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Some Self Care Lessons and Reminders from Climbing My First Mountain

Of the many things that appealed about Westport (when becoming a Brexile and looking for somewhere to move to in Ireland, thanks to my being Indian Irish and having that passport privilege) the pictures of Clew Bay, as seen from the top of the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) were way up there (geddit?).

The 365 islands looked amazing.

I imagined myself as a happy mountain goat, charging up and down once a month after I moved here, hopefully well into my 90s.

Taking pics, year round to share its magic (in a small way) with people who can’t be here in person.

In reality, I’ll have been here for 18 months at the end of this month and hadn’t climbed it at all.

The closest I came was nearly going the day after I moved into my house last August. I had thought climbing a mountain (having never climbed a mountain before) would be a nice break from Real Life and endless boxes and unpacking.

Fortunately (with 2020 vision), the weather meant that didn’t happen.

More than a year later and far less discombobulated than I’d been for most of 2019 (3 moves in 5 months), we finally set off.

Here are some pics and some of my self care lessons and reminders from an amazing day:

another view of Clew Bay from the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) in Ireland

1) Be prepared

I had never climbed a mountain before. The mountain had drawn me here – I’d wanted sea and mountains – and I said, ‘I’ll take it’ about my house before I’d even seen inside because I so love the view from the doorstep.

But I’ve never been one to look at mountains and think I want to be at the top of them. I like to admire their grandeur from solid footing.

As a student in Bangor (and having lived there over the summers, too), I adored Snowdon and the majesty of the dramatic scenery. Mountains and the sea.

But I didn’t ever accept an invitation to climb it. Back then, I was a heavy smoker and drinker and used to stop to ‘admire the view’ (light another cigarette) several times on the way home.

Three years and friends who did (ie ALL my friends), seemed like mysterious, otherworldy creatures to me. Why would they DO that? By CHOICE?

More than two decades later, am far healthier in many ways (especially re my mental health) and I’d been enthusiastic about the idea for a long time.

I asked friends and strangers (online as opposed to on the street) for advice.

I appreciated all the advice but didn’t understand it. I had nothing to compare it to.

While clinging on for dear life, I’d get little epiphanies of, ‘OH, this is what _____ was talking about’.

Before going, I was mostly concerned about the lack of loo for the 4 hour stroll with a few hilly bits I’d been anticipating.

Between our schedules aligning and weather concerns, we picked a day that looked good according to the forecast. I didn’t have any sessions booked in and figured I’d catch up with writing and admin work when I got back.

Yup, I thought I’d be doing a full day’s work on my return (like I so often do when I head out for a swim etc).

As well as water (to sip. Seriously, the toilet situation was my biggest concern), I packed snacks (grapes, nuts and dark choc, Oreos, Bourbons and clementines). And for the top (summit if I want to pretend to be more mountainy), vegan choc chip banana cake. I’d intended to make some energy balls etc but had been working late and prioritised the banana bread.

I wore layers and layers and layers. I also had a stick because so many people said ‘get a stick’.

I didn’t think I’d NEED it but thought it would look cool by the yoga mat in my hallway when I got home.

I imagined it talking to the yoga mat and shoes etc as they look out at the mountain, sharing adventures from its climb.

(A part of me likes to think it IS keeping them all entertained with its stories)

stream and stone wall on way up the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) in Ireland

2) Boundaries

Don’t let others’ fears and projections hold you back.

I live in wondrous Westport. We’re no strangers to four seasons in an hour or two, let alone one day.

People joke that if you don’t like the weather, don’t worry. It’ll change in five minutes.

It creates the wild landscapes I adore so much.

And normally, it doesn’t really affect me (I’ll happily sea swim in most weather) unless wanting to dry laundry outside.

But I am more sensible than some give me credit for and was heeding the advice of people to go on a ‘good’ day. Of course, with the climate varying at different levels of the mountain, I wasn’t entirely sure how to tell.

We checked in with each other and were good to go but a loved one who wasn’t coming was Very Concerned.

Sigh.

