Gemma Lupton experienced a lifetime of anxiety, from panic attacks during her childhood, to managing it on her own at university. But, thanks to the mental health charity Mind and its online community, she felt supported in conquering her crippling anxiety, and was inspired to complete a fundraising challenge for them – climbing Mount Kilimanjaro
Mental health can often feel like climbing a never-ending mountain – and I took that literally!
As I gazed at the sunrise over the glaciers of Uhuru Peak, 5,895m above sea level, I felt the tears spill down my cheeks. It had taken five days to get here. I was physically and mentally exhausted. But the elation I felt on seeing that sunrise on Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, made everything else seem insignificant. Despite the obstacles, I had made it!
From an early age, I was a worrier. I remember in primary school worrying about whether my friends liked me, or if my parents were OK. I didn’t know what anxiety was, I just assumed it was normal to feel that way.
I remember my first panic attack – age 14, after my parents split up – as if it was yesterday. I suddenly felt this overwhelming sense of fear and dread. I was sweating, couldn’t breathe, and began to shake. I managed to sit down, feeling dizzy, and as if time had stopped. There was a pain in my chest and I honestly thought I was dying – I’d never been so scared. I had a few more incidents like this before I told my mum. She took me to the doctor, and I was referred for counselling.
I decided to study psychology at university as I wanted to be able to help people the way my counsellor had helped me, but it was here that I felt my anxiety returning. I recognised the signs and symptoms, but I was too proud to admit I had a problem, so didn’t seek help. As a psychologist in training, I thought I could “cure” myself.
One day I was surfing the internet and I came across the website of the mental health charity Mind. I read a lot of their information and found it really helpful. I loved the work they were doing, so I signed up to be a campaigner.
I joined their online community, Elefriends, and found the people really friendly and helpful. We understood each other’s issues, which I think made it easier to open up.
But I was still experiencing terrible anxiety, to the point where I sometimes didn’t dare to leave the house. I had zero self-esteem or belief in myself. I knew if I didn’t get help, I would soon hit rock bottom.
I saw my local GP, and broke down as I explained everything I had been experiencing, not just recently, but for my whole life. It was like a weight was lifted from my shoulders, but at the same time I felt ashamed, almost like I had failed. I was prescribed antidepressants, and was put on a waiting list for cognitive behavioural therapy, which I am currently receiving.
I have always liked physical challenges – and having trained as a personal trainer, they are something I know about. So I threw myself into it, getting lean and fit, because it was the place where my mind switched off for a while.
I decided I wanted to take on a charity challenge to raise money for Mind, who had been – and continue to be – amazing with me through everything.
I turned to Google for inspiration, typing in “charity challenge ideas”. Loads of results came up, but one in particular caught my eye – Kilimanjaro. Before I knew it, I had signed up. After I told people why I was doing it, they were so supportive.
My training was in full swing, when, in August last year, I was hit with a devastating blow – my nan had fallen down the stairs, and after various scans we were told that she had metastatic cancer in her spine and brain. Just 14 days later she passed away. She was the first close family member I had lost, and I felt a pain like no other. The grief was overwhelming.
I questioned if I could go through with Kilimanjaro. But my grandad convinced me that I should. I read a Facebook message my nan had sent me when I had first announced the challenge, telling me how proud she was of me and that she knew I could do it. I decided that I was going to do it, for Mind and for my nan.
The day of my flight to Africa came and I was terrified. What if none of the group liked me? What if I hurt myself, or got sick, and couldn’t complete the climb? I was a nervous wreck, but everyone was lovely, and I felt more relaxed. I was ready.
I decided to keep a diary of the climb – for me, and so that my family could have a taste of what I experienced. Here are a few extracts:
Day 1: We had a steady five-hour trek through the forest, I got some amazing photos and bonded with my campmates. I kept telling myself that there was no pressure to reach the top, and that people were proud of me no matter what, but I so badly wanted to get there.
Day 2: A tough day of trekking, with many points where I felt I could go no further, but I made it to the camp. Our view of the mountain from the campsite was spectacular.
Day 3: This was a tough day. I got a headache from altitude sickness and definitely felt more fatigued, but I was reassured I could handle it. When we arrived at each camp, the local crew would sing and dance with us, which was such a nice thing after a hard day!
Day 4: We scaled the Barranco Wall. It was tough, and involved a lot of strength, and trust in each other, but the views rewarded us no end! I found a white feather in my bag, which I took as a sign from my nan that she was with me, pushing me on.
Day 5: This was a shorter day, as we were attempting the summit that evening. We had a storm in the afternoon, and the sound of the rain hitting my tent was surprisingly relaxing. It was at this point that I really realised how far I had already come, and how scared I was of falling at the last hurdle.
We set out at 11:30pm for the summit. With every step, I could feel myself becoming more fatigued. As it was dark, we all had head torches on, but I still fell and cut my knee. Just after 6am, as the sun was rising, we saw it – the sign for Uhuru Peak, Africa’s highest point and the top of Kilimanjaro. I had made it!
I collapsed in elation and exhaustion at the top, and I admit that there were tears. It meant so much to me that I had been able to reach my goal. As I posed next to the sign, proudly waving my Mind T-shirt, I had never felt more capable of doing anything, and had never cared less about what anyone thought of me. Screw you, anxiety!
Back at the hotel, we had a celebration where I was presented with a medal and a certificate for my achievement. But the real achievement for me was that I had stepped so far out of my comfort zone, succeeded, and raised almost £2,500 for Mind!
I learned so much about myself on that journey – that I am capable, strong, and tougher than I look. Up there, I didn’t care that my hair was a mess, that I had no makeup on, or a spot on my chin. I felt badass. I look back with such pride that even now, writing this, I have tears in my eyes. Mental health issues can sometimes feel like climbing a mountain – so I took that literally!
Gemma didn’t know if she’d be able complete the huge challenge she’d set herself. However, despite unexpected events, she took herself out of her comfort zone and persevered; she found her inner strength, and learnt so much about herself on the way. Having faced severe anxiety and reaching out to Mind for support, Gemma reminds us that even the most knowledgeable and resourceful amongst us can benefit from seeking outside help. Gemma took control, raised money, and literally ended up feeling on top of the world!