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.
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.
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.
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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