Climbing in and out of ADHD by Guillermo Alvarez

Guillermo Alvarez has a unique outlook on the world after struggling with undiagnosed ADHD for most of his life. In this blog post, he shares his story of redefining failure, fighting anxiety and finding the love and support he needed in the climbing community. We hope this warms your heart as it warmed ours. 


“What the f*** is that!?” 

Dedo De Deus, Brazil courtesy of Wikimedia

An iconic spire, known as the Dedo de Deus (God's Finger), stood majestically amongst a chain of mountains located inside Serra dos Órgãos National Park.  It was so named because it looked like a giant finger that pointed straight up into the sky. I had put it on my To-Do list ever since I arrived in Brazil.

Fortunately, I ran into Patrick Ortwein. He was a highly skilled, all-around climber from Germany that loved thrill and adventure. Unlike me, however, he warmed up on 5.12s. When he asked me if I wanted to go up with him, I initially hesitated because I thought I would be a burden given my lack of experience. It turned out that he didn’t care about my skill level at all. He was just happy to have someone belay him up the spire, and even offered to lead it entirely. 

One early morning of November 2019, Patrick and I set off from the town of Teresópolis, and we were set on summiting the spire. Along the way, and up the steep approach, he insisted on carrying most of the equipment on his back “for training purposes.” After a very steep hike, and a few slab pitches later, we got to the half-way mark.

The spire slowly thinned, making it seem like a delicate structure. I worried that the wind could suddenly topple it over. When I paused every once in a while to admire the once-in-a-life time view before me, any fear would simply disappear. An epic scene, 270 degrees wide, made me feel as though I was the luckiest person in the world. As I stood still in admiration, shivers ran up my spine.

Below me, more than a thousand meters down, there was a deep valley filled with luscious green forest. About three hundred meters away in the distance, a giant wall made up of grey mountains, towered above us. Its two endpoints stretched to as far as the eye could see. A faint rainbow could be seen in the distance next to a waterfall that shot out horizontally.  The cry of birds could be heard from kilometers away. In the opposite direction, more mountains the shape of smooth bell curves arose from the forest. They had a tint of the atmosphere's blue glow, which gave them a sense of being very distant .The afternoon sun cast a brilliant glare upon the landscape around us, which made all of the colours more vibrant than ever.

We weren’t alone up here. In fact, we were surrounded by birds who nested within the cracks of the spire. Fifty or more would circle around the tower endlessly. They soared, and then dove at speeds so great that you could hear their wings whipping through the air as they flew past you. Occasionally, one would fly so close, and so loudly, that it would startle me, causing me to jump. Patrick was unfazed at all; he was just busy climbing. I admired the birds while I stood in the same spot for a while under the uncomfortable heat of the sun. Then, I heard him yell:

“What the fuck is that!?” he said suddenly. My attention quickly shifted from the birds towards him. He was pointing his finger down at the rope below him.

“What the fuck is that!?” he repeated, staring angrily at me, as if I had committed an atrocity.

“I’m sorry,” I  said sheepishly. My eyes widened as I suddenly noticed a dangerous amount of slack in the system. He was placing his 2nd piece, and I was so distracted by the beauty of the scene that I stopped paying attention to him.  

“Who gives a fuck about the birds! I need you to pay attention to me! This is no time to be fucking around. We are in the middle of nowhere and if we have an accident we are screwed! No one is going to come rescue us, this is not fucking North America, this is Brazil,” he continued, “You can fuck around all you want at the crag, but here its serious.” 

The gravity of the situation suddenly became clear to me, and for the rest of the day, I focused, almost strainingly, on the climbing instead. He apologized for his temper at the next pitch, and then we spent the rest of the day getting to the top. In the back of my mind, however, I couldn’t help but wonder: “Is this an ADHD problem?”

It was a question I’ve been repeating to myself for a few years now since I discovered that I had ADHD. Impulsivity, Inattention, and lack of prioritization were issues which I contended with on a daily basis. Now, I had to question the feasibility of future expeditions, and climbing in general: “If I become inattentive while climbing, am I a liability to myself and others?”

I chalked the incident off as a learning experience, because it was, afterall, the first serious climbing expedition I had ever done. I began to consider the impact climbing has had on my life and on my mental health, and I concluded, despite this shortcoming, it was mostly positive.

