How to Fight Through On Trail and Post Trail Depression
With the passing of Robin Williams this month, depression has been on my mind. I wrote specifically about this death here, but I’d like to explore the connection between depression and hiking here.
It’s not a topic that gets covered much, because, let’s face it—one way ticket to Bummer Town—and if you’ve read Appalachian Trials (you should have), you will have read all about it already. This is like the Cliff Notes version of that. Sort of.
Most of us associate hiking with a reprieve, a relief, a sabbatical. For many, hiking becomes therapeutic. Old wounds, unresolved feelings, and dark thoughts begin to fade as the miles pass underfoot. Long distance hiking not only delivers a whole host of feel good juice (technically called endorphins) every day, it gives you a purpose. A direction. A goal. Even in dark times on the trail (and there will be dark times), it is pretty easy to keep sight of your goal, which can be simplified down to the next blaze…then the one after that…then the next mile…until you find your rhythm again.
But when it comes to long distance hiking and depression, there are two things to consider—on trail depression and post-trail depression—and they are two very different beasts.
On Trail Depression
Hikers are really good at embracing the suck. You know it’s going to hurt. It’s going to be hot, cold, dry, wet, long, hard, boring, lonely, etc. at some point or another in our hike. You know this beforehand and yet it can still ruin you.
My advice for handling on trail depression? Do what works for you. Here’s where I give you directly contradictory advice.
Folks, keep in mind that I am not a doctor of any kind, medical or psychiatric. These tidbits are brought to you through my own experiences and through talking with others who have been through rough patches both on and after the trail.
If it’s your tramily troubles or trail tribulations that have you feeling a little blue, call a friend or family member back home who can give you unbiased advice or at least lend a sympathetic ear.
Last year, I sat in a parking lot outside of Duncannon, PA and cried. I cried because it was hot (so, so hot) and dry. I cried because I was alone and had been alone for the better part of two weeks after getting back on the trail after Lyme disease. I cried because I was tired and scared that my body couldn’t handle hiking anymore. I cried because I felt like my trail friends were all gone, ahead, doing their own things that didn’t involve me. After I cried for god-knows-how-long, I pulled out my phone and interrupted my best friend’s work day and cried to her. By the end of the phone call, I had cried out all my tears, but I had formulated a plan.
Let your hiking party know that you need some space. Seek the sounds of nature, or your earbuds, and just work it out. Spend all day thinking, working through the problem, or spend it trying to push your body to its limits, going beyond thoughts and just moving.
Don’t Hike Alone
Hike with a big ol’ group of people, or maybe just one or two awesome people. Tell stories and jokes. Sing breathlessly and out of key while hiking up mountains. Do yoga on top of boulders. Point out the beauty of your surroundings and the absurdity of your quest. Lift each other up.
After that teary phone call, I paid a shuttle to drive me 40 trail miles north to meet up with another hiker in the area. I had been alone for long enough. I was tired of talking to myself, because the only stories I told myself were of how badly things sucked and how likely I was to fail. I needed new stories, a new adventure, and new tramily. The next few days were spent forging a new friendship, taking silly pictures, camping behind pubs, and really, really enjoying the trail.
I got cold-cocked by a really big, ugly case of post trail depression when I got home. I don’t know if this makes me more or less qualified to talk about it, but I’ll give it a go.
You know that video that Zach made of Miss Janet giving really good advice about post trail depression? Yeah, watch that and memorize it. Oh look, here it is:
Okay, now for the confession part of this post: I watched that pre-hike. This is, again, an instance in which I knew that it was going to suck, but I was not prepared for it to suck like it did.
Let’s go through Miss Janet’s advice, piece by piece.
You have likely just spent the last 4-6 months cramming pop-tarts and honey buns into your mouth at an alarming rate. The majority of your calories came from foil wrapped packages that contained sixteen times the recommended daily allowance of sodium and no actual nutrition. Do yourself a favor and eat a damn vegetable. Eat all the vegetables. Try to limit your sodium and sugar intake to reset your body’s cravings and tolerance for those substances.
