Me, Myself, and I

So this is a post I’ve been considering for a couple weeks now and it will be a bit different than what I’ve written previously. I know its been quite a while since I last posted and ny only excuse is the struggle I felt in deciding what was important for me to write about here. Hiking will be a tangential subject in this post. I would also like to add a couple disclaimers before diving in. First, for those who know me in real life, nothing I say here is targeted at a specific person or meant to comment on a specific situation. Second, I want to provide a trigger warning for mental health and trauma, though nothing I talk about is terribly graphic, it may be upsetting to anyone who has dealt with or is dealing with a similar situation. Third, despite my status as a social worker, I am not even close to an expert in mental health, what I choose to discuss is based on my own experience and every person will have an entirely different perception of their mental health. Finally, I want to say that this is not an easy subject for me to write about and I have never discussed most of these things in such a public forum, please understand that I feel a certain amount of discomfort in the telling.

I am not entirely sure where I want to begin, so I will dive right in. I have often struggled with my mental health, beginning in high school I experienced a number of episodes of depression. This was compounded by a difficult time at home. I am the youngest and as my elder sisters left the nest, I found myself the outlet for frustration in an unhappy relationship. I have no desire to speak poorly of my mother or step father, but I would categorize my final two years of high school as some of the more difficult years of my life. I believe this is a common feeling for many teens, but the general unhappiness of this time left me ill prepared for appropriate functioning when I finally left home.

At 18 it was politely requested that I remove my remaining belongings from my childhood home, I was graciously taken in by my sister, L. An unfortunate reality of watching an abusive relationship for over a decade is the lack of opportunity to learn what a healthy partnership looks like. I spent my first few months of independence from home deeply involved with a young man who was not well at all. His mental health issues inspired jealousy and suspicion which caused him to attempt to control me and the decisions I made. Eventually he was hospitalized and gave me the impossible choice of ending our relationship while he was in a safe place or fearing that if I were ever to feel unhappy in our partnership and choose to end it, he would end his life. Ultimately I decided his life was worth far more to me than our relationship and I wished desperately that he could focus on his recovery and not me. He chose to end all communication with me and the experience left me with terrible guilt over my apparent abandonment of someone I loved.

If I hadn’t already committed to social work as a career, I would have then. I felt a complex mix of emotions, guilt certainly, sadness over the loss, but also overwhelming relief because I no longer felt responsible for another’s life. The second major event which damaged my mental health is much harder for me to discuss. If you know me in real life, I would like to request that you do not reference this in our future conversations. I believe this came about due to the vulnerability caused by my first relationship. I felt I had to commit to someone who wanted me simply because they wanted me and I did not wish to be the source of any further pain. In my freshman year of college I was raped by someone I trusted and had begun to develop a romantic engagement with. I was left with no physical damage of any kind, it was not overly violent or traumatizing, but it was a clear violation of what I had verbalized and physically communicated. Following this occurrence I had a great deal of confusion about what actually happened and whether my recollection was accurate. I made excuses and rationalized my feelings of violation away. I remained dating him for a few more weeks while he became increasingly more insistent that we spend the night together, something I refused to do following his assault. I ended our relationship, but continued afriendship while suppressing my memory of his violation. Unfortunately my confusion was only compounded by the reaction of my friends. The only thing I can say is that they were likely uncomfortable and did not know how to respond to what happened. I received little to no support from my closest confidants which engendered even greater feelings of uncertainty and unhappiness. The result was the ending of a close friendship as one of my suite mates chose his company over mine in order to facilitate her rise in social standing. She routinely placed herself in a vulnerable state, drinking heavily and placing herself at the mercy of him and his frat brothers. While they remain close, I have not spoken with either in years. I do not believe he is overall a bad person, I think his actions stemmed far more from a sense of entitlement to my body than a violent desire for control. It is only in the last 6 months that I have been able to accept and begin to heal from this experience. I would like to say that I did not for a moment consider reporting the event to any authorities, I am not naive enough to believe that it would result in any repercussions for him. If anyone else is harmed as a result of my silence, I am so sorry.

My depression after this became far more intense. There were times in which I wanted to stay in bed for days. I was often afraid of myself, I could no longer trust my own mind. I was afraid to drive a car because I wasn’t sure if I would be capable of resisting the urge to intentionally wreck. I contemplated overdosing on over the counter medicine and I committed acts of self harm. I think depression is a difficult thing to understand if you’ve never experienced it, but I’ll try. It’s the feeling of hopelessness that you’ll ever be ok. It’s the grieving for the person you once were. It’s shame that you can’t make yourself better. It’s the guilt you have for making loved ones worry for you. It’s the frustration you feel when others don’t understand. It’s the worst pain imaginable without any obvious cause or solution.

