In this episode of the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast, Adam Williams talks with Katie Brown, former world champion rock climber named “best female climber of the millennium” by Climbing magazine.
Adam talks with Katie about her memoir, “Unraveled.” They talk about her growing up in isolation that was, at least in part, dictated by religious fervor in the household. Katie shares about how she walked the confusing tightrope of that isolation, of the expectations of god and her mother, and the fact that she was a rock climbing phenom of historic proportions, traveling the world, winning huge competitions, becoming a world champion as a teenager … all while suffering deeply and unseen in silence.
That suffering included disordered eating, self-harm and the mental, emotional and physical tolls of years of struggling to be the world’s best climber through all the turmoil. Katie would end up leaving the sport. Sort of, disappearing. Many climbers and fans of climbing, I think, had little or no idea why. Until “Unraveled,” Katie’s memoir was published a year ago.
Adam also catches up with Katie on what she’s been doing since her book came out. Among other things.
SHOW NOTES, LINKS, CREDITS & TRANSCRIPT
The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.
Along with being distributed on popular podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org.
Katie Brown’s memoir, “Unraveled”
Salida Books: https://www.salidabooks.com/
Publisher, Mountaineers Books: mountaineers.org/books
We Are Chaffee
Looking Upstream Host, Producer & Photographer: Adam Williams
Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray
We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin
We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby
Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom
Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service.
Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.
[Intro music, guitar instrumental]
Adam Williams (00:00:13): Welcome to We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream, a conversational podcast of humanness, community, and well-being rooted in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm Adam Williams.
Today I'm talking with Katie Brown, the renowned rock climber that Climbing Magazine once named The Best Female Climber of the Millennium. And she's the author of Unraveled: A Climber's Journey Through Darkness and Back, starting in her childhood.
(00:00:37): I usually try to connect with each guest on this podcast on a personal and vulnerable level. It's amazing to me how often we can and do find relatable connections, even with someone we've never met before, if we just take the time to listen and to learn how much we share in common.
(00:00:53): In this conversation with Katie, I think I found the most relatability with a guest of any of these conversations I've had on Looking Upstream, which I think is saying something. I've had a lot of meaningful conversations here with many incredible people.
(00:01:07): With Katie, I think I share more of myself though. By the time we were done with this conversation, I definitely felt a vulnerability hangover, but I was able to do that because of the courage, and grace, and openness that Katie has shown in telling her story. It's in that vulnerability with each other, our willingness to go into those spaces, that we create opportunities at a deeper level.
(00:01:30): You know, what we say here at We Are Chaffee, share stories, make change. We share our stories, and we get to see each other as fuller humans, setting our egos aside and owning our flaws, and being open about the work that we're doing to try to be better people.
As a community when we see ourselves in each other's stories, when can make more thoughtful choices together. That's the point of this podcast, and of the We Are Chaffee Storytelling initiative in all its forms.
(00:01:59): In this conversation, I talk with Katie about her growing up in isolation that was at least in part dictated by religious fervor in the household. She shares how she walked the confusing tightrope of that isolation, of the expectations of God and her parents. And the fact that she was a rock climbing phenom of historic proportions, traveling the world, winning all kinds of big competitions, becoming a world champion as a teenager, all while suffering deeply and unseen in silence.
(00:02:30): That suffering included disordered eating, self-harm, and the mental, emotional, and physical tolls of years of struggling to be the world's best climber through all that turmoil alone.
(00:02:42): Katie would end up leaving the sport, sort of disappearing. Many climbers and fans of climbing I think had little or no idea why, until Unraveled, Katie's memoir was published a year ago. We get into some of those past stories, but we do also find out about what Katie's been doing in more recent years. Now here it is, a conversation with Katie Brown.
[Transition music, guitar instrumental]
(00:03:13): Katie, welcome to Looking Upstream. I'm grateful that you're here, and I've been looking forward to the conversation that we're about to have.
Katie Brown (00:03:20): Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Adam Williams (00:03:22): There's an awful lot I want to talk to you about, so I think I'll skip the chitchat small talk, that thing, and let's just dive in. Okay?
Katie Brown (00:03:30): Okay.
Adam Williams (00:03:32): I hope that doesn't scare you.
Katie Brown (00:03:32): A little.
Adam Williams (00:03:33): You published a book, Unraveled, around a year ago. And it's an incredibly... Well, first of all, it's beautifully written. It's a story well told. It really gives us this intimate, raw, and extremely vulnerable look inside your life story, particularly the earlier years. And I'm wondering, I think you refer to what Brene Brown calls the vulnerability hangover. I know what I feel when I'm vulnerable. I try to get there. I think it's an important place for connection with people, but it can be scary.
(00:04:16): And I wonder about that hangover for you throughout this past year, and now a year removed. How has that process of exposing this piece of your life and yourself to the world gone for you?
Katie Brown (00:04:34): I think it's been fine, because I think it was easier than I anticipated, and the most common response I got was people writing to tell me that the story had resonated with them and that they had found themselves in the story, which kind of... Well not kind of, it really validated my reasons for writing it. And so that all made it worth it. I think doing this now or a year later is harder than it was at the time. I was in the mode, and now I'm out from it a little bit, so it's a little more like, "Okay, I got to get back to that place." But at the time, it was fine. I had thought so much about it for so many years, that I was ready for it at the time.
Adam Williams (00:05:29): In that way, is it a relief then to have come through? I know it was a years long process to bring the book to publication. You've been living with the story inside yourself, and I think hardly anyone knowing it and knowing your experience of it until you've shared it in this way, was there a relief once it was just out of your hands, and you're waiting for it to come out, and then you started getting some of that positive feedback?
