The Trail Towards Mental Health

Four years ago I was diagnosed with Bipolar Type 2, at the age of 35. I was perpetually at the whim of my emotions, which often cycled drastically in the course of an hour. Essentially never being able to think past the feeling you are having at any moment. Obviously things are bound to get messy and destructive.

When I started medication, they helped, but they didn’t “cure” me. Rather the meds sliced off the highest highs and the lowest lows, and created small windows of opportunity for impulse control. But they didn’t suddenly give me emotional intelligence. I was like a toddler learning the most basic behavior concepts at 35 years old. I was the walking definition of “late bloomer.”

Thankfully, I discovered backpacking early on in my newly medicated life. As a Bipolar person, most of my world was interior. That’s a nice way of saying I was self-absorbed. I couldn’t help it; it’s a symptom of the disease. Plus, the constant delving into my own depths had helped me survive by having insights into other people’s motivations—and how to manipulate them. I decided that in order to get healthy, I had to figure out how to live in the exterior world, the one independent of what I thought or felt. My guess was that the physical world could lend me a stability that I couldn’t give myself.

I searched the internet and found a married couple that were walking from coast to coast. I couldn’t believe it. People do that? Who were these people? And why? I was enamored from the start. It was so wild and unconventional, which appealed to my Mania. Yet it seemed like the epitome of living outside of oneself- something the medicated me was striving for. I consumed everything I could find about thru-hiking. For the first time in my adult life, I started to have a dream for myself. Something I wanted to reach for. And the dream slowly turned into a goal.


Really, it is!

The goal part is important. Pre-medicated me couldn’t make goals.  And backpacking is all about making goals. I was terrible at it at first. I decided my first trip would be the entire Pacific Crest Trail. A typical Bipolar symptom- illusions of grandeur. Sure, lots of inexperienced people just hop onto the PCT each year. But it was naïve of me to think I could do the same thing. My husband tried to talk me down, and the best he could do was get me to amend my trip to 150 PCT miles in Oregon. At this point, he still treated my burgeoning love of long distance hiking like a Bipolar-induced whim. He was being careful; he didn’t want me to sabotage the progress I had been making.

Oh man, that first trip was laughable. The 20-mile days I pictured were 7-mile days in reality. I was ill prepared, and in horrible shape. I mean, the first 35 years of my life involved zero exercise. I should have at least hiked before I went out there. My legs froze in a snowstorm. My feet turned into two giant blisters and I bailed after 60 miles.

PCT foot fashion

PCT foot fashion

It was amazing.

The intense level of physical exertion forced me out of my mind and into my body. I had a sense of well-being that I had never experienced before. Every mile the trail wrung out of me felt like accomplishment; like I was finally more than my disease, that I was also just me, and I might be capable of more than I thought.

I’m thru-hiking the Pacific Crest trail next year, and it’s been a long, arduous journey to get here. Backpacking doesn’t come easily to me; I have to fight for every single bit of it. Mental Illness continues to be an obstacle, but backpacking is all about obstacles. A day on the trail is full of tiny problems to overcome, and tiny rewards to reap.

Pre-medicated me didn’t know that tolerating discomfort led to accomplishment. Since I was always so overcome with stress and emotion, I wanted to avoid added discomfort at all cost. I quit anything that was hard, or didn’t have guaranteed success. Meaning, I missed out on a lot. Backpacking gives me a second chance to learn some of this stuff: tolerating distress (the steep mountain is worth climbing; eventually it won’t be a false summit), delaying gratification; impulse control (you can eat when you get to town), emotions are transient (I hate you trail, I love you trail, I’ll never get there; ooh look at that!)- all things that are quite elusive for people with mental illness.


After that first trip on the PCT in Oregon, I intellectually understood that, for me, more planning was needed. Not just for backpacking, also to effectively manage the mood disorders. But planning and routines just did not fit in my brain. Trying to change these thought patterns was like trying to break wild horses. The next trip I refused to train or try out my backpack until I was already on the trail. Then, okay, fine, I’ll do some training, but NOT with my backpack. Last year, I was able to train for months with my backpack, but I couldn’t do any gear shakedowns. Oh I know, these rules make no sense. Don’t even try to apply logic to them. The point is, I get better at planning. I don’t give up. That’s what counts.

Tired and happy on the PCT in 2015

Tired and happy on the PCT in 2015

I think thru-hiking is perfect for people that are in the managing phase of their Mental Illness. It’s an adventurous, brazen thing to do. It’s full of variety and change and speaks to one’s need for freedom. All things Bipolar people covet.  Yet it also is work, routine, and asks for a lot of persistence and tenacity. All things Bipolar people need. This is why I love long distance hiking. It has everything. It gives me hope. It makes me a better me.


