#1 Climber - Woman - Humanitarian
Ami’s Identity Story
Ami gave me three identities, as “Climber’, ‘Woman’, and ‘Humanitarian’. Her story of identity was at times hard to hear, and deeply personal (as i guess all identity stories will be). I felt privileged to hear it, but also worried about how best to represent it. In common with the other interviews i have conducted so far, i can sense a structure, but there is an element of an emerging narrative about the conversation. I think in some ways simply talking about it helps to shape it.
Ami’s story grows out of a background of abuse and a childhood identity that she describes, in some ways, slowly escaping from. It’s notable, and she describes how, through a lifetime of therapy she now speaks with confidence and perhaps more importantly comfort with her story. For me it feels like a story of power: of finding power, claiming it, and being very mindful about how it is exerted. There is a compassion for others that shines through, tempered by her most recent experiences of discovering anger. I hope you take as much from this Identity story as i did.
Ami’s Identity Story
I started rock climbing when i was around twelve years old, and it’s central to who i am as it combines a number of things that are important to me. When you climb you have to have trust: trust in your partner, who is keeping you safe, and trust in yourself. Climbing is inherently risky, but if you are prepared, and have trust between you, then you can mitigate it to a degree. It’s important to me to step out of my comfort zone, but i can only do that if i have built those trusted relationships.
Climbing is not a competitive sport for me: i can only climb as high as the partner who is belaying me: if they are limited, i am limited, so part of my journey is to support their capability and confidence. We are incredibly reliant on each other, literally for our life.
I find that these deep relationships are beyond valuable: it’s a closeness and trust. When i climb, it’s a type of love i have for that person.
You also have to trust yourself: climbing is a scary activity: i could be six hundred feet up a cliff, looking up at something that seems unfathomable. There’s always a way back down, but it may cost you time and equipment. So to progress i have to have trust in myself: my ability to use the gear safely is part of it. It’s almost a scientific challenge. To know what it can do, and how to use it.
There is a richness in the experience of pushing up against what you cannot do: i feel hyper connected to the earth. In my everyday life i can tend to have a decent amount of anxiety, but when i climb it’s just me, the rock, and the sun on my back. I don’t worry about my boss, about weight gain or the mortgage. I am just present with the earth.
I am a realist, and don’t carry all that much hope for humanity with the challenges that we see around us, the division and conflict, but high on a cliff i can see the only things that matter. The rock under my hands: this is something that will persist, that will be here when we are all gone. There is a continuity.
If you had asked me ten years ago, my first identity would have been ‘Survivor’, but that identity is not present for me any more. For a good chunk of my life, my body was not entirely mine. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and abuse within adult relationships too. I have struggled in the past to feel connected with my body, but every time i climb i feel more connected to it. I defy the odds and that is incredibly healing. It’s an exercise in moving up and into the world.
My second identity is woman: again, ten years ago being a lesbian would have felt more pressing, but my identity has changed. I shared that rock climbing makes me feel empowered and free - in contrast to this, my sense of identity as a woman comes from feeling oppressed and not treated seriously. Not being safe in the world.
Even within rock climbing there are times when i face this: when hiking out and camping alone, sleeping by myself in the middle of the woods, people say to me ‘oh, don’t you have a man to keep you safe?’
“Just surviving as a woman, with a lengthy history of abuse, i inhabit this female body and inhabit a world that targets female bodies. We don’t value women or pay them as much. There is a certain sense of anger and pride: a sense of ‘fuck you’ in it. You put every obstacle in my way and despite that i kick ass at everything i want to do: it makes me more determined.”
I suffer from endometriosis, and currently have a fantastic treatment regime, but from aged twelve to age forty, for a minimum two days a month, i was incapacitated, physically ill, with a disease that you cannot tell your boss about - you can say ‘i have a migraine’, but nobody wants to hear that i am vomiting uncontrollably because of my reproductive organs. It’s something i can whisper about with other women, but it’s not discussed more widely. Having to show up for work, or for race day - these things only exist for women and you are not supposed to talk about them.
These are the things that make me feel really fucking angry, but also really proud, because i have accomplished a lot, despite the barriers that being a woman has put in my path.
My third identity is as a humanitarian: someone who is invested in kindness and doing good, protecting the planet. This one has always been part of me, as long as i remember. In the eighties, in school, on your birthday you could take in cupcakes, and choose your best friend to help distribute them, even take one to the principles office. But i never picked my best friend: i picked the kid who never got picked. Because i always felt that it was important to know that someone sees you. That you have value.