Katie Brown (00:05:59): Yeah, I was glad. I went back and forth a million times about whether or not to do it. And I kept writing David Roberts, who was kind of a mentor of mine through the process, telling him that I had changed my mind about writing it 10 times, and he continually encouraged me to do it. And so by the time it came out, yeah, I was glad that I had done it, and I didn't really care anymore if anyone read it. I was just glad that I had finished it and done it.
Adam Williams (00:06:34): What kinds of people were you hearing from? And what I mean by that was when you're getting that feedback, were they just average readers who somehow found a way to reach you, or was it people who had known you? Like climbing friends, and partners, and peers like Chris Sharma and Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden, those people that a lot of people, if you're even a casual fan of climbing like I am, you know those names, and those are the people you were with. I guess I wonder what their reaction in particular would've been, because they were around you for years when they had no idea the story you were carrying and how that was affecting you.
Katie Brown (00:07:11): I haven't really heard from many of them. It's mostly been people who found me via social media, Facebook, or wherever, who are more casual climbers or maybe didn't even know who I was before they stumbled on my book, and then where it was recommended to them by someone because they had been through some similar struggles. And so 99% of the people who've reached out have and people who have read it somewhat by happenstance and saw their own story.
Adam Williams (00:07:45): Why did you ultimately decide to write Unraveled?
Katie Brown (00:07:51): I'm not entirely sure. I was driving from Lyons to Boulder after dropping my daughter at school and listening to NPR, and I heard Dr. Gaudiani book on the radio talking about her clinic in Denver and her book called Sick Enough. And she was talking about things, and dots in my head just started connecting and making sense.
(00:08:32): Because I grew up in a world where I was told lots of stories that weren't necessarily true, I had a really hard time believing in my own reality and my own experience of how things had happened, and what had happened, and what had happened within my body, and the reasons why things had happened. So I always kind of wondered if I was making things up, or if my memories weren't real. It's just really confusing when you grow up in that kind of an environment.
(00:09:09): And so she started talking about symptoms and things that happened in the body, and it all just started really clicking for me, and I felt like the light bulb moment where it was like, "Oh yes, this all totally makes sense, and what I experienced was real."
(00:09:33): So from that, I just had this really strong urge to want to tell my story from that moment. So that was really the catalyst. But it was a couple years of diving into it a little more deeply before I decided, and a variety of reasons and whatnot.
Adam Williams (00:10:00): I think this isn't a term that I knew when we were younger, but now the term gaslighting exists. And I think that's what I was seeing as I read the story, and in relationship to your mother, and in relationship to some of these things that you're referring to here is where the other person... It doesn't matter how clear you have it in your mind. When you present it to them, they're going to make sure you walk away with total confusion, self blame.
They're not going to take responsibility for their role and that sort of thing. And so after years of that, what I think is really remarkable is that you were journaling throughout the time, and how useful that is to your process now, and to the fact that you could write a memoir maybe only because you had those journals. Does that sound right? Because I wouldn't remember those things.
Katie Brown (00:10:51): If I hadn't had the journals, I wouldn't have been able to write it, partly because I was obsessive about wanting what I wrote to be true. And so I had that to fall back on. And then also, it's a long time ago, so it's hard to remember, and I wanted to make sure I was as accurate as possible.
(00:11:17): And so because I come from a history of lying, and these elaborate fabricated stories, that without them, I wouldn't have been able to nor had the confidence to write it.
Adam Williams (00:11:34): About being as accurate, and fair, and honest, and all those things as I think you were trying to be. I sometimes wondered in reading it, if you are being hard on yourself in the name of that honesty. Which of course as a memoir, it's just going to establish some credibility.
(00:11:57): But let me soften that a little, because I know how that can feel when people tell you you're hard on yourself. I get it from time to time from people. And for me in my self-reflection over the years, what I have figured out is it's a defense mechanism that I have come up with, that when you come from a background of being highly criticized, I'm going to be the first one to criticize myself. Everything I create and do in the world, I'm going to be the first one to tear myself down, so that nobody else can lay claim to it and tell me something I don't already know. So I say that gently in case that affects you in a way to be told, "I think maybe you were hard on yourself."
Katie Brown (00:12:40): I was intentionally hard on myself, because I wanted to take accountability for decisions that I made, especially as an adult, when there might be reasons behind why you make certain decisions, but you still have to take responsibility for your own decisions, especially as an adult. And it was you who made that decision or whatnot. You can look at the psychology behind what led to that, but you also need to accept that you're the one that did those things. And so I wanted to take accountability for my own decision making.
Adam Williams (00:12:40): I can appreciate that.
Katie Brown (00:13:25): But yes, I knew that I was hard on myself, and that maybe there were things that I downplayed, just because I wanted it to be fair, and not a book where I was lashing out at the world. I wanted to be accountable for my own stuff as well, that I brought to the table.
Adam Williams (00:13:48): Okay. Well, in my reading of your book, there was a stretch, especially early on I think, where I might get two or three pages, and then my mind has taken me off into my own story because of the relatability of things. Sometimes that was rather uncomfortable, sometimes it would be emotional. And one of those, I think underpinning pieces of that, that you and I have in common in the story is religion in the household.
(00:14:22): Now, in your case, I do think there was more to that. It was a fundamental more... I don't know if extreme is overstating it. And I wonder where if you know where that came from, is this energy in the house, what the fundamental religion or beliefs were of your mother, your mother and father. How that came to be such a core piece. When really ultimately as we read your story and hear your story, it also is the undoing of the relationships in it.
