Lessons in Badassery - WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO… Climb with an ‘invisible’ disability

Photo Credit: Rebecca Westcott

30-year-old Anoushé Husain gives an honest account of the challenges she has faced and overcome as a paraclimber with both a limb difference and the ‘invisible’ disability of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

I’m Anoushé and I was born with my right arm missing below the elbow, I am a cancer survivor, a Muslim who wears a headscarf, and I live with invisible conditions. When I’m not in the office, I train as a paraclimber and use my voice to talk about and challenge barriers and self-limiting beliefs.

So … What does it feel like to climb with one arm?

This is probably the most frequent question I get at the climbing wall. My standard response? What does it feel like to climb with both arms? Being born with my little arm actually means I’m pretty used to it. I’ve never known different. Sure, I do certain things differently and I absolutely hate tying my shoe laces, but generally, it doesn’t disable me. That’s why I like to call myself differently-abled. I am able, I just might need to work out a different way to doing things. In fact, I’d call it my least disabling disability but since it’s visible, that’s what people ask about.

Lessons in Badassery - WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO… Climb with an ‘invisible’ disability
Photo Credit: Gemma Smith

Invisible disability: cancer

Six years ago, I was brutally introduced to the world of invisible disability. I had been diagnosed with cancer in my early twenties and I went from being a full-time university student to juggling multiple hospitals, surgeries and treatments. It was sudden, unexpected and overwhelming. Even more unexpected was how weak I became following the treatment but also how much weaker my left arm became. I was starting to have trouble with some more of the basic things and could see that I was on a slippery slope towards becoming dependent on someone if I didn’t do something about it.

One of the things I was really struggling with was arm mobility but also strength, keeping my arm above my head for any amount of time was becoming a problem. My friend, a climber, told me I should try climbing. This was a sport I had tried on a couple of school trips as a child and enjoyed but never took up as I had been a competitive swimmer as a child and competitive martial artist as a teenager. Frankly? I thought my friend was insane. My normal arm had become impaired and my little arm was little, how on earth was I going to climb in this state? I could see her logic though, climbing was going to force me to mobilise and strengthen not just my arm, but my whole body. It was also a sport I found engaging and this for me was crucial, as going to the gym has never been something that has kept me motivated.

To say the least the sessions were brutal, but I could see the benefit in my arm for carrying on and over time I got stronger. This wanting to get stronger on the wall persuaded me to join the gym and the next thing I knew I went from climbing once every few months with my friend to deciding to see what formal training would do. In a little under a year I went from being a complete amateur to being ranked 2nd in the UK within my disability category and I’m currently competing to improve that ranking. I am purposefully glossing over the details of the actual rehab process but suffice to say that small steps, a plan, determination and a lot of support have gotten me to where I am today.

Lessons in Badassery - WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO Climb with an ‘invisible’ disability
Photo Credit: Sophie Tenn

Invisible disability: Ehlers-Danlos syndrome

There was one major hiccup though… last year, a month before starting to compete, I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), a condition which means I don’t produce collagen correctly. This explained a lot. The joints that dislocate, the countless sessions of physiotherapy, the pain, the difficulties with food, sleep, recovery, I mean the list goes on. More importantly though was that the condition got caught because the symptoms had started impacting my quality of life and I was given a clear warning by the medical professionals that I needed to get off this slippery slope before it took hold.  Life changed that week, I had a name and I could start doing the research to understand the condition but I had also been watching my health progressively get harder to manage. I knew I had a fight on my hands and I still do.

The learning curve has been really sharp but I’ve been determined to do everything within my power to take back control of my life. I mean, my calendar was being overrun with hospital appointments so that I could learn about the condition and be taught how to manage it. My climbing coach was great because he took it within his stride and respected the fact that despite that my life seemed to be coming apart, I still wanted to compete.

Lessons in Badassery: WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO… Climb with an ‘invisible’ disability
Photo Credit: Sana Murad

Climbing has been my godsend. Besides helping me keep my left arm strong and my body strong, it helps me manage my pain levels in a way that I haven’t managed with any other method. As my joints can easily slip out of their sockets and return, but not in the right way, this causes some pretty decent pain and fatigue. Climbing forces my joints to stay in place. The sport also helps me forget the world for a little while. When I’m fully-focussed on the wall, I forget that I’m managing some rather chunky health issues, I get to feel normal, it’s my escape, it’s my happy. I definitely don’t regret competing last year even if it was hugely mentally and physically draining given how many other things I was managing.

So … What does it feel like to climb like me?

On a normal day, I am probably monitoring pain, watching my joints and my left arm, assessing fatigue levels and making sure I’m understanding and noting down how my body is responding through any climbing session. This has become so routine that I barely even notice it anymore.

On a bad day? I’ll come to the climbing centre hobbling a bit as one or multiple joints are misaligned. Walking hurts, I’m exhausted, I just want to go to bed but I know that won’t fix the problem. I’ll be carefully taking my pain levels until as high as I can tolerate so I can get the joints settled and hope they will settle fast. Once they are, I’m basically pain-free and then I can climb properly again but I’m often summoning up every ounce of grit on those days.

Life has changed a lot. I’m grateful though, my regular partners and my coach have all adapted to the situation really well. They are even picking up on signs or things I might say without realising it that mean I’m not having a great day but I’m pushing through and don’t want to admit it.

My arm is the least of my concerns.

Lessons in Badassery - WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO: Climb with an ‘invisible’ disability
Photo Credit: Anna Knight

I would say this for my life and living with the conditions and ups and downs that I do: there have been numerous times where I have felt like my life has come apart. Heck, it did come apart at least twice! There have been times (and there still are today) when I would say, ‘I can’t’, ‘this shouldn’t be for me’, ‘I’ll never be able to…’ I was creating my own barriers by telling myself what I thought might be impossible, was impossible.

Life will throw me, you, and everyone around you, some mighty twists and turns. Things will seem impossible and it will feel like you’re climbing a mountain just to get the mental energy to persuade yourself to try. You know what, though? For me, the hardest part is persuading myself to try, to lean into the fear of the unknown and see what might happen. THIS is what I do every time I have a setback in my health or life and need to get back on my feet. Make a plan, a realistic plan with loads of baby steps and readjust the plan as you make progress. Celebrate every step of the way and learn from what didn’t go right and, above all, when you are telling yourself you ‘can’t’ and you ‘shouldn’t’ and ‘you won’t be able to’? Ask yourself, ‘Why not’?

What’s stopping you? What have you got to lose by trying and what opportunity might you lose by not trying?

If you are scared of failing (and that’s completely normal), tell yourself that falling and failing is not the end of the world but simply an opportunity to learn and try again at a later date.

Don’t let yourself stop yourself from reaching your potential.

You can follow Anoushé via her social media accounts: www.twitter.com/anoushehusain and www.instagram.com/anoushehusain or visit her website at www.anoushehusain.com