22-year-old Cody Brown opens his eyes slowly to the hazy morning. Dappled light strikes the leaves of the trees above him, and birds sing to one another in the branches overhead. His entire body is exhausted from rock climbing, and as he throws his feet over the edge of the bed, he has to scrunch himself up to unravel from the red jeep in which he sleeps. He clambers out of his car, reaches his hands up to the Kentucky sky, and yawns loudly. Another day on the road. Another day.
Looking at Cody, one would never know that his nickname used to be “bubble boy,” or that he grew up in the sterile environment of a hospital. He drives and lives in an old beat-up red jeep that he starts with a screwdriver. Chasing good weather, he travels across the United States, from the Red River Gorge to Smith Rock, to climb year round. Currently he finds himself in the Red, hair disheveled and ready for coffee before another long day of climbing.
Cody grew up living in a trailer park in Elberta, Alabama where his father lived, and visiting Pensacola, Florida where his mother lived. His earliest memories of playing in the trailer park are wrought with joyful ignorance. “At the moment, I didn’t think much of it, but looking back, times were really hard,” Cody recounts. “There were days my dad would fish for dinner because he couldn’t afford food. I spent a lot of time away from the house, playing with my friends.” Cody learned to entertain himself, and innocently relished his boyhood haunts.
Connecting breath to movement is different for someone who once went to war with their own body, and barely won, than it is for someone who has always felt safe in their body. When Cody was 8 years old, he suddenly started to show signs of liver failure. “When I woke up for church one Sunday morning, everything was fine, but when I left church, my eyes and skin had started to turn yellow. It all happened over the course of a few hours,” he tells me.
Cody was admitted to the hospital in Pensacola and spent countless days there, hoping and waiting for a diagnosis of the unknown illness that was killing him. His parents were beside themselves, and his father’s life quickly became consumed by the need to provide support to his sick boy. Days in the hospital turned into weeks, then months, then finally a year. Life was earmarked by blood transfusions. The familiarity of childhood forts and secret hideouts was replaced with the foreign and sterile environment of hospital rooms and cold hard hallways, stretchers trundling by, IV’s dripping, machines beeping, solemn conversations, and whispered prognoses. Finally two strange words blossomed out of nowhere like noxious weeds:
Aplastic anemia is a rare autoimmune disorder that occurs when the body stops producing enough new blood cells. The condition leaves people fatigued and more prone to infections and uncontrolled bleeding. Cody does his best to describe what it felt like. He didn’t leave the hospital for six months, but sometimes would be flown to the larger hospital in Birmingham, which is also where he eventually received a bone marrow transplant. “One time I took an ambulance to the local hospital and got to fly in a personal jet from there to Birmingham. The pilot let me get into the cockpit and fly the plane.” He scrunches his eyes up as he tells me this, digging through cloudy memories and trying to pinpoint something specific, something anecdotal and relatable. Finally he gives up with a little laugh, “A lot of my memories are foggy from that time, you would have to ask my mom for details.”
During his first year in the hospital he received countless blood transfusions as well as bone marrow transplants from a rabbit and a horse. Nothing sustained him, and he wasn’t going to make a recovery unless he received a bone marrow transplant from a matching donor. Cody was nearing the end of his chances when the hospital found a match, from a woman in Ohio. Cody and his family experienced hope for the first time since he had fallen ill, and the hospital immediately started to prepare him for the risky but necessary procedure. “I remember sitting, staring out the window of the hospital at all the cars parked at the mall across the street. I was thinking, “Will this ever end? Will I ever be able to leave here?”
Cody underwent a series of the most aggressive chemotherapy treatments possible and three rounds of full-body radiation. “I went into a large room with thick walls, and they microwaved me. I felt really hot and it tasted like I had a mouthful of pennies,” he explains. “Those treatments went on for a month or so.”
On the day of his bone marrow transplant, Cody sat in his hospital bed playing video games. The hospital technicians and doctors entered the room with a bag of bone marrow, a gift from 600 miles away. A mainline IV trailed to his heart from the barrage of medical machines. The transfusion began, and Cody developed a piercing migraine. There was no stopping the pain. Any sound, any glimmer of light, any movement, was enough to shatter him. Everybody left the room to leave him in peace and to prevent any further stimulus from provoking the insufferable pain radiating in his skull. He was alone, writhing in silence, when his heart stopped beating and he slipped into an abyss. That was the moment Cody died.
