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A new lease of life
31 Aug 2023

Jenni Gray, a mum of three from Devon, is an abuse survivor, having grown up in an abusive home.

At 19, life started to look brighter when she backpacked across the USA and Canada and discovered a love of the outdoors. She says it was the first time she experienced true happiness. 

Upon her return, she met the man who would become her husband, and in her early 20s became a mother. But the dynamic wasn’t working and she felt like a trapped single parent.

“My eldest child displayed very challenging behaviour at times and was later diagnosed with Autism. With no extended family of my own to turn to, parenting two young children while feeling very alone took its toll on my mental health. After a 5 year battle with post-natal depression, I gave birth to my third child, and soon afterwards my marriage ended.”

Jenni went on to meet someone new, but devastatingly, he turned out to be an abusive partner.

“I didn't really understand what was happening to me, it was very insidious and what I now know to be coercive control. I escaped that relationship in 2019 after he tried to take my life, and went to live in a women's refuge with my children. The staff at the refuge helped me to understand so much of what had happened to me, not just in my most recent relationship, but throughout my childhood and my marriage too. They saved me, in so many ways.”

Towards the end of 2019, Jenni started to become unwell. After multiple tests, she was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, Fibromyalgia, and complex PTSD with severe anxiety. She was told she carried a gene which made her more prone to developing certain inflammatory conditions, which doctors believed had become activated by the trauma. 

“Crohn’s disease is a painful, lifelong condition with no cure. I’d always been a very busy, outdoorsy person and suddenly I wasn’t able to do the things I loved anymore. I went from being always busy, to housebound, and days spent on Dartmoor with my children felt like a long-lost memory.

“I was surviving rather than living, I was constantly exhausted and had lost hope of living the life that I wanted. I developed severe anxiety about going out anywhere, so I stayed at home because it felt safe. I knew I wanted to change, but I didn’t know where to start. I had counselling and medication for anxiety, but I still couldn’t move forward somehow.”

In 2020, the Covid lockdowns hit. As a survivor of domestic violence who had been locked in the house by her ex-partner, this was a triggering experience for Jenni. At the same time, she was trying to come to terms with her new diagnosis, but her hospital appointments and treatments ground to a halt. All the while she was home-schooling and caring for her three children.

“Life was difficult, and I became ‘stuck.’ My children were getting bigger and I wanted to start taking them on adventures, but I didn't know how to get past the severe anxiety that I was experiencing. I knew that the girl who loved adventures and travelling was still in there somewhere, but she'd got buried under years of trauma.“

In early 2022 Jenni received an email from a charity that supports disabled people, telling her about Climbing Out. 

“I hesitated in contacting Climbing Out at first, I hadn't done anything for myself in such a long time, and felt selfish for wanting a week doing things just for me.” 

On 30th May 2022, Jenni attended a 5-day Climbing Out programme. This one was based in Shropshire, but we also run programmes in North Wales, the Peak District and the Lake District.

Climbing Out programme

“I can honestly say it changed my life. I got to experience the outdoors again, I got to have fun and make new friends. I started to feel the old me come back again, and I rediscovered my smile!“

Jenni had been running a business designing and printing homeware for a few years and was on the brink of selling the equipment and closing the business until her experience with the charity.

“Since Climbing Out I've invested much more time and energy into my business, and now Wrenwood Designs is a viable business that works around the needs of my family, and my health needs. It’s going from strength to strength and wouldn’t exist had I not taken the plunge with Climbing Out. I’ve also started taking my children on days out, exercising as much as I’m able to and making plans for the future. I still struggle with anxiety, but it doesn't rule my life anymore. 

Jenni ready for abseiling

“Being around other trauma survivors was an incredible experience. I’d felt very isolated and misunderstood until that point but when I came on the programme, I finally felt like I belonged somewhere. I was no longer the only person I knew who’d escaped abuse, or who needed to take regular medication, or who sometimes felt overwhelmed by tiny things. That sense of belonging was priceless for me, and I believe it's helped play a big part in my recovery.

“I learnt so much about my emotions, what I can and can’t control and that going out of my comfort zone has helped me to grow. I'm so proud of how far I've come this past year, and I'm really excited to see how much further I can grow. Climbing Out has helped me to shape a new future for myself.”

Next week Jenni will continue her personal development with us with a wilderness canoeing expedition in Sweden. The group will embark on a remote five day journey on the Harkan river.