Deciding to Live

Kij Johnson - Raleigh, North Carolina
As heard on NPR’s Weekend Edition, August 31, 2008
Kij Johnson
Photo by Eric Warren (c) 2008

In the depths of depression, writer Kij Johnson considered suicide by jumping off a bridge. But then she took up rock climbing and discovered the sport could help her embrace the risks and joys of life.

Age Group: 30 - 50

I believe I am a climber.

Three years ago, a series of medical and personal crises took what was a clinical depression and made it something much darker.

I thought of it as falling—as jumping—off a bridge on a rainy, winter day: three seconds in the air before I hit the water and plunged deep into the icy cold, my heavy coat pulling me deeper. And the surface far overhead—too far away.

This is the question that kept me from making the image a real one: What if I changed my mind? After jumping into the water, the air in my lungs would fail me before I could swim back to the living world. I would know for those last seconds that I did want to live after all, but it would be too late.

I’m not sure why I started climbing. I walked through the door of the local climbing gym one day on a whim. It was an alien world: strong, beautiful men and women, towering walls under sodium vapor lights, white dust filling the air. Light instead of dark. Up instead of down. It was in every way the opposite of what was inside me.

The second time I climbed, I got to a move in which I was sure I would fall. I was twenty-five feet up on a rope, but I didn’t know yet that I could trust it. I heard my voice say out loud, “I have a choice here: fear or joy.” What I meant was climb or don’t climb, live or die.

In the more than two years since then, I have climbed hundreds of days—inside and out, sometimes tied to a rope, often not.

I do pay a price here. My body can be so bruised from hitting walls that people ask me about my home situation. Nine months ago, I broke my leg and ankle. I healed fast, but the risk remains. Next time I might not.

Climbing requires a cold-blooded decision to live. If I am inattentive or careless, I will fall. Every time I climb at the gym or rope up for a route outside or go bouldering—which is climbing without a rope, and it is often more dangerous—I am taking a risk. And I am committing to staying alive.

Now, I believe in climbing, in not jumping. Jumping would have been easy—just step over the bridge railing and let go. Climbing is harder but worth it. I believe that deciding to live was the right decision.

There’s no way to describe the terrible darkness of depression in a way that nondepressed people can understand. Now, I’m less focused on the darkness. Instead, I think about the joy I feel in conquering it and the tool I used.

I am a climber, and I am alive.

Kij Johnson is a writer whose fiction has won the Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award, and she has been nominated for the Hugo Award. She lives in North Carolina and climbs wherever and whenever she can. Ms. Johnson is at work on a series of essays about climbing.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.