I pointed out all the usuals:

a) that worrying is like praying for something bad to happen

b) that worrying can be a control if saying you’re concerned is done with the intention to impact someone else’s behaviour or even mood

c) that I’m a sensible soul (to be fair, I wavered a little here)

d) that I haven’t worked this hard for so long to risk life and limb and be silly

e) that Metta really helps transform worry, care, concern and anxiety into a more empowered, heart centred energy. It’s far more productive to cultivate the mind and congratulate ourselves we notice it straying into worrying over things we have no control over and gently retrain it to visualise whoever being well, happy, at ease and, in our case, safely back rather than to mess with our own decision making processes and send us that fearful energy

f) that other people’s lack of responsibility for their own worries etc can actually get in the WAY of self care as I might have become more reactive and stopped connecting with my own head, heart and gut and what felt like the right course of action for me

I also pointed out all the times, I’d wished THEM well on their own WAY more worrying adventures (a good half dozen examples sprang to mind immediately).

Do you ever let other people’s worry get in the way of what you want to do?

Does your worry ever potentially hold others back?

Am not advocating recklessness by any stretch but, seriously, of all the pointless emotions, worry is one of the most exhausting for everyone. When we notice it, we can hold ourselves accountable for our own feelings and light a candle, send Metta etc and generally get out of the way.

If this sounds harsh, we have an excellent relationship and were able to talk it all through mostly lovingly. Also, having been diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in my teens and twenties, I’ve done a LOT of work on managing my own anxieties.

It’s been hard but worth it and it’s like anything, the more we practice, the better we get at making the healthier, more compassionate (towards ourselves and others) choices.

I understand the desire to control things and attempt to control others with worry, care, concern etc but we can rein it in and work with it. Everything is information.

the first bit of the climb up the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) in Ireland

3) Ignorance can be bliss

I realise I’m undermining my argument for #2 here BUT when you look at this mountain, what do you see?

Everyone I’d spoken to over the past 18 months had said that the climb is mostly fine. ‘It’s just the last bit’ that they warned was ‘a tough climb’, ‘challenging’, ‘dangerous’ etc etc.

I heard their words and asked for clarification: Challenging for a human or impossible without the ability (which I sadly lack) to shapeshift into a mountain goat or eagle or whatever might be needed in any given moment?

Human, they all said.

Wonderful, I figured.

‘It’s harder on the way down’, lots of people said. One said he pretends to be a mountain goat himself and that it helps.

I blithely assumed that by ‘the last bit’, they meant the last 3%, the last ten steps or few meters or yards.

You might be able to see from this pic, the ‘cone’ they all mention (the entire bit I can see from my house) is ‘the last bit’.

No one had said last LITTLE bit. Oh no, it’s a good third of the whole climb.

It wasn’t a matter of simply raising my hand and touching the summit from a happy, grounded area below if I didn’t feel up to climbing the ‘tricky bit’ with ‘lots of rocks’.

From now on, when I head off to climb mountains, I’ll be requesting estimated percentages.

Eve Menezes Cunningham and Alan Cunningham climbing the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) in Ireland

4) Don’t worry about setting speed records

Drafting this at 1am and seeing the stack of notes ahead of me, I realise that I routinely underestimate how long things will take me.

But most of the things I do don’t involve mountains.

I’d been asking people how long it took them. Many of the people who offered advice (something I’m only realising now, writing this) are personal trainers.

I’m not.

So when they talked about 90 minutes up and 70 down or even faster times, I did what I’ve always done planning train and Tube journeys and added on loads of extra time in case of cancellations and delays.

I figured (allowing for 2 hours up and down and a leisurely banana bread eating break at the top) it would be about 4.5 hours.

At some point on the way up, remembering one of the personal trainer’s advice to take breaks often and before you think you need them, I’d stopped talking about stopping to admire the view and simply said, ‘I need to stop. Please wait for me.’

Not knowing this would be our last proper break in which we could sit quite safely, we started talking about time. I’d long since estimated that we were halfway and been wrong. Now we figured we were more than halfway for sure. But wait, what’s that? It’s taken us more than 2 hours to get just over HALF WAY?????

