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Coming Up For Air: When Climbing Isn’t The Only Battle

This was originally published in Ascent 2020, Rock and Ice’s special annual issue.

 

In 2017, at age 22, I sat across a friend in Habit, a small coffee shop in Victoria, British Columbia, trying to memorize amino acid structures for a biochemistry test, while he tended to his Tinder profile. He glanced up to comment on a picture of a girl in the mountains.

The girl in the photo had on Lululemon tights and a sports bra, and posed in front of a waterfall, bending 90 degrees at the hips so that her back was slightly curved and her butt stuck up in the air. 

Who even poses like that?

“I always swipe right if I see one of these,” he said. “You know from this pic that either the girl actually likes being in the mountains—O.K., sick—or she’s one of those girls that’s like, ‘Look at me, oh my god, I’m in the mountains,’ in which case, she’s definitely DTF.”

“She’s definitely the latter,” I told him. “And struggling with self-worth.”

He nodded. My friend was a straight shooter, with two tattoo sleeves, one hand fisting a Red Bull, and a cigarette stuck to his lip.

Tossing my flashcards aside, I reached for my phone to assess my own Tinder profile. I had shamelessly copied a description from a wine bottle that described me as “devilishly smooth” and “pairs well with spicy dishes.” Why not? It was mysterious and sexy.

In a way, that profile was an accurate window into my world. I had intentionally dodged real self-reflection for as long as I could remember. The things that I’m not will always be greater than things that I am—so what’s the point in hashing something real out? I was no different from that girl in the mountains, posing for attention and skirting commitments, as anyone on Tinder tends to do. I hadn’t added a single climbing pic to my profile even though climbing had shaped the entirety of my adult life.

After eight years of competing, three Open National Championship titles, 33 international competitions and two World Cup finals, I wasn’t happy. I woke up every morning, looked in the mirror and thought about how I wasn’t enough. Life is suffering buttercup. Ninety degrees at the hips, butt up, ready for what life gave me.

Despite being rail thin, I couldn’t make it through a single day without counting calories, thinking about how fat I was and all things I could be if I could just be anyone else. Despite all of the training, the coaches, nutritionists, therapists and doctors, I still hadn’t been able to stare into the crystal ball and see my escape, because that would be admitting that I needed to.

 

Image by Jimmy Paenkhay

Mimi—My Beginnings

I remember the whimsical dirtiness that was CATS, a gymnastics gym with a cavernous woody overpopulated with all the original holds on the market—a precious museum of the plastic world. As a kid with ADD/ADHD, my parents were relieved to see me excited about climbing. My dad, a beanpole of a man, had moved from Israel in the 1980s to climb in Yosemite. He was and still is a trad climber through and through and was thrilled about my newfound passion.

My twin sister, Sarai, or Susu as I call her, joined me on the CATS climbing team. We were six at the time, both eager to explore the world around us but reluctant to leave each other’s side—clinging to each other like the conjoined twins we weren’t. We were and still are each other’s phantom limb.

I grew up going between two homes in Boulder, Colorado, both very different and very similar. My mom’s house was filled with art and days spent making it, Israeli folk-dance classes, music classes, health foods that our more “American” friends never had at their houses, a fixation on being the best you can be. And skinny. At my dad’s house, time was filled with art admiration, putting on and removing soccer equipment, eating more healthy food, and again, fixating on what it means to be “strong” in the mind and body. More than one family member cared about the next diet and how they presented their carcass to the world.

Susu’s and my time on the team didn’t last long. She lost interest, so I did, too. I discovered a passion for skateboarding, soccer, poetry and music. Near our dad’s house in Boulder, I played on a running and biking trail outside, asking the bugs how their day was. I got lost in my head while my dad continued to escape to the climbing gym.

As I got older, I grew out of my attachments to beanies, short hair and boy clothes, and ventured into short shorts, dresses and hair clips. I was confronted with my body, its instability in form and tactility. My physical presence unnerved me. The short shorts covered hips and a butt. The dresses a chest and delicate shoulders. Which all pointed to a body, a body, a body, a disgusting body. This over-awareness of myself had been brewing since I can remember—it made me want to disappear.

