Hiking for My Life
Trigger Warning: Suicidal Thoughts
Buckle in kiddos, this is going to be kind of a downer. I’m really hoping this post doesn’t come off as too self-indulgent. Part of the reason I wanted to blog for Appalachian Trials was to share my excitement, my adventures, and my perspective of the trail. But also, in full disclosure, I wanted to write about my battle with mental illness. I’ve been suffering from clinical depression, generalized anxiety disorder, trichotillomania (hair pulling), and recently diagnosed with bipolar II. Mental Illness is very real and should be treated as seriously as physical illness. I’m a very vocal proponent of breaking the stigma of mental illnesses so here it is: how hiking the Appalachian Trail might save my life.
The AT gives me something to look forward to
“My life has no purpose.” Last winter was the worst of my life. Of course, I had spent the past three years in an exceptionally deep down spiral. Stuck in a stasis, paralyzed with fear and lethargy. I let the majority of my mid-20s just move around me. I don’t hate my retail job, but my passion and my training lies with wildlife and biology. I felt lost, confused, and useless. Spinning my wheels working as a small cog in the wheel of consumerism I felt like my life had run it’s course – I was 26, no place of my own, no career, no special skills, living paycheck to paycheck my friends were busy and my family lived 3 hours away. The thing about mental illness is that it warps reality and I didn’t know if how I felt really reflected what was going on in my life. I didn’t know who I was anymore and it was an extremely scary feeling. A day was considered successful if I didn’t fill my journal with utter despair (I’ll spare you the details) or end up in the fetal position crying. In January, with no direction in life and no other prospects coming down the pipeline, I decided “why not? why not now?” and texted my brother Andrew “let’s do it. Let’s hike the AT”. It had been on our to-do list since 2010 and it just felt like the right thing to plan.
Since January, things have gotten better. I’m taking the GRE in November so I can move forward with graduate school. I’m thinking about old dreams of mine, the Peace Corps and maybe teaching English in Japan or Korea. But I’m not okay yet, not by a long shot. My therapist and I agree that the AT is a great goal to keep me focused – considering how well I do in nature, that camping and hiking used to be one of the things I loved, my natural interest in ecology. The challenge of it, the experience of it, the solitude and community of the trail life. Looking forward to the Appalachian Trail, to taking those first steps off Springer, has kept me grounded. Even when I have the intrusive thoughts creep their way into my mind, “I’ve got nothing left to live for.”, I know I do. I have a trail to hike – and that goal of stepping off March 25th, 2015, has literally kept me alive.
I’ll learn to live in the moment
“I’m not living. I’m just existing”. It’s not lost on me that a lot of my adult life so far has been, for lack of a better word, wasted (even though I’ve done some pretty freaking cool stuff that, again, maybe someday I’ll be able to appreciate). Don’t get wrong! I’m only 27, I know. Let the eye rolls commence. But the fact that I drift through life, just getting by day by day, not feeling happy or particularly much of anything at all, ironically makes me the saddest. The funny thing with depression is that you spend the majority of time not feeling necessarily sad…it’s more of a numb. On the Trail, I’d like to learn to take things day by day. Sure I’ll have money worries, I’ll be anxious about meeting little daily challenges, but for the duration of my hike I will have no other distractions. I’ll be where I’ll be, and that’s where I’m supposed to be.
I’ll be disconnected from tumblr and facebook and buzzfeed. I can practice mindfulness exercises, focusing on flora and fauna. Maybe I’ll start learning again and maybe I’ll actually be able to put my biology degree to good use.
Reconnect with People
“I’m so boring. I don’t have a personality anymore. What’s WRONG with me? I may as well not be here anymore” I used to think I was Louise Belcher, but now I think I’m more like Tina (“Usually my personality is a little flat. Did you ever pick up on that?” “That you have a personality? No.”). Leslie Knope, but really Jerry Gergich. (Really, take your pick of television shows). In the three years that I’ve been battling this especially rough bout of depression and other illnesses I’ve realized I’ve lost sight of who I am as a person. I feel like a blank slate in the worst way. What are my opinions? What are my interests? What am I good at? As alarming as that is, to lose one’s sense of self, what really worries me is that I’ve lost the ability to share experiences with people. To ask them questions about what they care about, aspire to, hope to gain. I’ve grown to hate communicating and opening up to others because I’ve become shy and aloof and underneath it all it doesn’t feel like me at all.
On the Trail, I’ll get to share the hike with people who are like-minded and yet so different. There’s going to be so many people to meet and so many times to bond. I want to make the most of my trail experience with others. Fellow hikers, if you see me on the trail, say hello! I promise I’ll warm up to you eventually. It’s important I step out of my new-found “comfort” zone and try to make real connections with people.
Feel things again
“I just wanna be alive. ” I don’t know how many Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans are out there, but you remember that episode in season 6 with the demon that makes everyone in Sunnydale break out into song and dance and Buffy sings about her depression from having been ripped from Heaven and – sorry, my nerd is showing. Anyway, remember how I said I feel numb? I’m hoping against hope that hiking the Appalachian Trail will turn things around for me and I can start to be a person again. Sure, I know how naive and cliche it is to say “oh I’ll go on this adventure and it will save me and I can tell everyone how much better off I am”. But yeah, that’s kind of what’s going on. See, the thing is it’s easy to look at this all and find myself making excuses when really I’m dealing with a debilitating illness that has affected my quality of life. I’m not being a wimp or pretentious or overblowing what I’m going through and what the trail means to me – for Pete’s Sake, I was going to kill myself last winter. I don’t want to be there ever again. I want to learn how to be alive and what it means to push my limits.I want to make new friends, and find out what I stand for. I want to listen and be heard. And I want to be a source of encouragement for other people who suffer from the same illnesses that I do so that they know recovery and management is not only possible, but living and doing and accomplishing dreams is also possible.
I’ve already made some preparations for treatment on the Trail; I have every CVS along the trail highlighted in my guidebook to get prescriptions filled and I’ve got my psychiatrist’s number memorized. The rest is up to me, using the cognitive behavioral techniques I’ve learned. Hiking isn’t going to be a fix-all; I’m not going to delude myself and say I’ll be completely better when I reach the end of my journey. Of course I plan on hiking to Katahdin, but I’ve already made a pact with myself that if I should feel fulfilled and that my journey is over before hand and I feel I need to leave the trail, I can’t beat myself up over it. Of course, I have lots of encouragement from my brother who will also be my hiking buddy, my family and friends, and the kids of the organization I’m hiking the trail for (you’ll get to know the organization in a later post!). Ultimately, it’s up to me to get myself from Georgia to Maine.
If you’d like to get involved with Mental Health treatment and awareness, please consider Hike for Mental Health. I just recently found out about this amazing organization and I’m 100% on board with their mission. Ending the stigma of mental illness is so important to the healing of sufferers.
If you’d like to know more about the cause I’m hiking for, please check out AT For BECA.
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