Katie Brown (00:14:57): I'm not really sure where exactly it came from. I think when there's personality disorders involved, there are things that people latch onto. And I think for my parent, it was religion, and now it might be something else. But there's always something that the person gets really heavily invested in, and it happened to be religion, but it wasn't a certain denomination or kind of religion.
(00:15:37): For example, there are moments that were maybe based in reality, but then taken to this fantastical place that my parent thought was real at the time. I'm trying to think of an example.
(00:16:02): So once we crossed a border between Italy and France, and our car in this story turned into, "We were held up at gunpoint," which was clearly not real, but there were probably border guards who had guns. And so the stories that she would create had a basis in reality, but then became elaborate fictional stories that felt real to her.
(00:16:33): And so I think religion kind of turned into that for her, where it started as maybe this basis in Christianity, but then taken to the bazillionth degree in her head, if that makes sense, where it became obsessive, constant bible studies, and all these books, and researching separate different words from the Bible, and going back to the root of the word, and creating stories, and, "God told me this and I have to be chained to you to protect you, because that's what God told me." And all these stories that are really unrealistic, but in her head that I think at the time they felt like very real.
Adam Williams (00:17:26): There's a lot of control that came about through this, and you just said to be chained to you. That's not a stretch. It wasn't literal with chains, yet you were sort of captive without a social life.
(00:17:45): And then going through these, I kept feeling, I think more and more throughout your story, the contradictions in your world experience. That you were at a very young age, this phenomenal athlete, climber, known at least through that community and probably beyond around the world. Winning significant international competitions, X Games multiple times, world championships, all this stuff. It's wild, the success and accomplishments and accolades.
(00:18:23): And yet, you couldn't enjoy that and you couldn't be present to it because there was this other piece, and that the contradiction was that if you did well, you were serving God and doing him well, or her, or they. If you had an off day like every athlete does regardless of caliber, you had failed God. And I can't imagine the pressure as you tried to walk that line.
(00:18:54): People would tell... Lynn Hill, again, as a casual fan of claiming that I am, I know who she is. And for her in her status to claim you as this best climber there's ever been, but your mom then is jealous of that perhaps, or paranoid, or whatever the mindset might've been that doesn't want you to be allowed to be close to those people, so you couldn't have the social thing.
(00:19:24): I don't even know where my question is in that, because as I read your book, I was feeling with you and for you on so many levels at different points, and some of them resonated much more closely to my experience than... I mean I'm not a world champion climber. But how did you walk that line? How did you feel that, "I'm so controlled, but I also am accomplishing these things in the world. Why isn't that good enough?"
Katie Brown (00:19:50): I think it felt impossible. And so I tried to figure out how to convey that in the story, and I had a hard time trying to figure out how to express exactly what it felt like, because it did feel like an impossible situation where I was expected to be at a certain level and doing certain things in order to... Basically, it was through my winning that people would believe in God, and so I was supposed to obtain, or not obtain. I was supposed to keep up that record of winning, but at the same time, I wasn't allowed to learn from anyone else or grow in any way. And so it just makes you feel like it's just impossible.
Adam Williams (00:20:56): You referred to in your story, the examples of, there was violence at home at times two. And you remember where the drawer was that your parents kept multiple paddles for paddling you, for spanking.
(00:21:20): That is a trigger for me, because I remember exactly the shelf in the coat closet in our house where there was a wooden, it's essentially a board carved into a paddle. Maybe an inch thick or something.
(00:21:33): And that's been an ongoing, when it comes to mind thing for me, especially now as a parent, and the psychology of all that, the terror of all that for me as a child. And my parents absolutely believed that if they said they were going to do something, they were going to do it as a punishment. So it didn't matter if it was going to be 30 minutes later until we got home and got to that paddle, it was going to happen. Because otherwise, they might lose authority. I might lose respect for them.
(00:21:58): Whereas the terror that I feel 30, 40 years later, there's not respect. I don't respect that there were adults hovering over me, beating me with a one-inch wooden paddle on my butt, as I shrieked, and cried, and tried to do anything to get them to stop. And it could be for inconsequential things. It was never because I tried to burn down the neighbor's house. It was for tiny things that words would've worked with me in a calm and loving way.
(00:22:28): And so when I read this in your story, and how your parents, they would buy a child's toy, the thin paddle with the string in a ball, take off the string and ball, and buy them in multiples. The psychology of that was especially triggering to me, as I've tried to figure out the things with my parents.
(00:22:46): Because what they're saying is, "We are going to not only have this, but we're going to buy multiples in case one breaks. I always want to have one at the ready for hitting my child." And maybe we're getting into territory here that this is about my catharsis as much is yours. I told you before we started, that I don't know that anybody's story of anybody I've talked with on this podcast or any podcast resonates in some ways as much with anybody else. Does what I'm saying... I don't want to put sentiments on you about this, but you included it in your story. This was a memory you had, you remember that. So I imagine that it had weight with you, this experience.
Katie Brown (00:23:29): Yeah, everyone has their own opinion about spanking. But I think it's wrong, and I think it's also partly generational. In our parents' generation, I think standard, pretty standard. But the problem is I think a lot of... In my situation, I think it was past when it becomes something that's just done out of sheer rage. It's not really just a punishment anymore.
Adam Williams (00:24:17): Yeah.
Katie Brown (00:24:19): And so I think that part of the problem in our house was that it was really unpredictable, so it was hard to know what was right, and what was wrong, and what you might get punished for. So you're always trying to guess how to be as good as possible, because the rules don't always make sense. If you're told to wash the dishes and you forget to also wipe down the counter, you might get spanked for that, because you didn't know as a seven-year-old that washing the dishes also included wiping down the counter.
