When you decide to do something that doesn’t even cross most people’s radars of possibility the number one question you tend to get is, “why?”
As I started getting serious about attempting a long distance hike on the Appalachian Trail I got asked, “why?” a lot. Even during my time on the trail a typical ice breaking kind of question between hikers is, “so… what brings you out here?” I even met a young man, still in college, who was himself hiking but also collecting people’s stories for his senior thesis on why people strike out on these time consuming adventures. I was counted among the long distance folks because I was planning on being on trail for more than 100 miles in one stretch. Initially my plan was 1,200 miles, a little more than half of the AT, in the end I managed to scrape my way over about 400 miles. If I’m being completely honest the trail kicked my ass. Some days it was physical, most days it was mental and emotional. There was no way to prepare for some of the conditions and hardships you face when all you can rely on is 35lbs of gear on your back, the strength in your legs, and your will to move forward. Needless to say, I was in over my head, big time. I’m proud of what I accomplished and for the most part, I quit on my own terms. But I am also insanely pissed and disappointed in myself for not hitting my goal. It’s a fun tension to live in (insert sarcasm here). Lucky for me the trail is always waiting, the ancient mountains have stood the test of time and they will always be there waiting to be explored and climbed. Unlike the usual challenges I choose to face, the marathons, the tough workouts, hell even the masters degrees I keep going back for… the trail is immortal. It may take me until I’m barely able to hike more than a couple miles in a day but I will hike every mile the AT has to offer. Because, why the hell not?
But, lets circle back to the “why” from this time around and the lessons learned. Originally I wanted to hike on the AT cause it seemed cool. A fun physical challenge that had a sense of mysticism to it. You gained a certain badass reputation when you were a long-range hiker; you were branded with not just the label of physical toughness but mental toughness. I wanted that. I’ve proved already that I can muscle through a challenge. That I can drag my fat and out of shape ass across the finish line of a marathon without training. But this mountain of a goal (pun intended) was something way different. This wasn’t just a 6-hour gauntlet of pain and then a hot shower, clean sheets, and a trip to chipotle. This was a years of preparation, research, survival, dirt under your finger nails for days, ramen for every meal, tripping down mountains, dodging snakes, standing up bears, destroying your body day after day kind of a deal. May not sound great, but when people asked me why was I doing this, that’s the answer I wanted to give them. That that was the experience I was looking for, that I desperately needed. I need to be challenged in a new way, I needed to reconnect, I needed to get away from people, I needed to remember what it was like to feel things on a visceral level, I needed to figure out if there was something I should be figuring out. Turns out what happened was that I started seeing my internal demons in a whole new way.
I was told that I most likely suffered from depression when I was 19 years old. I got pissed at the therapist, I thought only people who were weak got depressed, thought only people who had tough lives, or tough things happen to them were knocked down to those kinds of lows. Worst thing that happened to me in my life? Being born with a shitty metabolism. I’ve been fat since I was six, this has led to a lot of self-confidence issues, being bullied and judged, but in the grand scheme of things I can’t complain. So why in the hell was I sad all the time? As years passed I became more comfortable with this “diagnoses” or label on my mind, honestly many times I forgot about it, if people talked about depression I didn’t relate, I didn’t count myself among them, but I didn’t cringe either, I didn’t judge. My mid 20s was when things hit a new level, anxiety got added to the mix and my body felt so horrible, my chest was constantly tight, and my head was in a vice grip so tight that I thought I was dying. I sat in my doctor’s office crying from stress and told her I was convinced I had cancer, that’s the only thing that I thought could cause such physical strain on my body… I felt like I was being torn apart from the inside out. She said, “You have a therapist right?” I answered that yes I did, to which she replied, “Has she diagnosed you with anything?” the answer to that, was no. My doctor recommended I talk to my therapist about medication. She said, “Let’s get your stress under control. If you still feel this bad after that, we will look into what might possibly be going on with you.” I was both comforted and pissed. No way was something as (what I thought to be) benign as depression and anxiety causing the physical and emotional pain I was going through. I was up some nights unable to breathe, my hair was thinning, my skin was covered nearly head to toe with painful, itching eczema. It was nearly impossible for me to believe that depression could do that. But, I took my doctors advice, talked to my therapist about the pros and cons of medications and within a couple weeks I was on antianxiety/ depression meds. Things didn’t improve drastically or quickly. I still hated my job, ruined a relationship with a good guy, felt alone and unfulfilled, had little confidence in myself, and my skin still crawled with eczema. But, slowly but surely the tightness in my chest released, the rash started to disappear, I don’t think I was happy, but I wasn’t miserable either. This was a wake up call for me. A realization that you don’t screw around with chemical imbalances that cause you to see only darkness. That as “embarrassing” as it may be some times there is no explanation for feeling so low, it just is what it is.
