The fog rolled in surreptitiously, encroaching every visible surface. It wasn’t just there one day when I woke up, the way it happens sometimes. At every moment, this fog quietly magnified like some cunning creature, sneaking its way into my being. The moment I realized it had made itself a home inside my mind, it was too dense to see even one step ahead.
I am not sure when, exactly, this thing embedded itself, but it likely started somewhere in my teenage years and just sort of stuck around, lurking beneath the surface. I dealt with it on my own for a long time. Keeping it at bay, even into my late twenties, was something I could manage with various self-care techniques like meditation and yoga. I did all the things one does when they want to take care of themselves without letting anyone else know they’re struggling. It felt like a secret life, in a way. I could focus on my career, smile through the day, unwind at night, then wake up and do it all again. Nobody knew.
Words by Colleen Tirtirian, published in Volume 23. Banner photo by Chris Vultaggio When I think back to that time, I realize I was like a robot following commands. Programmed at a young age to follow a certain path, I did a really good job at quieting my intuition, which told me there were likely other options for me. But my entire world at that time revolved around the narrative that’s spoon-fed into many young women’s minds. The one that says go to college and start a career; find a man; get married; have kids, and then maybe leave your career. So I kept up with the job—even though I was incredibly burned out from the endless paperwork and hours of commuting—because that was what I was meant to do, according to society. And I found the guy. The one. Things were looking up; levity entered my life.
We got married, and after a few years, our focus shifted from late nights out and weekend travels to starting a family. But the fog was still there, gnawing at me. We struggled to conceive. Fog. I lost two pregnancies. More fog. We thought maybe we would never have biological children. It was a hard pill to swallow.
I didn’t realize it at that time, but I focused all of my emotional energy on that journey and never once stopped to let my mind and body heal from the trauma of losing back-to-back pregnancies and, instead, went straight into a third pregnancy. This time, to our shock, it was twins. I held my breath at every single ultrasound appointment, bracing for bad news. But bad news never came. We made it to 37 weeks, and I went straight into my motherhood journey.
When I became a mom, I learned that you can be simultaneously grateful for your blessings while slowly dying inside. In those first few weeks, I managed to keep it together on the outside, but inside I was losing control. I remember, in the early months, a friend of mine came over and asked me how I was doing. I told her that I felt like I was on another planet. She thought I was joking. I was not. I felt that my head was floating in space, and I was not one with my body.
I remember asking my husband, “Is it possible to die from sleep deprivation?”
I was convinced that was how I would go. Even when the babies were asleep, I found myself waking up to check on them, to make sure they were still breathing. No part of me could relax. It was just months on end of total mind and body exhaustion, running on pure adrenaline. I hardly took care of myself or took time to heal from the c-section that left me feeling like I’d been stuffed into a washing machine, pulled out, and left on the floor. There simply was no time.
But I was not one to admit defeat. I reasoned that because I was taking care of my babies and loved them—they were getting snuggles, enough milk, and clean clothes—that I was not experiencing postpartum depression or anxiety. Who, me? Nope. This will not take me down, I told myself. My body and mind would not allow that inner storm, the fog, to show on the outside. I lived in fear—that should I tell a single soul how desperate I felt, the white coats would be summoned to my home to take me away for good, and I’d never be allowed to see my children again. So I got really fucking strong and smiled. I didn’t dare tell a soul about the strange hallucinations I’d been having: phantom babies in my bed, a moving crib. In hindsight, it should have been a sign to ask for help. But fear sometimes wins over logic. So I kept up with appearances and did all the things a new mom has to do to win others’ approval: smile through it all.
Until I couldn’t hide it anymore. The foundation started to crack. But at that time, I didn’t recognize what was happening to me. My husband didn’t either. We were both struggling to adjust to life with two babies and no sleep. Unfortunately, this story is not so unique. This is what it means to raise children in America. Support is as infrequent as sleep.
One winter night, early on in my life as a twin mom, my husband and I managed to get out for dinner and drinks in the city, leaving the babies in very capable hands. We sat down at a wine bar and drank glass after glass of red wine. It was the catalyst for my breaking point. I was already exhausted, sad, and helpless before the wine. I wanted to check out but didn’t dare speak it aloud, despite thinking frequently about wanting to jump in front of traffic to escape. But these are just fleeting thoughts, I told myself.
At dinner, we had a small and quiet argument, the kind where you speak your anger through gritted teeth. We managed to get through our tiff and finish dinner and drinks as a unit. It was cold and rainy, so rather than walk to the train, we called an Uber. It was during that car ride home that I broke. I told the driver to stop the car. It was raining and freezing. The driver pulled over, and I left my husband in the car. He did not follow. I think he was too stunned to do much and was allowing me to cool off.