(00:24:51): So I think in our house, you could either try and be as good as possible, which is what I tried to do. Or you could rebel, which is what my brother did, and just not care anymore. So there's no other way to really deal with it, because you're just a kid, and you don't know how to guess what might be wrong or when it's always changing, and it's hard to tell.
Adam Williams (00:25:23): Somewhere in the book, you say you were always on alert, your mom's anger, or how she might feel. And in recent years, I've come to this term of people pleasing, of hyper-vigilance, how we're always watching out for that because we don't really know. We're always walking on eggshells. We don't know what's going to set it off or what's going to catch us that punishment.
(00:25:48): And I think that that ends up being a lifelong thing. Like I said, it's only been recent years that I have come to those terms and started to learn, "Wait a second, it's okay for me to draw boundaries with people. It's okay to not have to always make everybody happy, and be watching out for now my wife's emotions," or whatever. She can tell me everything's fine, but what I'm learning to do is just say, "Okay, then that's what it is." I don't have to keep watching for the most minute expression changes to see what I've done wrong, and what I need to do to make it right.
And I think there's also the aspect of, I don't know about for you, but I always felt like if I'm just a little bit nicer, a little bit better, do this in just the perfect way, I'll find the formula, and then all this will be done. I'll know how to have been the perfect son, or the perfect employer, the perfect whatever for whoever it was I was trying to manage that with. And it's an impossible place to be.
(00:26:52): I want to ask you about the journals again, because it was so critical to what you did with this book and what you're able to share now. And I imagine ultimately, maybe as importantly as anything here, for you to be able to straighten out in your own mind those stories that you otherwise would've gone on with your life just never knowing what was true, what wasn't, what really happened. Maybe I remembered that wrong, and you might've kept going in that cycle to some extent.
(00:27:22): But another thing in my experience here was that that journaling, your mom would read them and then use it against you. My mom convinced me at 14 years old, she persuaded me to start a journal. I don't think it lasted a month, because she could not help herself from reading my journals and using it against me.
(00:27:42): But here's the difference. I stopped journaling. She'd broken trust, "I'm not going to do this anymore," because clearly this wasn't about me, it was about her. She wanted access to my thoughts, and didn't know how to have conversations with me on an honest level to get there. So once she'd used it against me, I was done. But you kept going.
(00:28:03): Why? Why would you go ahead and be willing to keep journaling for years knowing that she was violating that trust and privacy?
Katie Brown (00:28:17): I don't know. I always liked writing, even when I was little. We were told to write a short story, and I'd write a 40-page book, even in the seventh grade. So I always liked writing, and I basically stopped talking as a teenager. Anyone that knew me at the time, I think that's the thing they would most remember about me is that I did not talk, at all.
(00:28:54): In interviews, I have a bunch of VHS tapes that I found in my dad's attic, and I would watch them. And in interviews, a reporter would ask me a question, and I wouldn't answer for a minute. And then my answer would be so quiet that you can't even hear that response, and it would be one or two words.
(00:29:18): So I stopped talking, and so writing was just someone for me to talk to, because you can't just be silent all the time. And so I would temper what I wrote, because I knew there was a chance that she might read it, or I would allude to things but not say them all the way. Or I would write things that I knew that she would like in my journal. And then as I got older, I found ways to protect them more so that she wouldn't be able to read them or wouldn't be able to find them kind of thing.
Adam Williams (00:30:03): As you got older and you got out on your own, you're of age to be an adult, but then don't really have the skills, didn't have the modeling for you, and the encouragement, and you aren't led to know how this is how you live an adult life. So naturally, there are challenges and struggles, plus everything going on inside of you.
(00:30:27): As you write about in your book, there were plenty of things and decisions that in that whether you're being hard on yourself or just fair and honest, the responsibility you're taking is, "Yeah, okay. I made some mistakes. I did some things along the way for some years."
(00:30:44): First of all, maybe this is just because again, coming where I am, from where I am, I just sort of figured we all do. I think we spend a lot of our twenties this way. But maybe that's based on our experiences that are rough, and we're trying to figure out how to deal with them. In my case, I did some of the things you did. I also turned especially toward alcohol for many years.
(00:31:08): But you don't write about that in your book, alcohol or drugs being part of that. Which to me, because that seems like such an obvious, "I'm going to go drown and numb myself in this situation," but you didn't do that. And I wonder if there was a conscious choice or if it was about climbing, and that you were still trying to have contact with that piece of you.
Katie Brown (00:31:31): Drugs for me were too scary, because I didn't like feeling out of control, so that was out. And drinking, I enjoyed drinking, but it never felt like... I mean I loved going to a nightclub, and drinking, and going dancing. I loved that. But it never felt like something that I was super drawn to outside of social drinking, I guess. I think I had other unhealthy behaviors that were detrimental to my... I think I tended to punish my body more than resorting to substances, if that makes sense.
Adam Williams (00:32:32): It does, and it's a-
Katie Brown (00:32:33): The harmful behaviors were more directed at my personal body.
Adam Williams (00:32:39): Okay. And it's a good lead in, I guess, to mention the eating disorders, mention... You said the word control and how you've described it as that was in a world and in a life where you felt like you had so little control. That was a way of finding some kind of control for yourself. And that's also punishment of body and wellness all around. Can you talk about some of that experience, and then also how you in a healthy way, managed to be able to come through that?
Katie Brown (00:33:20): Yeah. So I remember when I was a teenager, it just made me feel really powerful. I almost wanted to laugh in my mom's face because I felt so powerful when she couldn't force me to... That was one thing that she couldn't force me to do or couldn't control, so it gave me... It was like I was winning in that situation, because there was a lot of underlying competition and jealousy in our relationship.
