Dr. Joyce Azzam: Tackling Brain Health and Overcoming Adversity
Dr. Joyce Azzam was the first Lebanese woman to complete “The Seven Summits Challenge” when she successfully climbed the tallest mountain on every continent. She is a conservation Architect and has a Ph.D. in management of landscape and environment.
This is an edited segment from the weekly live General Assembly meeting on January 17, 2022.
Here’s what WCH members, staff, and coalition partners are saying about Dr. Azzam’s presentation:
“What an amazing story and a wonderful reminder that Nature is our most important teacher and that the human spirit is so resilient. Thank you Joyce!” -Tess Lawrie
“Thanks Joyce for sharing your story! I think at some point most have only but dreamt what you’ve achieved ;)” -Jolene Field
“Joyce is one of the best examples of someone who reflects my long-held maxim: “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space!” Thank you for being such an inspiration!” -Rob
“Inspiring presentation Dr Joyce!” -Dr Pri Bandara
“Thank you Joyce☺️ very empowering presentation 💕 grateful!!” -Zafeiria Kakaletri
“Flip fear to excitement – sounds like excellent advice in the context of the current global situation. Lots be be excited about given that this is the biggest opportunity for positive societal change even though it’s scary.” -Tess Lawrie
“So inspiring. Thank you for sharing!” -Emma Sron
[00:00:29] Dr. Naseeba Kathrada: So with that, I’d like to introduce you to our very first speaker. And that is Dr. Joyce Azzam. Who’s a Mountaineer humanitarian social entrepreneur, motivational speaker conservation architect from living in a cramped bunker during the Lebanese civil war, to battling chronic lung condition and a potentially debilitating hypermobility syndrome. Dr. Joyce Azzam became the first Lebanese woman to complete the seven summits challenge. She is also, um, the ambassador of the Lebanese Ice Hockey Federation. That’s the woman’s team. She’s a motivational speaker for youth, for youth groups, entrepreneurs, athletes, international NGOs, and the foundation and foundations in various countries from Lebanon to Toronto, Italy, Tunisia, Tanzania, Tanzania, just to name a few.
[00:01:21] Her bio is quite long. And if I’m going to continue, I’m probably going to take up all 15 minutes. And with that, I’d like to hand the floor over to Dr. Joyce Azzam.
[00:01:30] Zoe Strickland: Um, Joyce, Joyce, you’re on mute.
[00:01:34] Dr. Naseeba Kathrada: Here we go.
[00:01:36] Dr. Joyce Azzam: Hello everyone. I’m so happy to be with you. This evening is the night for me here from Beirut. And I’m I’m really, um, I, I mean, uh, happy to share with you my story, uh, through us climbing mountains for the past 16 years and how this helps me with my mental health. I have prepared the presentation for you.
[00:02:06] Okay. Some, some moments of the mountains. I don’t know how their was felt at your home from all over the world but, uh, you can see this video on YouTube or Instagram, but I would like always just, you know, start my talk. Um, visuals and feeling from the mountain. Um, so today I just want to share with you a story and like now Zoe, we’re going to put the presentation, but it’s about honestly, a girl who had didn’t have a permission to dream.
[00:02:51] Um, and, um, Like, let’s go though. It’s, it’s a very fast, we have a lot of slides I prepared for it. So it just imagined guys that I traveled the world, the seven continents, and I have pictures from all over these continents. So I really didn’t have a permission to dream, but I really dreamed big. And my dream was as big as the map of the world.
[00:03:17] And, um, so, what is it? I dreamt of climbing the seven summits and doing two master’s degree and a PhD on the way. Uh, so et cetera, the $1 million project, literally, if you do the investment around it and how much it cost to travel, uh, the world. So I started this dream, the Seven Summits in 2012, and I climbed the highest, uh, Uh, mountain in Europe, Mount Elbrus.
[00:03:54] Uh, let’s go. Let’s go, Zoe. Because there’s a picture of Mount Elbrus there. Yes. And I did summit this mountain in, uh, 2012, which is the highest in Europe. And then I went to Cartensz Pyramid, which is the highest. And I say, Anya as a continent, uh it’s in Papua, New Guinea, which is the next slide.