You are going to feel weird, tired, sore, sluggish after the trail. Give your body the proper fuel to recover from the monumentally stressful thing you just put it through.
Pro Tip: A probiotic might be useful. I, luckily, escaped the poop-crazed wrath of Noro and Giardia while on the trail, but my first few weeks home were plagued with stomach troubles. I’ll spare you the details, but just know that it wasn’t fun. I have since learned that prolonged use of chemical water purification (like Aqua Mira or chlorine bleach) can destroy your gut’s good bacteria, so when you stop ingesting the chemicals, your body goes nuts trying to right the imbalance. Bad bacteria flourish in an environment devoid of good bacteria to fight them off. It is a miserable readjustment period. So, help your colon adjust and give it a large dose of good bacteria in pill form twice a day, eat lots of yogurt, or drink acidophilus milk. Or poop your brains out, up to you.
Depending on the level of injury that you finished your hike with (you’re all going to be hobbling or shuffling along to some degree), this will be easier for some than others. I hiked with a woman who ran a half-marathon mere days after getting home. You could totally do it; your cardiovascular fitness will be godlike. Take advantage of that.
My knees were too sore and wobbly to do much of anything for about a week after my hike. Even 20-30 minute road walks hurt. Eventually, though, I just started running. It felt weird, and I was certainly sore, but I was convinced that the pain of running was better than the pain of feeling stuck. The first time I ran, I went for 20 minutes. The next day, I ran five miles. From that point on, I ran five to seven miles every other day. I, literally, ran away from my depression. When I ran, I had goals again.
Find something, anything, to do that will distract you from the fact that your hike is over, your way of living has ended, your best friends are miles away, and you feel utterly lost.
Keep In Touch
I cannot stress this enough. The first few weeks are tough. But the only people who know exactly what you’re going through are the ones going through it themselves. You supported each other and got each other through 2,185.9 miles of trail…get each other through this.
Less than a month after being home, I piled into another hiker’s car and headed six hours south toward a gathering of hikers. I cried on the way back, because I felt like such a foreigner, even amongst my family.
I drove eight hours to sit around a bonfire, drink cheap beer, and sleep behind the barn of a thru hiker. It was the best 24 hours, and it felt like home.
For a while, the only place that will feel like home is the place where there is the most hikers. Go there. Be with them. Eventually, you will all find your “new Katahdin”—your new goal, new purpose—and you will support each other as your pursue those dreams. But for that brief time, cling to each other.
Let People In
I know I just said cling to your tramily, but also learn how to let others in. I spent far too much time trying to hide my depression when I got home. I put on a brave face and stoically cruised Craigslist for jobs and kept conversation in the safe zone of immediate plans and career goals.
I didn’t talk about the end of my hike or the end of my trail relationship. I didn’t talk about the friends that were so far away that I felt like a piece of me was missing. I didn’t talk about the fact that I felt broken, weird, like I no longer fit in the world. As a result, I felt crushed by the weight of my sadness. My family is wonderfully supportive, and I bet yours is, too. Trust them. Let them in. Ask someone to help you carry your burden until you find a place to land and you can shuck it off, once and for all.
Don’t let yourself slide back into 60 hour work weeks and days of florescent lighting. Plan your next long hike. Find local parks to romp in. Explore your state parks. Take one- and two-night backpacking trips close to home. I admit this took me a while to get right. I had this notion that hiking was all go big or go home from here on out. I am thru hiker, hear me roar and all that. What I was missing was the beauty in being a day hiker. So, just get outside and get dirty. I promise you will feel better.
In light of recent tragedies, I don’t feel like I can in good conscience end this post on a lighthearted “oh, everything will be fine!” note. Sometimes things are not fine. Sometimes you cannot avoid or pull yourself out of the pit of depression once you have fallen into it. Please, know when to get help. Don’t let yourself struggle with depression—on the trail or off—for so long without help that you feel like giving up the hope of ever feeling normal again.
The hiking community is a unique and tightly knit bunch. We are here to support you and your hike—before and after. There are many other people who have gone through this struggle, or one like it, before you. Talk to them, to us.
Learn more—National Institute of Mental Health
Get Help—National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
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