(00:34:05): And so when I was skinnier and when I had more control over how much I ate or didn't eat, I felt like I was winning against her, because most of the time I felt like I was losing.
(00:34:17): And so when I had control over that, I had the upper hand, and so it made me feel really powerful. Sorry.
(00:34:35): But then it started to really cause a lot of troubles in my health, and wellbeing, and my ability to climb. And then that's when a lot of the denial that I had an eating disorder started, and the stories that she created around what I did have that I knew weren't real, but I couldn't... I don't know.
(00:35:10): She had reporters on ESPN say that I had Crohn's disease, but I didn't have Crohn's disease. And I knew that, but I wasn't strong enough to tell my truth at the time.
Adam Williams (00:35:22): How old are we saying you are at that time?
Katie Brown (00:35:25): I was 16, 17 at the time.
Adam Williams (00:35:28): I don't think you could be expected to overpower what had been this force in your life for all these years, and correct that, and with a national audience knowing. What you wrote privately in your journals was enough to trigger what I am... I am going to armchair psychologize this, what I imagine were the traumas and things within your mom that she was trying to deal with, or didn't know how to deal with, the shame and the insecurity, and the things that she might've been feeling that then get projected onto how she's handling you.
(00:36:00): If she couldn't take her responsibility in what you are honestly saying in your journals, how could you possibly as a young teen, with the relationship and being cut off from the world the way you were say on ESPN, "No, no, no, no. She's not telling this right, and it's to protect herself because she doesn't want the responsibility of her involvement in my experiencing anorexia."
Katie Brown (00:36:26): Yeah. But I also think that the medical community and-
Adam Williams (00:36:30): Absolutely.
Katie Brown (00:36:33): Also, I kind of wanted to bring that to light in the book as well, that all of my issues were categorically dismissed because I was a successful white female. And the fact that I was profoundly emaciated was largely ignored by multiple doctors. So I think any of them could have decided to maybe look beyond whatever my mom was telling them and be an advocate for a young person, but chose not to.
Adam Williams (00:37:09): I think they had the responsibility to, maybe legally as well. It almost feels like malpractice to me that you saw multiple, and never did that come up, and never did they step in to intervene and say, "We got it, mom. There's something we really need to look at here."
Katie Brown (00:37:30): I would hope that in recent years, eating disorders and whatnot, doctors are more aware of them, and can maybe help start that conversation instead of just ignoring it and trying to look for other reasons why things might be going wonky in someone's body.
Adam Williams (00:37:50): Do you think things were different at that time? If we're saying 20, 25, whatever years ago, that maybe the general awareness around eating disorders, maybe how it would've been handled by parents and by medical professionals, would it have just been different then? So maybe I'm being too harsh in a way to say, "Oh my God, that was malpractice." I mean, I'm feeling defensive for you in that. I'm feeling shocked maybe as a parent in that, whatever. Maybe things have just come around more now to where we're more aware?
Katie Brown (00:38:26): I think so. I think it's different than it was, and I'm sure there's probably progress to be made still, but I think it's a lot different than it was in the '90s.
Adam Williams (00:38:34): Okay. Yeah, I think you mentioned how it was affecting your athletic capabilities. And that as the athlete of whatever level I am and have been throughout my life, that's the part I was especially thinking of was, "Wow, these things you're accomplishing, best in the world time and again." And you're dealing with these things that are physical, mental, emotional, that are crises that are very significant.
Katie Brown (00:39:03): Yeah. So I think I got to a point where it no longer made me feel powerful. It just felt like I was dying. So then when things started going wrong with my health, it was affecting my climbing, and there was a lot of physical pain. I started to experience, constant pain.
(00:39:33): So at that point, I think I kind of realized that no one was going to help me, and I wanted to be strong for climbing. And so the desire to feel better started to outweigh the desire to not eat. And so I started trying to figure out how to get better just on my own, because I was in so much pain, I wanted to feel better more than I wanted to have this control over this thing.
Adam Williams (00:40:10): Would you mind reading the passage that I've marked here? It to me illustrates so much the contradiction that you were in, and that you're describing to this point in the conversation. Physical pain, emotional pain, the anguish, and “how do I balance being this world champion with also being the daughter of my mother?”
Katie Brown (00:40:39): “Late that night with a pillow stuffed under my abdomen to relieve some of the pain and distension, I wrote about the impossible tightrope I had to walk. Be friendly, and outgoing, and talkative, or else no one will like me. But not too much, or else people will talk and my mom will feel abandoned. Be in the world, but not of it.”
“Stay wary of anyone who only wanted things from me, but still perform well and show Christ through my success. Succeed, but without anyone's help or tutelage. Be happy. Don't be depressed. Accept every obstacle that God threw in my path with grace and joy, without a single selfish, teenage bone in my body.”
(00:41:18): “Most of all, be my mom's best friend and confidant while telling reporters that she was my coach and teacher. I wrote about how I couldn't wait to turn 18 and leave home. I wrote imaginary tales about what my life would be like when I was free, finding escape in the stories I wrote. It seemed so peaceful compared to my present life, which felt like constant exhausting effort.”
(00:41:43): “Chris and I had also been talking about climbing big walls, but I knew in my heart that my mom would never let that happen while I was still with her. Sometimes I thought maybe if I starve myself enough, if I get just sick enough, I would have to go stay in the hospital, and then someone would notice and help. Or maybe I could take just enough painkillers not to die exactly, but to overdose so that I'd be taken to the hospital. And then I'd get to rest.” (crying)
(00:42:19): “After I had to turn down the trip to Yosemite, I sat down.”