“You know, if you did a sport you would be a lot thinner,” said a family member. So I begged my dad to take me climbing again. I finally returned to the gym around the time I was 12, six years after my stint at CATS. “We were waiting for you,” said Chelsea Rude, a pro climber and my future coach. I brimmed with excitement and pride. Someone wants me, someone is noticing me.

Image by Michael Hecker

Delaney—Being a “Tactile” Child

I discovered climbing when I was 12. I was clumsy, overeager, and had a gait that didn’t quite fit with my nimble frame. At a friend’s birthday party, I delighted in how magical chalk dust looks when the sun hits it just right … and the true giddiness of sandbagging other kids. I was good. There was no denying my natural talent, and for the first time I felt like I belonged.

I grew up knowing I was different. While everyone feels that way, I consciously internalized that feeling of not-normalness as part of my identity: I don’t fit in. I’m awkward. I’m a nerd—and not in the cute school-girl kind of way.

If I wasn’t going to be normal, then I would take control over every other aspect of my life. Although it was never diagnosed, I had some degree of Just Right OCD. My belt had to be tight enough to leave marks on my hips. My shirts were all the same, a fitted T with a patterned breast pocket. And getting new shoes made me scream on the inside. These are too big. They make me walk weird. Why can’t I just like them? I hate them.

Climbing gave me a sense of belonging. When the team coach asked me to join, I thought that would be the happiest day of my life.

My mom called me her “tactile” child, referring to my “sensitivities” to fabrics and the way things touched me. It turns out being overly aware of the way things feel is a good attribute in climbing. I quickly memorized beta, holds and body positions. It wasn’t long before I was able to shed some of my obsessive tendencies at home for new ones in the gym. I trained longer and harder than anyone else to ensure fitting into my one spot in the community. I was on the USA Youth Team less than a year later.

Being from the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, my family believed in three things: God, ice cream and television. My after-school snack was toast with butter and cinnamon sugar. Following was homework and then dinner, most often a home-cooked meal of meatloaf, ketchup and veggies, but sometimes we were treated with fast food. Next came practice. When I returned, we’d have dessert—almost always two scoops of ice cream with chocolate syrup, to be eaten on the couch with a family-show accompaniment. On special occasions, the ice cream was swapped for my dad’s homemade chocolate-chip cookies that were as thick as brownies and always underdone in the middle.

When I later developed my eating disorder, I no longer allowed myself any of those too-sweet, too-fatty or too-salty foods; like Mimi’s, my diet changed to consist of safe foods to be eaten at safe times.

I had everything—good parents in a good house and went to a good school in a good city and had access to a good gym with good coaches. Sometimes I wish at least one thing had been less than normal, so that I had something to blame other than myself.

 

Mimi—Safe Portions

I must always have had an eating disorder. I was always aware of how my body moved, the way it did or didn’t press together. The veins in my feet, the way I felt the baby fat on my cheeks move when I rocked in a rocking chair. Like Delaney, I hated my body and the confines of it and the cumbersome way it moved through the world.

Middle school was when I really wanted to alter the chimera I saw in front of me. I didn’t eat. I gave my lunch away, I limited myself to “safe” foods. No gluten, no milk, no cheese or dairy. Everything had to be acceptable in my mind, perfectly portioned, perfectly prepared, and perfect for my perpetually shrinking state. If I ate “too much” or the “wrong” things at the wrong time, it felt like bugs were crawling all over my skin, eating me alive. Sometimes I wished they did.

I didn’t get “good” at my eating disorder until I almost died from it.

My junior and senior years of high school were all climbing competitions and training, food, calories, and how to avoid them. I realized the advantage of my diminishing physique through climbing and that was just the cherry on top to my internal exasperation of accomplishing my secret mission. I wanted to be special, this made me special. I wanted to feel accomplished after years and years of feeling average and incompetent. I wanted to feel in control and I wanted to be the best at climbing and my eating disorder.

My anorexic body and brain were always put to the test. I remember meeting Delaney at one of my training camps for nationals. I recall a teammate of mine calling Delaney “a huge crusher,” so I was shocked to see her being so fucking skinny. She was a crusher, but lithe and delicate, like smoke moving up the wall. I remember thinking, “Do people think that about me?”

“Oh god, I want to be as strong as her, as thin as her.”

“I’m not as good as her, you suck, what are you even doing here?”

I failed the test. I lost. But that was all put behind me when Delaney and I started talking about our love for Quentin Tarantino.