Scenic View in Rio De Janeiro, there is a trad line directly below Christ the Redeemer, which takes you to the top.

The goal of this trip, aside from visiting family, was simply to climb. Friends and I visited over 5 different crags throughout Brazil in the few days that we were there, and each one brought its own sense of purpose and adventure. Moreover, climbing opened up a whole new world for me. I would probably be sitting at a desk right now, staring at the computer while questioning if there was anything more to life than the standard 9 to 5, the prospect of relationships and home owning had it not been for climbing. Climbing has taken me to amazing places filled with amicable friends. I have climbed in Spain, Brazil, Paraguay, US, and various parts of Canada including BC and the Yukon Territories. Adventure climbing was another reason to stay in shape, to get out and to admire what the world had to offer. 

For once, I craved going to the gym.

At first, it wasn’t about travelling at all. Climbing slowly snuck into my life, becoming more and more serious, at a time when I really needed it. Back then, at 25, I was focusing on a business which took up most of my time. I was working 60 to 80hrs a week and I barely prioritized exercise, eating healthily, and even time for friends. Thankfully, the perfectionistic standard and the obsession that often accompanies ADHD folks, also made its way into climbing. I ogled the climbing legends of the world, researched on how to train properly, and often threw myself at problems that were harder than I could do, all so that I could be able to climb better as quickly as possible. It wasn’t long before it became my all consuming hobby. It was another purpose in life, a welcome relief from the stressful parts of life.

For once, I craved going to the gym. I would have three hour sessions every other day. In the past, I would shame myself for not being as passionate for weight lifting or exercising as my two other brothers, in whom I often compared myself to. The monotony of it all bored me to death. Climbing, on the other hand, was always novel and demanded a level of creativity which kept my dopamine-depleted brain highly stimulated. Moreover, I stopped feeling inadequate towards myself since my lanky body was beneficial to climbing. Slowly, as I was breaking away from the workaholic mentality, to being more of a gym rat, I was starting to feel confident in myself. 

Overtime, climbing began to change my life in more ways than just physically.  It also improved my social life, and even how I viewed friends. Before I got into it, I wasn’t encouraged to go to the gym regularly, to try hard, and to fail constantly. The culture at the other gyms were one of masculine pride, competition, aesthetics and toughness. Mirrors everywhere spoke to the vanity of it all. I understood it as a place where you go to focus on yourself. However, what I needed was friends, and I found it difficult to make friends in a space in which most people were wearing headphones. In contrast, the climbing gyms I knew fostered community by presenting its members with a common problem to be solved. It was a place in which we shared jokes, strategies and encouraged each other on a regular basis. At the boulder crags, we literally watched each other’s backs. Knowing that I had a community that I could lean on gave me a sense of peace. 

There came a point where I quit my job as a software engineer to go climbing for a whole year. I drove all the way to Squamish in the spring, and climbed on until November. While there, I met a tribe of van dwellers just like me. We often thought of ourselves as being free.  Knowing how most climbers were open and kind, I often ventured by myself into the Grand Wall Boulders, with a crash pad on my back, in hopes of finding a group to climb with. I never once encountered a group which rejected me, and which failed to watch my back with the same willingness as those friends in which I had known for years. Other days, my friends at Cheakamus Canyon held a small gathering at one of the crags. On Wednesdays we’d go to A-FRAME, one of the local breweries, for trivia night; it was always filled with climbers. On days where I simply didn’t welcome the party scene, I spent the night by the campfire, where sharing our stories of the day with those around was the norm. There was never a shortage of people to go climbing with, and I was proud to be part of the tribe.