Adam Williams (00:42:24):
It's okay, we can stop there.
Katie Brown (00:42:30):
“At the family computer, to try and find out exactly how many painkillers I need to take for that to happen.”
Adam Williams (00:42:41): I read that at least twice yesterday, and making sure whether I wanted to ask you to read it. Thank you for reading it, and I'm sorry for taking you into a place that is still so emotional. I got choked up by the time I hit the last line each time I read it yesterday.
(00:43:05): Part of that was feeling for you. Part of that in a general way, I think feeling the pain. And as we're talking about here, the relatability. And as I imagine, the emotion that anybody who just listened to that, anybody who reads your book and how they connect that to their own life.
I was enough of an adult, at some point married and with children, with enough pain at points in my life and feeling so stuck, and feeling like I couldn't tell anybody, feeling like I couldn't get help. I was absolutely trapped, that I would go to bed at night wishing not to wake up. And I was in my thirties, so I was old enough to be in my thirties, but I was also only in my thirties.
(00:43:52): Things like that come to mind for me as I'm also empathizing with your pain in that. And again, I think that passage illustrates so well the contradiction, that tightrope you described of what you're trying to walk in your life at that time.
(00:44:07): Climbing magazine in 1999 named you “The Best Female Climber of the Millennium.” I'm reminding people of these accolades you had coming to you being put out into media. At some point, you're named in Rolling Stone Magazine's Sports Hall of Fame. I mean, I don't even know the whole list. It's an astounding list of accolades, and these are the things you were feeling, and the things going through your mind and through your body. I
just want people to understand that. I want people to read your book as well, because there's a lot more to this story, but I want them to know enough from this conversation of who they're getting to hear right now. So thank you for reading that.
(00:44:57): Speaking of that best female climber of the millennium, you have said that those sorts of things, those accolades did not register in your mind at the time, because you were so dissociated from the experience.
(00:45:11): I wonder if you're able to look back now these years later, this amount of remove from the circumstances, you've sort of in a sense purged your story and some amount of your pain as part of the process of healing through your memoir. Are you able to look back at who that person was and feel any pride and joy in knowing that that was you, even though you didn't necessarily feel present to it at the time?
Katie Brown (00:45:40): Yes. I mean at the time, I didn't feel like I deserved those things, and I always felt like there was some reason or excuse for why they would happen, or some reason that was outside of myself, because my personal value was so low, that it couldn't possibly have come from me. So yes, and also, it's hard not to feel a sense of loss at what could have been.
Adam Williams (00:46:17): I didn't want to put this on you, but I guess I've had that thought around the health aspect. You were in the physical, mental, and emotional state of health that you were in for the years and you are still winning these tremendous events, against competitors that are very worthy, and what might've been, had you been at a healthy, well-supported sort of place? I also think it's probably not helpful to look back at things in that way.
Katie Brown (00:46:48): No.
Adam Williams (00:46:50): And that if that's the case, then you're not all of these things that we're sitting here getting to share now, better and worse. We have the pain. I don't know your thoughts on that.
Katie Brown (00:47:03): I think I just try not to dwell on the loss, because then it feels like too much. So I try and just be thankful for what I did have or do.
Adam Williams (00:47:23): I think that's a good way to go. And I think if we look at it this way, not that I would ever want you or anyone to have to go through some of the pains that you have, but through your experiences because you have this positive, strong, resilient look and moving forward in life, you have something like this [inaudible 00:47:44], you have the capacity to talk like this right now about experiences. And whether that's related to the pains of the family relationships, if it has to do with eating disorders. And then also of course, there's the getting healthy and all the things that have come since, and where you've gone with your life since.
(00:48:06): So I mean, it's all of who you are, and we can't take away the pain and just be the shiny rainbow. Unfortunately maybe, but it's also if we look at the fortunate, then we have that, that's what we're sharing, helping other people. Like the feedback that you said you got, 99% of it came from people who were maybe random strangers who encountered your book. That's good you're doing in the world, because of being able to take that pain and make something of it.
(00:48:39): You are now a mom. You're married, you have a daughter yourself. She is the age of my younger son. I wonder about that experience for you. I wonder about how you take the experience that you had as a daughter, just like I do as a son, looking at the parenting.
(00:49:00): When I was getting those paddling for things that did not matter, even as a kid, I thought, "How can you not see the hypocrisy? You tell me, 'Don't hit, don't go get in fights at school, or you'll be in big trouble at home.' But then I misstep, as a child will, getting a little sarcastic, or whatever the thing might've been that could have just taken a few kind words to resolve, and instead I'm getting hit up the backside with a board.
(00:49:37): I'm clearly not going to do that to my sons. I use more compassionate, loving, patient conversation with them, and we're honest with each other. And that's how I go about parenting, because I learned from my experience as a child, that's not what parenting should be to me. So for you with a daughter and all the experience that you have, I imagine it's a challenge at times, like it is for me.
Katie Brown (00:50:05): Yeah. I think my biggest thing with parenting is just being scared, because I don't want to ever hurt her.
Adam Williams (00:50:14): Yeah. I think that's what I mean, is in those moments where I might catch that I might be acting like one of my parents, that send me down something. But the difference is I'll go talk to my son. I will go make it right. I'll go show them what a good apology looks like, and that their strength in my having made a mistake, and owning up to it, and all the things that never would've come my way. I'm not going to let my ego get in the way of being a better parent.
