Grabbing life by the walls: How bouldering saved my life by Joe Williams
Updated: Oct 18, 2019
Joe Williams discusses how he went from hating sports to finding the sport that truly saved him.
For 27 years I didn't have a body. When I was a tiny child I worked out that, despite my chromosomes vehemently disagreeing, I am male. But my small scared self couldn't quite process the disparity between my body and soul, let alone tell anyone. So I think my brain sort of detached itself as a survival mechanism. I floated aimlessly about with my mind lost to music, books, films and day dreams. You don't need a body to write and sing. I could be a floating mass of consciousness, my physical form serving as little more than a perfunctory vessel.
But the more I lived a lie, the worse my life and ability to function within the world became. My mind had floated so far that I became a barely present husk of a person, smoking far too much weed and skimming the tides of someone else's life.
And then fourish years ago after more soul searching than I have time to type about, meeting some incredible friends who helped fuel my confidence, and a woman whose love for me has saved me more than she will ever know, I came to terms with being a transgender man and came out to save my own life.
For months a friend of mine had been asking me to go climbing with him. I had always wanted to try it but as usual I made excuses for my staying in, being anxious and getting stoned. Until one day I just... went. Sports have never been my thing. In fact I hated them. The arts were my escapism and sports just served to remind me that my body felt weird and not right in a way I didn't really want to address. My only memories of P.E at school are feeling really goddamn out of place in the girls locker room, begging the teacher to wear the boy's uniform (they said no) and getting hit in the face by a football. Yet here I am saying sport has truly saved me.
A 'sport' that involved problem solving and stretching weirdly and where it's just you versus yourself? Climbing things for fun? Oh my god I was hooked! The intro routes are so easy that honestly anyone could do it, and then the more challenging they get then the more interesting, hilarious and rewarding. Instead of being pissed off when I couldn't do something and quitting (former default setting) I looked at the problem and just laughed at how silly it seemed that I would be able to do this, but tried anyway. And then I'd find myself stretching slightly differently or putting my foot in another way or just pushing harder and I'd achieved this awesome thing I never thought I could.
I woke up the morning after that first climb and before opening my eyes I was thinking about an overhang problem that had beaten me. I turned to my half asleep partner and asked if we could go again that day. Unfortunately my body wouldn't allow me. I had pushed myself hard and ached in a way I never have before or since, but as soon as I could I was back on the wall.
That was six months ago, and life-permitting I've been climbing one to three times a week since. I've never felt better. I'm learning to use my body. To actually be present in it. I'm eating well, I've not been a cigarette smoker or bought weed since my 28th birthday in June, my mental health is better than it's been since childhood. For the first time ever I can honestly say that when I look in the
mirror not only am I beginning to recognise the person looking back, but I like him.
I climb at Vauxwall and Ravenswall in London, gyms with a rainbow flag on the wall. I have a 'Trans people are everywhere' patch on my chalk bag. Its a safe space, where the staff and climbers are a great, friendly bunch. Everyone is so chilled yet supportive. We're all there to climb our own routes, and yet everyone supports each other so respectfully.
And maybe that's why this sport is so resonant for me. We all climb our own routes. It can of course become a competitive sport, but essentially its just this amazing series of moments: me vs gravity. Just focusing everything on the next move, then the next, then the next, until finally planting both hands on the final hold. It's a good feeling. There may be a problem that I climb in a totally different way to my climbing friends or partner (she's got into it too and it's turned into a regular part of both of our lives which is really cool), but we all get there in the end if we stick at it. So here I am using MY body. Mine for the first time in my life. My muscles are responding to climbing and workouts and food, my mental health has improved ten fold. I'm present in the world.
I'm very early on in my transition, but I'm so glad that climbing will be there with me. It's teaching me patience, work ethic, discipline. It's helping me appreciate my body and get it in shape and ready for starting testosterone. I currently climb in a vest or just a sports bra - I get hot - but I'm very aware that when I actually start to pass after T, I will feel odd about climbing in just a sports bra. I'm holding on tight to the dream of the day post top surgery that I will walk into my gym and climb topless like the other guys. Excited is an understatement.
It feels like a long time ago I inherited a dilapidated building and I'm just now preparing for renovations after years of wondering what to do with the damn thing. What I'm doing is finally working harder than
I ever have and turning it into a god damned home!
I'm so excited to continue to discover what my body can do. I've only just begun my climbing journey, and there is so far for me to go. There are almost no upper limits in improving at climbing, even if I dedicated every waking breath to training there would be new challenges. I may not be able to do that but I'm aiming to join a climbing group and take courses in outdoor climbing soon. I never thought I'd be this passionate about any sport ever but I can genuinely say I've found one that I not only love, but that is now one of the most important parts of me.
I'm 28 years old and for the first time ever, I have a body.
I can't wait to live the rest of my life.
N.b If anyone reading this fancies a climb, let me know! I set up a Facebook group called 'non binary climbery' for queer/ gender non conforming folk, or find and message me on Instagram (@slowly_joseph).