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Comments 11

  • Lindsey : Dec 18th

    Amy, amazing article, and truly captures what it’s like to live with a mental illness that constantly needs to be managed. So well written! My younger brother is Bipolar type I, and I manage major depressive disorder, and as you say, there’s definitely a really annoying internal aspect to all of that. I think that’s why I’ve always gravitated so strongly to hiking/backpacking, because it’s such a healthy and excellent way to get outside your own head. Best of luck with you thru-hike! It’ll be a great adventure 🙂

    • Amy Bee : Dec 19th

      Thanks, and I hope your brother and you are managing well. There’s is really an inner calmness that comes with full engagement of the body.

  • Kira Thornley : Dec 18th

    Great analysis! I am excited to see where your thru hike takes you, mentally. Sounds like it is a perfect option in many ways. Happy suffering!

    • Amy Bee : Dec 19th

      “Happy suffering”! Love it!

  • Michael Dickinson : Dec 21st

    Amy, I love your positive attitude. My significant other of 11 years has also been diagnosed as Bi-Polar, PTSD and Borderline Personality Disorder. I have been trying to convince her to hike with me next summer without success. I took the time to read her your post. Thank you for your insight.

    I am a veteran with what they tell me is PTSD. I am 55 years old with a host of health issues that have left me with 2 heart attacks, diabetes and significant weight issues.

    I decided that the best time of my life were the years 1979 to 1995. The time I served in the Military.

    Recently I found a new Doctor, who did not want me to spend my life in my house. He told me to start hiking in the National Forest that surrounds my home. He himself is a thru hiker of the Pacific Trail and is very active.

    I asked him one day what he thought of me trying to hike the AT. He told me to start by hiking it in three sections over three years. He also told me he would guarantee I would survive the hike for 9 Minutes. (How long he can do CPR).

    Anyway, I went out and purchased my pack and gear, right down to the clothes I would wear. 33lbs. The first day I hiked with the pack and an added 10lbs for food, water and incidentals. I made it 2 miles before I turned back for home. Boots did not feel right, weight felt off balance, Hot, Sweating and Miserable. Wow 4 miles. Laying in bed that night I committed to the hike. At 2am I repacked my pack, selected a different set of socks for the morning and decided that 4 miles was a good goal.

    This winter we am living in our RV in the Desert near Quartzsite Arizona. Hiking nearly severy day. My only concerns are the next step and where did I leave the truck.

    On April 13th, My Birthday I will start my northerly trek on the AT without my significant other.

    Good Luck in your search for yourself.

    • Amy Bee : Dec 21st

      Wow, Michael- congratulations on being brave and pushing yourself into areas that are uncomfortable. How fortunate that you had a doctor to point you in the right direction. I’m sorry your significant other won’t be joining you. I really think you can do this, and you are going to be bringing home insights that may help her, too. If she is ever interested in emailing with me, she can look me up on Facebook. I also have a triple diagnosis, it can be quite tough. I am rooting for both of you.

  • Brian Horst : Dec 21st

    “The physician heals, Nature makes well”. Backpacking has definitely done good things for maintaining my mental health and well-being.

    Because it pairs the two key elements of your post, you may be interested in checking out the Hike For Mental Health nonprofit (HikeForMentalHealth dot org). You could even register your PCT hike to raise funds. The majority (80%) goes to supporting research and de-stigmatization of mental health, and the remainder to support trail organizations (ATC and PCTA). Heard about it from A Team Hiking (So Way and E-Brake) down around Spy Rock on the AT in VA.

    • Amy Bee : Dec 21st

      Thanks, Brian, I have heard of this non-profit; perhaps I will take a closer look.

  • Tom Kennedy : Dec 21st

    Please do Amy. We would love to have you on board.

    Tom Kennedy
    VP Hike for Mental Health

  • Noelle : Dec 28th

    “Pre-medicated me didn’t know that tolerating discomfort led to accomplishment. Since I was always so overcome with stress and emotion, I wanted to avoid added discomfort at all cost. I quit anything that was hard, or didn’t have guaranteed success. Meaning, I missed out on a lot. ”

    Right?! I have bipolar 2 as well, and you said it perfectly. I was diagnosed at 35 and got mania under control for the most part, but was in depression for many more years. I started hiking this year and doing some other physical things I’d never done (well, that includes most physical things) and found out that bruises and soreness from actually doing something are much better than bruises from hitting your knee on the coffee table or soreness from doing absolutely nothing at all (I also have fibromyalgia which pretty much equals constant soreness for no reason.). Now I’m all like “Ow, my legs hurt — but I hiked 15 miles yesterday so yay!” and “Hey, look at this giant bruise on my elbow from doing #5 elbows in Krav Maga! I DID something!” Looking forward to reading more from you! 🙂

    • Amy Bee : Jan 6th

      Cool, Noelle! I’m glad you found hiking and backpacking. Is it helping the lower end of your mood cycles at all? I also find that medication helps more with the highs than the lows. Exercise gives that “espresso shot” of endorphins that can really help.


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