Katie Brown (00:50:57): Yeah. I think I get a million things wrong every day with parenting, but I think I just always try and let her know that she's just right just the way she is, and that she can always talk to me. And even if she's mad at me, I won't be mad if she can always tell me. So she feels really comfortable telling us whatever.
Adam Williams (00:51:23): I'll tell my sons, "Are you mad at me right now? Okay. Do you feel like calling me a name right now? You feel like cussing at me right now? Go for it." And I think that's enough to dissolve it right there, because they never do. They might say, "Yeah, I'm mad," but they don't take the other doors that I show them, which I think is kind of funny. But I want them to be able to express that, sure, in ways that I couldn't, and I don't think you could.
(00:51:51): I want to ask you about some more recent things then, in your life. You and your husband have built a house using hemp as a primary material. This podcast ostensibly is about health and housing. It's supported by Chaffee County Public Health, supported by Chaffee Housing Authority. All the things that we talk about that are much more personal, kind of with the undercurrent of what are the things that make us feel healthy and happy in life. And housing is one of those things.
Especially living in an area where housing can be so expensive, and it's a challenge to live in the beautiful Central Colorado mountains like we do. So I'm curious about this experience of you guys building this house, and maybe why you chose in a rural area. I think outside Salida, right?
Katie Brown (00:52:39): Yeah, we're in Howard.
Adam Williams (00:52:40): Okay. What has that experience been like for you? Was it a lifelong dream? Was it a matter of solving a problem, because you couldn't find what you needed or wanted elsewhere?
Katie Brown (00:52:55): We moved from the Boulder area, kind of right in the middle of Covid. And I think that the initial impetus was just wanting to have... I don't know, I have anxiety, and so sometimes I worry about what the earth is going to look like for my daughter. And so I think wanting to have something to pass on to her where she could homestead, and grow her own food, and all these things if need be. I wanted to have that be available for her.
(00:53:31): And so we set about looking for a piece of property, and it would've been nice to be closer to town. But where we ended up, there were just a lot less rules, and it was more affordable. And then we wanted to build a house that was healthy and good for the environment. And hemp is actually carbon negative, so pulls CO2 out of the atmosphere for... I don't know, my husband would know more, but quite a few years after it's built. It's made out of the waste byproduct of the plant, the hemp that's used for fiber clothing, and tinctures, and whatever. So it's made out of a waste byproduct, so it's just kind of doing good for the environment as opposed to contributing to what's happening with our earth.
(00:54:30): And I don't know, maybe that was more in the forefront of my brain, because we were in the middle of a pandemic, and it was a little catastrophic thinking, which I tend to do. But at the same time, I think it was good, and I want to be able to pass that on to my daughter.
Adam Williams (00:54:49): So you've written this memoir, obviously. We've I think made that clear, Unraveled. You had written a book or two before that related to climbing and those things. So you have a lot of writing history is what I'm getting at.
(00:55:03): I'm wondering how you knew you were a writer, how you came to that, any professional sense. We've talked about the journaling. I mean, you had an interest in writing, and I know that you read a lot. But in terms of entry to writing as a professional opportunity, was that something you'd ever imagined, thought of, dreamt?
Katie Brown (00:55:23): Yeah. Even when I was little, I wanted to be a writer. I lived in my imagination. I think as a lot of people who grow up in unstable environments can relate to, sometimes you live by escaping into your imagination. And so I always had stories going, and imaginary play going, and I liked writing my stories. And in school, I liked writing my stories. A lot of them were fiction when I was little. And I was a crazy bookworm. So yeah.
Adam Williams (00:56:04): Are you still?
Katie Brown (00:56:06): No, I don't really have time to sit and read a book, but I do listen to a lot of audiobooks, because I drive a lot for work.
Adam Williams (00:56:12): Okay. And that work. I was going to lead to that. Do you want to just talk about what that is?
Katie Brown (00:56:17): Sure. So primarily, I do hair and makeup for weddings. That's my main job. And then I do lots of other odd jobs. So I'll do some organizing work. Or my husband's building a hemp house, and so I'm helping with the interior design for that. And I do a lot of writing, freelance writing work as well.
Adam Williams (00:56:48): I'm wondering about the makeup artist, hair part of things. Probably a couple of reasons here. One is if we connect that to some of your experiences. One, as a girl, you I assume were not allowed to wear makeup. You weren't allowed to go have friends, and boyfriends, and the whole teen thing. Okay.
So now, you're bringing that sort of style and beauty to brides, on a really big day in their lives, which actually is captured in the photography that they're going to have forever. I mean, this is a piece of their lives forever.
(00:57:27): And I wonder about how the balance of those things for you, given that you didn't see yourself as beautiful on some level, as you're going through anorexia and you felt like you were unworthy in all kinds of ways.
(00:57:41): Again, this might be just me diving into some sort of deep corner of thought that I don't want to put on you, but I wonder if there is some sort of connection that you maybe have considered, about what it means for you to be able to bring that beauty to others on such a special day, when really at some point it was such a foreign and impossible thing for you.
Katie Brown (00:58:04): Well, I've always been very creative. I always have to be creating something, whether it's a craft, or I got really into making jewelry. I'm always needing to make something. And then I was also... I was always very girly when I was little, which was not good in our house.
(00:58:36): In our house, you are athletic, or you are nothing. And athletic. Not just like I play on the soccer team, athletic like adventure sports athletic. So being athletic is kind of what gave you value in our house. And I was not the athletic kid before I started climbing. I was very girly, and I didn't like bugs, and so I didn't want to go climbing, and I wanted to have cute outfits and things like this. And so that was always kind a core part of my personality.
