This is Impossible, Part One: Climbing the Mountain

There’s no second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, and there never really was a first wave. Like generals always fighting the last war, that’s a metaphor we lifted from the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Whether it was a good metaphor then or not, it’s not a good metaphor now. In a way, there isn’t even a pandemic, not in any functional sense. There’s just thousands and thousands of local epidemics, breaking out, dying down, and breaking out again. Because of this, we’re on edge, trying to judge our actions, trying to judge our risk, trying to understand what’s ok in the Fog of Disease. Deciding we don’t care, deciding we might be wrong again. Losing our damn minds. This is not something most people have to deal with.

But there is a group of people who do deal with the ups and downs, the sudden changes in freedom and pain all the time: people with chronic and remitting diseases. In a way, a pandemic is just the moment where society has a relapsing and remitting disease, though it’s not just Covid-19 itself, it’s also the economic and social impact, and how everything changes without warning.

I know these feelings well, I have several diseases that come and go, and I have dealt with them all my life, even before I knew what they were. One day I may be mostly ok, and the next, unable to get far from my bed. I might have weeks of freedom, then suddenly be barely able to get around my house. I have a partner, and a daughter, and many friends who have all come to understand that there are bad times and I can’t control them. I can influence them, but all my promises and all my plans are contingent.

What I have learned in the process of 40 years of dealing with incurable and unpredictable illness suddenly applies to the whole damn world, so here goes.

I call the process Climbing the Mountain, partly because I can’t climb a mountain. The Himalayas are right out.

I can push it down further but I’m told that’s gross.

I have a disease called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (hEDS) which causes my joints to skitter around in unpleasant ways, and when I was young I had a number of amazing party tricks my physical therapist has banned me from ever doing again. But I can show you one with my thumb doing things thumbs aren’t supposed to do, which has also been voted by one party of friends the least gross. When I was young I was a gymnast and a dancer, which is a mixed bag for EDS kids. You’re likely to damage your body, but you also get used to using and living in a damaged body, which can be a real blessing as you get older.

The first part of Climbing the Mountain, and for many people the hardest, is accepting what is. Just that: accepting what is, right now. There’s something bold and great in rejecting what is and doing what’s not possible, at least in stories. And there is power in rejecting the idea that what is can’t be changed, because it always can be in some way. But without accepting what is, you can’t make wise choices on how to change it.

I can’t climb a mountain. We can’t stop or cure SARS-CoV-2, at least right now. We can’t just go back to life as we knew it. One of the things you have to accept with chronic illness is that what was normal is gone, and it’s never coming back.

Let me say that again: What was normal life for you, from birth to 2019, is gone. It’s never coming back. Ever. What’s in front is unknown, confusing, distressing, painful, and not what you know as normal, and all you can do is go forward to climb a mountain you can’t climb.

I have PTSD, which some clinicians classify as cPTSD, but for the sake of clarity I’ll just call it fucking awful PTSD. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed because my brain is torturing me. One of the things I have PTSD from is an episode of activities done to me as a child in a clinical setting that many years later the US government would call “enhanced interrogation techniques” when done to Iraqis. Also, I have lost many people I loved. I have been homeless, stalked, and beaten. I have been hounded and harassed. I come by my crazy honestly. I have nightmares most of the time, and mornings just aren’t a thing I can do very often. When you’re looking forward into an abyss and feeling weak, it’s easy to write yourself, the world, or both, off. But just accepting the limitations makes you stronger. I pick my weak times and distract myself. I don’t try to be strong in the morning, when I’m waiting for the howling ghosts in my head to die down. But I’ve learned that they will.

This is the time I am preparing to climb the mountain. I eat a bit, do something nice, look after a plant, look at something pretty. NatGeo social media accounts are great. Food posts, nature, ceramic art, are all how I un-doomscroll in the morning, when I’m waiting for the screaming demons of last night to fade away.

For everyone, for you, now, it’s the same. You need a method of un-doomscroll to let dread and sadness pass. Nature Instagram, Paleontology podcasts, Bird YouTube. It’s all great.

Then, the climbing.

I am currently training to do a half-marathon. It’s something I’ve been doing on and off for about four years. Obviously, as my doctor and physical therapist would tell you, I should not run a half marathon, and it’s not my real goal. My real goal is a full marathon. 15 years ago when I got to my first physical therapist and was diagnosed with hypermobility, I couldn’t walk. “I’d like to do martial arts and parkour one day,” I told her. She gave me a look I can’t fit in words and replied “Let’s get you walking and see if we can get you back on a bike.” We did both of those, but it was long and hard and painful and I cried a lot. I still cry a lot, which is ok and kind of my thing.

