Mary McIntyre: How to Have X without X

Open Mic is the series on BLISTER where we invite various people in the outdoor industry to say what they have to say, and share whatever it is they feel like sharing at this particular point in time.

Today, we hear from Mary McIntyre

Mary McIntyre: How to Have X without X, BLISTER
Carston Oliver takes flight during a perfect powder day in the Wasatch, 2017 (photo by Mary McIntyre)

A question I’ve been asking myself for the past several years, in various formulations, is: How can I have X without X?

X can be anything; it’s a way to work with some part of your life that you feel is lacking. Each of us have likely experienced some loss, some frustration, some unfulfilled deep desire — or, I feel confident in saying, we will eventually. So in this piece, I want to share something that has helped me cope with the biggest loss I’ve yet encountered.

About Face

On the brink of turning thirty, I was making a living as a freelance outdoor photographer and professional skier. I was skiing, mountain biking, running, and rock climbing all over the world. I bounced from place to place, visiting cultures that fascinated me and writing about them for magazines. It was my dream job.

But in 2019, my health began to decline precipitously. Over several months, it felt like my body stopped working. I had never experienced anything like this, it had always done whatever I asked of it.

After seeing numerous doctors and specialists, I was tired, confused, and extremely frustrated and sad to be missing out on so much of life. I eventually found doctors who recognized and understood my symptoms, and it’s now been a year since I was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), a debilitating chronic illness that impacts multiple body systems. One of the main symptoms is exercise intolerance, which feels cruelly ironic.

Through this years-long process, I’ve started learning about the difference between pain and suffering.

Pain happens. It is part of life. But suffering, we have more control over. Suffering is often tied up in expectations, “shoulds,” and wants. And, while acknowledging that this whole situation profoundly sucks, I have often found that I’m making myself even more miserable than necessary.

Of course, that’s not my goal. But with such severe loss of ability, all the things I believe I “should” be able to do, things I could do in the past, are a source of pain and suffering. All of my canceled plans are a cause of pain and suffering. I went from being able to climb to 18,000 feet with skis and a heavy pack to barely being able to walk around the grocery store or even leave my house on most days. My friends are getting married, having children, ascending career ladders. I spend the majority of my time horizontal with brief stints of visiting with friends or trying to get some work done through the brain fog. I’m terrified that so much time is passing while my life feels stuck on pause. So my question is: How can I reduce even some small part of the suffering?

Mary McIntyre: How to Have X without X, BLISTER
Keree Smith and Eric Balken, Icefall Lodge, BC (photo by Mary McIntyre)

My X

The past two winters, I have seriously missed skiing. I missed it with my heart. I missed it with my mind. I missed it with my legs. My whole body ached with the loss of that way of moving through the world. I could cry at any moment thinking about how badly I wanted to go skiing. It’s a significant loss considering I did it 6 days a week and most of my travels, relationships, and work centered around skiing.

Although my life was shaped around the sport, I also felt a little ridiculous telling people how sad I was that I couldn’t ski. It’s just skiing after all — just a recreational activity that I loved. My country isn’t being bombed. I’m not terminally ill. I’m not paralyzed. My loved ones are safe. I have a home and enough food to eat. But this loss of skiing felt like a hole had been blown open in the center of my being. Who was I without all the things that I did? There was definitely pain. But there was also suffering.

As winter wore on and my partner left the house to ski every morning, my standard utterance, “Have fun” as he headed out the door sounded less and less convincing. I didn’t mean it. I was bitter. I was sad.

How do we cope with the loss of a way of living? Of a way of being in relation with our bodies, with the world? With the loss of bodily function at a young age? When we lose our agency, how do we continue to show up in the world with open hearts, rather than shutting down in resentment and anger? Why is this tearing my heart in two?

I have friends and colleagues who have walked away from a life of skiing, or retired from professional running or kayaking, but this is different. We all have to adjust to new ways of being, and this reorientation of self is significant no matter the circumstance. But I did not choose this. I planned on many more years of exploring the world with skis on my feet, many more sunrises from jagged ridgelines, many more decades of sliding down snow.

Mary McIntyre: How to Have X without X, BLISTER
Andrei Zakharenka cools off after a day of skiing in Kamchatka, Russia, 2017 (photo by Mary McIntyre)

X without X

This spring, I started working with Lorca Smetana, a resilience coach based in Bozeman, MT. I figured resilience was exactly what I needed on this threshold of change. One of the games Lorca introduced me to was X without X.

The question is, can you have X without X?

For me, since the “X” is skiing, the game asks me to explore the feelings and the experience that makes skiing so important.

What are those feelings?

Can I articulate them?

Can I pinpoint what it is about the experience of skiing that makes it such an important activity to me?

The first question to ask yourself is, Is it possible? Has anyone in the history of the world been able to have X without X? The question invites us to unfurl our minds, to loosen up around the edges, and really ask what skiing, or running, or kayaking, or rock climbing or X does for you.