I laughed so hard, looking back, it’s a bit like when people laugh doing EFT – releasing blocked energy. I thought it was hilarious. I didn’t want the people going past to think I was laughing at them so I started telling them, ‘It’s taken us over two hours to get to this spot!’ laughing even more.

One woman was breathless and furious each time we overtook them or them us (they were ultimately much faster than us). She was swearing (in a good natured way) at everyone saying if one more person said that we were nearly there, she’d push them off.

Her climbing companion was way ahead of her and I was grateful for mine’s patience.

Each time we took a break, I reminded myself how good regular breaks are to help retrain the nervous system. Lift and lower. Sympathetic and parasympathetic branch activation

It got to the point where the breaks weren’t long enough to feel like breaks, more survival pauses but still, I felt fine about them.

I’m noticing a lot lately around To Do lists being endless and the importance of taking regular breaks. I love the reminders because it can be so easy to get caught up in doing too much and attempting to be more productive than is sustainable.

Admiring the view on the way up the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) in Ireland

5) Honouring the journey

I had lots of Bangor related thoughts because I was comparing Mountain Climbing Me now to far less resilient (dealing with insomnia, depression, anxiety, and unprocessed trauma) me then.

I was having FUN even though it was harder than I’d expected. I realised how important good company is and acknowledged that had I climbed Snowdon, I’d have been TERRIBLE company for my friends.

I’d have been whinging, moaning and likely (considering I once said this when I was cold walking to the pub) told them to save themselves and leave me there.

In my imagination, all the people I’d spoken to had been cheerfully (I’d drawn the angel cards of Grace and Delight when asking for guidance in the morning) climbing up and down.

I reminded myself that some of my friends talked about their KIDS climbing the Reek and channelled these hardy souls in the same way I channel a 6 year old neighbour when cycling up a nearby hill on my way home from town.

Of course my imaginings were idealised. One friend said, Oh no, they whinged the entire way up and down. Still, given the choice, while avoiding toxic positivity, smiling seems like a sensible approach to life.

I love the Maya Angelou quote (which I struggled with so much in my 20s when I was in daily pain): ‘Just because you’re in pain doesn’t mean you have to be a pain.’

It actually changed my life when I realised I was becoming a pain. I increased my efforts to help myself, changed doctors and did everything within my power to heal.

Am not at all comparing my journey with endometriosis to others’ chronic pain conditions, grief, trauma, illness, accidents etc etc.

Wallowing can be wonderful. Part of the healing process. But there’s no room for it when halfway up a mountain.

lake view while heading along the 'flat bit' of the view of the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) in Ireland

6) Plan things to look forward to

I’ve written about dopamine and rewards before. One of mine is swimming. I suggested a quick swim in this lake on the way back down or at the nearest beach.

While that wasn’t possible, the thought of the banana cake at the top kept me going. The thought of returning in one piece to the MagnifiCat kept me going. And the thought of my next sea swim… I spent a LOT of time imagining all the things I looked forward to doing afterwards.

Whatever your metaphorical (or actual) mountain, building in treats not only feels good but aids motivation.

rocky view of Clew Bay from the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) in Ireland

7) Don’t completely forget about your fears

Not being a natural mountain goat (am far more at ease out of my depth in the ocean than on a mountain), even LOOKING at the picture above brings on a wave of nausea remembering how I felt on Friday.

Vertigo.

I can’t look out of windows on aeroplanes (used to either pass out or throw up) and feeling like that on a mountain, where I had to keep moving, wasn’t ideal.

I struggle with my flat roof, attic (briefly contemplated living up THERE the other week when wondering how to get back down), the rockery – even halfway up the step ladder.

Somehow, this hadn’t factored into my thinking when it came to planning for Friday. And then I saw the view above and everything went quite spinny.

Weirdly, my phone shifted to a motion photo setting I hadn’t known I’d had (like a silent video) at this point and stayed in that mode until we returned to the carpark.

All of a sudden, the reward I was looking forward to re the mountain top views (weather permitting) was unclear. What if I couldn’t even admire the view from the top?

