Angels Landing

Image courtesy of Chris Giard

One of my favorite things about hiking is it provides me with endless metaphors for life. The most common one I think of is when you’re hiking a mountain, and you feel like you’re in the final turn, but it turns out there are several more switchbacks to traverse. It’s that feeling that you’re never really done and you never really “get it” – you’re constantly learning and climbing, for better or for worse. Or when you find yourself looking at the trail in front of you and forget to look at the view around you. Or when you’ve overcommitted to a trail, and you realize the only way to get to the end is to just put one foot in front of the other over and over again.

For no less than a year, I’ve been struggling with depression. It crept up on me, and I believed that it was mostly situational. I did a major move and dealt with job layoffs which are two huge stressors to experience on their own, never mind together. I often think of mood as having a baseline with peaks and dips. When I was in college, my baseline was the lowest it’s ever been – it was a struggle to get up most mornings. A few years ago, my baseline was the highest it’s ever been – I was truly happy and felt mostly complete. Since that height, my baseline has dipped lower and lower. A few events happened that helped it sink – I had a little bit of a health scare, my dad died, my best friend became very ill, a close friendship ended, and then of course, the ordeal with the layoff.  Great things happened in that timeframe as well, but these events made me think my sad mood was just situational and if I could only get through them I’d be fine again.

Things are situationally really good right now. I finally put some of my music out there, I have a phenomenal work-from-home gig, I have the flexibility in my schedule to make time to enjoy life. Yet… I feel sad and incredibly isolated. Not in the work-from-home isolated way, but in the “something is wrong with me, I can’t talk to anyone about it and why can’t I just feel and act like a normal person?!?” way. I have good days, and I have down days. My down days aren’t like they were in college, thankfully – I get very sad and feel a mixture of hopelessness and worthlessness, but I can still get out of bed. I also am mostly able to recognize when this sadness is trying to seduce me, and I make a point to go outside and look at the water or explore the city. Distractions and changes of scenery are exceptionally helpful. But that sadness and isolation still lingers on some level.

I was recently thinking about my “Reach Out” post and how many wonderful people I have in my life. I thought, “hmm, maybe I can reach out to my friends about this.” I walked it through my mind, because of course I could do this. There are a ton of loving people around me, and I know I have their support. As I walked through the scenario in my mind, I realized that it is a pointless endeavor. What happens after you tell people you are struggling with depression? What fairy dust can they possibly throw on you to make it go away? A memory of one of my hiking experiences popped into my mind as I thought it through:

Several years ago, Chris and I were hiking on the Angels Landing Trail at Zion National Park. It is not a trail for the faint of heart or the out-of-shape. Most of the 2.4 mile trek is at a 30% incline, and towards the end of the hike, you deal with narrow walkways with steep drop offs. I’m not too bad with heights, but I have my limits. There was this one stretch where they bolted a metal chain into rock, and you had to hold onto it while you stepped up and down onto rocks and outcroppings. Beyond those rocks was a steep slope and then a 3,000 foot drop off. I initially crossed it and felt exceptionally uneasy. I told Chris I couldn’t complete the hike, as I knew the final leg contained a very narrow walkway with a sheer drop on either side. I knew I’d be too shaky to do it. We decided to turn around. Chris went first and I started to follow him. Going back was even harder – there were parts where I had to lower my foot behind me to find a rock to rest on. At one point, I couldn’t feel where the rock was, and I began to panic. I started to hyperventilate and my limbs felt like jello. My hands shook, I started to cry. There was nothing Chris could do other than watch me and try to calm me down.

There was a moment as that all was happening where the thought entered my mind – I have to do this on my own. No one can help me – I have to calm down and get across. I knew only I could get myself out of this situation. I took a few deep breaths. Okay…okay…okay…I can do this. I can do this. I lowered my foot and trusted Chris when he said the rock was right there. I did it again and again until I made it to the clearing on the other side. Of course, when I got there, I cried and hugged Chris to release all of that anxiety, but the important part is, I got myself through it.

This memory popped into my head, because it is very much like being depressed and getting through depression. You can have support around you and waiting for you on the other side, but in the end, you’re the only one who can take each blind step forward. You’re the only one who can calm yourself down or get yourself out of bed in the morning, putting one foot in front of the other. You’re the only one who can communicate to a therapist, and you’re the only one who can allow yourself to get better. It’s not a single choice – it’s a series of choices. It’s that constant pushing to get better when that warm, heavy blanket of depression is weighing you down and tempting you. It’s resisting the temptation often no matter how tired you are or how much bullshit is thrown at you, because eventually it’s going to get a little better, in time potentially a lot better. I don’t want to cling to the side of a rock, isolated and sobbing. I need to move my feet.

To my friends – if I seem a little distant or sad or off, I’m still on the side of that cliff, but I have to believe I’ll get past it. I know you’re there waiting for me at the clearing, and I’m going to get to you. The first blind step behind me is just centimeters from my toes…