Updated: May 24
Trigger Warning: suicide, suicidal ideation.
I think a lot of folks are motivated to thru-hike by the hope of “finding themselves” on the trail. You go out into the woods, get away from social expectations, the hustle and bustle, the daily grind. You get in touch with nature. You challenge your body and mind and emerge with a greater sense of self. For me, hiking the Colorado Trail is a celebration of having found myself. My incentive to thru hike comes from spending the last four years discovering, redefining and learning to love myself. I’m not out to prove anything, I’m out to honor the life I chose to continue living.
July 20th 2017 was a life altering day for me. I had returned from a solo backpacking trip the day before and was feeling more like myself than I had in months. My twenties were sprinkled with body image issues and disordered eating and in May I welcomed thirty with disruptive social anxiety and top notch self loathing. I took off into the Colorado wilderness for 3 days as a bit of a retreat. If I wasn’t around people then I could take a break from beating myself up about awkwardly interacting with them. I came home naively believing I was fixed.
I was teetering on the brink of depression and that day a celebrity, someone I had idolized as a teen, died by suicide. I’d never met him and hadn’t thought of him in years but his voice was the soundtrack for my awkward and emotional teens. He was a part of my identity I thought I had shed, but hearing of his death and the manner in which it occurred set something in motion. I finally had somewhere to put all of my unwarranted sadness. The grief I felt gave me permission to dive into the deep end of depression and I sunk like a stone.
The 6 months that followed were the darkest I have ever known. I only partially confided in my (now) husband, ashamed an embarrassed that a celebrity death was causing me so much pain. At the time I couldn’t see that it wasn’t the cause but only the catalyst. The match thrown on years of collected kindling. Recognizing that I needed help, I started weekly therapy. It was slow going at first. My therapist gently asked me questions that required so much energy to find an answer to that I left each session feeling raw and depleted, remembering only pieces of the conversations by the time I reached the elevator. I spent a lot of time on the floor. Laying, sitting, crying. It seems so cliche. What is it about a floor that’s so comfortable for misery?
Most of the time I tried not to acknowledge the dark thoughts. I was afraid they would get bigger and swallow me whole, or worse, be visible to the people around me. But alone, hiking in the mountains, I would allow myself to explore the deepest, darkest corners of my mind. I would walk and wonder what it might be like to no longer exist. I knew I should feel afraid, and occasionally I did, but mostly I felt numb. I could run miles in the dark, hike on secluded trails by moonlight, listening to coyotes yipping and feel nothing. No panic, no survival instinct. In some morbid way it was freeing, to not be held back by the will to live. Hiking was my outlet. When sadness and anxiety built up in me I could release my body and mind on the trail and return to a state of numb exhaustion.
A few months into counseling my therapist suggested I consider medication, so I scheduled an appointment with my PCP, filled out the mental health screening questionnaire and scored high enough to earn a prescription for an antidepressant/ anti-anxiety combo. Back at home I set my two small white prescription bags on the counter and ready the information for side effects. One of the possible side effects was suicidal ideation, and I remember thinking that maybe I’d have that reaction and finally feel motivated enough to act on some of the dangerous thoughts I had been having. My poor sick brain couldn’t imagine being able to feel better.
Meds turned out to be a game-changer. The fog started lifting and over the following weeks I was able to take some of what I had been learning in therapy and actually apply it.
The next phase of healing was more unexpected than the onset of mental illness. As I began to improve, I held on tighter to depression. Who would I be without it? What would I blame sadness on? How could I avoid awkward social interactions without the excuse of anxiety? How could I ask for space, comfort or empathy if I wasn’t sick? I wanted so badly to feel better but I wasn’t ready to take full responsibility for my emotions and behavior. Of course I wasn’t yet aware of those thoughts, so I was frustrated and self critical for sabotaging my own recovery. Learning to observe my thoughts with compassion and without judgment allowed me to release the identity I had created. As I practiced new thoughts and beliefs, I hesitantly welcomed a wider emotional spectrum. Joy, excitement, contentment and appreciation trickled in. It’s wild that positive emotion can sometimes seem scarier than negative emotion. In survival mode our brains are trying to avoid pain, and they trick us into believing that if things go south, the fall will hurt more if we were happy.
I don’t know when it happened but there must have been a day that depression left my body. A moment when the last depressive drop evaporated and I reached emotional wellbeing. My relationship with hiking has changed too. I’ve used hiking as a way escape and hide, then to process pain, find meaning, and get to know my heart and mind. I’m ready to honor my suffering and move on from it. I’m excited to wander and play and listen to birds and admire wildflowers. I am good at letting life be hard, now I want to let life be fun also.
The following 35-ish days of hiking are a gift to myself - a chance to experience the most full and vibrant range of emotions that I’ve worked hard to allow. Confidence is just willingness to feel any emotion and I am ready to feel it all.