When I was 16 I didn’t make it into finals at Youth Bouldering Nationals. I had climbed and trained my hardest, but my body refused to progress in the sport that I had destroyed myself for, from both overworking and undereating. Even then, I told myself I didn’t deserve to eat. I chose to continue to eradicate the defect that was myself.

Sometimes I didn’t leave the house because I looked in the mirror and cried at the confusing mess of body parts I saw in front of me.

 

Delaney—The Betrayal

In 2009, just before I started my freshman year of high school, I was trapped in a small office with white walls. I sat, silently digging my fingernails into my sweaty palms. My heart thudded in my chest, like shoes in a dryer. The doctor spoke quietly and my attention drifted from her to the floor and back again. My cheeks grew hot—my face must have matched my red hair. I fought the urge to take my jacket off and instead focused on the creeping feeling of pins and needles on the leg I was sitting on. I was on the fifth floor of the Plano Hospital sitting alongside my parents and across from a thinly smiling doctor.

“Do you understand?” she repeated. “You would stay here with the other girls for about a month.”

I nodded. I felt a soft squeeze on my shoulder from my dad as he stood up with my mother. They escorted me out of the office in silence for the tour of a lifetime. I stole glances at circular lounges with overstuffed couches and dorm rooms with two beds per room, each with orange flowers and striped duvets. No sign of patients, just empty, sterile rooms with fluorescent lights and neutral paints.

My problems with food must have begun when I asked my parents to make healthier dishes for dinner. Their philosophy had always been that everything was healthy in moderation, but what I was taught in school about fat, salt and sugar didn’t match their ketchup-is-king ideology. I wanted to eat the way I thought an athlete should: vegetables, lean protein and no sweets. I started taking smaller portions at dinner and forgoing dessert. Many of my climbing idols were bone thin.

My eating disorder was gradual, insidious and, although at times dormant, it was always with me. I felt my ribs and hip bones when I was getting changed. They were like thin, internal shelves stacked for support but never filled. I started counting calories and weighing myself as often as I could get away with. I punished myself for too-large of meals by running two miles immediately afterward. In eighth grade I started feeling light-headed during classes.

The doctor’s white coat ballooned behind her steady walk. I wondered where the other patients were—possibly sitting in a circle behind a closed door and talking about their feelings. I hated the idea of it. I was going to be one of the world’s best climbers, after all. Sitting in circles wasn’t going to help my training.

When the tour was over my parents thanked the doctor. I watched my feet turn toward the exit. Air returned to my lungs. Dear god a hospital is not a home. Squiggly thermal waves danced around the parked cars. I was all squint and scowl, not willing to look my parents in the eye. I had one month to begin putting on weight or my bags would be packed and I would settle into the inpatient program of the hospital’s Disordered Eating clinic. As I sat in the back seat of my dad’s Camry, I closed my burning eyes and set my head against the window. I felt humiliated and betrayed by my parents.

 

Mimi—The Long Road to Recovery

Prior to Nationals, I had been going to La Luna, an outpatient eating disorder facility, in Boulder, where I had a therapist and a nutritionist. I was weighed and given a meal plan, skeptical glances, worried looks and the space to talk about feelings that I had muffled deep inside.

I didn’t get better. I lost more weight, although I thought I’d ballooned when I poured a little too much almond milk in my 75-calorie protein shake. My tricks got more desperate and devious. I would chew and spit my food into a napkin, practically drowned myself with water before weigh-ins, used laxative tea.

My mom always came to pick me up at lunch breaks, otherwise I wouldn’t eat. Even when she said, “You need to eat to climb,” I didn’t care. The 190-calorie bar I ate before practice was all I needed and it kept me thin. Anything else might make me fat and then I wouldn’t be able to climb well and then I would be failing everyone and everyone would hate me and then I would hate me even more. Even though my body ached up the climbing wall, twinged and rattled through workouts at practices, I felt strong in those moments, strong enough to climb 5.13, go to Nationals, and train every day. Except I never got better, I never surpassed myself. But I still believed I was strong. Strong enough to walk by the pastry cases without a yearning glance. Strong enough to consume only liquids till dinner. Strong enough to say no to the cakes, the cookies, the candies, the bread, the juice, the butter, the oil, everything.

