How Climbing Changed Stephen's Life After Diagnosed with Diabetes

Stephen is an outstanding and inspiring person living with type 1 diabetes. He started LivingVertical, a blog that is about choosing adventure in the vertical world to redefine life with chronic illness and “inspiring you to think differently about the role of obstacles in life.” In this post, Stephen shares how he chose to live beyond the limits of his diagnoses and make climbing and outdoor activity a central focus of his life.

Tell us about yourself:
I’m a climber and a type 1 diabetic. Both of those things came into my life at nearly the same time–when I was 16 years old. I was diagnosed while I was living away from my parents in Alaska and so I had to learn how to cope with a diagnosis in a somewhat foreign environment, without a lot of the “guardrails” that normally go along with that process. This meant that I had to design and implement my own adaptation process–something that I didn’t know I was doing at the time, but now looking back, that foundation went a long way towards making me independent and proactive–plus it taught me to love and value wild places.
What’s the connection between climbing and diabetes?
Inherently, nothing I guess. That’s why there’s not tons of websites devoted to it! But diabetes becomes a filter that we see everything through, and for me I had to have something beyond my diabetes to focus on as I learned to cope–and so climbing became the framework that I built my diabetes around. It made it a lot easier to stay focused on good management because it was no longer about arbitrary numbers or avoiding complications.
Also, diabetes is one big and involved risk management chore. Thousands of choices daily that seem small or are invisible to others but that can make a huge impact. You might be surprised to know that climbing requires that very same mindset. I like to say that climbing has taught me a great deal about my diabetes and diabetes has taught me a lot about climbing.
What inspired LivingVertical?
Several things: To start with, I hated how people with diabetes are portrayed in the public. If we see ourselves portrayed as weak and sick and victims–it makes it a lot easier for people with diabetes (and their families) to succumb to that view.
Secondly, I have experienced life changing (for the better) benefits from climbing and adventure. As I mentioned above, it really changed how I saw myself and my diabetes. That’s been an incredible gift. I was lucky to stumble into that because I randomly was doing an outdoor adventure module in my PE course when I was diagnosed. I realized in 2011 that many other people living with diabetes not only hadn’t gotten that experience–but quite the opposite, they were being told that they never could have it because of their diabetes.
I decided that if I wanted to change how people see diabetes, I’d have to do something. Worst case scenario I would be able to share a different perspective–best case, I’d find out that I wasn’t alone. I started off with an empowerment-based awareness project where I lived on the road (out of a car) and climbed every day for 365 days with no days off. I traveled across North America and did my best to make noise on social media and my blog. I made a documentary out of the journey too (watch it here). In the end I was really excited to find out that I was far from alone—it’s just that a positive representation of life with this condition has a much smaller “platform” and is a lot harder to find.

The takeaway:
I want other people with diabetes to know that we have a choice. You aren’t your diabetes. You aren’t what some person or some organization tells you to be. We have the ability to push back and have independence. I believe that being active physically and seeing ourselves as part of something bigger than just surviving and working jobs to keep health insurance is a big part of that. Don’t settle.

I think a lot of people with diabetes feel like their choices are gone after diagnosis. I feel like it’s actually the opposite. You have way more choices with a lot more complexity and consequence attached. Don’t get me wrong–that’s incredibly challenging but it’s not impossible!
Stephen’s Project365 documentary: 

Click here to follow Stephen’s adventures on his Youtube channel

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