Adrenaline

The author on Mt Athabasca, summer 2007

I’ve had a complex relationship with adrenaline my whole life.

I got into what some call “extreme sports” very young. At twelve, I started snowboarding religiously. I’d be on the slopes alone every weekend, pushing myself to go faster, to tackle harder terrain, to hit bigger jumps and longer rails. I loved nothing more than flinging myself against a whole damn mountain and seeing if I could fly. A catastrophic accident put an end to riding for me when I was 18, and I took on the mountains from another angle. My new obsession was rock climbing. I preferred the outdoors to the gym, leading to top-roping, and multi-pitch trad to everything else. I found my element hundreds of metres off the ground, with nothing between me and a fatal fall but 9mm of nylon and a few chunks of metal shoved in a crack. Both sports routinely took me to the very margins of my physical competence. I thrived on the razor-thin edge where my skill and endurance were essential to keeping me in one piece, and where luck might well make the difference between success and the worst failure imaginable.

I didn’t fear much, in those days. Right before I dropped into a steep run or climbed up past my last piece of protection, there’s be butterflies in my stomache and the very strong sense that I couldn’t back out once I started. But I wasn’t afraid. Just focused. And that focus was intoxicating. My mind is a noisy place at the best of times and putting myself on the razor’s edge erased everything but the present moment, and the next, and the next in cascading, clear, beautiful sequence. Success felt better than anything I could imagine. I was floating and grounded all at once, euphoric, giddy, invincible, and full of the purest joy. I was intimately familiar with the meaning of the term “adrenaline junkie”, and I loved it.

As I got older, I started losing friends to the mountains. Three of them died in relatively short succession, all walking that same razor’s edge I adored. My relationship to risk shifted, and I became more honest with myself about how much control I really had. Luck loomed larger than skill, and I started making slightly less reckless choices. I still chased the focused joy of adrenaline, and still had my share of close calls with the abyss, but I started backing down from situations where the risk was unacceptable. A small amount of fear tempered me and and made me a little smarter, and a little more likely to survive.

Then the fear metastasized into something ugly and destructive.

I’d always been a weird, isolated kid, and had been bullied pretty badly. I struggled to make friends or even connect with my peers, and developed serious social anxiety in my teens. I met adrenaline in a new context, and I didn’t like it. It was the sharp twisting in my gut when I realized I’d fucked up again. The hot rush of shame in my cheeks when someone shut me down, or mocked me, or acted like I wasn’t there. The sudden spike in heart rate when I walked into a space where I didn’t know everyone. My self-esteem was non-existent; my confidence a mess. Being alone on the mountain let me feel competent and worthy even when I was a mess everywhere else, but I craved the approval of my peers.

I got more involved in the climbing community, and started dating one of my climbing partners. Bringing the social sphere into the mountains was the beginning of the end of that chapter of my life. The relationship I was in wasn’t a healthy one. My partner — later my husband — fueled my self-doubt and fear of failure. He made it clear he didn’t trust me, and didn’t think I was a particularly good person. I was selfish. Weak. Dangerous. Immoral. Every anxiety I had was echoed back to me and magnified. The bad kind of adrenaline found me on the mountain, and wiped out the good. Challenges no longer brought focus and that bone-deep faith in my own skill, but crippling performance anxiety. I started backing off of climbs well within my capabilities. I panicked and cried and gave up in places I wouldn’t have even paused a year earlier. And because that capitulation made me look weak and unworthy, I pushed myself into harder and riskier terrain to prove I still belonged in my community. Alpine climbing. Ice climbing. Freesoloing. I still found snippets of the old peace and euphoria, but they were fleeting and mostly came when I was alone. When he was there, when our friends were, I came apart at the seams.

When my marriage fell apart after a couple of short years, I walked away from the mountains. I still haven’t really let myself come back.

But the thing about being an addict is that the cravings never stop. And nothing ever felt as good as adrenaline did when it was working the right way.

Over time, I found my way back to the razor’s edge. Not through physical danger, but psychological stress. I started working as a roleplayer with the police department. My job was (is) to participate in realistic simulations of the most challenging situations officers might find themselves in. Everything from suicide and self-harm interventions, to domestic violence, gang fights, jail cell extractions, and mass shootings. We used real guns (modified for safety and loaded with blank ammunition), inert OC spray, plastic batons, and padded suits and helmets that let us take heavy impact with little risk of damage. We made things as realistic, chaotic, and scary as necessary to get the officers to react like they would to the real thing.

My role would vary. Sometimes I’d be the perpetrator of violence, sometimes a fellow officer or civilian trying to intervene, sometimes a victim or bystander. I learned quickly that each role came with a different flavour of adrenaline.

Being a victim or a bystander was the worst. I couldn’t handle feeling helpless. The simulated fear left a sour, heavy taste in my mouth and I’d feel wrung out at the end of the day. Beyond sad. Empty and small and stripped of agency. Being an officer was far better. I had the ability to solve problems and affect the situation — more so than in any other role — and my team got to “win” the scenario. But performance anxiety snuck in the backdoor. I was a fake cop surrounded by real ones, and any failure to act the part could screw up their sense of immersion and ruin the training exercise. The bad adrenaline intermingled with the good if I let my guard down. Not often, but enough to make me wary.