I have had to start and stop my marathon training more times than I care to count, because I don’t care to count at all. I need every day to be new, because I can’t control where it goes. I listen to my body, and my reality, and let that guide me. I didn’t learn this with EDS originally, I learned it with my first chronic condition, childhood-onset IBS. I learned that sometimes I could do anything I wanted, and sometimes I couldn’t leave the house without throwing up and shitting myself. It’s a lot better than it was, because I’ve learned it. I’ve accepted it. Not at once, but eventually after a lot of failure and pain and gross bodily fluids. I did eventually accept it, I listened to it, some have said I gave into it. “You let these things define you and limit you,” I’ve been told by so many able-bodied people who I think just didn’t like what I represented: Working with a thing you can’t control, and can’t beat, taking over your life.

There’s a thing you can’t control, and can’t beat, taking over your life right now.

Working with that kind of thing means being mindful in the moment. Can I eat this? I ask myself, and if the answer is no, I don’t. Sometimes that means missing out, and sometimes it means pissing off friends and being a damn inconvenience. “How is the bathroom situation where we’re going?” “What kind of food is available, can I bring my own?” And the most dreaded and annoying: “I have to leave now. Right now.”

For you now, it’s the same. “Can I go there?”

“Is this way of eating out ok?”

“Do the government guidelines make sense?”

“How does this damn thing work and why does it keep changing?”

This is all the discomfort of climbing the mountain. You learn, you fiddle with it, and you let it change. You accept the change. You update how you live, knowing you’ll update it again.

But there’s the fun part too. Figuring out how long I can run/walk (called Jeffing in the running world) when I’m training, and learning to be an excellent cook in the process of understanding my relationship with food. But neither of these make it all better. Not training or cooking, or therapy for Major Depressive Disorder or medications for PTSD gets me to the top of the mountain. It’s like I keep telling you, I can’t climb to the top of the mountain. We can’t just make this go away. We won’t, and we can’t. It just is.

But, I can climb. Almost every day, in some way or another. And when I fall, and I will inevitably fall, I will land higher on the mountain than I would have if I hadn’t been climbing.

That’s the trick. Right there.

Everyday you accept what is and work with it. Everyday you exercise your mind, body, and spirit. When you fall, and you will fall, you won’t be as low on the mountain. And you can climb a little higher until the next fall.

I know it sounds sisyphean. But it’s just impossible, not meaningless. It is, in fact, the most meaningful thing we can do. It’s just the little bits of impossible things you do every day when there is no such thing as normal anymore.

Here is how you climb a mountain you can’t climb: Accept what is, accept that it will change without notice. Learn how your life works, and what is possible. Figure out what you can do today, do it, and maybe if you’re lucky, a tiny bit more. Love things, even when you hate them.

Be completely quiet sometimes. Cry. Look at pretty things. Try to rest.

Try again.

Accept what is. Learn. Move. Rest. Climb. Fall.

Accept what is.

My work for Emptywheel is supported by my wonderful patrons on Patreon. You can find out more, and support my work, at Patreon.


33 replies
  1. misteranderson says:

    Thank you for your moving post. To feel good I watch dogs on Instagram & meditate. Meditation has saved me.

    • Quinn Norton says:

      Dogs on Instagram are excellent. I also keep track of emus. Emus are good for the soul.

        • Valerie Klyman-Clark says:

          I’m looking at a lot of pretty nature pictures (and getting outside-we live in a pretty remarkable part of the world-most fortunate): bio_sapiens on the Instagram is just fabulous. The Monterey Aquarium, too. Their webcams are soooo heartening-jellyfish, kelp forest . . . otters. Quinn, Melissa Weiss Pottery. Such beautiful work. Covington Pottery, too. Sigh.

          • Worried says:

            Very moving post.

            I put on my TV everyday. It runs in the background. Whenever down, I sit and watch the sea otters cam. Feeding time with audio is at 1:30 Pacific time every day. Watching them get ready for feeding time is very entertaining. As said above there are other cams that are also very relaxing to watch.
            It’s like having a giant aquarium in my living room.

          • Tracy Lynn says:

            The Monterey Bay Aquarium feed is great! I’ve been watching since forever and it always succeeds in lifting my spirits. Agree, the jellies are the best! (Sea otters, too, but that’s a given.)

      • bmaz says:

        Oh Quinn, please except that damn Liberty Mutual “LiMu emu” one relentlessly on TV. I’d be happy to roast that one up for dinner. Other than that, they are pretty cool creatures.

        • Quinn Norton says:

          A friend has one we got to play with in person. He was completely wonderful, and we’ve been talking about moving to a place where we could have an emu since :D I love them, and am proud of them for defeating the Australians in war.

      • Molly Pitcher says:

        Not much can beat watching the Brown Bears fishing for salmon at Brooks Falls in Alaska, land of the midnight sun. There are multiple cameras and you can watch the fish underwater, too.