[00:04:24] So these slides Zoe, it goes really fast. So we’re traveling the world here. Let’s do this. And after Cartensz Pyramid, I already did two continents out of the seven. And here we are in Kilimanjaro, the highest in Africa. And then. Yeah, this is in 2014 and here I am on top of the mountain of the PhD, which is, was harder then climbing Everest.
[00:04:48] I swear to God, but I did it in Rome. And then I went to Aconcagua, which is the highest in the Andes, uh, in, in, um, uh, in South America. And Kilimanjaro again I took three girls year with me with a campaign called “Yes, She Can!”, 13, 14, and 16 years old. I’m so proud of these girls and we made it to the top of Africa.
[00:05:16] And then in 2017, I ended 2017 was climbing the highest in North America, Mount Denali, which one of the hardest in Alaska. And then I still had two mountains, Mount Vinson in Antarctica and Everest. And they were the hardest, the hardest. Not for their difficult and technical parts, but to get the budget for it, like convince sponsors to pay for it because all my project was paid by sponsors and this is Vinson, the highest in Antartica..
[00:05:47] And then I made it to Everest. Yeah. And by making it to the top of the world, I finished the seven summits and I became the first Lebanese whowent to climb the seven summits. Here I am making history for my own country, but as I started my talk, I didn’t have a dream. I just wanted to let you come into my life a little bit.
[00:06:16] This is my family. We are five kids and my mom and dad, I’m like very modest family and the next, and this is me completing my five years old, my mom made like a homemade, uh, homemade cake. And we were in the bunker and we had to go outside the bunker so I can turn off my, my, uh, you know, my candles, because this is how my city was looking.
[00:06:47] Like when I was five, we can go to the next slide. Yes. So this is Beirut, uh, when I was five and I started to remember, you know, my, my things around. Um, lots of adversity and, and what I learned about this after years, especially studying heritage and culture and heritage throughout my, my PhD. Um, it is like the war would make like an interruption in your life.
[00:07:20] And, and I really lived this interruption throughout my life and growing up, wasn’t easy. Uh, because like, this is me, I was around eight. Um, Let’s go for the next slide. And this is me. Uh, yeah, like I found this picture, actually I scrapped because I hated how I looked like, I don’t know if we can. Uh, so, so there’s no video here, but the arrival is a movie that, uh, was, you know, 1996 about aliens.
[00:07:54] And these aliens, if you look back to this movie, they would, you know, um, bend their knees backward and this is me. I could bend my knees backwards because you know, now I know that I have a syndrome, called hypermobility syndrome and this syndrome would not let me run, would not let me do athletic, any athletic form of sports when I was younger.
[00:08:18] And it really, for me, it was in my knees. So when I bend my knees and I stand bending my knees backwards. My friend would laugh at me. And this was really hard. I really hated myself. And I had like, like different suicidal attempt when I was in my teenage years. So then at some point in my life, success started loading and let’s go.
[00:08:46] And this is me all over the world doing talks, and like I had a Ted Talk and I was on CNN. But why, right? Like what happened between this girl who didn’t have permission to dream and this woman who made her dream reality in between both, there was the, like a lot of challenges and the challenges that I shared with you were on different levels, the physical, the social, the mental, and the economic.
[00:09:21] And the Lebanese mountains came into my life 16 years ago, literally in 2005. Or, now 17 years because we are in 2022. Um, and they changed my life. They, they literally, um, made me, uh, like understand how, you know, my, my own strength. So let’s go…
[00:09:51] So literally from, uh, they made me understand to save, you know, like anxiety was creating mountains for me. So if I remember myself before meeting the Lebanese mountains, I would stay in my bed for three days. Like I couldn’t get out of my bed, uh, anxiety like throughout and then chronic depression. And when the Lebonese mountains, like when I started like hiking, right. I, I used the Lebanese methods because this is the first mountains I met, you know, in my life.