Once at seminary I felt that I could vocalize and identify my depression. It was the first time in a group of people that I announced that I was one of many people who suffered from anxiety/ depression. It felt less like a label and more like diagnosis; like someone who is diabetic. This helps to take away the stigma and the self-judgment when you face it for what it is, a physical imbalance with serious mental and emotional side effects. This helped only a small amount when it came to facing the internal rollercoaster that was my emotions and mental status. One thing about me is that I am a highly functioning depressed person. I don’t miss assignments, deadlines, meetings, or fall through; even in my darkest times. Some times I wish I would, and then I wouldn’t have to explain what is going on or convince someone of my pain, it would just show. When you can function through your illness no one thinks you’re sick, especially if that illness is mental or emotional. So then you slowly start to feel like a fake, like maybe you’re making it up, maybe you’re overreacting.
What does this all have to do with my hike? Wasn’t that what was promised at the start? Well, friends, this is all a part of the why. This is all a part of the how. The hike became my medication, something that I could hold on to, something that I could look forward to, the light at the end of a seemingly endless and very dark tunnel. Remember the state I described earlier that lead me to medication and I thought I couldn’t get any worse? Well, I did. My second year of seminary was filled with some of the lowest moments I have ever encountered. The reasons don’t matter, they are in the past, but it was hands down the greatest internal struggle I have ever faced. If it weren’t for the promise of the hike, the anticipation of feeling something besides dread every day, the excitement over encounters with true beauty… well, I honestly don’t know if I’d still be around.
That’s the why that I didn’t bluntly share until now. I would usually say to people, “Well why not? It’s an adventure! I’ve always wanted to do it! It’s a great break from school…..” But the real answer, “Because I need to come back to life.”
What I didn’t expect the trail to bring me was a deeper understanding of my depression and how I live with and around it. I kept thinking that I should have some huge revelation while walking, or that I would change somehow, like I would crest a tough climb, see a mountain vista and break down in tears with some new understanding of my life, vocation, and God. This did not happen. Some views did bring tears to my eyes but it was because of their striking beauty and majesty, not a revelation about myself. I remember voicing this frustration in a couple conversations, this frustration over not having a life changing epiphany. The response I got was, “well… like the saying goes, not all who wander are lost.” I may not be lost, but I’m certainly not found either. I had to remind myself that most of the questions we ask ourselves in life just don’t have answers, not ones that are easy to find anyway. This is something I’ve had to come to terms with many times.
One of those questions was, “Why am I so depressed. Why do I feel victimized when I’ve never been a victim?” The simple answer, chemical imbalance. But, sometimes that feels like a cop out answer. What I realized during my hike and during all the time I had with myself was that I was a victim, just not in the way that we think. When we think about victim and abuser we think of two separate people. But, when I look in the mirror I am looking into the eyes of my worst abuser, I am a victim of myself. I am also the only one who can save myself. For me this has been the clearest way that I can visualize my depression, it isn’t some unseen force, some unanswered question – the answer looks right back at me in every reflective surface. This brings both clarity and guilt, an ownership of my life but also a sense of isolation, that while other people could aid me in the solution it is really up to me to fix, and while things that happen in my life could make things harder, I would always be my toughest critic. This may not seem like a helpful realization, it may seem self-deprecating and harsh… well, it is all those things. It’s also something I needed to figure out, that I needed to face; because it was the same way on the trail. Some things and some people made life easier or more enjoyable, some things made your journey miserable but at the end of the day the only person that would put my feet one in front of the other was me.
The other, slightly related realization I had was that I had to stop thinking I was on the same path as everyone else. I’ve always been awful about comparing myself to other people and internally competing with others (even my closest friends); this stems from insecurities mostly and feeds directly into my anxiety and if I feel I’m falling short it exacerbates my depression. One of my favorite phrases, which was universally honored and respected on the trail was, “hike your own hike.” Basically there is no right or wrong way to get from point A to point B if that way is right for you. We’re all on the same trail but moving along it in our own way. This led me to come to terms with the fact that I am not where I want to be in life. I’m 30 years old, single, only halfway done with seminary, consistently broke, and living in student housing! Haha not at all where I thought I would be at this point in my life. Some people are learning new things about themselves, making big leaps, falling in love, having kids, having the time of their lives and that is amazing! But me? I’m just not. I have amazing friends who I am sharing life with, I love learning, I’m excited about diving deeper into ministry, and I have so much good going for me… I say that because I want to make it clear that I am not constantly sad or disappointed in my life, quite the opposite actually. This may not be the pinnacle of my life, but that’s why life is so long and the trail continues. Even in times when things aren’t great there are still great things about those times.
I’m not sure if people will read this and feel hopeful for me, but even though the realizations were heavy and the trail wasn’t exactly what I expected, I loved it. I feel like I am carrying on with a greater understanding of myself, my depression, and what I want out of life. That for me, even now in this uncertain time, is hopeful. So while I may be the walking wounded, I at least know where I’m going.