November 7, 2012
I wrote the following words sat in Heathrow airport yesterday, waiting for my plane home. I’d probably prefer you not to read it, as the first half is really a big long pity party. Why stick it on my blog? Well like twitter I find it very therapeutic – a problem shared etc. When I got home and went to bed I slept for twelve and a half hours, so perhaps what I wrote was as much about being tired as anything else. If you do read on I’m sure that you’ll think me an ungrateful knob head (it does have a happy ending though). One reason I’m posting it here because I sat next to a guy on the plane back from Canada who talked about mental health awareness, and that too many people lack honesty about how they feel about things. They just bottle it up. Once you share your dark thoughts they do get a little greyer.
Been struggling a bit this year with who I am and what I’m doing, and worse still what I’ve done in my life. I guess you’d call it an identity crisis. The reasons are many, after all, no epic, crisis or disaster is caused by a single factor – well that what they say on the program ‘Air crash investor’ program on Discovery. Neither is this.
I know that perhaps I’ve neglected ‘me’ over the last two years, carried away supporting Karen’s journey to the 2012 games, letting work, fitness and most other things slip. I know it’s brutally honest, but post games I knew I’d made a mistake in pouring such a large measure of who I am into someone else’s dream. I just got carried away. I wanted to make it happen, to see these craziest of notions become a reality - for Karen to compete in the London Paralympics. And yet I knew the instant I watched Karen get her silver medal, that it had been a mistake; some dreams can’t be shared. Although it was perhaps one of the happiest moments of my life, I was still standing with the crowd - the audience to her triumph - watching her, a barrier between us. It was all hers.
Post games have been pretty crazy, with Karen making the most of post games talks and taking her bike fitness and winning the Berlin Marathon and becoming world paratriathlon champion (t1) in New Zealand. We’ve probably seen each other for about a week since the games, perhaps a month in total this year. It took half a lifetime to find someone like Karen, and yet we squander what time we’ve been given on ourselves alone. That’s why we get on.
I’ve been aware that something is wrong with me for a while, but it sort of became more obvious in Yosemite last month, as I seemed overly eager to tell people how many walls I’d climbed, how fast I’d done them, every conversation a chance to massage my ego by dropping in some story of my past accomplishments. It even got so bad that one day, when we were talking to a group of fit young guys in Camp 4’ Ella said ‘Oh dad why don’t you tell them a story now’, as if every conversation had gone that way. The worse thing was I knew I was doing it each time but couldn’t help myself.
Someone came up to Paul Tat and said “Are you Andy Kirkpatrick?” It was pretty funny, but I said “Yes that’s because people think I would look like Paul Tattersall -, not me!”
Now I like to think of myself as pretty self-aware, and know people who sound like big heads are usually struggling with low self-esteem. Then Paul asked if I was happy, as my ex-wife Mandy had told him that she didn’t think I was and hadn’t been for a long time. It was one of those moments when you stop in your tracks and think “yes - your right - I’m not happy”. The question is why not (at this stage in this story - where I’m ‘living the dream’, climbing in Yosemite, you have my permission to see me as a winging ungrateful asshole).
This realization that I wasn’t happy really hung over me, and sort of made things worse. And then it struck me last week what it was. I was all about Karen. The greater she became the worse I felt. Shamanism believes that people draw power from others in order to increase their own, using negative energy: fear, hate and jealously to rob others (it’s how governments work). I guess all I’ve ever wanted in life is attention, recognition, to win, to be successful and find security from something I loved - to see the rewards for giving so much. This is what Karen had done, but it belonged all to her - not me. I know it sounds daft, but she didn’t have quite enough power to achieve the impossible, but by me giving her all mine, maybe she could. I feel it’s terrible to admit but I was so jealous.
Someone had once said that Karen would never keep a partner for long, as she would break them, and no one could ever keep up with her. I used to laugh at the thought and joked it was the other way round, both of us more likely to get each other killed than wear each other out. I knew she was more successful than me, better qualified (she’s got a PhD in geology - I don’t even have a geography o level), better off (she owns her house - I own a ton of climbing gear), and has the greatest job in the world (pro cyclist and triathlete in the most successful national teams ever - while I site in Starbucks trying to write).