My mom and I went to Whole Foods where we would share salads for lunch. I would look out the window at all the people who seemed so normal and happy. I picked at the salad, had a bite, picked, had a bite until I started hyperventilating and crying. It was as if my brain had swapped eat-equals-survive with eat-equals-demise. I felt physical pain as I ate and my mind yelled at me to stop stop stop stop if you eat you’ll die! I was in such a delirious panic that my mom took me home and I cried in agony and she held me in her arms as I wailed how much I wanted this to stop and why can’t this stop? That night I hoped my mom wouldn’t leave me alone because I would have killed myself. That was when my mom and therapist decided there was nothing they could do for me. I needed to go to an inpatient treatment facility. I had to be forced to go.

I arrived at the Eating Recovery Center, Child and Adolescent (we called it C&A), on April Fools Day, 2014. I was terrified but exhausted from the perpetual state of internal fighting. When I walked through the doors I was whisked into many different rooms for tests and vitals and conversations about my medical history, self-harm history, what was expected of me, what was allowed and not allowed.

“No phones, no cameras, nothing sharp, all your toiletries will be checked in and checked out to you as well as your medications.”

“No standing for more than five minutes, no running, no fast walking, no tapping your legs or feet while you sit and no talking about numbers, not even to the staff.”

I felt guilty and unworthy of both recovery and my eating disorder. My thoughts would race between “Just eat it, you’re so close. You’ll get out of here,” to “Don’t finish that you fat fuck. Finish a meal in your first few days? You’re not sick, you’re weak.” I associated recovery with weakness and strength with sickness.

I would often think about my return to climbing (I thought they would let me leave for Youth Sport Nationals, they didn’t), and I became petrified. I would be a fat sloth bumbling up the wall instead of the wistful agile creature that I thought I was previously. People would laugh at me, mock me, of course they would. “Mimi really let herself go.” “She used to be so good.”

It was difficult to not think of climbing as a reason to punish myself, as a way to lose weight again. “You can’t drive a car on empty,” my therapists would say. For so long I thought I could.

I was transferred to ERC’s Adult Partial Hospitalization Program. I lived in an apartment instead of a small bedroom, and I had roommates from the same program. I graduated from high school and turned 18 at the hospital. I remember blowing out the candle on whatever festive treat they served me that meal, with my fellow patients singing happy birthday to me as if I was their own sister. I remember being happy and sad. Happy because I felt somewhat normal, sad because I wasn’t sure how long that would last.

 

Delaney—“Weight”

After the hospital, my mom took me to a nutritionist every week. We drove 40 minutes to a red-brick house in an oak-lined suburb. The nutritionist was a brunette, in her mid-40s and had cold hands. She’d measure my body-fat percentage with what appeared to be kitchen tongs and then make me weigh-in. From 1,200 calories a day, she upped my meal plan a couple of hundred calories every week until I was at 3,800, which is what it took for me to gain a pound a week. I hated her. And myself. But I would do anything to keep climbing.

I eventually gained enough weight for my mom and dad to stop worrying. They let me join the cross-country team at my high school and resume daily trips to the climbing gym. As soon as I was left to my own devices, I lost all the weight I had gained and went back to my obsessive habits. The dark pilgrim I carried continued to influence my every decision. I lied to my dad about why I couldn’t eat his chocolate chip cookies. I lied to my mom about the lunch I didn’t have. I lied to anyone who questioned me. I’m full, I don’t need any more. Yes, I’ve been eating enough protein. I’m just tired, I’m feeling fine. 

On the wall, I felt as if I could go forever. I was never pumped. I was graceful. I was strong. I climbed longer and more days on than anyone I knew. Often, I’d start my day with an eight-mile run, then hit the gym for six hours and return home exhausted, only having eaten two Clif bars and a small taco through the whole day. The older I got, the “better” I got at my eating disorder. By the time I left for college there were days when I only ate two apricots.

Five years after my day trip to the hospital, Mimi was checked in for her own hospital stay. I wanted to go to her, hug her and tell her something that would save us both. But even then I didn’t, because what was there to say?

When I moved from Dallas to Fort Collins, Colorado, to attend CSU, I was no longer around my old coaches, and the new ones asked questions. “I’m here if you need to talk,” said Robyn Erbesfield, the coach of Team ABC. “You’d be more powerful with more food,” said Alex Puccio as delicately as she could. I already had a few National Champion titles, but the first thing that came up when you googled my name was “Delaney Miller weight.”