It’s very important to take care of others. There was no abuse in my home, but my parents were very traditional GenX. We did not say ‘i love you’ - you were almost supposed to be afraid, not loved. We had a rigid household where if i said ‘i love you’ to them, they would not say it back. They would tell me not to cry, and as a kid that was huge: i was hurting, but who would take care of me? That really tuned me into other people’s suffering.
It’s really important to me to take care of people: to hold people, and animals, in this place of care. This can look different in different situations, but to approach things with love and curiosity and compassion, rather than judgement. Not just ‘dog eat dog’.
Humans need love and care, and we could do a better job of this.
I realise the irony that none of this has anything to do with what i do for work: i do really enjoy my work, but as a whole person i am made up of so much more than that.
My three identities are unique, but connected. Not in conflict. For example, rock climbing is not a competitive sport, which ties into my values as a humanitarian. Up a 1,000 foot wall i can only go up as high as my partner. There is no value in me excelling if we cannot trust and match each other. Being where we can mutually support each other is important to me. It is better for me if we all nurture each other.
Latterly being a woman has made me angry: i cry easily, but it has taken me a long time to discover anger.
One of the men who molested me in childhood went to prison: in my early twenties i saw it in the paper that someone else had come forward. The typical response was ‘good - i hope he gets raped in prison’. But i did not feel that: him suffering does nothing to help me to heal. Knowing that we cultivate space for children to speak to us - that would be healing.
I have never had anger towards him - it’s been hard for me to manifest anger. A new thing. Recently, with Roe v Wade being overturned, there is this anger in me. I think it stems from being able to relate to what it feels like not to have autonomy. It’s a rage i did not have when i was experiencing assault, but i have it in me now.
It’s disconnected from how i am a humanitarian: you read about how people change opinions. It does not happen by me shouting at you, but rather through a shared emotional connection. The ability to sit down in compassionate conversation is vital. But more and more my initial response is just rage, to say ‘fuck these people’. This is a change in my identity.
Maybe it was just deeply buried before - it’s a new thing for me. These mean thoughts contrast with my desire not to wish harm on anyone.
A few people know all my identities, mainly people related to my climbing community: we are really different but with some common threads. I think three or four people probably know the whole of me.
When i was younger i talked about this stuff way too much, when i was recovering from trauma.
I have no shame or apology for who i am and how i move through the world: to some people these identities would be controversial, but it’s who i am.
Some people would know parts of my identity more strongly than others: i can couch my assertiveness in questions, which i think a lot of women do. Mansplaining happens all the time: some twenty something will tell me that a climb is particularly difficult, or give me advice i did not ask for, even if i’ve been climbing a route longer than they have been alive. I think this is because people are socialised to think women need more help, or are not capable.
Through voluntary work at college i worked as a roofer for a charity: today i own my own home, i don’t have a husband to ask, and yet in the hardware store on numerous times some male employee will ask if i want help, and ask what my husband asked me to get. Women are remarkably capable: from complex emotions to complex engineering.
I think i own my own identity.
The relationship between my identity as a woman and my body has different aspects: i am very feminine, so people can perceive me as less competent than i am. They see me as an average woman. When a partner tells me that i am really beautiful, i always find myself responding ‘i am really smart’. In climbing i have a bigger body than many people who are athletic. I my own mind i am too fat to be an athlete, although i don’t have any recollection of anybody ever saying that to me, except my mother.
I don’t know how real identity is: in the LGBTQ community there is so much self identification that cannot be measured or quantified.
If i show up to the gym in my work clothes, i think that people dismiss me as a soccer mum.
Maybe identity is not real - maybe it’s important to have common language - we need to leave room for people to move through the world.
When i grew up, school came easily to me, i got straight ‘A’s. I had no reason to doubt my academic identity. But i can recall having suicidal thoughts as early as i recall having memories. I had a narrative that i am stupid, fat, and ugly, and don’t deserve to be here. I have no idea where this aspect of identity comes from, but it resulted in me growing up thinking that people imagined i could not do anything. Maybe my brain filled in for my emotionally unsupportive parents?
I felt that nobody saw my identity as one that would succeed, so i ended up graduating at 17, went to college on a full scholarship, and that for much of my twenties i was trying to prove that i was not stupid or incapable. Even though nobody tried to pin that on me, but my brain told me that. It informed a huge part of my life. An identity i was trapped within.
I don’t think identity is fragile: I rather like who i have grown up to be. We are constantly evolving.
I think my identities will change - i want to nurture them more than protect them - there is a possibility they grow and evolve into something different.
An identity may not fit anymore so it can make way for something else. Nurture, not protect. When it’s time for things to change, that’s a beautiful thing.
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