How climbing Kilimanjaro helped me to get my life back...

by Kathryn K
(United Kingdom)

Squatting down behind a bush in the middle of Tanzania. That's where my story starts. It's not the most romantic or endearing setting I know; but it is never the less a significant one. I was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Something that most people I know would have told me I was incapable of. My attachment to my make-up bag and hair straighteners were responsible for that. They just could not imagine me on top of a mountain without those everyday luxuries. For them, it was a light-hearted joke. For me, it was the reason I felt things needed to change.

Over the past 7 or 8 years (it's hard to know precisely when it started), but I had been unable to separate myself from them. My make-up wasn't just something to make me feel nice every now and again, it was my life support machine. Without it, I couldn't even answer my door. It isn't just that I felt ugly, but that my ugliness would offend people. 'Why should they have to look at that face?' Reflecting on it now, I realise that I was extremely warped about myself. I thought the solution was to do everything I could to make myself look better. It made sense. I will stop feeling this way when there isn't anything left to criticise. The problem is, there is always something to criticise and those voices in your head can be quite creative. The longer it went on, the more depressed and withdrawn from society I started to become. Everyone around me always told me that 'not caring' was the real solution to the matter. It sounds so perfect and simple. Anyone who suffers with body dysmorphia, anxiety or depression will tell you that it just doesn't work that way. These 'shallow' feelings of thinking you don't look good enough are really only a mask for the real issue... thinking that as a person, you aren't good enough. It sparks all sort of issues. Having a missing tooth, and feeling self conscious when you smile, will make you smile less. If you smile less, people will think you don't like them, are miserable, boring even... If you are constantly worrying about how awful you look from a certain angle, you will act differently to make sure people don't look that way. It isn't natural, and you aren't being yourself. You are stuck in your head so much so, that you aren't enjoying yourself anymore. People can't get close to you.

When I was little, and I didn't think about these things, I would have so much fun. So many friends. So many memories. It's hard to depict when I started to dislike myself so much, and why... but to be honest, it doesn't really matter what caused it right now. What matters, is when I realised it needed to stop. One day, after moving to a new city, I sat wondering how difficult it was to make new friends. I couldn't understand how some people easily clicked with others and how awkward every meeting I had with somebody new was. I faintly remember a time when I didn't need to think about this kind of thing. How could that be? Even my mother had commented on the fact that I used to easily make friends. It wasn't until I got with a new boyfriend, that I had to come to term with the fact that it was all my fault. With him, I was completely natural and happy, silly even... With them, I was this awkward and uncomfortable girl who made conversations as short as possible, and couldn't give them eye contact. I couldn't think of anything interesting to say. Over time, he pointed these things out and I was convinced he was just being harsh. It did take me a while, but I started to open my eyes up and I realised that he was right. It was me. Why? I was too busy telling myself I was ugly, boring and awkward to even listen to what people were saying to me. There I was in my own depressive bubble of self-hate, convinced people wouldn't like me. Of course they didn't, I didn't like me around them.

After having this realisation, I started to analyse my thought processes more in-depth when meeting new people. No matter what I did, I could not break out of this bubble. I took up new hobbies, did things I enjoyed, but none of it actually worked. I wanted to stop these thoughts and relax, but every time I would relax for a moment, I would catch my reflection in a mirror or shop window, and the thoughts would come flooding back. 'You're so disgusting, you're average and boring. Why would they want to know you?' I realised then that I suffered badly with anxiety, and I had only let it get worse over the years. What happened to me? I used to be fun, adventurous and care-free. I considered getting professional help, and I think it would have benefitted me. Maybe it still would. I believe this is something I will struggle with my whole life. The only difference now is that I know that it is not who I am and I cannot let it rule my life anymore.

I needed a jump-start. I needed something to push me out of my comfort zone and make me break these worries with good old logic. Deep down, I knew that I could make meaningful connections with people and have fun without needing to look good. I didn't need to prove that I was physically acceptable to the world, before they would be interested in my personality. I just needed to convince the parts of my brain that were ruled by my anxiety. Little things weren't working. So now I come back to having to squat down on Mount Kilimanjaro.

One day I was sitting at my desk at work, and an email came through from corporate. 'Climb Kilimanjaro to help train teachers in Africa.'It was a 6 day hike, staying in wood huts, walking 9 hours a day with a random assortment of 22 people. It just seemed like what I needed. I was scared. I knew that at some point in this trip, I would have to use nature as a bathroom, let people I barely knew see me without make-up and be myself with people. When you are climbing a mountain, you can't wear a mask 24/7. They are going to figure you out. So I signed up. Turns out that two more girls at my work had signed up, but I didn't know them too well. We had our first fundraising meeting to decide how to raise all the money and I was very awkward at first. However, they were so natural and easy-going that I started to feel a little bit more at ease each time we spoke. After organising a disco together and rallying up sponsors, I started to realise I was having fun. They didn't care about what I looked like. I could tell they both thought I was a little strange, but they persisted. We had a few social events with the 22 people who were trekking to Kili and I tried my hardest to listen to other people and ask questions. I was throwing myself into being interested in others again and it was a step in the right direction. When the time came to clmb Kili, I was nervous and excited. I wanted to not care.

In the first day, my first real problem arrived in the form of having to urinate in the forest. The thought of it made me upset, I had tears welling up in my eyes. Where other people were getting on with it, I was hesitating and I could tell people were getting a little frustrated with me. They wanted to keep walking. So, I bit the bullet and did it. Each day there were moments where I had no choice but to face these fears. Every single time I faced one, my confidence grew. I realised that people were not how I had perceived them, and that this trip was helping me to release some of the worries that caused me to have such anxiety. I was making real friends, because I was enjoying the moment and letting the weights on my shoulders lift little by little. By the 5th day, I went outside without make-up on. Something I hadn't done since I was 14. It was huge for me, but no one looked twice at me. I started to see things more clearly again. I was healing, because I chose to face my fears. By the end of the trip, squatting on a mountain didn't phase me. We were all the same, we were having an adventure and we were doing it together. It became funny to me, instead of horrifying. We were laughing at the lack of rocks to hide behind, and making the best out of the situation. I am not fixed. This is an issue that I will always struggle with, but now I know that it is not a part of who I am, but a barrier that I have to leap whenever it comes my way. I chose to climb a mountain, and I chose to not let it rule my life anymore, but everyone will have a different way to face this. My advice is only that, if this story rings true with you, go and find your mountain. Take the first step towards being yourself again, and every step after that will get a little easier.

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