I walked to the Hudson River waterfront. I’d been here so many times before in beautiful weather, admiring the way humankind creates skyscrapers while simultaneously feeling conflicted over how such structures swallow nature whole. But the river is a nonchanging feature of this landscape, a constant in an otherwise ever-changing outline. Only this time, I don’t think about buildings. I am struck by a comforting thought. It covers me like a warm blanket. If I just jump into this frigid water, my body will let me go. I will eventually grow so cold that I won’t want to swim any longer. At that moment, the thought brought me peace. This didn’t feel like some call of the void. It was more calculated. I wanted an escape. It was past midnight, and nobody was around, so I allowed myself the luxury of collapsing onto a nearby patch of grass. As the rain soaked through my clothes and into my bones, I contemplated my next move. However muddled my mind was at that moment, I was clear about one thing: I couldn’t keep going. I was broken.
I knew my husband had gone home to send the babysitter home and look after the babies. I knew he’d worry, but I’d turned my phone off and threw it into a pile of trash on the sidewalk earlier. I did not want to be found. A city is a good place to get lost, but it’s not a place where one is really ever alone. As that night had it, a couple had been walking in the area and noticed me in the grass; my distress was evident. They came over to me to ask if I was okay. No. But I wiped my tears, stood up, said “Yes, I am ok,” and I got my shit together. I was ashamed of how I ended up in this position in the first place. Someone was looking out for me, I think, and this was the start of my wake-up call.
Despite how deeply bleak everything around me seemed at the time, I reminded myself that I’d pulled myself out of every terrible situation up to that point, and I could do it again. Deep down, I knew I wanted to live, but there was a lot of work ahead.
The days and weeks that followed that shitty night were some of my hardest. Shame is one word that hangs overhead, but I did the work. I started healing. I went to therapy where I was prescribed an antidepressant alongside talk therapy. It was still hard work to pull myself out of the hole I was in, even with synthetically produced brain chemicals. But it lifted the blanket of fog so that I could see the steps in front of me with more clarity. Healing is complicated, and I have my moments, but I would much rather be a person who feels deeply than not. There is beauty to the mess of navigating life this way. Thankfully, there are other coping mechanisms that get the brain chemicals in action. I found them through a chance encounter not long after the night I nearly ended it all.
My therapist suggested some time out of my routine and decided that a long weekend out of my element might be helpful. So, my husband and I got out of the city in lieu of some time in nature up in New Paltz, New York, aka the Gunks.
Driving north has always been my go-to way to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of the metro area. I grew up in a small suburban town about an hour south of New Paltz, so I was familiar with various areas of the Hudson Valley. As an adult, I moved straight to an urban environment and stayed. When you live in a building shaped like a box with more boxes on either side, you quickly become adept at finding new places to explore, places to go and catch a breath. New Paltz had always been on my radar as somewhere to explore. So up we went. This trip was a way for my husband and I to reconnect and heal. The air quality is markedly different the farther north you drive, and we took advantage of the fresh air by planning to hike once we arrived.
On our first day there, we quietly walked along a muddy path. There was a tacit agreement between us that this was not the time for conversation. There was a slight breeze and dampness in the air, and I appreciated this lack of unnecessary noise. For the longest time, everything just felt like noise to me, and this quiet air was incredibly comforting.
Somewhere along our meandering, we scrambled our way through some interesting terrain, watching our steps on the slippery, shaded rock. When we came to a sunny area, we happened upon a group of climbers, maybe four or five of them. I watched in awe as the woman on the wall pushed her body with such intensity and certainty. There was a kind of visceral reaction in me as I observed her movements against this gray, overbearing wall.
The rock shined in the sun, one brick-like sediment atop another; it invited hands and feet to scale their way above the treetops. Watching it in action was like finding a missing link for me. I could sense the feeling that would come when she reached the top—the satisfaction of pushing herself and accomplishing this feat in her day. I obviously didn’t know her personally, but I had the sense that this was, without question, enhancing her life.
It created a new spark inside of me, one that I desperately needed after losing myself in motherhood. There I was, stuck on the ground, watching her increase her distance from us. Excitement, envy…whatever it was, this feeling had me in its grips. I turned to my husband and without hesitancy said, “I need to do that.” He looked at me and said I was crazy. I shrugged. The person on belay overheard me and offered a different response. “You should!”
“See?” I nudged my husband in jest.
We kept going with our hike, but my mind held on to that moment. At that point in time, my knowledge of climbing stopped at the gym, which I knew existed but I really didn’t understand the point of it. It dawned on me as I watched her make incredible moves that there was an entire world I was missing out on.
After the trip, I made it a point to learn all I could about rock climbing until I could actually get out and do the damn thing. It gave me something to focus on outside of myself. I also knew there was a climbing gym in our town, so there would be no excuses. Until that moment in the Gunks, I didn’t know anything about the world of rock climbing.
I went about setting up a staff belay at our local gym. I am, at heart, an independent person, but I still have nerves when it comes to putting myself out there and trying something new. That’s how it felt the first time I went to the gym. I fumbled awkwardly with the simple harness and abhorred the rental shoes. But all those missteps faded as my belayer gave me some tips and I made my way up the wall.
