in all weathers for my daily exercise.  

With the slow increases in freedom I have started driving locally. I walk on Dartmoor and along the coast, read with a view and scout bouldering. Driving itself, also allows a mental change of location because of the immense concentration required.

These methods have all helped immensely but I still miss the climbing wall’s community and long opening hours.

Three weeks ago I found an unlikely alternative: the crematorium. It is open all the time and, though its community is dead, I don’t feel that I am alone when I am there. I can now voice my pain with the illusion that someone is listening and, with the local café open for takeaway, I can bring decent hot chocolate.

My message to anybody who has also found the last few months to be their personal version of hell, is to be creative with changing location. If you can’t go out, try reading or an equally diverting activity. If you can, do so, but stay alert and safe. You have some say in your ‘new normal’.

Story 6

Stewart Wellings: Strength in adversity and what we can all learn from the Covid 19 crisis

Moving to the Shropshire countryside 18 years ago, my Latina wife Liliana and two Anglo-Peruvian toddler children Ali and Matty grew up here, the first (and still only BAME children) in the area. I had met my wife whilst working as a trek leader in South America but then 9/11 happened. If I was serious about being a father and a husband I had already realised this work was unsustainable: you can’t be away for months on end. With more training I became a freelance outdoor instructor. The work was brilliant – working in the landscape with children and young adults ‘at risk’ who learned what they were capable of as they journeyed through the Cairngorms; or ‘Three Peaking’ with charity challenge groups; or weekday climbing sessions at Llanymynech only 25 minutes  from home. The work-life balance was there now: there was time and energy enough too that our children grew up knowing the outdoors – camping, bothying, walking, cycling and climbing. The outdoors was our friend and protector, facilitating our leisure and allowing us to grow together as a bi-cultural, bi-lingual family that really, just like everyone else, just wanted to have fun.

And this was how things continued. I stayed, precariously, as a freelance outdoor instructor seeing income shrink after the 2008 crash but always being prepared to take on any additional casual work available. Then illness and injury left me with a new hip knee and shoulder. Physiotherapy and rehabilitation meant adapting, juggling, compromising and working hard. Keeping a dialogue with and having employers that understood meant I could still play my full part. Liliana kept us strong and assimilated well into the community, working for the NHS. Ali gained a scholarship to a local international school and then university and Matty blossomed into a fine young man.

And that’s how we continued as we grew up in Britain. My 2020 diary was full, things were looking peachy. However, as we all know the government announcement regarding Coronavirus on March 17th proved otherwise. Two day later was my last day of outdoor instructing, the centre had to close. I was laid off and paid off for what I had done, all other work cancelled too.

These big problems made managing stress and anxiety a difficult trick to do. The pent up energy for the coming season had to be immediately channelled differently. I’m used to applying for jobs and in that first scary week many applications were sent out and an ear kept to the ground for what was available locally. But within a week I was successful. ‘I can start now if you like’ I said. I was now a ‘key worker’, a delivery driver for Morrisons. Literally loads to learn. I remembered skills are transferrable: lifting boxes in and out of the van required not only strength and agility but also dexterous handheld keyboarding skills to keep organised. The route was now an orienteering challenge with a deadline! Tact and diplomacy with the customers were the soft skills. I sold it to myself – I was getting paid and serving my community: another pair of eyes and ears helping keep people safe. I felt part of something positive and daily we adjusted to our ‘new normal’. Always though in the back of my mind is the thought that this is temporary, that ‘we’ would ‘win’ and that my mad precarious freelance existence would return.  

Maybe it will and maybe it won’t. Bad things and good things are both temporary. Resilience and strength of character are hard won personal traits and will carry you through but can they be learnt or are they hard won, over time? I have always told my kids ‘we are all stronger than we realise’. They have proved me right, despite their own disappointments this year (A level exams and finishing a degree in Law) they’ve stayed pragmatic. But, as BAME have they felt marginalised? As humans their lifelong learning from the outdoors has kept them strong, centred, empathetic, but ambitious. Their hopes and dreams (and mine) are still alive! All together now, I believe, with what we have learnt from this, we can rebuild a real new inclusive society for all.


More FAQs about the BMC and Covid-19

🌳 Can I start climbing / hillwalking? Yes, but be cautious in your actions, respectful of local communities and vigilant in avoiding transmitting the virus. Read our latest advice for July here and for the general return to climbing here

🌳 What's the situation in Wales? Read the full July update here

😷 When and how will the walls reopen?  In England it's July 25th Read the ABC's advice for walls and watch their live update here

✈️ Can I now travel abroad again? Get the latest answers to going abroad with travel restrictions now easing

πŸ›’ Is the BMC shop open? Yes - we officially reopened at the start of July!

🏑 Do you have any advice for clubs and huts? The latest club huts update and all you need to know

πŸ“œ Will the BMC keep running smoothly? Read more or watch our weekly live updates from our CEO

πŸš— What have the BMC access team been doing during this time? Read on

As the climbing walls, crags and mountains start to open, we wanted to say thanks to every BMC member who supported us through the Coronavirus crisis.

From weekly Facebook Lives and GB Climbing home training videos, to our access team working to re-open the crags and fight for your mountain access, we couldn’t have made it without you.

If you liked what we did, then tell your friends about us: www.thebmc.co.uk/join


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