I felt fit, strong and psyched. I was close to sending my project.
Then, last fall, I herniated a disc in my lower lumbar spine. I didn’t see it coming, but knew what it was the instant it happened. I was in disbelief, and with that disbelief came the hopefulness that maybe the injury wasn’t that bad. So I kept climbing, went on a scheduled work trip, flew on planes, sat in cars, slept in shitty beds, taught clinics and climbed for photo shoots.
By the time I got home 10 days later I was a mess; I couldn’t climb and I could barely walk. Nerve pain is very strange because the pain does not occur in the place you are injured. I hurt my back but it was the intensity of the pain in my legs that consumed me. It was like having a constant migraine headache, but in my ankles and my glutes. An MRI showed the extent of the herniation and compression on the nerves and an appointment with a neurosurgeon revealed the degree to which I had lost both sensation and strength in my feet and ankles.
Six weeks after the injury, I was in the hospital having spinal surgery. It seemed to all happen so fast – from being ready to send one of my hardest routes to not being able to put on my socks. It hit me really hard. I was upset with myself, I was in pain and I was scared. I was told I would feel better immediately. When they told me that, I cried. I would have given anything to not be in that pain. I truly had no idea what I was in for and what the recovery was going to be like.
I didn’t feel better after the surgery. The pain only went away while the pain killers were in effect, after that the pain felt as bad as it did before. I reached out to my surgeon for answers and received none. I didn’t know what to do. It felt like I was living in someone else’s body, and I didn’t know what it needed to heal. I didn’t trust myself.
They told me to get up and walk. So I focussed my energy on that since it was supposed to be good for me. So I walked and walked and walked. The pain did not improve. Was it getting worse? Was I walking too much?? I went into a mental space of questioning everything. I didn’t believe I was better. I didn’t believe the surgery was successful. I didn’t believe I was healing.
As in sports performance, with injury recovery your brain is hugely powerful and can either be your greatest ally or your worst enemy. I couldn’t get my brain to believe in my healing and that was not helping my cause.
A month went by, then two, then three. I was recovering from the surgery and was even able to start rehabbing while attempting to start the long road to regaining climbing strength. But, the pain was always present, casting doubt and making me question whether I was actually improving. I couldn’t avoid thinking I’d never recover, or that I’d always live with the pain. Shit, what if I could never climb again, or at least like I used to?
Being an athlete – and a fairly high-performing one – has been a central part to my identity for over 10 years. I literally did not know what life without climbing was or if I wanted to be a part of it. The cold and dark of winter mirrored my mental state.
But, some part of me didn’t lose hope. It’s the same part that gets me up hard rock climbs even when I have failed on them 50 times before. Call it drive, determination or just stubbornness, but I have a hard time giving up. So I didn’t. I recognized my situation and decided to stop thinking about the big picture. Instead, I started thinking about “today” and what I could do to help myself focus on the present moment. I needed to find ways to turn my personal hardship into opportunity.
I started a mindfulness practice, which helped a lot. Meditation gave me the opportunity to really sit and be with all the thoughts that had been overwhelming me and the time to explore the inner space of my own mind. I started meditating every morning – it became an anchor point for my day. It offered me a fresh start, a space for setting intentions. Meditation also provided an important shift in perspective. My world had been so focused on my experience, my pain.
Mindfulness provided the perspective that me and my experience are part of the collective consciousness and energy of the universe. Learning that I am not at the center of anything – just one part of something much bigger – gave me a feeling of being less alone with my pain, and made me less scared of it.
After meditating, I’d work and then walk to the gym for rehab, PT exercises and fingerboarding. I wrote a schedule for all of it and with the help and support of my partner, family, PT and coach, I stuck to my plan and kept the big thoughts of doom at bay as best I could. I also cultivated some other hobbies. Without climbing I needed other things that engaged me mentally and fulfilled me spiritually.
I have always felt creative, but not artistic. In many ways climbing has been a creative expression for me. I wanted to engage with something new that allowed me to express that creativity. So I decided to start baking sourdough bread and I got really into it!
Baking sourdough bread is very much an exercise in being okay with not being totally in control. There’s an element of routine and ritual but because it is a living thing, each loaf is unique and different. You have to be creative and be able to adapt and adjust, and you never know exactly how it will turn out. It’s exciting – sometimes frustrating – but usually quite satisfying. Then, of course, you get to eat delicious bread and break bread with friends and family.
I found that without climbing I had more time and attention to put toward the other people in my life. I spent more time with my partner, family and with friends. I needed their help and support in my recovery but I also wanted to be more present and hold more space for the things going on in their lives. That felt good to get out of my own head but more so to simply be there for them, offer support, and have them be the focus of our time.
As snow melted and the limestone around home dried, I started to climb more. Through it all I still felt that I wasn’t improving in the way I thought I should, so my doubts about my healing persisted. I went to a different doctor and opted to get a steroid injection to help reduce the inflammation in my back, which I believed was still playing a significant role in the pain I was experiencing in my leg. As it turned out this helped quite a bit. It felt like it was a jump-start to slow but steady improvement. This helped me physically, but perhaps even moreso it helped me mentally. I began to believe in my own healing and believed that I was seeing improvement in my pain.
I truly believe that belief made it true.
I am not saying it was all in my mind. I know that my pain was real. But I do believe in the power of the mind and even more now having been through this experience.
I can safely say that the greatest challenge I faced in overcoming a serious injury was my own mind and the power of doubt that can take hold. I used to believe that our brain’s role was to deal with everything in our body. But now I firmly believe that our mind is much more responsible for what goes on in our body than most of us realize.
Understanding that was huge for me and has been a huge shift in my thinking and approach to life and sport post-injury. I am not going to sit here and tell you that as soon as I started to believe in my healing that everything was smooth sailing. I definitely had setbacks, frustrations and doubts. I even had to spend some time deciding whether I even wanted to go back to hard climbing. After all the mental struggle I went through, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to return to having to deal with the frustrations and disappointments that inherently come with trying to push my limit and pursue mastery in sport.
In the summer I went through a period of being physically strong but mentally exhausted. My initial attempts at hard projecting weren’t successful. I don’t believe that was because I was physically weaker or limited, but because I just wasn’t healed mentally. I’m still existing somewhere in that head space. I believe in myself and in my recovery, but in my mind there is still doubt.
There’s a duality to struggling: Even when you ultimately succeed, you have still experienced failure and doubt. Those experiences can take hold in your subconscious and live and grow. I have recovered from a serious injury but there have been many obstacles and in the darker world of my subconscious the doubt and fear have taken hold. To truly overcome and move forward, I know what I must do: I must face my darkness, doubt and demons.
I have continued to progress back in my sport and have had success and gained confidence. I have used those experiences to fight the doubt and the darkness. Just like my physical recovery, the best way I can do this is one day at a time. This may in fact be a far greater challenge than my recovery from injury itself, but it’s one that I must commit myself to.
*Editor’s Note: Shortly after this was written, Dan clipped the chains on Kryptonite (5.14d) in Rifle, Colorado, after many months spent recovering from his injury. Click here to view uncut footage of the send.