Fear: broken climbing rope

What fear can teach us.

When my younger son Steve took up rock climbing a few years ago, I wasn’t entirely supportive. I thought You couldn’t take up bowling or, I dunno, chess? 

When he talked about climbing, I played my mom card, making an occasional gasp and fearful noises. He finally made it clear that my attitude was annoying, so I stopped. Instead, I started encouraging him. Eventually, I told him I’d like to try it sometime—indoor climbing, that is. I decided to actively face my own fear in a way that would support my son.

“Sometime” happened over Christmas. I wanted our family to celebrate the season with shared experiences, not just gifts. I’d have been perfectly happy with tickets to The Nutcracker, but when you’re trying to enlist the enthusiasm of a husband and two grown sons, ballet wouldn’t cut it. Rock climbing would, so that became the plan.

Fear of personal injury drives my decisions.

As a certified chicken, this was big. I hate heights, hate going fast, and hate doing anything where I might get hurt. The one time I tried cross-country skiing (because I’m WAY too scared to even consider downhill), I took off my skis to walk down an itty-bitty hill. I rarely even ride a bike anymore because I’m afraid of falling.

As it turned out, indoor rock climbing was much safer and less intimidating than I expected. There are harnesses and safety ropes and a belayer—a fellow climber on the ground—managing it all. It wasn’t a big deal after all; just an itty-bitty deal.

My fear was unfounded.

The really big deal happened midway up the rock on my second climb when I accidentally banged my knee on the rock. Actually, it was more of a tap, but wow. Do knees have funny bones? If so, they’re not funny. The pain took my breath away and my whole leg shook for minutes afterward. (This was before I got both knees replaced.)

I couldn’t even yell down to tell my belayer why I wasn’t moving. All I could do was hold on and wait for it to pass. That’s not exertion on my face in the photo below, it’s pain.

My body was momentarily paralyzed but my mind was busy with negative messages.

I can’t do it. My leg won’t hold me. I’m going to have to come down. I’ll have to quit.

I felt so defeated. It was another family outing ruined.

My chronic health issues ruined many family outings.

Just a few days prior, we had reservations for dinner and tickets to a comedy show. It was our “big” Christmas gift to ourselves. But my chronic illness choose that day to tangle up my insides worse than a knotted rope. We had to cancel our plans.

My “three favorite guys” were supportive, but I was distraught. My year had been full of canceled plans and ruined experiences, and this one was the pinnacle of ruination. But there was nothing I could do; there was no fighting it. So I pulled myself together, we got take-out, made a fire, and played a board game. We were together. It was Christmas. How could I complain?

Several days later, my chronic illness cooperated and I was psyched to redeem myself with family rock climbing. Until the bang of the knee.

Finally catching my breath, I yelled to my guys.

“I hurt my knee!”

“Do you want to come down?” my husband yelled back up.

“I don’t know.”

I pictured letting go, leaning back, and rappelling down. I pictured myself standing on the floor below, having quit.

I didn’t want to be that me. I didn’t want to be her. Again.

I was literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. The hard place was defeat.

I was stuck between a rock and a hard place–defeat.

Something within me decided that this time, defeat was not acceptable. I don’t always have control over my chronic illness, but I knew I had control over a banged knee.

Waiting until my leg stopped shaking, I yelled down, “OK, you got me, Steve?”

I took a tentative step up to another foothold. Then another. And another. It was hard, and it hurt, but I did it. When I reached the pinnacle, I slapped the top of that fake rock like I had climbed Mt. Everest.

Fear: hitting the top of a rock wall

It felt so good, my chest swelled with pride as it heaved with breathlessness. I almost started crying with joy and relief right there, but I sucked the tears back in because nothing would have made Steve avoid family rock climbing in the future more than a public display of my ugly cry. “Leaky faucet,” he used to call me.

Call me what you want. I was a winner that day.