Moments later physicians exploded into Cody’s hospital room to perform CPR and shock his chest with a defibrillator. Cody was revived, but life remained a dream for another year. Hopped up on pain pills, floating in and out of consciousness, disassociated and dreaming, Cody lived. There were weeks when he was under the constant supervision of doctors, and finally there were weeks their supervision dwindled to days. A local church donated an apartment near the hospital to Cody’s family. Of all the children diagnosed with similar conditions in Cody’s ward, he was the sole survivor.
Perhaps it is for this reason that, 11 years later, Cody’s mind wanders to a dark place. He puts water on to boil for his coffee, and stares into the dense foliage of the Kentucky forest. His mother has come to visit him from Ohio, where she now lives, to spend some time with her son and to watch him rock climb. His objective is to climb a route called All That Glitters (5.12), an eye-catching crack that ascends a shallow corner and catches sunlight like gold dust. The aesthetic route has called Cody’s name since he arrived in the Red. He sorts gear and prepares for the climb. Typically his objectives would inspire him to feel fully present and stoked for the day ahead. Yet, there are still mornings when he feels a sort of existential malaise, and this is one of them.
Imagine growing up in a hospital. Imagine finally getting to go home and every time one of your friends comes to visit, they must take a shower and change clothes before entering your room to play. Imagine the paranoia and caution. To be a rock climber is to be free, to embrace the unknown, the literal dirt, the open sky, the uncertainty of outcomes. For a young man like Cody, rock climbing provides an opportunity to reclaim his life. Every day he wakes up outside, the sound of birds singing and leaves rustling above him, should be a day to celebrate. His hard-earned life cannot be squandered.
And yet, getting pulled away from friends at a young age and thrust into a hospital, living under the constant supervision of distraught parents, always feeling terrified to die – these experiences shape a kid. And that is why, when Cody’s battle with his body ended, the battle with his mind began. “When I was in the hospital, after I recovered from everything, I never showed what was going on with me.” Cody tells me, “I stuffed it all down and hid it with smiles and jokes. But I was the only kid who survived a transplant in my unit of the hospital, and I think I had survivor’s guilt. I didn’t understand why I survived and the other kids didn’t. It led to depression and… not wanting to be alive.” He hesitated for a moment, considering how to discuss his battle with depression and suicidal ideation. “When I was 15, I fell into a really deep pit. I felt really sad. I remember talking with my dad and he said, “‘Why do you feel like this? You have no reason to feel like this.’” It made me feel guilty for feeling sad. I didn’t think anybody could understand, and I felt really alone.”
When Cody was 19, he left home and headed west. He made his way to Portland, Oregon, and was introduced to climbing by his boss at Mt. Hood Ski Bowl. “The culture on the west coast is so different from the culture in the south,” he reflects. “The culture in the south was, who gives a fuck how you feel? When I moved out west, I made new friends and started to talk about what I was going through. Talking helped me identify the problem, that I was depressed, but it didn’t solve it. I think climbing has really been the biggest thing to help me, honestly,” he says. “It’s not necessarily the act of climbing itself, it’s the community I have found through climbing. Depression is isolating. I felt really alone, and I didn’t know how to cope. It feels like an elephant kind of sits on you, and you can’t do anything. It feels exhausting just to exist.”
Cody made friends at Smith Rocks and they invited him to spend some time in Joshua Tree during his second winter on the west coast. That climbing trip changed his life, and his identity. The interconnection of community, mindfulness on the wall, and talking about what he experienced when he was a kid helped him heal. It’s an ongoing journey, further empowered by the understanding that he is breaking a generational cycle with his father. “It’s not really my dad’s fault that he didn’t know how to help me. My grandpa was a marine. The men in my family didn’t know how to talk about mental health, they were taught just to bottle things up.”
Cody pours himself a cup of piping hot coffee and ruminates in the darkness of his thoughts. But then he is pulled out of the reverie by his mom’s cheerful greeting. “Good morning Cody.” A smile spreads slowly across his face. She and his friends Alex and Kenzie all pile into Cody’s red jeep and drive to the crag. Conditions are perfect for once, and Cody puts in two burns on All That Glitters while his mom watches from a boulder about 30 feet away. “She definitely had some anxious energy, I remember. She had never seen me climb at my limit, or on gear, so she was nervous. She was taking videos and kept dropping the phone down because she was too busy watching me.” Finally on his third go, he sends. The crag becomes alight with joy.
Cody’s voice is resolute as he recounts the events of the day, “It was awesome to get to share that experience with her, and I felt like she understood more why I want to go play in the dirt, and touch rocks and stuff. It was validating to have her there. But then again, she was never really against me climbing. Being able to share something I really enjoy with my mom, I’ve never had that before. When I was younger, I never played sports or anything like that.” He chuckles. “I just kinda felt… free to be a kid.”