Looking back, I sometimes wonder if I was ever a good climber, or if I owe my trophies to my eating disorder. Would I have been as good if I hadn’t been forcing my body to be something that it’s not? My eating disorder has taken everything from me, even my accomplishments.

I didn’t start to recover until I was 23, when I moved to Victoria, B.C. There, I had access to Canada’s Olympic Training Center, known locally as PISE. I worked one-on-one with a trainer and had a therapist. I started weight lifting, talking more openly about how I felt and gaining muscle. Unlike Mimi, I never was close to dying, but after 10 years of feeling sad and tired, I finally felt ready to take a new approach with food.

On a trip back to Colorado to visit old friends, I ran into Mimi’s dad at Movement in Boulder. He looked much older, with watery eyes and thin gray hair. He recognized me and told me about Mimi’s progress. “She’s living in Denver now. Setting and going to school. She’s really doing a lot better.” I felt a mix of relief and shame. After talking to him, I reached for my phone several times and every time I picked it up I put it back down.

 

Mimi—The Elusive Escape

I won’t say that rehab took away my demons or that I don’t have issues. For a year, drugs and alcohol replaced my eating disorder. I have also relapsed big and small. I think about food every day. I still only see figments of myself. But I just remind myself that anorexia cost me more than it gave me. I have chronic injuries from over exercising, my stomach is messed up from malnourishment and some relationships with people will never be the same. I was deceptive and lied to many people who only wanted the best for me. I lost two plus years of my life and I could have been dead.

The voice of the eating disorder still influences me.

“Should you go out tonight? But you’re fat, everyone will laugh at you.”

“Someone called you healthy, you should probably not eat dinner tonight.”

“Everything will be better if you don’t eat.”

This is the scar of my eating disorder; the voice that never leaves. This is the pain that I hope no one has to endure and would not wish upon anyone.

Climbing remains a double-edged sword to my anorexia. It both justifies eating and justifies not eating in a sick way that only people with eating disorders can understand.

When things get really dark, I remind myself of the time when I was screaming in my mother’s arms because I had a few bites of a salad, of the mental and physical pain I felt, the pain I caused others, and the absolute hopelessness that infected my whole life. Anorexia took everything from me, climbing, my family, my friends, almost my life. It leaves you with nothing but voices tormenting and mocking you.

 

Delaney—Dis-order

Mimi and I first met sometime before things got bad and then better and then bad again for both of us. It was a “Team of Two” training camp in Boulder, Colorado, hosted by Kris

Peters and Justen Sjong in 2012. The camp involved two three-hour sessions for three days on, followed by one day off and another three days on. During the lunch break, I remember Peters commented on both of our measly lunches. “Do you know how many calories that is versus how many you are burning?” he asked us both. “You guys should be eating more than that,” he said. At the time, we both secretly took the comment as a badge of pride. We later bonded over our unspoken thoughts.

People with eating disorders come from different backgrounds and they often have different motivations for not eating. They will have different habits and varying degrees of rational vs. irrational thinking. For all people recovering from an eating disorder, the mental battle against food never ends. The voice inside your head telling you don’t eat is stuck to you like a shadow, growing and shrinking throughout the day, always there, always haunting.

I wish I was braver and that I felt freer having written this. I wish these words would mean as much as they do if I disappeared into them, name and all. Is it all right if this means nothing at all?

I eat normally now, for the most part, but it’s taken me 12 years of drowning to finally come up for air. My thoughts aren’t always healthy, and like Mimi I think about food every single day. Today, my old trophies and medals sit in boxes and gather dust and my professional climbing career is over. And I still stare in the mirror and wonder when I’ll be able to look into that crystal ball.

The hardest lesson in life is learning that you don’t have the control you think you do. Eating Dis-order.  Things will never be Just Right. Safe foods will not distill your insecurities. Hospitals aren’t a home.

To all of the comp climbers or those eager to send their projects, believe us when we say it is not worth it.

 

Delaney Miller is associate editor for Ascent, Rock and Ice and Gym Climber. She was a three-time National Sport Climbing Champion.

Miryam “Mimi” Nissan has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Printmaking, and lives in Los Angeles, California. She’s a rock star; find her and her music @mimi_pretend.