How does it feel in your chest, in your soul? And then, is there a way to have that feeling without the thing?

The idea is that we often get stuck reframing life around what we can’t have: I can’t ski, this is agony, it’s a powder day, three friends have said it was the best day EVER, I am suffering.

A serious problem arises when we are living from this point of absence, of lack, when happiness and that thing (X) are tightly intertwined, and suddenly, X is gone.

This invites us to consider: what would it be like to have the experience without the thing? As Lorca prompted: What would it be like to feel wealthy without being rich? Intoxicated without drinking or drugs? To have intimacy without having a partner or close friends nearby?

X can be anything, and the next time you feel a lack, a loss, a frustration, I invite you to play.

Mary McIntyre: How to Have X without X, BLISTER
Idaho Backcountry (photo by Mary McIntyre)

But, Really

Another game that digs into the same realm, but even deeper is called: But, Really.

First you name a want. I (clearly) chose skiing. I was doing this query during the middle of a record-smashing winter in the Wasatch, and all anyone was talking about, thinking about, eating, and breathing, was skiing. Weather forecasts and powder days felt like the entire world. I went off social media, but still, I knew it was good out there. Watching my partner come home with snow-caked gear every afternoon was one clue, as were the snowflakes falling thickly over Salt Lake City. I really fucking wanted to go skiing.

So, ask yourself: What is it you want?

I want to go skiing.

Next you ask:

But really, what do I want?

Me: I want to move my body, slide downhill through powder, get face shots, take beautiful ski photos, see the sun rise over fresh, sparkly snow, spend quality time with my partner, walk through the world’s mountains, and hangout with my friends.

And then you go on, adding another “really” for as long as you want.

But really, really, what do I want?

Me: I want to feel awe, joy, connection, love, belonging. I want to feel strong, competent and successful.

But really, really, really, what do I want?

Me: I want to feel accepted. I want to feel alive, to feel purpose, to feel part of the dance of humanity.

These two games showed me why losing skiing has felt like such a severe blow. I was embarrassed for having such strong feelings about skiing, it felt childish. But for me, the activity was a straight drop into my deepest Why, a shortcut to feeling connected, to feeling like the truest version of me, to belonging.

It was like a game of Chutes and Ladders:

Drop Mary on top of a mountain with skis and with the help of gravity and a little time, I was brought directly to my center, to the innermost part of me.

I feel so lucky to have found something like that in my life. But it’s extremely hard to lose. It makes me think more critically about a line in a poem by Tennyson, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Loving opens us to wounding, but both the aliveness we found and the grief of losing it are essential parts of being human.

Through skiing, I discovered one way into this taproot that connects me to the life force, to vitality, to whatever you want to call it.

But now, how can I get there without the skiing, the running, the handful of ways I stepped out of my own way and sank into a deeper knowing and sense of self?

The games I’ve mentioned here help us look beneath the surface. They are not meant to deny the experience of grief, but to keep grief movable and dynamic, to stop it from setting into a block of concrete that we’ll carry around for the rest of our lives. In fact, one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned through all of this is that grief, at its core, is a demonstration of love — the love we had for whatever we have lost.

My mission now is to seek out and explore those other routes. As I’m currently living with diminished energy and capabilities, it’s not a mission I’m pursuing particularly quickly. It consists of slow experimentation, looking for other routes that might, eventually, lead me toward this centering experience. To help me answer: How can I be myself without X?

Whether you’ve experienced loss already or you someday will, I hope these ideas will help broaden your search for understanding and answers.

About Mary McIntyre

Mary is a Utah-based Creative passionate about human-powered endeavors.

As a photographer and writer, Mary focuses on where culture, environment, and adventure meet. She writes and shoots for Patagonia Journal, Backcountry Magazine, Powder Magazine, Freehub Magazine, Sidetracked Magazine, Mountain Flyer Magazine, Outdoor Journal, and more.

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4 comments on “Mary McIntyre: How to Have X without X”

  1. Hola Mary-
    Truly, I am watching your dimensions widen and deepen. There are so many metaphors here… your ‘root system’ expanding in the darkness. And yes, your loss is so real, and will become, over time, perhaps, your greatest teacher. (Damn those teachers )

  2. Mary,
    Thanks for sharing your struggles of the past few seasons. I truly hope you can eventually get back out there and fill that void that is left when you’re not in the mountains. You ski, climb, run, etc… long enough and there will come a time when we can’t do it from either injury or simply a failing old body that’s been beat down from a life lived. No answers here, but thank you so much for your thoughts and putting yourself out there with this vulnerable and honest essay. Thank you!!

  3. ^CSM also happens to be a very powerful bile detoxifier. Helped me tremendously with my CFS. Disclaimer: I am not a doctor and this should be discussed with a healthcare practitioner first.

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