After a long and windy climb in The Malamutes
Squamish, BC

I was able to fail a hundred times

Climbing also changed the way I viewed myself and shifted the attitudes I took towards my life goals. Because of my ADHD brain, I am more intimate with failure than typical folks. I failed constantly in all areas of my life, and as a result, have carried low self-esteem for years, and developed a strong belief of incompetency about myself. It was hard to meet the expectations of my neuro-typical peers which I have unknowingly placed upon myself for most of my life. Especially at work, where failure is only tolerated so much, the hypocrisy of society regarding failure stands out. Too many failures means that there is something wrong. It resulted in getting fired. It equated to the loss of money, and hence the loss of livelihood: a serious consequence. Therefore, it was easy for me to take failure personally. I was constantly afraid of failing, and of disappointing others as well as myself. Climbing, however, shattered that belief. At the gym or at the crag, I was able to fall a hundred times, but as long as I was willing to get back up and try again, I was always victorious. Failure no longer had devastating consequences, and it was OK to fail repeatedly for as long as it took. Perseverance became success, and that was a powerful quality I have acquired which proved useful to have in life, let alone climbing.

In time, I began to see that reacting angrily to a fall was not serving me. A climb was just a climb, after all. And yet, it was more than a climb; it was a habit builder. My ability to succeed on a climb was determined by how closely I have built enough habits within myself to allow me to get up that climb. If I had a habit of over gripping every hold, then I would not have succeeded on 5.11s. If I had the habit of fearing every fall, then perhaps I would never have conquered grades past the 5.12 mark, in which falls were inevitable. These climbing habits, because they are habits, persisted out of climbing and into the rest of my life. Even if I was walking around mindlessly, these habits benefited me. There was no sense in over gripping (holding on to) a past mistake, for if I did, I would not move past it. Until I had accepted that in difficult parts of life that falling was inevitable, I would not have made bold moves in an attempt to conquer them. I would not have a quicker capacity to forgive myself without hesitation or negative self-talk. Once I got rid of the fear of falling, however, I could make riskier career choices, and bolder life decisions, because I had practised not being reactive to unintended consequences. In that sense, climbing was like a training ground for the rest of life, a context in which I could practise the right habits which would automatically guide me to the right action.

More time at the gym meant less time for ruminating. While the victorious send was also immensely satisfying, the journey and the effort mattered. In a sense, climbing forced me to focus so intensely on the present moment, that after a certain point in time, it became like a meditation. There really was no space, in the act of climbing, to consider the finishing hold, until you actually got there.


Friends practising their crack climbing in the Smoke Bluffs in Squamish 
Bryan carried large-sized Pizza to the top of Banana Peel for an evening quickie. 
 
Mitigating anxiety and ADHD 

Climbing changed my life in many peculiar ways, some of which were too subtle for me to notice at first. For instance, I did not know that I suffered from anxiety. In hindsight, I constantly worried about the future, or what people thought of me, or whether the way I behaved was appropriate. This was often the tricky part of having ADHD, as impulsivity often resulted in me saying or doing things which others found uncomfortable or inappropriate, or I was making poor life choices which made people shake their heads in disbelief. The openness of the community, however, allowed the space for me to be myself, no matter how wacky I thought I was. Moreover, experiencing fear on a regular basis became a successful tactic for me for treating anxiety. Whenever I engaged in regular climbing, the tension in my body dissipated, and I was left with a sense of peace to which no other method of relaxation can compare. It was a lasting peace that stretched into my dreams. Perhaps I was just constantly high on endorphins. However, whenever I stopped climbing for a few weeks, whether it was because of injury, or because of work-demands, the anxiety would always return. I was pleasantly surprised the first time I experienced this.

People with ADHD have 80% comorbidity rate with other neurosis[1]. In other words, most people with ADHD will have a secondary mental health issue to worry about, such as depression, anxiety, ODD, OCD and even fibromyalgia. I carry with me anxiety and chronic muscle tension, and so long as I regularly climb, they are not a problem. I firmly believe, by my own experience, that regular climbing is beneficial for mental health. The sport takes you into nature, which by itself can be therapeutic, gets you to exercise regularly, which is always a healthy thing to do and fosters bonding and support. 

If you know someone who is suffering from ADHD, be kind to them. Offer them a day pass at the gym, and expose them to the wonderful world of climbing. Who knows, it may just be the seed they need to change their life.


Sunset view from Lion's Head Provincial Park

 
Feeling satisfied after a Skywalker Run.

References:

  1. Based Anon, host.  “Ep. 10 Dr. Russell Barkley on Adult ADHD.” Best of All Worlds, Aug 2020, https://open.spotify.com/episode/4K00PiC1aWze65R2s3Sv4Z

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