Perhaps if I went out with anyone else I could maintain that feeling of superiority I obviously crave (maybe its a man thing?), but as it is being with Karen was just making me feel inadequate, you see Karen is not disabled, she is superable. I guess I’m Karen’s, Louis Lane.
Another problem (I told you no crisis stems from a single problem) is that I’m at the point in my life (I’m 41) where I really have grave doubts about the choices I’ve made. I seem to have made a career for myself that I’m pretty unsuitable for, namely writing. As I often say if I could sack myself if I would. You know that saying ‘you’ll never meet a happy farmer’ well the same applies to writers, well it is the way I do it, i.e very slowly and with a level of procrastination verging on mental illness (again please feel free to hate me, after all the idea of sitting in Starbucks every day must sound great when you have a proper job, but I assure you after 3 years of it, where you’d have made more money just working there - will it loses its appeal).
At the age of 41, I have no savings, no house, no qualifications, very little work, a ton of unfinished ideas and dreams. From out the outside looking in I bet most people would love to be me, but then that’s the problem with depression (there I said it), it doesn’t matter what other people think, it’s about being unhappy with who you are, and you know yourself better than those who try to convince you otherwise.
The only thing that I know without a doubt that I have done right and be proud of is Ella and Ewen.
I guess it came to a bit of a head last week when I began to think that my only option was to split up with Karen, in that way I’d no longer have to feel jealous, and that without her I would have to fight harder (fighting harder and struggling seems to be my default setting in life, the idea of comfort offering no appeal what so ever). Part of me also likes the tragedy of it all - something I’d like to understand more but would prefer not to dwell on it.
When you’re down it doesn’t take much to knock you down further. I’d had a secret hope that Cold Wars was in the running for best mountaineering book at Banff, and being asked to fly all the way there to talk about it, well that must mean I was in with a chance? Surely it was a dead cert - complex, working on lots of levels, and what I feel to be one of the most revealing climbing books out there (to be so brash about Cold Wars means I’ll add it to my list along with Ella and Ewen).
It didn’t get on the shortlist, worse still Fiva by Gordon Stainforth won, which although a great book, was not as good as mine (I told you I was being honest, and what’s wrong with that?). Part of me wanted to just throw my teddy out of my pram and say “I’m not coming”.
But I don’t.
When your feeling low about yourself as a writer, climber and all-around, going to Banff is just about the worst place you could go. And in many ways it was.
Staying awake for 26 hours on the first day didn’t help, but slowly things turned around.
First, off I stayed with my mate Andy Brash - a super talented climber, but even more so a man whose accomplishments show us all that it is to be a human being. Andy’s best know for forgoing his life long dream of summiting Everest to save the life of Lincoln Hall. On his return a group of Canadian businessmen were so touched by his sacrifice that they banded together and raised the cash for him to return, climbing Everest in 2008. Since then Andy’s had his own ups and downs, where the path of life takes dark and unexpected turns, and last year Lincoln Hall, who had become his close friend died of cancer. On my first night there I did a talk for the Calgary mountaineering club, quite a famous club made up primarily of ex-pats. After my talk, I chatted to several people who made me feel guilty for being so self-obsessed, including Stewart Midwinter a climber and paraglider who became quadriplegic last year in a flying accident while flying with Will Gadd. We talked mainly about Karen, with Stewart being inspired by the few stories I’d shared about her in my talk. Instead of feeling jealous, after all, this should have been an evening about me, I felt privileged to be able to know someone like Karen. Talking to Stewart and his partner, who must be in such a dark place, but pushing towards the light, I felt that maybe that light was just a little bit closer.
The next day I travelled over to Banff and bumped into Gordon Stainforth, aglow with the news that day that he’d won. In that instant I forgot about my petty jealousy and irrespective of the merits of our books, I knew Gordon deserved it. Fiva is a great climbing book, while mine is a great book that has climbing in it. I always tell people I don’t care about winning, but I hate losing, and if I’d won it would simply have been ticking a box. “Well done Andy” people would have said, and I’d just say “cheers”. To Gordon, it meant much more, and that was the only jealousy I felt.