        I also watch the California Academy of Science’s Farrallon Island cam. You can take control of the camera and look at different views of these islands which are 28 miles off the coast of San Francisco and visible from the Golden Gate Bridge on clear days.

        • bmaz says:

          The battle of the bears versus salmon is always awesome each season. And there are people that know the names of each bear and keep track of their relative haul.

  2. skua says:

    I got my kayak out for the 3rd time since 2016 this morning. I can do a tenth of what I could back then.
    Thanks for presenting how you live with limits well.
    It’s taking a long time but slowly it’s becoming clearer that every ability we have has limits, and time limits, and that we are inherently limited. And that a sustainable community will be educating in that.

  3. Epicurus says:

    Your post seems as good a description of Sisyphus endeavor as there could be. This will probably seem trite but I offer it with some experience. I have run several marathons, “run” being a loose term. A marathon isn’t running 26 miles, 385 yards. It best thought of as running one mile 26 times. Each mile is different and the real mileage kicks in around 20 miles into the race. In that capacity a marathon or half marathon is about 80% mental. In Mr. Miyagi’s advice the goal is not to win. It is to survive, Daniel.

    The second piece is from a legendary basketball coach, John Wooden. He believed every athletic endeavor involved physical, emotional, and mental testing. Rarely are these components operating at 100% at the time of the endeavor individually or collectively. The true spirit then is doing the best one can considering the limitations of each component. Winning isn’t in the time or on the scoreboard. It is only knowing you have pushed all three to the limits you had at that time. If you do that you have won. The older I get the more I understand that.

    Good luck and keep it up! You might want to walk a marathon before you run one. Some mountains are smaller than others and there is no reason to tackle the highest one first.

    • BobCon says:

      I’m getting back into running and I fully endorse the Jeffing thing. The days when I could easily go out for a two hour run are long past, and now my thing is to just listen to my body and when it says it’s time to walk, it’s time to walk. Nobody cares if I take a breather.

      It’s time to unplug, not worry about anything besides crossing the street, watch the birds, and then wash off the dust at the end. I should have gotten back into this a while ago.

  4. BayStateLibrul says:

    Thanks for a riveting account. Excellent writing.
    For your struggles, you are owed a “covenant of quite enjoyment.”
    Thomas Merton has always helped me.
    Good luck

  5. 200Toros says:

    Quinn – this is beautiful. Thank you for writing this. Loved hearing about your aspirations for martial arts and parkour. I practice both, and I hope you do too now! Are you familiar with the writings of Vincent Thibault, the Canadian Parkour/ADD practitioner and philosopher? His views of the lessons taught by parkour is very similar to your Climbing the Mountain. It’s essentially what Parkour is all about. Not the silly flippy stuff you see on Youtube, but pure parkour/Art du Deplacement, as the founders practice it.

  6. Robert P. Britton says:

    Thanks for sharing a part of your story and your life.

    I think sometimes we all fail to stop and think about what the people around us are going through. I think we need to HEAR and listen more. I know I am guilty on that front (my wife says my mouth moves too fast and stays open far too much!) (Crazy thing is, I was an introvert as a kid. Now I can’t shut up. Making up for lost time, I guess! LOL!)

    I admire people with chronic conditions. In general, they develop a toughness and a fortitude that is admirable.

    My wife has Multiple Sclerosis, Celiac’s Disease (SP?), Gout, arthritis, multiple complications from it all (including hernia surgeries, microscopic colitus). But wow is she a tough woman! She doesn’t complain much, if at all, and just accepts that it’s going to be the way it’s going to be. I don’t know if I would be as touch as she is. I’d probably bitch and whine and complain…at least until I got sick and tired of bitching, whining, and complaining!

    Quinn, I’d like to offer you my “thoughts and prayers”, but I know that phrase sets people off in these hyper-partisan, hyper-ideological times. Thanks for sharing a part of your story. I know I can’t help you in any way really. In the end, we are all walking our own paths down life’s journey.

    But I do wish you well and genuinely appreciate you sharing what you’ve shared. And like another poster has said, dogs can offer so much comfort and companionship. DOGS RULE! It never ceases to amaze me how much power they have to make someone who’s hurting find a smile, a laugh, a moment of joy.


  7. Charles says:

    Thanks, Quinn.

    An amazing number of Americans go through some variation of this. Given that roughly one-fifth of women and a much lesser number of men have been raped, that over a million people suffer violent crime every year, that we have gigantic and brutal prisons, that we have one of the largest–and most active– militaries in the world, it’s no surprise that PTSD is widespread. Add to that the chronic diseases, cancer, and chronic pain due to accidents, not to mention psychiatric pain, the pain of grief on losing parents/sibs/children/friends, and it’s a large circle of human vulnerability.

