It's hot on the bus. The vinyl seats stick to my legs as I shift and try to get a better view out the window. I'm unfamiliar with this route, and fear of missing my stop is adding to my building apprehension.
Recently I made the decision to move to a new city to study my masters degree. Already living in a foreign country, I have few friends, and no social network. And I'm struggling. It reflects in my mood. I can feel it pulling me down, and I know I need to make a change.
Today is that day, the time for change. I've managed to fight past the insecurities and take the first step. Everything is in place. The bus route and times, when to leave the house. The name of the climbing gym. Directions to get there. Information about the club I've joined online, and the person to introduce myself to when I arrive. Just a bunch of simple steps, all laid out. I can do this.
But sitting here on this bus the anxious feeling that's been building is starting to turn into doubt. Why am I here?
Thinking back to that night ten years ago, the events are etched clearly in my mind. It’s one of those rare times in life where I can pinpoint the specific start of a transformation. The moment it began, and the exact chain of events that altered the direction of my life.
And it all came down to my decision to make a change.
As the bus draws close to my destination, I look for possibly the hundredth time at the now sweat stained piece of paper in my hand. An address. And a name. With the confirmation of my membership. I keep staring at it, looking for a mistake.
As I get off the bus, the heat of February is a shock. After two years, the extreme temperatures of summer in Australia still surprises me. As it would continue to do so a decade later. The heat has a scorching feel to it, extending well past the peak of the day. It's a dry heat, which always seems strange for a city on the Indian Ocean. Most summer afternoons bring reprieve from the heat with the sea breeze. Not in any way as light as the name indicates. The breeze is often strong, sand blasting any naive tourist who braves the beach after the wind comes in. Tonight however there's no such break from the heat as the sea breeze is light and hardly noticeable this far inland.
I'm walking briskly for the next few blocks, trying to be calm and casual as I can feel the anxiety building. I can't turn back now, although I'm starting to hope I have the details wrong. Is it Tuesday and not Wednesday? Have I missed it? Does it start at 7:00 PM? Or 6:00 PM? Am I going to be early? Or late?
Quicker then anticipated, I've arrived at my destination. The building looks like a small warehouse, with doors similar to that of a barn. It's not inviting, and if I hadn't been looking for it I would have walked right past. The music coming from inside is what gives away I'm at the right place.
I pause briefly, trying to plan out my next move. As people walk past me to file in, I know I have a split second to make my decision. Going in, or going home.
I take a deep breath and head inside.
It was the loneliness that drove me forward. That, and needing to do the things that brought me joy. With people who would enjoy them with me. But it would be fair to say it was the feeling of isolation that gave me the extra little nudge I needed to take that first step. I was no stranger to depression. Being socially isolated was one of the factors that had triggered my mood in that occasion. I had come from being part of a community and always surrounded by people I was like minded with. People who shared many of my values. Who liked to do what I liked to do. Being alone in a new city I knew I couldn’t do it on my own. I needed to find my tribe.
And I knew it probably wouldn’t happen on it’s own. I needed to take action.
Stepping through the doors of the climbing gym, I'm in a large, dark entrance. The smells of sweat and chalk are being dispersed by large standing fans. I can now hear past the music that was spilling out the front door, and distinguish the voices of fellow climbers. The place is packed.
The lights are bright in the main gym. The walls and floor are covered with people, climbing, belaying, and watching. It creates a busyness and a certain degree anonymity. It's noisy and a bit cramped. Yet no one appears bothered by either of these factors. I look around and spot the people I'm there to meet. A mixed group; some dressed and ready to climb, others arrive in suits and work clothing. I can see a person who resembles the description of the group organizer. Slowly I approach, and stand at the edge of the group. One by one the group clears out to either climb or get changed, and I find myself standing in front of the organizer. Everything had culminated to this moment, and I again have the sudden urge to turn and walk away.
But I don't run away. I take a deep breath, and introduced myself.
And there it began. It was a slow process, becoming part of my community. That first night, I was paired with another climber for the evening. As soon as it was over I said my goodbyes and left, hurrying out to catch my bus.
But the next week I was braver. I stayed, and joined the group at the pub for a drink. And that’s where we all really got to know each other. Week after week, we climbed, and then we walked to the pub for a beer and maybe some cheesy wedges.
After a couple of months, I had people I was climbing with regularly. When it was suggested we climb a second night in the week, I joined that too. That second night progressed into weekend outdoor climbing. That became weekend away climbing trips.
I had found the people that were my people. We had more in common than rock climbing. So I started a women’s monthly dinner to share our love for healthy meals and delicious desserts. And that was just the beginning. Over time we began to occupy lager parts of each others lives. They became my friends. My community.
In regards to change and transformation, I frequently heard the statement ‘you are the average of the top five people you spend the most time with’. Usually this is in reference to success and prosperity, or personal development. But in reality it’s not that limited.
If you want your life to be transformed, you need to surround yourself with people who support that transformation. Who are that transformation. Do you want to eat better and have a more nutritious lifestyle? Surround yourself with people who will eat healthy food with you. Do you want to be more active? Then find people who share a sport or physical activity you love. If you want to improve your mood, find people who pull you up, not drag you down.
For some people, this occurs naturally. It might be family or existing social circles. But the rule applies whether you intend it to or not. If you want to make changes in your life, there’s a good chance you might be seeking some new additions to your circle. Or become part of a different social circle entirely. Like I did. The key is people who value what you value. In doing so they naturally support and assist in the change you are looking to make.
I had no way of knowing at the time the enormity of the decision I had made. Walking through those doors of the climbing gym for the first time. Coming back week after week. Expanding my friendships outside of gym.
And more significantly, deciding my depression would not stop me and would not define me. Social inclusion is an aspect of my social and emotional health. It’s as important as both physical and mental health. Social inclusion has a holistic relationship with well-being. Being socially isolated is as harmful to individual health as smoking cigarettes. It’s twice as harmful as being obese. Physical, mental, and social health are all integral parts of health. They’re interwoven and cannot exist without each other.
What did that mean for me? I joined a rock climbing club to help me overcome my depression. And the exercise was only part of it. What I learned was that finding a group of people who shared my lifestyle values make it possible for me to create that life for myself.
It was a year after joining the club that I found myself standing in a parking lot. Far down a dirt road in the bush land outside of Perth. I had been to this climb several times before with friends from the club. This was my true happy place, climbing in nature. There was no noise like the gym, just the sounds of the birds and the wind in the trees. I loved it there.
We were standing in the parking lot waiting for the rest of our group to arrive. Our club organizer (the fellow from my first day at the gym) had invited some others to join us. It was there in the parking lot, I met a guy with a funny accent I couldn’t place. He was tall, and already had most of his trad climbing gear on. As we chatted he impressed me by being knowledgeable, as well as patient and kind. And one hell of a climber We climbed together that day, and many days after.
That day in the parking lot, I met the man who would later become the love of my life. My husband, and the father of my two children. The person laughing over my shoulder as I write this, wanting to add his two sense worth.
Our friend the club organizer? He flew over from Tasmania to attend my wedding. Our entire wedding party was friends from the outdoor club and climbing community. Including all three of my bridesmaids. Our community.
And none of it would have happened if I had not gotten on that bus. If I had not walked through those doors, and introduced myself to my tribe.
What’s the take away from my story? If you’re looking to change your life, it starts with one small step. Followed by another. Maybe it’s trying a new activity. Or making healthy lifestyle choices. Overcoming depression. It still starts with one small step. And then another.
Finding your people, the ones who will support and be part of that change, is essential. We are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Who do you want to be?