(00:59:26): And then when I was a climber, I also kind of enjoyed the dichotomy of being an athlete and girly at the same time, and trying to figure out how to navigate that. So I always wore big jewelry, even though I was climbing, or my outfits matched, even though I was climbing, whatever. So that was always a part of my personality that I tried to hold onto, even though it wasn't celebrated or even allowed all the time.
(01:00:01): So when my daughter was born, I wanted to make my own money. I didn't want to just be at home with the baby. I've always needed that. I think because of how I grew up, I need that independence. So I knew nothing about makeup, and I just started buying things at Target, and playing with them, and watching YouTube videos, and trying to figure out how people used it, because I had no idea. I had never used it before.
Adam Williams (01:00:37): How old were you then?
Katie Brown (01:00:39): I was 30 when I had my daughter. And then I knew that I wanted to somehow figure out how to make money doing it. And I am not sure how I stumbled on weddings, but I ended up going to the Aveda school in Denver and telling them that I wanted to do hair and makeup for weddings.
(01:01:00): And it was more practical at the time, because it was something I could do on the weekend so we could theoretically swap off childcare and I could make my own schedule. And so it started out more practical. It wasn't so much like a strong desire to make other people feel beautiful. I don't know, maybe that's bad, but it started out just as something I enjoyed that felt practical for my life, if that makes sense.
Adam Williams (01:01:37): It does.
Katie Brown (01:01:40): But yeah, sometimes I think it's ironic that I work in weddings and I watch all these mother-daughter or father-daughter relationships, and that can be challenging at times. But I think most brides have told me that I'm a pretty calming influence. And so I think I enjoy just bringing that there, and maybe being, because you grew up walking on eggshells, you can sense the emotions of people. And so I like to try and just... If I can tell that they're feeling some way and everybody's maybe running around crazy, and not tuning into how they are emotionally, I try and be that person. Even if I'm behind them doing their hair, just checking in and being like, "How are you doing?"
Adam Williams (01:02:41): Yeah. You described in the book sensitivities. That also resonated with me. And that could be physical, it could be physical sensitivities to how clothes are fitting or to noises. That's my experience as well.
And I think that when you are a person who has those sensitivities of all kinds, including emotional, that empathy, and maybe it is connected to some of what our experience has been. But to have that empathy and care, which is different than the hypervigilance of looking out and fearing what the expression is, it's we are now maybe attuned in a way to be able to tend to some of those needs that people have that others are overlooking.
(01:03:19): So I think that's a special thing that you're giving your brides there as well. And you have been doing this for many years. So clearly, it went from practical maybe to at least you deciding, "Well, I'm going to keep doing it." So is there some piece of that that is a sense of creativity or joy, or wherever you've come to with it now, and why you continue?
Katie Brown (01:03:45): Yeah. I enjoy the creativity of it. I'm a behind the scenes person. I like to help put them together on their day, and then see the end result. And I get joy out of that, more so than if I was the person in front of the camera. That's just as it turns out, not my vibe. So I enjoy being able to stand back and see them feeling good in front of the camera, and I'm behind the scenes knowing that I've contributed to that. So I enjoy being the behind the scenes person.
Adam Williams (01:04:27): Have you had any bride say, "I know who you are from climbing," or, "I know who you are from your memoir," or any of those? Have they connected dots?
Katie Brown (01:04:35): No. Sometimes it'll come up and they'll be like, "That's really weird. How did you start doing weddings if you were a professional rock climber?" But no, nobody's known beforehand.
Adam Williams (01:04:48): That's interesting. And I guess it factors into some thoughts I've had about how it seems like you've lived, maybe are living a second life, have lived two lives. But, there are philosophical things around the idea that we all of us live two lives. There's the first one that forms us, and then there's the second one that is maybe more spiritual, but it's where we take on who we really are, and learn who we really are, and carry that forward in the world. And so however we get to that second life, it seems like that's where you are, and you're in just this distinct phase from where you were before.
Katie Brown (01:05:25): Yeah. I mean, I'm sure there'll be others, just like everyone.
Adam Williams (01:05:30): Yeah. It's an ongoing evolution, isn't it? Katie, I appreciate your coming in here and sharing, sharing so much more that is vulnerable and open. And again, I want people to go read your book Unraveled. And if they've listened to this point and listened through all the things I shared from my side as well, which again, I think you for allowing me to do, because I think there was an opportunity here for more connection and understanding, in a more direct and deeper way than sometimes can happen in conversation. So I appreciate your allowing me to get some of that out with you. But I do encourage people to read the book, and really learn much more what your experience has been. And I think they'll feel this conversation in an even richer way.
Katie Brown (01:06:16): Yeah. Thank you.
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Adam Williams (01:06:28): Thanks for listening to the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast. If our conversation here today sparks curiosity for you, you can learn more in this episode show notes at wearechaffee.org.
(01:06:38): If you have comments or know someone in Chaffee County, Colorado who I should consider talking with on the podcast, you can email us at email@example.com. We invite you to rate and review the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or whatever platform you use with that functionality.
(01:06:56): We also invite you to tell others about the Looking Upstream podcast. Help us to keep growing community and connection through conversation. Once again, I'm Adam Williams, host, producer, and photographer. Jon Pray is engineer and producer. Thank you to KHEN 106.9 FM, our community radio partner in Salida, Colorado, to Heather Gorby for graphic and web design, to Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment. And to Lisa Martin, community advocacy coordinator for the We Are Chaffee storytelling initiative.
(01:07:26): The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority, and it's supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities. You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives at wearechaffee.org, and on Instagram and Facebook @wearechaffee.
Lastly, until the next episode, as we here at We Are Chaffee, share stories, make change.
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