Even though I had no technique at that time, I was immediately hooked on how good it felt to reach the top. To fall off and get back on and to keep going despite that. My husband still thought I was kind of nuts, but he joined me a few times, despite his eye rolls. I tell myself that he secretly loved it. Having to juggle our own lives and other responsibilities, it was clear that just the two of us going was not going to happen as often as I wanted it to. I instead went alone for a while and stuck with auto-belays and some bouldering. But that was not enough, and I knew I wanted to learn how to transfer climbing on plastic holds to being outside. If I was going to continue my journey, I needed to find a way to connect with other climbers who wanted the same things I did.
I didn’t know anybody who was a member within my social circle, so I had to work on finding a new community within the gym. Luckily, our local gym was hosting an adult technique class over the course of six weeks, and that is where I connected with others who were at roughly the same point in their experience level. This helped to create momentum in my journey. After the class was through, I stayed connected with some friends from the class, and we would meet a few nights a week to climb together.
The winter after that course felt like one of the shortest I’d experienced since becoming a mother. Winters in the Northeast tend to be quite dark, and they drag on for so long. But this one was different. I had something to look forward to. Once spring rolled around again, it was time to head back to the Gunks and climb on actual rock. Finally.
When that day came, it was a bitterly cold morning, but the forecast was set to warm up with full sun in our future. I drove up with two of my newfound climbing partners, Maggie and Dee. Mags slept in the back the entire way up. Being that she’s in her twenties, she can drag herself out of bed with a hangover and make it look easy. I envy that. Dee, on the other hand, is about fifteen years my senior. She was up and stoked the same way I was, and that made the drive feel quick. I pulled into the parking area, and we headed out with a guide since it was the first time we’d be outside the gym. I am all about figuring things out on my own, but I am even more about efficiency and safety now that I am a parent. Once I started up the wall, it was just as amazing as I imagined it would be. My fingers hurt more than I anticipated, but I loved it. As I made my way up the route, we all got a good laugh when I pointed out that you did not, in fact, have to stay directly under the top anchor.
As I learn more about climbing and as I get more outdoor time, I find myself wanting more. Maybe that is part of the appeal—you always have something more to learn or accomplish. I am basically an infant when it comes to my climbing life, but I am appreciating every moment where my thirtysomething body—the one that carried two babies and birthed them, the one that was torn up and felt ruined beyond repair after those nine months—relearns that it is powerful beyond my imagination.
My climbing life is in that exciting stage where each session at the gym or in the Gunks brings out a renewed sense of enthusiasm for life and for what my body has accomplished in those difficult years.
From pregnancy losses to ultimately creating life and coming back from the depths of my own emptiness, discovering climbing has been the ultimate freedom in this season of life. Climbing has helped me stay on top of my mental and physical health. Though I know it’s not a panacea, it’s certainly very close.
Recently, I met up with a few of my girlfriends at our local gym. Finding time to get together with more than one other adult in our otherwise insane schedules is difficult. It’s typically two of us, maybe three. But all four at once is a rarity. On this particular night when all four of us were at the gym together, we decided to grab some dinner and drinks after our session. I sat in that moment, observing what my life had become. It was a fleeting moment because, well, when you’re at a pub eating bar food, it’s not really the place to get sentimental.
But in the brief moment where I was able to reflect, I was overcome with appreciation and gratitude for the people I’ve met through the incredible climbing community—in whatever iteration one chooses to participate—and for what my body has accomplished since I began climbing.
Every single time I get outside or on the gym wall, I feel my body, and my confidence in what it can do, growing. Never did I imagine that I would get back to a place where I felt so much like myself instead of an aimless, hollow vessel. While it’s not always possible to just up and go to the Gunks while raising children and working, I make it part of my priority list but cut myself the much-needed slack for when it’s not always possible to get outside for more than one climbing day at a time.
Society has a lot to say about how moms should act, what they should do, or who they should be—that there is some ideal version of a mom. Who is she though? I don’t know what the right answer is, but here is something I know to be true: climbing saved my life, and it continues to do so each time I ex perience a new level of intensity while on the wall. I believe this has been what has kept me alive still to this day. When I take care of myself, when I get on the wall and enjoy my life as its own entity and not one that is jumbled up in others, I am a much better version of myself and therefore a better mother, partner, and overall person. I thought the whole “go to college, get married, have kids” trajectory was where I ended. But being a mom is not where you end. It’s really just the start of knowing who you are.
My soul needed to die to be reborn: It died when I was a new mom and thought suicide was the answer. It was renewed when I leaned into the climbing community and the camaraderie that surrounds it. The climbing community and the act of the ascent changed my entire outlook on life and pulled me out of the depths of disquiet. Climbing saved me.
Colleen is a teacher, artist, writer, and twin mom. She believes that, in her writing, sharing the journey of motherhood, especially taboo topics, can help normalize the difficult moments that many parents feel from time to time. When she’s not juggling her many creative endeavors with mom duty, she’s likely on her way to the Gunks or climbing at her local gym.