[00:10:28] And they literally brought like took my anxiety and then let me climb it literally, and I was climbing them. And they, they taught me much more throughout, you know, like these years. So, we can go. So first I learned through the mountains that physical activity is essential to, you know, like, um, deal with my mental health. And then it brought also enthusiasm to my life. And when I say enthusiasm is about how, how I really started to deal with every moment of worry, because it was all the survival mode I was living through, you know, like, because I was born in Lebanon during the Lebanese war, I just started to deal with it differently and enjoy every moment because in the mountains, when you are crossing such a ladder, you cannot think about something else, you need to think about the now and you think about what’s going to happen next.
[00:11:35] And then they taught me also the everyday courage. I started leaving my bed as soon as I wake up because I have a goal because I have my next mountain and I want to achieve my dream. So this really helps me every day to do more and to, you know, to, to achieve my dream.
[00:12:02] So now we’re gonna just, uh, go through, uh, like a tour around the world. Uh, and this is what the mountains took me on, on, uh, literally traveling the seven continents. And I want to take you with me on a very fast tour. This is Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains in Russia, and these are the majestic, uh, Apennines in Italy, they are in central Italy, I was training there.
[00:12:38] Yeah. These are really fast. This is the top of the Alps. Denali national park, it’s like, it’s just beautiful. Also it took me to beautiful platforms to speak with different people around the world. This is the Lhotse face at 7,300 meters on Everest, Antarctica that is a wide desert and Papua New Guinea, the rain forest, such a scary place! Um, the Union Glacier is the first camp when you arrive to Antarctica. These are like, these are my, my runways, my, my, you know, airport.
[00:13:32] Getting award, this is what mountains, you know, gets me to get, you know, appreciated for, for my passions. And also to get the highest selfie in the world at 8848 m. I climbed all this, just like a mountain turtle because of my limitation, because I couldn’t go faster than others. But what mountains, you know, taught me is just to go slowly, but surely to get um, you know, to my goals.
[00:14:16] Uh, today my dream has been stopped. I am, um, uh, dreaming of, uh, the Explorer’s Grand Slam, which is I still have to expedition to the south pole in 2022, November and to the north pole in April, 2023. I’m in full training today from Beirut, which is, uh, you know, I don’t want to bring more of that. Um, you know, because we were all talking about the, the, the negative things happening around us, the entire word, Lebanon is suffering a lot, but still, I believe, uh, the dream can still alive.
[00:14:54] And I learned from the mountain that is essentially the struggle is part of the deal, honestly, but the mountain seats were not my biggest challenge and today the north pole and the south pole would not be my biggest challenge. Thank you very much.
[00:15:15] Dr. Naseeba Kathrada: Thank you so much for that. Um, so inspiring and it was so nice to see something different. And, um, you know, I have the first question for you. Um, what does it feel like to summit your first, on the first time that you reached the top? What did it feel like?
[00:15:32] Dr. Joyce Azzam: So the first mountain first, thank you for your question, it’s so, so beautiful because I can’t forget this feeling of achievement sense of achievement.
[00:15:44] I felt on the first mountain and it’s wasn’t Everest, it’s wasn’t there, it wasn’t the seventh summit. It was the highest mountain in Lebanon as 3088 meters back in 2007 and back then literally, I didn’t see myself as the seventh summiteer or any, you know, like anything. Uh, like climbing Everest wasn’t on, you know, like something I would even dream of back then, but then, you know, it builds up.
[00:16:13] And then I went to the Alps. I went studying, I won this scholarship to study in Europe and I was closer to the Alps. And you know, this is how the story, like a little bit more, little bit higher. A little bit higher. And then I found myself on top of the world.
[00:16:29] Dr. Naseeba Kathrada: Literally on top of the world. And as you summitted, the next one, did the feeling changed?
[00:16:34] Was it always that, that, you know, adrenaline when you just got there?
[00:16:39] Dr. Joyce Azzam: So every mountain brings with it, with the, with its beauty and its uncertainty. It’s um, and, and this also builds in you a lot of adrenaline and a lot of excitement, right? Like it’s the power also to understand this excitement, the fear, actually, it starts as the fear and how mentally you will flip it, to excitement and you will enjoy this feeling and this challenging feeling. So honestly, mountains are 70% a mental game. They are not physical. And, and with my limitation was, you know, if you read about the hypermobility syndrome, you will see like, how can she climb the mountain, her, you know, like my knees would go backward and I would be stuck going down, especially going down.