Before worrying about that, I had to focus on getting out of the way of the people behind me. Social distancing was possible the whole time but wouldn’t be if I gave into my craving to simply move to the rock I was on and never leave it.

Maybe turn into moss or something.

Or a spider.

Their 8 limbs and lower centre of gravity felt very appealing. I was struggling to stay upright with my stick and spiders suddenly felt way more aspirational than mountain goats or eagles (again with the nausea, imaging having to fly even higher).

I don’t have a huge amount of charge around heights normally. I loved a yoga class up the top of the Shard when that first opened (although it was a culture shock going from aerial views over London to nose up a stranger’s armpit on the Tube afterwards).

So I just kept crawling onwards. A few months ago, I had a few tonnes of stone and 10 tonnes of gravel delivered to create a rockery and pathways in my wild garden. I was scared to climb it (although I did it once) and yet, on Friday, the climbing loose rock element of the journey went on for an indeterminate amount of time as I couldn’t look at my watch and my FitBit didn’t register any of my crawling interludes.

loose rocks for the 'last bit', the 'cone' of the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) in Ireland

8) Remember how pointless worry is

When imagining myself as a spider, mountain goat or bit of moss, I didn’t think I’d actually turn into any of those things.

When worrying about falling, hitting my head, dying and killing countless others as I created an avalanche on the way down, it felt too real and horrifying.

So I focused purely on the rocks a few inches away from my face. I adore rocks. Very grounding, even when up in the sky.

And they truly are spectacularly beautiful.

So I went back and forth between imagining my inevitable death and appreciating the beauty of the stones.

I certainly couldn’t look to my left or right to admire the Clew Bay views as I would have been likely to have been sick or passed out / fallen.

I remembered what I’ve learned (and encourage clients to do) around using our wonderful imaginations for good and kept pulling myself out off the catastrophic thinking.

Each time I pictured myself hurtling to my inevitable death, I started to pull myself back mentally. To focus only on each next best… would say step but that implies footwork. It was more a matter of crawling at that point.

People coming down kept telling me I was nearly there and it was much harder on the way down.

I THINK they were trying to be helpful but it led to internal negotiations with Mountain Rescue where I mortgaged my soul to pay them for coming out to bring me back down.

I was shame spiralling (not very helpful) about having decided to climb a mountain when I don’t do heights so was determined to pay them for their lifesaving rescue efforts and simply tried not to stress about HOW much that would cost.

I was later told that Mountain Rescue can’t land at the top as the summit is too small. I don’t know what would have happened but I’m glad I didn’t know that I would have to climb back down myself while on that last terrifying (to me) stretch.

All I knew at that point was that I had to keep taking each next best ‘step’ and keep going.

Each time I felt paralysed with fear, I reminded myself, banana cake and Mountain Rescue at the top. I don’t even remember hauling myself up the last few steps but it really WAS worth it.

9) Enjoy the views from the top that are enjoyable

I took a few quick pics and left my (and others’) crystals as offerings of gratitude to the mountain and earth.

Then I hugged the ground and ate my banana bread and surveyed the summit from this low vantage point.

There’s a small church at the top (my mind boggles to think about how they brought the building materials up the mountain to construct it) and others walked around the whole top of the summit but it was so windy and, well, it felt safer to keep hugging the ground.

view of Clew Bay from the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) in Ireland

loose rock climb view of Clew Bay from the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) in Ireland

Eve Menezes Cunningham at the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick) summit

leaving the offering of crystals at the top of the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) in Ireland

Eve Menezes Cunningham eating vegan choc chip banana cake at the top of the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain), hugging the ground instead of admiring the view

Another view of Clew Bay from the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) in Ireland

Alan Cunningham at the top of the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) in Ireland

10) Don’t get complacent

Somehow, the banana cake made it possible to get back down under my own steam and I didn’t need Mountain Rescue.

For whatever reason (probably feeling more relaxed) and being able to come down some of it toddler style, I found the descent much much easier than going up.

A few times, I cheerfully announced that I thought we were past the hardest bit. Each time I said this, I lost my balance.

