I’ve been climbing for 20 years, but during that time I’ve been injured for as many years as healthy. When I’m unable to climb, I descend that spiral of despair that comes from loving a thing too much and having it taken away. In the early days of my latest shoulder injury–which ultimately took three years and two surgeries to repair–in an effort to make me feel better, my husband gamely said, “Maybe you’ll find a silver lining out of this someday.” I nodded, but my mind was blazing with disagreement: There would be no silver linings. But I was wrong.
Most of my injuries weren’t directly caused by climbing, with the exception of the time I was spotting a boulderer and caught an elbow that broke my face. (Ironically, that injury didn’t set me back for long; turns out, you don’t really need your face to climb.) I also endured a long-term elbow injury from overuse due to a career stint of field work. Following that recovery, I immediately tore my right shoulder labrum laying out for a disc in an Ultimate Frisbee game. I crawled (or maybe I should say flailed and thrutched) my way back from these injuries with reasonable patience and by clinging to the hope, the wild belief, that many more of my best climbing years were still ahead of me.
But my latest shoulder injury was the worst of them, mentally and physically. I was 36 and no longer felt like I had all the time in the world. The injury wasn’t self-inflicted (like the ill-conceived frisbee layout), and it came with a lot of anger and uncertainty about my prognosis. It was caused by an incompetent person who misadministered a flu shot too high on my left shoulder, which, I now know, can lead to severe shoulder injuries (known as Shoulder Injury Related to Vaccine Administration, or SIRVA).*
I immersed myself in medical journals, learning everything I could about shoulder anatomy, and I read everything that had been published about SIRVA**. I saw multiple orthopedists and doctors, because it is very poorly understood how to treat it. I tried physical therapy, cortisone shots, acupuncture, massage, and medication. And finally, I flew across the country to see one doctor who had published a paper on it in a respected journal.
I didn’t know how long I’d be out of climbing, but I could tell it was bad. My shoulder was in nearly constant pain, and the medical literature on SIRVA wasn’t encouraging. For a few weeks after the injury, I passed the time not spent climbing with other diversions: I made a few webpages on subjects that interested me, like snowpack monitoring. I caught up on books and TV. I worked. But I was always asking, what do I do with myself when I’m not climbing? My other injuries, even the protracted ones, felt different, a lot less hopeless than this one. I took up running for a little while, and started to enjoy it, but my knees hated it, and I wasn’t dedicated enough to get past that.
But then something clicked. It was the summer of 2018 and I was looking for anything to pass my free time. I opened the continuing education catalog for our local community college and flipped through the art classes. Here was one that would work: Plein Air Pastels. I signed up, bought a box of hard pastels and a cheap easel, and enjoyed the hell out of the class. For the next year I took those pastels everywhere – out to climbing areas where my friends were climbing, out in the snow, and backpacking in Patagonia (I tagged along on a climbing trip with my husband and friends). But pastels are heavy, and I had only picked them because it was the one class that worked with my schedule.
It was watercolors that I really wanted to try. I admired the beautiful work of plein air watercolor painters and, fortuitously, watercolors are much lighter than pastels for the backcountry! I bought a few tubes of paint, took another class at the local community college, and poured myself into learning watercolors. When the pandemic hit, I signed up for painting classes over Zoom.
To my surprise, I found that art and climbing have many similarities. Both require courage. You have to GO for it. With a paintbrush poised above the paper, maybe halfway through a painting that’s going well, you know that your next stroke can ruin it, and you hesitate. But you can’t hesitate forever. It reminds me so much of those moments climbing – you know them – when you’re trying to decide to commit to a move. The pump clock is ticking, you’re assessing the fall and the consequences, but finally you have to go for it, or else there’s no way you’re getting to the top.
Similarly, in art (as well as in climbing) sometimes, you send, but often (if you’re like me), you don’t. It makes the sends feel pretty special. You put in the hours, the training, but when all of your hard work leads to that magical moment where you make a painting you love, it floods the brain with the same reward chemicals as sending a climbing project does (dopamine, I’m guessing).
Those are just a couple of the similarities that come to my mind – there are more. It’s just astounding to me how similar the feelings and sensations are between the two. Climbing is an addiction and the rewards are in the brain chemistry – and making art generates a surprising amount of those same feelings. It takes the same kind of dedication, it has the same kind of learning curve, and it comes with the same kinds of obsessions over gear!
Art is a meditation, it is therapy, it is an avenue for learning and inquiry and a whole way of seeing the world differently. (I assume that many possible pursuits could fill this role: playing an instrument, woodworking, sewing, and so on.) After a while, I knew that even once I started climbing again, I’d never stop painting. The silver lining of my injury was discovering this new great joy.
About six months into the injury, I opted for shoulder surgery. Nothing was improving, and a growing bone marrow edema on my humeral head (as seen on MRIs) concerned my orthopedist. The surgery went well, and I was recovering nicely and by about a year later, I was climbing 5.12 and feeling so optimistic that I booked a climbing trip to Spain and Italy for the fall of 2019. But that summer, optimism got the best of me, I overdid it on my still-healing shoulder, and it was pretty much back to square one. I went on my climbing trip anyway, and even had some pleasant sends and onsights, but by the end of the trip my shoulder was done. I didn’t climb again until after I had surgery on the shoulder for a second time, in February of 2020, right before the pandemic hit us hard. Social distancing, lockdown, and all that went with the first few Covid years were well timed for me, as I was able to actually commit to enough rest and recovery to heal properly.
I’m very fortunate to be healthy, climbing again and currently uninjured, but I’m also thankful for the precious silver lining that this injury brought to me, and I feel better prepared mentally to handle injuries in the future. I learned that there are other ways to climb out of a dark place than, well, climbing, and that there are other pursuits that can replicate the “high” we seek. Painting is much easier on the body, but it is similarly possible to enter blissful flow states and receive the neurochemical rewards. I hope my body gives me many more years of fun on the rocks, but in the case that it doesn’t, I know now that there are other hobbies out there that can help fill that void. Anyone can discover a long-buried creative passion – no matter the medium, whether it’s painting or any other type of artistic expression – and it can be a hugely positive part of the healing process.
* I realize you might be skeptical about this, but do not even begin to argue with me over whether SIRVA is real or not: it is well-accepted in scientific, peer-reviewed literature**, and the CDC and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services committee on vaccine safety all recognize that this is a real, rare, and extremely preventable injury that may be caused by improper vaccination technique. (I am emphatically not an anti-vaxxer: I get all of my recommended vaccines, COVID-19, flu, and otherwise, because I understand the life-saving importance of vaccinations for public health; but I make sure the administrator does it right, and you should, too.
** For more information about SIRVA, including peer-reviewed medical literature, see http://sirvasurvey.org/resources. For information about correct vaccine administration, see here and here, for example.
Header photo is art by the author.