Fear didn't win that day. I beat the rock AND the hard place. Share on X

I learned some important lessons:

What fear taught me:

  1. When so much of my life was beyond my control, the opportunity to face my fear and conquer defeat was priceless. With my ego and my psyche so fragile, I needed that win.
  2. Facing my fear gave me the opportunity to feel in control. It taught me to look carefully at my assumptions and push myself beyond them if I chose.
  3. I have the wisdom to know when not to fight—when I need to let go, to breathe, to just be.
  4. Just as importantly, it taught me that I have the wisdom to know when to fight like hell.
  5. When I do fight, I’m a warrior.

Call me chicken, call me leaky faucet, call me what you will.

I know who I truly am, what I’m truly capable of.


  • Karen DeBonis

    Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, people-pleasing, and personal growth, the entangled mix told in her memoir "Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived" forthcoming in spring 2023. Subscribe today to receive Chapter 1: A Reckoning.

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  1. jimreeves1@verizon.net on January 3, 2018 at 11:44 PM

    No longer a certified chicken are you, warrior? I’m so proud of your resolve and will power Karen! Use it or lose it someone said, you have and won’t! Thanks for sharing this!

    • kaydee82@earthlink.net on January 4, 2018 at 11:18 AM

      Thanks Jim. You’re right, maybe I lost my "chicken" certification. Well, let’s see if I hope on my bike in the spring!

  2. jimreeves1@verizon.net on January 3, 2018 at 11:48 PM

    Not a certified chicken anymore are you, warrior? I’m so proud of your resolve and perseverance Karen! Thanks for sharing!

  3. jherlocker@gmail.com on January 4, 2018 at 2:02 AM

    Severely cool, Karen! You make me proud if you just reading this. Way to kick ass! 😄

    • kaydee82@earthlink.net on January 4, 2018 at 11:23 AM

      It WAS cool, Jack. And I DID kick ass, didn’t I?


  4. gboenning@gmail.com on January 4, 2018 at 1:09 PM

    She took on the mountain and won!

    Your story shines with courage on the wall–and off–climbing the challenges life throws at you. I’m glad you were able to share that family experience. Your son’s will never forget the day you took on fear, pain and footholds.

    • kaydee82@earthlink.net on January 4, 2018 at 7:00 PM

      Thanks for your comment Gail! It really WAS all about my sons – at least that was the intention. Someday they’ll be busy with their own families, and I want to create as many rock-climbing moments and memories as possible while we’re still our core of four. If I had girls and we went to the ballet, I’d never have these opportunities for personal growth.

  5. rosem.griffith@gmail.com on January 5, 2018 at 8:36 PM

    Bravo for making it to the top, Karen, despite hitting that nasty knee bone–I so know what you mean by that pain. It is terrifying and great to push ourselves to move beyond what we think we can do.

    • kaydee82@earthlink.net on January 6, 2018 at 12:10 AM

      Thanks for your comment RoseMary (even though we know you may not see my reply)! Yeah, these knees just aren’t what they used to be, but I showed them who’s boss!

  6. paula.ransbury@gmail.com on January 7, 2018 at 12:23 PM

    Thank you for another inspiring story Karen! You took the one-step-at-a-time approach and met success! Love the shared experience Christmas activity. :)

    • kaydee82@earthlink.net on January 7, 2018 at 5:19 PM

      Thank you Paula! One small step for my body, one huge leap for my ego!

  7. vhnelson030@gmail.com on January 17, 2018 at 9:39 PM

    Totally took my breath away. I love your encouragement, and bravery. You are a true inspiration, Karen! Keep climbing those walls!

  8. kaydee82@earthlink.net on January 17, 2018 at 11:05 PM

    Oh Vicki, that’s so sweet of you! I am climbing EVERY day, as are you. We can inspire each other!

  9. Karen DeBonis on August 17, 2019 at 6:04 PM

    Oh Dear! I just found your comment on my blog from LAST year. For some reason, it needed to be approved, which is odd, because my site is not set up that way. Many thanks for taking the time to reply, and my apologies for not getting back to you quickly.

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