But, unlike on the way up, I could see that while I might hit my head, crack it open and die, I was far enough from the edge to know I was unlikely to fall off.

I finally felt able to embrace my inner mountain goat.

An abstract art installation on the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) in Ireland (not really - no idea what it is)

11) Ponder life choices

While hugging the rocks on the way up, telling the strangers who were overtaking me that I was questioning my life choices, I was able to appreciate how I am massively appreciative of the life that has brought me here. Now.

How everything has worked out.

And then, on the way down, I was better able to appreciate this stunning piece of abstract art.

It’s probably more likely that it’s some scaffolding for a project I don’t know about but the view and the sculpture made me miss London (and the Tate Modern) while also being – for the gazillionth time – so so grateful to live HERE now.

It’ll be wonderful to get back to London and Essex (and other parts of the UK) to visit when safe to do so but, seriously, how lucky am I?

I don’t know what the pics below are but appreciated being able to make up my own stories about them while admiring their beauty (I think the green artificial lawn in the middle of a mountain is a landmark for people who veer off the path. Or a helicopter landing pad? Who knows?

beautiful desolation on the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) in Ireland

landmark aka green square on the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) in Ireland

Much easier on the way down the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) in Ireland

12) Gratitude

While I’d left my crystals of gratitude at the top, I hadn’t managed a meditative Tree pose, connecting with the heavens and the earth. I barely managed a moment of Mountain pose before hugging the ground and my cake.

But while we had to focus on each step coming down – especially as rain had created streams we hadn’t gone past on the way up and things were potentially slippery.

We’d passed a woman on her way up when we were beginning our descent and I’d told her she was nearly there. She asked what I had climbed for and I said something about banana cake at the top. She said she ‘had’ to climb because a relative had cancer. I immediately felt humbled, remembering that Croagh Patrick is known as Ireland’s holiest mountain.

After telling me a bit about her family, she asked if I believed in God. I gestured at Clew Bay saying, ‘It’s impossible NOT to believe with all this’ but didn’t carry on to say I feel more comfortable with the idea of Nature / Divine Love / the Universe / a balanced God and Goddess than the limited ideas of an inexplicably white, patriarchal God I was raised with.

As we climbed down, I thought that it really had been an offering of gratitude

I had no idea (when sobbing over Brexit and a lot of people in the UK considering the British Empire to be something to go back to rather than attempt reparations for and deciding to move her) that the move would be so good for me.

Of course I miss loved ones but I missed them in lockdown anyway and we stay in touch as best as we can and will meet up when safe to travel again.

It didn’t occur to me that my parents and then my brother and his partner would also move and that we’d ALL love it here so much.

Life (obviously – we’re human) has its challenges but I think we all appreciate how lucky we are.

beautiful stone on the Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) in Ireland

13) Things take as long as they take

Before I moved, a lot of people warned me about the slower pace of life here. I often remind myself that there’s no point being London Evie and wanting things to happen sooner.

At times, it’s even been liberating to relax my expectations and learn to go with the flow more.

I really embodied this lesson on Friday as, on the last bit (again, see pics below taken on other days – I can’t believe I thought ‘the cone’ was a few steps as opposed to the good THIRD of the whole climb) I could not have moved faster AND safely.

If I’d rushed, I’d have risked potential death.

When I hear people telling me about going up with people who DID rush them, I wonder how they managed.

It took us nearly 6 hours.

And I’m delighted with us.

We’re alive, got some amazing pics and memories. And while I initially thought ‘Never again’ have since been thinking, ‘Next time, I’ll…’ and planning improvements to make it easier.

It’s all any of us can do.

Anytime things are tough – whether by choice (like choosing to climb a mountain) or life’s knocks – we can learn and grow from the experience. We can always do better next time.

And in the meantime, my stick seems delighted to be in the hallway, on solid ground.

My yoga mat and shoes are also happy with their own more grounded views of the mountain.

Reek (aka Croagh Patrick mountain) view from my house.

With love,

Eve Menezes Cunningham self care coach therapist supervisor

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