Overcoming internal mountains

Not written the blog in a while, but I will get caught up! I’ve got loads to write, its just hard on the road on the iPhone, and when we are staying with other people and I could use the laptop, we like to make the most of the time with them. However, when I woke up this morning, all I could think about was writing. I have taken myself to sit on a rock bathed in morning sun overlooking the sun rising on the mountains. The sun is the only thing I’ve been bathed in for a while, but I am happy. Cycle touring is certainly not all idyllic mountain passes and waking up in quiet beauty spots, it’s often navigating busy roads, road works, and sleeping in laybys. However, through all of it, I am grateful and happy. This post is going to be a personal one.

When I was younger, my parents split up. The details are unnecessary, but I know as a family we all agree that the separation and subsequent aftermath were handled in a less than ideal manner. The result for my six year old self was growing up in an environment that did not fill with me trust in the world, and especially not confidence in myself. I had my brains, and I threw myself into academic work, becoming a perfectionist with little time for anything other than homework. I had no hobbies and I absolutely hated sport and exercise. So I thought.

My school reports stated that I didn’t attend P.E lessons, and I would have told you that the only sport I enjoyed was avoiding sport. The truth, as it always is, was a little more complicated. First, I had no confidence, and I couldn’t enjoy sport because the school cultivated an environment where sport was about competition and enormous praise was heaped on those getting into the teams, as well as criticism for those not performing well. Furthermore, I believed I was not very good at sport, and this caused mayhem with my perfectionism. Perfectionism is damaging as it prohibits your capacity to enjoy anything that you don’t naturally excel at. Which is, for most people, most things to be enjoyed in life. I wrote sport off as something I wasn’t good at, and honestly, I have yet to find out if I am good at team sports because I never tried to be. Over the past few years I’ve reflected a lot and realised that the version I have always narrated to people is “I’m not good at team sports”. However, the truth is, I just don’t know as I never had the confidence to make mistakes, learn and grow, and sabotaged all my encounters by not trying at all, thus protecting myself from failure by failing.

I remember being sat on the edge of Lake Ullswater on a family holiday watching my family on kayaks having fun. I had declined the opportunity to kayak because I said I hated sport. In reality, I was desperate to try and paddle on the amazing lake. However, the terror of not being able to kayak outweighed the desire to try it. Unfortunately not trying begets more self doubt as I didn’t allow myself to have any experiences to challenge the narrative of my being useless.

The third reason I didn’t enjoy sport was the clothes they made you wear; tiny shorts and skirts. Maybe OK for primary school children but for some teenage girls going through puberty, it was a nightmare. My perfectionism had already noticed my body didn’t look like the other girls, and especially not the ones people said were attractive, or so I thought. My thighs rubbed together, I had fat. I hated my curvaceous and naturally muscular legs. And above all else, I hated these tiny shorts I was expected to fit into to play sport. So I didn’t play sport.

There was a time where I would have wanted to give every detail about what happened next. But I am over it. In a nutshell, in my late teens I developed an eating disorder which lasted until my late twenties. It was a product of my lack of confidence, my perfectionism and my inability to emotionally mature or express emotions in a healthy way. I survived; it wasn’t easy. But I’m here now. And that’s all that matters.

Something happened during my twenties in that difficult time that set me off on this path that I am on now. The path of overcoming perfectionism and falling in love with all aspects of life, especially those that I’d written off because “I wasn’t good at them”. I discovered exercise. At first, it was incredibly unhealthy for me as I was unwell and used exercise primarily as a way to control my body size and shape. However, my love of the outdoors, moving the body and appreciating what my body can do rather than focusing on what it looks like, has helped me heal.

I remember the first time I went for a run, ironically the perfectionist eating disorder “lose weight” side winning over the “I can’t do it” side, I was amazed that I could run. Within a few months I was entering half marathons. Here was something I had told myself all my life that I hated, and I had been wrong! Yes, I wasn’t the fastest and that was OK.

