Keep looking up

I close my eyes, fighting against the tears. Sam is below me, his hands tight around the rope, his voice soothing and patient.

“You’ve got this, come on.”

I take a deep breath and try again, finding a solid place for my right foot. My fingers cram themselves into a small crack system, and I struggle to find somewhere for my left foot. The pain comes again in waves, and I fall into it, letting go of the rock, allowing the rope and draw to catch me. This time I don’t try to halt the flood of tears. They stream down my face and I weep, in pain, in shame. Is this what it has come to? Another thing I love, gone, unable to be accomplished in my current state? I cry and Sam waits, his own eyes watering. It kills him, I know, he’s told me a dozen times. Still, I envy his strength, the wholeness of his spine. If you had told me last year that I would be in this situation, I would have laughed. No, last year I was climbing strong, leading 5.12’s outside, setting my own personal records, not in the least bit concerned with my condition.

At the age of 17, I was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal disease in addition to juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. I was one of the youngest patients in the physical therapy clinic and I recall the murmurs of sympathy, of pity, from behind hand-covered mouths. My senior year of high school was a struggle. I was in constant pain, leaving school three times a week to seek out therapy. My parents struggled to understand how I had received such a condition. There was no real record of spinal problems in my family and I had been relatively healthy up until that point.

During the next few years my spine would have flare-ups. Sometimes I would be bedridden for a day or two from some exercise that proved too much. But I was still so strong. I had started rock climbing, mountaineering, and kayaking after college, I was accustomed to carrying heavy things on my back, running and using my arms. I loved my strength. In fact, I valued it above most other things. Sometimes I looked at other people who had physical limits, who had enduring pain, and I thought to myself, “god, I’m glad I’m not them. I’m glad I’m stronger than that.”

Then one day I couldn’t sleep on my side anymore. Twenty-six years of sleeping curled up on my side and it was suddenly too painful. Neither could I sleep on my stomach or my back. The simple act of carrying something was too much, and I found myself needing to push a cart in grocery stores. I had to purchase a roller bag for my laptop and schoolbooks, ignoring the snarky comments from people asking if I was on my way to the airport. At 26 years of age, I could no longer carry a heavy backpack, sit for long periods, chop wood, or slice up potatoes. I wish I could say that this was all in the past, that I found some miracle drug or started some new diet that rejuvenated my spine. I’m still struggling though, still in constant pain.

In my high school English class, I recall being introduced to the concept of baptism in classic literature, and how, when a character went underwater, when they resurfaced it signified a sort of rebirth for them. I’m waiting, waiting for my rebirth, for the renewal of my body and my shadowed spirits, and sometimes I swear that I can feel it in the simplest of pleasures: a breath of warm wind, a wilted flower, the sun’s warm rays, the woods. I catch myself gazing out windows, enchanted with thoughts of what could be. L.M. Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables, is my soulmate. She has somehow always been able to put into words what my feeble mind could never conjure up. In Anne of Ingleside, she wrote:

“Well, that was life. Gladness and pain…hope and fear…and change. Always change! You could not help it. You had to let the old go and take the new to your heart…learn to love it and then let it go in turn. Spring, lovely as it was, must yield to summer and summer lose itself in autumn. The birth…the bridal…the death…”

The birth. The bridal. The death. The new. All things change, all things fade, and each new day brings potential for the miracle of rebirth. If you need me, I’ll be out amongst the mosses and old cedars, most likely lying down because standing hurts and sitting is intolerable. But you know? I’ve always found the greatest things reveal themselves when you’re looking up.

Alycia Scheidel is a writer and humanitarian photographer with a deep love for international travel. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree at Northwest University for International Community Development and plans on working with refugee populations in the States for her thesis work. Alycia lives in a log cabin deep in the woods of Duvall, WA, with over 700 books and a dog named Cam. She teaches rock climbing at Stone Gardens in Bellevue and just recently began her own online vintage clothing shop. You can read more about her work as a photojournalist at her website. And don’t forget to follow her vintage shop on Instagram as well as her personal account.


  1. I hurt my back when I was 16 and I’ve experienced problems ever since (although nothing compared to what you have gone through). I know how painful back pain can be. They say there’s no pain like childbirth but I would argue back pain is worse. I was in induced labor for 3 days and can tell you it was nothing compared to when my back went out and I ended up on the floor, unable to stand. “I’ve always found the greatest things reveal themselves when you’re looking up.” This is a wonderful point! Thanks for sharing!


  2. Thank you for the reminder that to BE HERE NOW
    is a good thing. Not to sleep walk through a life that can change on a dime or a doughnut.

    A little un-witty ditty to follow…

    This too shall change..and so shall that
    Just remember where you are at
    Ain’t where you’ll be tomorrow

    For good or bad
    Happy or sad
    Pay attention because
    There is never a dull moment
    That ever was

    Or will be

    When you are
    In it!

    b. Lavin


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