The easiest by far was playing the bad guy. It was a simple, goal-oriented game. Show up, create as much chaos as you can before they take you down, and then let the officers take care of the rest. Sure, I’d always end up in cuffs or dead on the ground, but the span between the start of the scenario and my inevitable defeat brought me closest to the purity of the razor’s edge. My comfort with getting complex things done under pressure, learned fiddling with climbing gear a hundred metres off the deck, made me an efficient and competent antagonist. When I framed success as “getting the reaction we needed” and not “winning the fight”, I started finding the clarity and the euphoric aftermath I’d known before. I was good at this, and work just left me tired and ravenously hungry, rather than an emotional wreck.

Over time, practice took the edge off the stress. I could use the mental strategies that made being a bad guy fun to better manage other roles. I got better at expressing emotions like fear and despair without feeling them for real. The edge became a little less sharp. It was a healthy shift overall, and I could still get the good kind of adrenaline most days, if I wanted to find it. Discovering that there were different flavours to adrenaline that were dependent on context also gave me the first tool I needed to start disentangling my past. I stopped thinking in terms of fear/fearlessness or focus/panic, and seeing where the lines between states blurred and how I could shift myself between them. Adrenaline went from being an on/off switch to a dial I could fine tune as I needed it.

That started feeding back into my martial arts practice. I’ve joked that playing with swords is the safest hobby I’ve ever had, and it’s not really much of a joke. Martial arts was where I landed after I lost the mountains and all that came with them. My marriage had soured the taste of adrenaline, and I wanted nothing to do with fear. Fighting was pure physical expression. I put everything into moving well and getting my head around tactics. I sparred whenever I got the chance, but I held back from the edge and everything that came with it. Sparring was a dance. A flow of sometimes breathtaking technical challenge that put me in the moment like danger did, but didn’t overwhelm my system with the chemicals that came with true pressure. It was a much more controlled psychological space. A slow drip of satisfaction instead of a flood of euphoria. It was enough.

Then, not long after I started fighting, I made a new friend at an event. Marco had taught a seminar on Italian stick fighting, and invited all of his students to spar with him afterwards. I took him up on the offer. We masked and padded up, and he gave me the worst thrashing I’ve ever gotten. I was overwhelmed. My head was ringing, there was impact on my shins that seemed to come out of nowhere, and more than once I ended up on my back with no real sense of how I’d gotten there. And the whole time we were laughing. It was pure joy. Euphoria. I’d found the razor’s edge again, but this time I’d built it together with a person I trusted, and that shared dance bonded us for life.

Over time, I found more people I could fight like that. People I could trust absolutely to care about me as a person, to value me and want to lift me up, and who understood the value of a shared dance on the edge. Who knew the difference between hurt and harm, and knew how to push me in the right ways, and demanded that I push them back. It was a new and beautiful flavour of adrenaline, and it might be my favourite. A mutual pressure that builds challenge and focus and risk without the sour taint of fear of failure.

After I got good at roleplaying, I started bringing some of what I’d learned about adrenaline into my martial arts training. I found people I could roleplay with. Fighters who could take me beyond the mutual dance and into a place of fear. Who could hang me over the edge and loosen their grip until I had to claw my way back to safety. And even more importantly, I learned to do this for others. To use my intimate knowledge of adrenaline and its permutations to push the energy of a room in the direction it needed to go. To challenge my students enough, frighten them enough — and in the right ways — that they had to take control of their own fates, and in so doing tasted their own strength. I introduced them to my old friend in a way that made them stronger, and helped armour them against the contamination of self-doubt that almost broke me a decade ago.

I’m thinking about all of this now because I recently started powerlifting. I’ve had three sessions so far of picking up very heavy things and putting them back down again. And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why I was such an emotional mess after every workout. Cranky. Distracted. Wrung out like a dishcloth.

Today, I hit my last rep of a deadlift and suddenly recognized an old feeling. The slight tremor of uncertainty in my belly. The sense that the only path to success was my skill and strength. The laser focus on the moment. And the jittery euphoria after the weight came back down. Adrenaline.

I’d spent so many years mentally tying it to psychological stress and fear that I’d forgotten that it could come from pure physical challenge. When it hit me, I didn’t know what to do with it, and my brain had started cycling through my usual response patterns. Last week, I’d been a bad guy, or a climber after a brush with the abyss. Bouncy. Energized. Happy. And then tired and hungry and mentally foggy. A few days ago, I’d gone into a session at a public gym with a bit more social anxiety, and come out with the brittle defiance of the survivor. I’d done it, and it felt good, but the aftermath was costlier. I went to a family dinner after and was miserable company. I felt like a raw nerve and nothing anyone said or did landed right.

And today? I snacked. I cried a little. I wrote a several-thousand-word autobiographical essay on my lifelong relationship with stress hormones. Normal post-workout stuff.

I didn’t think that in signing up for personal training, I’d be jumping into self-guided therapy as well, but here we are. I’m so grateful for this opportunity to build yet another relationship with my oldest emotional process. To tighten the bolts that connect my brain to my body, and understand myself a little better. To get a bit more control of my emotions not by crushing them down with an iron fist, but learning to surf the wave and trust myself to ride it all out. I’m especially grateful to once again balance the two sides of the adrenaline coin. The empowering, galvanizing pressure of the razor’s edge; and the debilitating weight of anxiety. Eustress and distress.

Lifting is making me reckon with both once again, and this time I get to bring a lifetime of experience to the party. I think I’m ready.