Then, I discovered hiking, climbing and mountain biking. Climbing was a tough one was it involved learning complex rope work, and I had already written off in my mind that I was good at practical things. Climbing helped me challenge my internal narrative that I couldn’t tie knots, or learn practical tasks. It was really difficult because I had this story in my head that I was the last person in my class to tie my shoelaces and I couldn’t do things like ropework. In reality, I forgot to focus on the part of the story that mattered. I learned to tie my shoelaces. It took a bit longer than other people, and that was Ok. That was allowed.

Mountain-biking and hiking, and eventually cycle touring, made me feel like finally I had found the meaning behind life. Ruth that hated sport was now spending every weekend and most evenings being active. I felt energised in the mountains and surrounded only by nature and the company of people I loved and trusted, the voices of perfectionism and eating disorder altogether disappeared. Until I stopped the activity.

Yoga was an important milestone for me. I had always wanted to try yoga, but was terrified of attending a class and getting the poses wrong, or being too inflexible to even try. When I walked into my first yoga class, I had to fight memories of step aerobics at school where I was the only one unable to follow the teachers instructions. And yes, even now, after years of yoga, I struggle with copying poses off the teacher. However, now I have the confidence to be OK with that. And I tell myself, you will get there in the end. I am even able to laugh at myself, and my teachers learn how to show me poses in a way that works for me. After I learn the pose, I can do it just as well as anyone else.

Honestly, I will never know whether I really did have a problem with coordination and left and right as a child, or whether I just told myself I did and never tried to overcome it. I’m trying to overcome it now as an adult! You don’t have to tell yourself the same stories your whole life. Change is possible.

After overcoming the eating disorder, and continuing to work on the perfectionism, I was left with one further problem that needed to be overcome. I had damaged my stomach and oesophagus and needed surgery to repair it. This surgery left me unable to do any sport, running or cycling for 6 weeks and 6 months for any climbing or carrying a back pack. In reality it was nearly a year and lots of hic ups in recovery before I felt strong enough to engage in physical activity again. There were times in that year I felt I would never get there. I thought maybe I would never be able to carry a heavy back pack up a mountain, or cycle a loaded touring bike. Maybe I would never be able to run a half marathon or climb on rock face. It was an uncertain time, waiting to see if my surgery was strong enough for the activities I wanted to do. I made peace with my situation, and worked hard to suppress negative feelings about the chain of events that led to me having the damaged stomach in the first place.

As this blog shows you, I got there. I ran a half marathon in December. In March-April I carried my own rucksack over the worlds highest navigable pass and walked for 40 days. And I am cycle touring with the heaviest bike I have ever ridden, up the biggest mountains I have ridden!

The reason for this mini life history, and I feel a little ashamed at the self indulgence and self disclosure, was because I wanted to explain my emotions over the past few weeks cycling in the Alps. A week ago we cycled over Col de Forclaz (1517m), something I did on my own as a 23 year old. It was a huge turning point for me back then as my first moment of solo travel. I realised that despite the self critical narrative I had been beating myself with my whole life, I could read maps! I could cycle up a massive hill! It didn’t matter what I thought of my legs, they were incredible power houses to get me up hills! I was capable and strong!

Returning to Forclaz 10 years later, I was amazed by my body all over again. And, unlike 23 year old Ruth, I felt the enormous weight off myself because that critical voice is so much quieter than it used to be. I don’t live with the eating disorder to the same extent, I can manage the perfectionism, I can be happy. Happy was not always something I thought I could be.

Yesterday we cycled over Mont Cenis Pass, 2087m, and as I cameover the hill after an epic four hour struggle, greeted by amazing mountain lake scenery and people cheering and saying congratulations, I felt truly like I have survived. I’m really ready to leave behind the years of self torment and their memories. I’m opening myself to all new experiences, challenging myself to try new things, or things I’ve previously written off as ‘I can’t do that’.

I feel utterly privileged and grateful for my good mental and physical health, and all the luck in the world that has allowed me to be born into a life to have these experiences when so many other people cannot.

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