It’s Not Just About Pretty Mountains
Clearly, I lived in Los Angeles for too long (2.5 years!), because at 58 degrees today in Portland, I feel cold. Luckily, I have a fleece hat, tea and writing to get me through (and yes, I realize that 58 degrees isn’t THAT cold). As someone who absolutely despises hot weather, I’ve really been looking forward to the cooling temperatures of fall, and it seems like we might be getting there!
In a recent post, I wrote about why the outdoors matter to me. As you can see from this site as whole, it’s something I spend a lot of time thinking and dreaming about. I’ve started lists of places I want to see, and I get frustrated when I don’t get out as much as I’d like. Recently, a few people have asked me an interesting question: Why backpacking? How did I get into that? It’s also a topic I’ve been pondering a lot in recent months, as I chart what’s next for me in the coming months of my life. At the risk of revealing some overly personal information, I think it’s an important discussion, not only because it’s been such a big part of my life, but also because I suspect there’s others out there who might be in a similar situation. While there’s certainly a lot of factors that contribute to me loving backpacking, such as mountains just generally being beautiful, I think one thing above all has resonated deeply.
What’s this “personal information” I speak of? I’ll just go ahead and say it: For much of my adolescent and adult memory, I have dealt with sometimes crippling anxiety and depression. No matter my age or experience, it always feels a bit strange to admit that. I’m still not entirely sure why, since at this point in time, we as a society are becoming more open to discussing these hard topics. I think perhaps I’ve always worried in the back of my mind that others would view me differently, to know that I wasn’t always a “normal” functioning adult human (though, as we all know, that is sort of a non-exist thing).
Overall, I was a really happy kid, if not a bit overly sensitive and moody at times. I loved school, playing outside until after sunset, art, and anything to do with shows about doctors and medicine (yes, there was in fact a period of time where I wanted to be a surgeon). I also loved fishing with my dad, climbing trees, and raising tadpoles during the rainy northern California winter months. Later, in middle school, high school, and into college, I still loved all these things, but also regularly experienced worsening mood issues and paralyzing social anxiety. Turns out, depression and anxiety run deep in my family, with my younger brother dealing with Bipolar Disorder, and even a great-grandmother who lived over 10 years in Elgin State Hospital (also known as “The Northern Illinois Hospital and Asylum for the Insane”) with likely what was also Bipolar Disorder before modern treatments were available (a family history topic which is endlessly fascinating to me as an archivist). So, I probably had a slight predisposition to having mood and anxiety issues. I remember bewildering moodiness, and crippling anxiety when dealing with new people and new social situations. In college, I used alcohol to regularly cover up my anxiety, which likely resulted in me feeling more depressed and anxious than I did in the first place (to this day, over indulging in alcohol results in all my happy chemicals feeling completely depleted).
Lucky for me though, I was born into a time and into a family, where these things weren’t anything to be ashamed of (for the most part, we’re all still learning). After many years of being confused about why I went through periods of time where functioning was difficult, I finally, around 2009, made the choice to see some amazing professionals who helped me to better understand why I was experiencing certain things. I’m really fortunate to have found a good team, which is something that has immensely contributed to me getting back on my feet and for the most part, being a happy functional adult who is better able to discern normal human mood changes and those that require more attention.
While it wasn’t my fault that I have depression and anxiety (we’re learning more all the time, especially about the relationship between the brain, genetics, and environment), one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is that I don’t have to sit back and take it. As someone with depression, I’ve encountered many fellow sufferers who take a multitude of approaches to dealing with their tricky moods. One thing we all have in common is the importance of finding what works for us, whether that be medications, riding out the waves, or learning to manage it (or more likely, a combination of techniques). While it might not be initially intuitive, I take the “depression + anxiety as diabetes” approach: It’s a thing I have, for whatever reason, but there are lots of ways I can try to minimize it’s impact by managing it on a daily basis, much of which I learned through working with a fantastic cognitive behavioral therapist for many years (I don’t claim that CBT is for everyone, but for me it worked well with my analytical brain). Regular exercise noticeably helps me to stabilize my moods (if I’m feeling off, one of the first things I’ll do is make myself go for a short run), and if anything is amiss, I take a break from beer sampling, a hard thing to do in Portland, because I know the mood effects that even small amounts of alcohol can have on my overly sensitive brain. Finally, sometimes, I just have to accept that I’m having an off day, and during these times, I just take care of myself much like one would do with the flu or a cold, without the over-riding sense of guilt and panic that I must be “in an episode” (I’m usually not).
So, back to backpacking, and what how it’s related to my depression and anxiety management strategy. For me, backpacking and being in the outdoors has been a hugely important tool in my management arsenal. Early on, when I was first beginning to feel the effects of my disobeying brain chemistry, I noticed that backpacking was one of the few times when I felt great. Perhaps the combination of exercise, challenging myself, and achieving hard goals all resulted in some kind of magical brain concoction that worked wonders. Today, I find myself being more energized and socially friendly in the backcountry compared to my everyday life. While I’ve always had an inkling of the connection between my mental health and the outdoors, it’s only within the last few years that I’ve really added it into my weekly management strategy. Furthermore, the therapeutic effects I gain from challenging myself in the backcountry don’t just stay in the backcountry: I come home as a more stable, better functioning human, who is able to more effectively navigate the ups and downs of everyday life. Though of course, it’s not without it’s challenges, as management takes constant diligence and work. Oftentimes, I have to work really hard to get myself to to the trail. I like to think it’s all worth it though, to get up in the morning and be excited about the coming day, and to eventually have the drive and energy to make the world a better place.
One thing to note: I don’t claim that all people suffering from the dreaded depression + anxiety combo will benefit from backpacking the same way I have. Naturally, carrying 35 pounds of gear up a mountain isn’t going to appeal to everyone in the same way, and it doesn’t have to. Regardless, I do think we could ALL benefit from an proactive stance, one that reminds us that we are strong and capable, and not at the mercy of our ever-mercurial brain chemistry. Everyone experiences depression differently, and thus the exact treatment will also be different. It can be crippling, to the point where getting out of bed seems impossible, and sometimes it’s a huge achievement to even do that. However, it’s worth fighting the fight, and lucky for me, climbing mountains seems to be a powerful tool in my everyday arsenal to be in the control seat of MY own brain. All this to say: You too can find your backpacking, whatever that may be. I believe in you.