From Self-loathing to Gratitude

Selena Pang

I thank my lucky stars that I found rock climbing, and I’m a different person today because of it.  The 22-year-old me would have scoffed at the idea of it… long acrylic nails, expensive shoes, a two-pack-a-day a day smoking habit, 5-hour workouts to abolish whatever toxic thoughts and substances I needed to purge and immersing myself in the Los Angeles fashion industry.  I didn’t realize it then, but my soul was dying from the busy-ness of my vacuous life.  

I grew up a Chinese immigrant in Japan during the communist scare.  Immigrant life in that political climate was unkind, and I was a girl to boot.  My free-spirited, roof-hopping ninja-style behavior didn’t go over well in Japan and I was the nail that was constantly getting hammered.  At five years old, I started saving money, so I could run away at the first opportunity.  I started hanging out at my dad’s Chinese restaurant boxing dumplings and finding ways to make a dime here and there.  In middle school, I begged my parents to ship me overseas to a boarding school.  I spent subsequent years trying to get kicked out of my all-girls Catholic school.  Despite my best efforts, I graduated from high school in Japan.  I promptly left for California and I found myself in the middle of the crazy 80’s excesses in L.A.  

Climbing found me in my club hopping days as a salsa dancing addict in my mid 20’s.  An ER doctor that I met dancing thought I would enjoy climbing based on my dance floor agility.  He managed to drag me to a local gym for my first climbing experience, and I liked it enough to agree to climb outdoors.  My second time climbing was at Tahquitz Rock where the doctor threw a heavy pack on me and I dry heaved my way up the switchbacks as he bounded up the steepness with ease.  Not only did I miraculously survive the hiking difficulties caused by my smoker’s lungs, I succeeded on the multi-pitch route that followed. I fell in love with climbing. The next several years of my life was spent trying to work as little as possible to maximize my time communing with the rocks.  I learned that my body was strong, my mind was focused and my spirit was alive.  All of this organically led to higher self-esteem, which in turn helped me manage my long battle with body dysmorphic disorder. I slowly began to trust myself again and like myself a whole lot more.

Nature is magnificent, unrelenting and takes no excuses. The sun comes up every day and goes down every day.  Mother Nature was just the teacher I needed – she doesn’t coddle, she made me slow down and embrace all the good and bad.  Climbing in nature kept throwing me lessons in humility, staying present, and doing something for the pure love of it.  Those dirtbag days are one of the sweetest memories I still carry.

In time, I married my then climbing partner, had a child, and moved away from my beloved California wilderness to Austin, TX where my husband enrolled in full-time graduate studies.  Without the glue that was climbing, our marriage fell apart.  I removed myself from climbing with the demands of single parenting and the need to financially hustle. I succumbed to the work of keeping my boat afloat.

The second husband followed - I fell madly in love with a fellow twelve years older than me and not the climbing kind. Shortly after tying the knot, he fell into a deep depression.  He came out of it for a brief seven months just to plummet back to major depression and took his life.  At the same time, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  My world crumbled and all I could do was focus on putting one foot in front of the other as I got through my cancer therapy. On my first day of radiation treatment, I gifted myself with a rock gym membership.  Low expectations (I was so tired from daily radiation), reconnecting with the climbing community and moving my body in ways that brought me joy made for powerful medicine to my battered soul.  Those painful days are a big blur to me, but I can say that climbing was my lifeline and the light at the end of each day, helping me survive treatments, grief, and exhaustion.  Climbing fed my soul when there was no other hope and joy.

My love and appreciation for the gifts of climbing run deep.  Thank you, Universe for providing me with such an amazing lifeline that keeps appearing when I need it most. As I face turning fifty, I’m grateful that I’m healthy enough to climb in beautiful places with some of my favorite people.  This fall, I begin the process of getting the first of my American Mountain Guides Association certifications in hopes that I’ll be able to share with others what I love.  When I grow up, I want to be a mountain goat that roams wild and free.