    But I think the worst of it is the lack of kindness in this country. There are many kind people, of course. But there are so many who think that being cruel, rude, or abusive is somehow good or even helpful. I guess we can look to John Lewis as a model for jeffing our way through that.

  8. John Paul Jones says:

    This is my favourite bit:

    “And when I fall, and I will inevitably fall, I will land higher on the mountain than I would have if I hadn’t been climbing.”

    Beautifully expressed, and empowering to read. Sursum corda. For myself, I like to watch movie musicals as a time out/distraction/relief from things.

  9. Robin Harper says:

    Thank you. This was beautiful, and encouraging. And something I so needed at this moment. Again, thank you!

  10. 200Toros says:

    I read this to my 80-year old mother tonight, and choked back tears. She beat cancer senseless, and is still going strong, but has that fear of it coming back at any time. I believe it won’t, she’s too strong. Thanks again.

  11. Eureka says:

    When you were younger, did your thumbs go all the way back, flat, to your wrist/forearms?

    Cheers *clink* (worthy of some pours of that cheap gin)

  12. John Lehman says:

    A tough furrow to plough.
    Reminded me of a friend from forty years ago. He had cerebral palsy, was confined to a wheelchair, couldn’t speak but was above average intelligence. He communicated with a headband pointer, which pointed to a reader board with common phrases, words and an alphabet. A helper had to be hired to attend him, a job that we, his friends and family would often help with. Conversations with him were clear and often at a higher level but because of the awkwardness of the pointer rather slow. He had one hell of sense of humor and was working on his autobiography titled “My Sixteen Inch Tongue”. Lake Kissick was his name.

    • John Lehman says:

      Thanks Quinn for your post, it got me thinking about my friend Lake.
      But there’s a bittersweet epilogue:
      Via your post my mind started wondering what ever happened to Lake, having lost touch with him forty years ago.
      The bitter: Googling his name, found out he passed away in McComb, Ohio twelve years ago.
      The sweet: He had gotten married.

      Thanks again for your post, it’s great to be reminded that we’re all humans once in a while.

      • Quinn Norton says:

        An old friend use to say to me “It’s a life, it’s the one you get,” and she says it to me all the time now, in my mind.

  13. Fell says:

    You are a great writer. I enjoy your mind. Thank you for sharing.
    For me your post is an example of how to unpack the concept embodied in the Tao. It serves as a wonderful example of the hard work entailed.
    Much Light
    Thank you.

  14. Jenny says:

    Thank you Quinn for sharing your personal experiences. In doing so, you help others. Climbing a mountain is a personal physical, mental, emotional and spiritual journey. For me this pandemic pregnant pause unfolds the past to be reviewed and then recreated.

    While in college I was sexually assaulted. I lived with the inner pain for 7 years. Wounded and in denial I was not aware I had PTSD. One day, I had a “break through” while in the shower. I knew I needed professional help. Six months individual therapy, six months group therapy. Talking helped; however intuitively I knew something was missing. I needed to feel in order to heal releasing the past to embrace the present. I needed to be physically touched in a safe and gentle manner.

    For 2 years I scheduled a full body therapeutic massage once a week moving through the pain, anger and sadness still lodged in my body. I cried and cried and cried. Therapeutic touch allowed me to go directly through the painful process to get to the other side to “feel my feelings to nurture my needs.”

    Transformed my life in so many fulfilling and rewarding ways. Through my experience, I wanted to give back to others. I embraced holistic healing becoming a Reiki practitioner, reflexologist, infant massage instructor also a yoga instructor. Learning, teaching and applying peaceful modalities to my life helped me to consciously change feeling my way through life sensing my needs, wants and desires. Being present is the gift I value.

  15. To be continued says:

    Thanks so much Quinn for reminding us about context. Sometimes we can fixate on the mountain we see in front of us, but it may pale in comparison to the one others may be facing…more valiantly….eyes up to enjoy the view wherever we may be…

  16. SophiaB says:

    This is such a beautiful evocation of the challenges people like us (with chronic conditions) face. And yes, I have been contemplating the ways that the rest of the (privileged) world now must adhere to the discipline of stillness. Which can drive one mad if there is a lack of capacity for focus.

    I am an EDS warrior, with lovely side trips into IBS, PTSD, and a fantastic screwball component due to a brain injury.

    I have fallen down a million times, been hijacked by bed & couch, given up so much I have loved dearly (Food! Exercise! Relationships!) AND my experience has been so rich and powerful as I meet others like me and I recognize our immense leadership in the art of compassion for ourselves and the world.

    I have come to terms with the fact that I of myself am essentially flotsam, and that I might as well engage in the curriculum of joy, because that is all I get to take with me into the rainbow realm when it is my time.

    Sending you so much love and profound respect. Deciding you WILL do the impossible is such a powerful choice.

    I salute you and thank you for this amazing journal entry. It will be widely shared.


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