How I Beat Post-Trail Depression and Started Writing Again
During my final days on the Appalachian Trail all I could think about was how excited I was to be done. I was tired, bored, lonely, and I had a hunger that no amount of Pop-Tarts and peanut butter could sate.
And yet I was also restless. I had dozens of ideas for things I wanted to write, careers I wanted to pursue, old friends I wanted to reconnect with. And in those final miles that restlessness is what woke me before the sun, before my alarm had a chance to sound. It’s what dragged me forward through the sticky Southern midday heat, what lured me on well past sunset, over one more mountain, and maybe another.
And then I got home. I suppose it’s possible that all those excited ideas were nothing but the result of inhaling my own noxious body odor for days on end, because when I stepped out of my first real shower in weeks, dressed in jeans and a cotton T-shirt, and sat down on the couch to work, it was as if all inspiration had been washed down the drain. I stared at a blank word document for a few minutes before anxiety and boredom nudged me toward Netflix.
But even the endless and endlessly melodramatic otherworlds of online streaming couldn’t hold my attention. Every movie seemed fake—because it was. All the problems in every sitcom seemed overblown—because they were. There was at once too much drama and not enough real excitement. I found it difficult to sympathize with Aziz Ansari’s upper middle class romantic dilemmas since just 72 hours prior, I had been shivering in a wet sleeping bag in the backwoods of Georgia while a hungry bear sniffled around my tent.
I’d read about post-trail depression, and I did all the things that were supposed to ease the symptoms: I stopped looking at pictures of the trail on social media, ate some fruit, went to the gym, and met up with friends, both from the hiking world and the real one.
And still, it all seemed so futile. Food didn’t taste good and my appetite waned. No matter how much I ran or lifted or biked, it never seemed like enough; I couldn’t make myself sore. And whenever I talked with friends, I had to consciously restrain myself from starting every sentence with, “On the trail…” If I slipped up, I cringed. I thought it sounded cliché, tangential to what everyone else wanted to talk about, and just plain sad.
I knew it would take time to feel “normal” again. I often had dark moments when the world felt both over- and underwhelming. So much going on, so much of it pointless. And when those moments arrived, I’d repeat to myself the same David Foster Wallace quote that had reassured me during low points on the AT: “…That no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable.” (The context of this quote is a list of the things learned by drug addicts going through withdrawal, and but I’d say finishing a thru-hike isn’t all too different of an experience.) That mantra helped quell many an existential crisis.
Two months after summiting Springer Mountain, I flew to Germany. Financially, it wasn’t my best decision. But it also wasn’t my worst; I got the plane ticket at a ridiculously low price, and I put off paying rent for another month. Plus, my sister, Katie, and her husband, Leo, have a house at the foot of the Bavarian Alps, a beautiful modern home that comes replete with a rent-free (for me) bedroom and a stocked fridge. It’s also got a new baby in it, and so I justified my mooching by saying I’d help take care of my nephew, at least until he pooped or cried or looked at me funny.
So real life was delayed for another month. I hiked, climbed, and drank beer. I met up with old friends in Amsterdam. I even found the motivation to apply for jobs.
I also began to write again.
Before I left the States I called Katie and asked what baby stuff they still needed. She insisted that they didn’t need anything. “He doesn’t need toys,” she said. As proof, she sent a video of the little bugger having a whirl of a time fighting a sheet of white tissue paper, mashing it with tiny uncoordinated fists, smiling his toothless smile, and giggling with each crunch.
Still, I couldn’t show up with nothing. As I pondered this, I spotted my parents’ cat, Stanley, engaged in his own battle with an incorrigible sheet of wrapping paper. And that was it.
I took out a nice pen and a few crisp sheets of notebook paper (by then I’d overcome my apathy toward shallow Netflix characters, and couldn’t trust my attention span with an internet-connected laptop), and started to write stories about Stanley.
Material wise, there was no shortage. Stanley had grown up in a household of truly raucous animal tales. There was the time he got stuck in the storm drain; the time he snuck into the car and found himself on the way to a track meet hours away; all the times he followed me on walks around the neighborhood like a well-trained dog, paw to heel, even panting as he went; the time he watched as we tie-dyed our neighbor’s rabbit (re PETA: we used organic food coloring—it washed out within a week and that rabbit lived eight more rather languorous years); the time my mother refused to welcome a baby duck into the family, which led to said duckling taking up residence in my cousin’s school locker for a day (re PETA again: that duck had a heat lamp, a cozy straw nest, and food and water aplenty in the locker. We visited it between every class and sometimes during them); the time we had to remove the duck from the locker to accommodate a feisty beta fish.
I wrote freely, uninhibited by worries about grammar or syntax. It’ll be years before my nephew is old enough to read, and by then I’ll have been able to revise any misplaced modifiers, correct all chronological inconsistencies, or shred the whole damn thing and all accompanying evidence if I find it too absurd and/or incriminating.
I finished the Stanley Stories and handed my sister a copy as I was literally walking toward the security checkpoint at Munich Airport. As I handed over the stack of papers, I felt a wave of relief. I’d written again, and I’d had fun doing it. And even if later, when he’s older, my nephew finds the stories dull, or unbelievable, or just plain lame, I’ll still be happy I wrote them. In the meantime, I think he’ll at least appreciate that I printed them out on extra-crunchy paper.
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