Choose Your Own Summit
"Our limits aren’t created by objective facts. Diabetes. Gravity. Athleticism.
Our limits are created in the story we tell ourselves about what those obstacles mean." Steve Richert from Living Vertical talks about how controlling the story in our mind is how we control diabetes.
Some of you may be familiar with me as ‘that diabetic climber’. I chose not to say ‘climber with diabetes’ intentionally but I promise I’ll come back to that in the closing paragraph of this article. I recently experienced a life-changing event while climbing in the mountains of British Columbia with my good friend and fellow type 1, Martin. Don’t worry; I’m not here to bend your ear with the well-worn mantra that ‘anything is possible with type 1 diabetes’ and that you should follow along with my vertical antics as proof of that fact. Quite the opposite—because while I do believe anything is possible, I think we are overloaded with reminders of what is possible. Something is missing in translation.
My recent, epic night of huddling in the cold and wind on the summit of a 2000’ lightning rod yielded a realization that we don’t have a problem with supply of things like inspiration. It’s out there. Try this: go on Instagram and take a look at the #type1diabetes hashtag. You’ll find hundreds and thousands of people with diabetes doing rad things that fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that many of us were told when we were diagnosed.
What’s the missing ingredient? If there’s no shortage of stories illustrating in daily detail that anything is possible with type 1 diabetes then why isn’t everyone living life on their own terms and crushing the ups and downs?
We all have a story that we tell ourselves every day. Most of us never realize that we are shaping the narrative which will either set us free to live life on our own terms or fence us into an area that we may never leave. We confuse that story for objective reality and accept it as unchangeable.
For example: I have diabetes. I require insulin on a daily basis or I will die. This is an example of objective reality. It’s a fact that no one can argue with—excluding a few of the okra water and cinnamon pill guys, but my diabetes is really not a story.
Alternatively: I have diabetes and I require insulin on a daily basis—therefore I can’t climb a mountain. I can’t join the cross-country team. I can’t swim competitively. I can’t handle breaking up with my partner. I can’t deal with getting rejected by this publisher. You get the drill—these are the little bolt-ons to our reality that are self-governed. These are the elements of story that we control.
Controlling blood sugar is not how we control diabetes. Controlling the story in our mind is how we control diabetes.
The default state of unawareness that most of us live in is one where we accept the story that society tells us about our diabetes. Or the story our endocrinologist tells us. Or the parents at the PTA meeting who think that Johnny got diabetes from eating too much sugar. These are all distractions from what really matters: your story. That is all that matters.
What most of you wouldn’t guess from looking at my photographs is that I wasn’t born a climber. Or an athlete for that matter. Long before I was diagnosed I was a chubby kid from upstate New York who got winded just running down the soccer pitch in middle school. They put me in goalie and I was happy enough to be allowed on the team in the first place.
When I was diagnosed with type 1 at 16 (17.5 years ago) I started telling myself a different story to cope with a seemingly hopeless alternative. Call it escapism—but I didn’t want to live in the narrative I heard from the doctors about amputations, kidney disease and dependence.
My story wasn’t magic. Nothing changed overnight. I didn’t head out of the ICU and order my first climbing rope. In fact it took years of cutting scraps out of old National Geographic Magazines and ruining relationships by telling my then partners that I planned on being a “climber” when I graduated college.
Want to be really popular? Try telling your girlfriend that your dream is to drive around the country in a beat-up old car and grind up mountains that no one will ever pay you to climb.
All I had was that story—but I believed it. I did the work to make it real. I spent 7 years internalizing the narrative that I was good enough, that I could figure out how to bring my diabetes along with me, that I could simply walk into a climbing gym as a complete beginner and ask ‘where do I start’?
It’s been 10 years since I did that and I’m still learning to fully own my story. You don’t need inspiration from my climbing, from my story. You need YOUR story.
Did you know that the summit doesn’t matter when you’re climbing? It’s fully optional. It’s getting back down to the ground that is mandatory. Things aren’t always what they look like. Surrounding yourself with stories of others who are pushing their limits won’t do you one iota of good—if you’re not deliberately working on your own story—and believing it enough to do the work. Every day.
Our limits aren’t created by objective facts. Diabetes. Gravity. Athleticism. Our limits are created in the story we tell ourselves about what those obstacles mean.
I said I’d explain my choice to call myself a diabetic climber—and here it goes. That word is part of a story—one that is often clinical and cold. Hopeless and less than human. I choose not to accept the idea that such a public narrative gets to hold the monopoly on rights to this word. I’m not listening to that story. I am listening to my own story. Having a stereotype breathing down my neck only serves to keep me on task. Every day.
Stephen Richert is an author, photographer and climber—and founder of LivingVertical.org, a blog and media website dedicated to adventure as medicine, drawing on his experience in steep, wild places with type 1 diabetes. He was diagnosed at 16 years old in 1999 and has still not accepted that life with a chronic illness should be anything less than spectacular. He is fiercely independent and welcomes respectful dialogues. If you’d like to read his latest book about lessons from a harrowing night spent out in the open on a windswept summit in the Bugaboo Mountains titled “5 Minutes of Chaos (that changed my life)” you can get a copy at LivingVertical.org.