[00:17:29] It’s so hard for me, but I did it because it’s a mental thing. It’s not physical.
[00:17:34] Dr. Naseeba Kathrada: Yeah. My daughter has hypermobility as well. So I resonate with that, Jennifer, tell me if there are any other questions? Yeah.
[00:17:42] Dr. Jennifer Hibberd: Well, it’s, it’s related to what you’re saying and what you’re talking about. Um, what advice do you give people when they’re facing various adversities?
[00:17:50] And sometimes it’s just a feeling of just not being able to get themselves going. I mean, you had a, you had a physical challenge that, uh, made you decide that you’re going to get the better of it, which you have done. And it’d be really nice for people to know, because you have to have gone through a period where that wasn’t so easy to, uh, raise your energy to that point.
[00:18:12] So any advice for people when they’re starting on this road of trying to, for a self-improvement?
[00:18:22] Dr. Joyce Azzam: First, please be kind to yourself. And, and I would tell everyone that want to start, uh, um, understanding our limitation, it can make us limitless. You know, this is my limitation. I could never ever compare myself to anyone who didn’t have my, you know, my, my situation and, and stopping on the hypermobility syndrome.
[00:18:50] There is, you know, like the chronic depression where you feel never, you know, enough, you don’t accept yourself. You don’t love how you are, why you, so I was like blaming life for everything. Why I was born here, why I was, you know, I had to survive a war. Why, why? Like, so for me, if I, I wanna give, um, and advice is first be kind to yourself.
[00:19:17] It’s okay. Whatever it is. And second, just start moving. And when I say moving, it’s like walk 10 minutes. I don’t, I’m not asking much more than walking, 10 minutes moving. And literally when I started moving. My brain changed, the health in my brain changed, you know, and, and I, I think it’s, it’s something scientific we can, um, you know, explain.
[00:19:44] But, so when my brain started to change and started to flip to the positive side, I started thinking forward, not backwards, you know, think about what I can do, not what I did and blaming myself about what I have done and regretting stuff. You know, how our brain starts to let us just stay in this circle of blaming ourselves.
[00:20:08] And so this is why I started Be kind to yourself. Start to think forward because we can change our reality. I literally, literally I feel like rebirth, you know, like I, I changed everything around me, my reality, my life, everything. I believe in that, and, and we have such a strong power inside of ours. It’s inside of our hearts and our body and our brain that we can use it.
[00:20:37] And we can use it also for others, you know, after helping ourselves. So, yeah, it’s the just for the small, small, small step, certain steps.
[00:20:49] Dr. Naseeba Kathrada: Thank you so much. Joyce, uh, Jennifer, do we have any questions for Dr. Joyce Azzam?
[00:20:53] Dr. Jennifer Hibberd: No more official questions, but I would like to say thank you for your honesty and, and personal sharing of just everything that you have gone through too, because everybody needs to hear that because we need to be honest with ourselves and you’re right.
[00:21:10] You need to look in the mirror and know that you are beautiful, no matter how you came to this earth and use those limitations to allow to catapult you forward that, you know, work with it, work around it and bring forward because there’s always, as we always say, there’s a silver lining to every cloud and it’s not a cloud.
[00:21:31] You’re all beautiful. So thank you for sharing that. Very important fact. Everybody needs to know that. Thank you so much.
[00:21:40] Dr. Naseeba Kathrada: Thank you so much, Dr. Joyce. I wanted to say when I was looking at all your pictures…
[00:21:43] Dr. Joyce Azzam: Thank you for having me.
[00:21:45] Dr. Naseeba Kathrada: It couldn’t, I couldn’t help, but think of the challenges that each and every one of us faces, and that was just a metaphor, seeing all the peaks and seeing how you overcame them and how you rose to the occasion.
[00:21:57] And that is such a metaphor for every single person listening out there that it doesn’t matter, whatever your mountain is. Like you said, trust yourself and be kind to yourself and you can, you can get to the top of it. So amazing. It was such a nice way to start. I absolutely loved those pictures, so inspiring.
[00:22:15] And thank you. Thank you for sharing with us. Like, like Jennifer said, thank you. Um, and with that, Thank you, Dr. Joyce.