The PCT and my mental health journey

Some time in 2008 I started getting an infection in my knee. I was at school for my Marine Corps military occupational specialty and we ran a lot. On my runs with the platoon, early in the morning, my knee hurt really bad and started swelling a lot.

Of course, I was a young Marine so I just sucked it up. When it got worse I started cutting it open with my knife and draining it. I figured it would go away eventually and I wasn’t going to complain about it.

Eventually, I visited my parents and my mother saw my now black knee and rushed me to the emergency room. I was immediately hooked up to an IV and they started cutting open my knee. They told me if I had waited any longer I would have lost my leg.



Before the Marine Corps I didn’t have health insurance. When I broke my nose in a fight I just let it heal. When my friend fell down a staircase drunk our buddy, who was both our tattoo artist and amateur doctor, stitched his chin shut. I’ve never been one to get help. I just suck it up and sometimes do a little surgery on myself.

After almost losing my leg my perspective changed. I started actually going to the doctor when something was wrong.

It took me longer to change my perspective on mental health. Being a Marine you just sucked it up and being poor before the Marines I also just sucked it up, especially before I quit drinking and I could just drink pain away – I am 15 years sober now.

Men don’t talk about feelings and they definitely don’t get affected by them.

Lately I’ve had to actually admit to myself and friends that I’m not doing well.

Like running 10 miles on a black MRSA infected knee I can always do what needs to be done, I can suck it up and make it happen. But my brain, like my knee, isn’t okay and won’t be okay if I ignore it.

Like most people I’ve had some trauma in my life. Too much of that trauma I ignored or pretended wasn’t there. Men can only show anger, not sadness.

One of the problems with actually addressing mental health issues is having to feel feelings, having to remember. Over the past few years I’ve been feeling the mix of burnout and depression get to me.

Not only that my life over the past few years has been pretty good, for the first time in my life I’m not broke, I have a decent career and don’t have the amount of stress that I’ve had most of my life.

I told my therapist that I didn’t understand why my life is the easiest that it’s ever been and I feel the worst that I have felt. Turns out that’s what trauma does, my whole life has been such a mess that my brain doesn’t know how to handle stability.

At times I wish I was back in Afghanistan sleeping under the stars which at times was the least stress I’ve ever had, other times the most stress.

I’m doing the Pacific Crest Trail for a few reasons but the major one is for my brain, for my mental health.

I know that I need this now – or well – I need something and this is what I landed on.

Recently I had my dedication to this trip tested. I thought my work would approve of me leaving for the PCT – unpaid. Unfortunately, I miscalculated and found myself having to decide between my job or the PCT.

I tried to look at how I would feel if I didn’t go on the PCT verses if I did and I couldn’t imagine not doing it. I’m not sure what happens if I just keep ignoring my depression and burnout but I don’t want to find out. My therapist also supported my decision without skipping a beat.

I know I can suck it up, I’ve proved enough in my life to no longer care about proving who I am. Ignoring my issues and ignoring them may help others but only makes things worse for me. Which is why I’m in therapy now talking about things from 10-20 years ago.

I chose the PCT. There was no option for me.

When I was young and broke it was easy to ignore my feelings or super glue a wound closed. There really wasn’t any choice.

First off, I need to work on myself not work, my mental health has to come first. Secondly, I can’t imagine ever looking back and being happy I worked instead of going on an amazing adventure.

I won’t be on my death bed someday wishing I worked more.

I’ve lived so much of my life not looking back, sucking it up. I neglected my physical health for most of my life when I didn’t have health insurance. I neglected my mental health because it’s hard to say you’re not okay.

It’s really easy to complain about physical health but it’s so embarrassing to say that you’re depressed especially since there’s nothing to really show.

The Helmand River in the Helmand province in southern Afghanistan in 2010.

I broke my foot in Afghanistan and had to hike from the outpost I was at, on the top of a mountain, to a forward operating base at the base of the mountain to see a British doctor. Like all good military docs he gave me some Motrin and said I’d be fine. I had to wait days to get off the mountain since a plane was recently shot down and we were in a no fly zone. The area was also surrounded by Taliban so planes were the only way in and out.

When I was finally able to get a flight out I got back to base and went to see the medic. He gave me a whole spiel about how if I broke my foot I’d be in a ton of pain, he didn’t believe me. I talked the medic into doing an x-ray to check and as soon as the image came up the two medics looking at the machine gasped. My tendon has ripped part of the bone in my foot off and hiking up and down the mountain had twisted the broken bone in the wrong direction.

In that situation I had no choice but in this situation I do have a choice.

Just because I seem fine doesn’t mean I am, I can act normal with broken bones and I can act normal while struggling with mental health.

Especially when my life is going good, it’s hard to explain why I’m finally stable in life but my mental health isn’t. Why are other people going through worse than me and yet I still feel unwell.

As I’ve been struggling, the only real help I’ve found is backpacking. Something about hiking, about some type 2 fun, makes me relax and feel comfortable. The feeling of soreness and pain after a tough day, passing out under the stars on an uncomfortable pad because I’m too tired to care.

Will hiking the PCT fix my mental health ? Absolutely not, I’ll be back in therapy when I get back. Will the trip help my mental health? Only time will tell but I am hopeful. At Least I know there is no pill or therapy that will fix me and until there is this is all I have.

Last year I did the Wonderland Trail, 90 miles around Mt Rainier in Washington. After a few days I started feeling a profound happiness, I started being more social which is not normal for me at all. That hike showed me that I was missing something, that somehow being on trail helped me escape.

Wonderland Trail, Mt. Rainer, Washington, in 2022.

I see this as the crucible of my 30’s as the crucible in the Marine Corps was a defining part of my 20’s, becoming a Marine.

I’ve always struggled feeling stagnant, so much of my life has been fast moving. No doubt a result of trauma.

Backpacking seems to be the only meditation I can do, the only time I can be with myself without distractions and be okay.

I’m hoping this hike will be a turning point in my life, at least a defining moment.

The Marines were a defining moment in my life which has shaped all aspects of my life, for good and bad. I’m ready for a new chapter and maybe I’m putting too much hope into walking a bunch but I am hopeful.

My life after the PCT is up in the air, I don’t know if I’ll have a job, I don’t know where I want to live. I honestly don’t know who I will be when I finish the trail.

Loowit Trail, Mt. St. Helens, Washington, in 2022.


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Comments 7

  • Ruth Morley : Apr 30th

    Thank you for sharing so openly with us. It’s so good that you are doing the PCT.

  • Josh M : May 5th

    I definitely know those feels of being poor and just sucking it up when it comes to injuries. I’m 40 now and have had insurance for a while, but I still act as if I don’t. I have two ankles that need surgery from breaking them and not going in(and rebreaking them and not going in).
    I had a stroke in February of ’22. It was mild enough I was able to ignore it. The girlfriend and friends made me go in the next night. I stopped drinking then, but only went to the appts the doctors made for me, I haven’t followed up on any of the other stuff I need to set up myself. I moved up to camas in November and finally set up a doctor and dental appts the other day. That was only cause my girlfriend harassed me about it every other day.

    I won’t even get into the whole not talking to anyone about the bullshit in my head.

    Good luck on the trail. Something I have wanted to do for a while but I always have some excuse.
    Semper fi

    • Julie : Nov 22nd

      Hey Josh M, I just want you to know that I relate bigtime to your comment, and your words make me slow down and consider my own reluctance/refusal/inability to seek medical care for myself or my partner.

  • Julie : Nov 22nd

    Justis, thanks so much for your raw honesty. Your words and experiences help me understand my partner more.


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