On Thursday evening I went to talk between David Suzuki and Dasho Kinley Dorji, Suzuki being akin to a Canadian David Attenborough, while Kinley Dorji was from the Ministry of Information and Communications of Bhutan. Now for some reason, North Americans seem to get way too over excited about places like Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan - probably because they’re all hippies at heart. In my experience, the world is fully hustlers, not matter what colour or faith, and so I take it all with a pinch of salt. The problem was all the publicity for the talk made it sound as if Kinley Dorji was the second coming of Christ. To be fair David Suzuki gave one of the best introductions ever, talking about how we cannot put a price on everything, that there are objects whose value is immeasurable, giving the example of his house, full of objects and memories that are not represented in its monetary value. Then he introduced Kinley Dorji and told us he was going to discuss the Bhutanese idea of gross national happiness, in such a way that you’d be forgiven that they’d invented cold fusion and that the world problems could be solved by Kinley Dorji and Bhutan. They shook hands, sat down opposite each other and began their ‘conversation’.
The resulting half an hour was pretty terrible, as the poor guy kept repeating the same line, that happiness was not about going to Disney world, but something much deeper (basically Buddhism), or simply freezing and unable to say anything like a thousand people looked on embarrassed. At one moment I wondered if he was an impostor and just kept giving the same line because that’s all he knew. It almost came to a head when Suzuki said “Right I think we must be out of time” - which was obvious to everyone there meant ‘lets rap this disaster up and get the hell out of here”, but unfortunately it didn’t work, as some idiot beside the stage shouted, “No - you can keep going”.
Friday I did an hour-long talk and reading of Cold Wars. I’ve never read so much in one sitting, but it seemed to go well, with one woman sayings (in Canadian ascent) “wow your accent is so charming you could read anything” - which was a first (maybe I sounded like Ralph Fiennes to them?).
In the party that evening (every evening has a party in Banff) a tall guy came over and introduced himself as Bruce Kirkby, one of the three-book judges, asking me not to kill him (I joked that I’d planned to track each judge down and get my revenge). Instead, he said, “I was at your reading. Wow I wished I read your book”. It turned out the judges only read the shortlist - so I called off the hit.
On Saturday I watched a film called Across the Ice, featuring the Aussie duo of Cas and Jonesy making the 89-day journey to the South Pole and back unassisted. These guys had been on my radar having kayaked to Tasmine sea six months after Andrew McAuley had been lost trying to make the same crossing. I was blown away by their film, mainly for its humanity and humour, which is often lacking in polar stuff (a game full of liars, false heroics and wankers). If you get the chance to see this documentary (or ‘doco’ if you’re an Aussie) then do - because its simply amazing on so many levels. I been in touch with the two of them a while back, asking if they wanted to climb Denali in winter (yes - they’re THAT stupid!), so I emailed straight after the film, saying how amazing it was. In less than a minute an email bounced back from Jonesy saying he was flying over to Banff and we should hook up.
Coming over could only mean one thing, that their film had won a prize. In the end, it won three and Jonesy got a standing ovation.
And so on my last day in Banff, I sat in a cafe only half an hour before the bus left for the airport, waiting for Jonesy. To be fair I was feeling a little star-struck, and sort of imagined he couldn’t be as humble as he’d been in the film. But he was, sitting down and chatting as fast as we could about every subject you could think of, ice, oceans and high mountains. I wanted to know if he was interested in Denali in winter (he was), and we talked about other daft things.
Then I noticed Jonesy was looking a bit distracted, pulling his phone out. It struck me that I was taking up his time, he had stuff to do, and I was one of those well-meaning groupies that hang on to your star. ‘I’d better go’ I said, pulling on my coat, feeling a bit foolish for even meeting him. “Erm Mate,” said Jonesy, looking a bit embarrassed “would you mind if I got my picture with you?”
So what have a learnt from my trip to Banff to heal myself? Quite a lot, with some great films, talks and conversations - so many conversations that I lost my voice - there was a lot to absorb. Probably the thing that sticks with me is that I shouldn’t weigh my life and what I’ve done by how much I have in the bank, what qualifications I have, but how I make people feel by what I write, what I say, what I do. I also know I need to start viewing my happiness as a project. I have one life and how it turns out is all down to me. Instead of focusing on helping to make others, my kids included, as well as Karen, perhaps I need to focus a little more on making me?