The fear for myself was compounded by the knowledge that my father committed suicide. I often fear that I am like him because of my depression. I avoid using drugs or drinking heavily because I fear evoking the part in myself that is his daughter. The one benefit of my family history is the protective factor of an understanding of exactly how suicide impacts a family. Eventually I sought help. I was medicated and I improved. Despite the dissipation of suicidal ideation, I was still not myself. As I delved deeper in my education I gained a better understanding of my mental health. An unfortunate reality is that understanding does not always lend to improvement. I eliminated all self harm, but began to use food as a comfort. I began to work overnight, this combined with full time school left little time for sleep. I once more experienced a decline in my mental health. At this time I was also in a terrible relationship characterized by infidelity and emotional abuse. I pushed my body too far at work while consuming the most unhealthy food I could find. The result of this was a serious back injury, leading to surgery. The end of my relationship and the opportunity to end our cohabitation was the beginning of my self care. I sought treatment for my back injury and my health ranked higher in importance. Surgery and the termination of my job were further milestones in my journey to self improvement.

I was eating better, I began to exercise, (finally something about hiking!) and I started therapy. My time in therapy has vastly improved my mental health. As I began to recover, I also began to think about my dreams. Beyond the boring ones, like career and education. I started a journey of self discovery. If I had considered hiking At at any other point in my life, I would have dismissed it because I did not believe in my own ability to accomplish anything, let alone a 2200 mile hike. Though I can attribute my far more stable mental health to therapy, hiking is the foundation for the new self I am creating. The confidence engendered by a successful hike is unlike any I’ve ever experienced. I was unable to hike over the last week, my therapist commented on a noticeable change in my demeanor. I feel more alive, more like me when I’m on a trail. I am truly looking forward to what I find on my thru hike.

I fear that in our world it is so easy to disregard the feelings of others. Technology allows us to disengage from the real person behind the screen, facilitating unkind words and degrading exchanges that were previously impossible. The phenomenon of ghosting in a relationship, or ceasing all communication without explanation or warning, leave people feeling hurt and confused. People use social media to paint a picture of bliss and success to mask the pain and suffering in their lives. People lie and cheat while claiming to love and honor. Each of us has only this one chance to live in this world, why is that we choose to act for ourselves? We are social creatures, we crave companionship and closeness, but push others away. I am no exception, I have hurt people and I am likely to do so again, all I can do is make a conscious effort to be good to others. The other day I took to the trail in a fit of frustration due to a number of poorly managed social interactions. The time to myself allowed me to contemplate the importance of one shitty person in the scheme of my life. The peace and understanding I gained from a simple 5 mile walk in the woods revitalized my patience for the world. I want to experience what life is like on the trail, to return to a more primal existence. I want to feel that community and support. I want to smile at people as I pass them and I want to talk to strangers without fearing their intentions. I believe that the AT will help to accomplish these desires and make me into a better person, someone more capable of kindness and appreciation for a fellow man.

I know this post has been both convoluted and a little irrelevant, but I thought that it would provide further insight into my motivations and the foundation from which I am beginning. Thank you for reading and bearing with me. I just believe that this was a necessary, though difficult, part of the story.

Let’s talk about socks baby. 

So anyone who spends any time on their feet knows shoes are important. But anyone who is doing any kind of long distance knows that socks can be just as vital. When I was doing my research on appropriate dress for hiking, I saw the recommendation of merino wool and I was all about it. However, when I went to browse around REI, I came across Wrightsock, the coolmesh 11. They were $13, more than I’ve ever spent on socks, but not unreasonable, especially when you consider the alternatives.

On first putting them on, I’m comfy as can be, they’ve got decent arch support, they’re the perfect thickness and they’re double layer to prevent blisters. They’re soft and breathable, everything you want in a long distance hike. Plus they’re a great turquoise color! Anyway, my first time out with these socks and I’m already in love. No blisters, much less arch pain (a chronic problem for me), overall great stuff. So I’m thinking that these would be great for my AT hike, they’re light and comfy, and I really want something durable that feels great.

How about NO. Despite the clear benefits of these socks, there is a major draw back. I wore them on an 8 mile hike with no problems, lots of extra comfort from my usual. So, I decided to take them for a 13.5 mile hike on the MD portion of the AT. At about the 7 mile mark, we paused for some snacks and to take in the view (I will go more in depth about this hike in a different post) and I took off my shoes to wander around the rocks in my bare feet. I noticed immediately that the outer layer of my seemingly magical Wrightsocks have split open. Ripped straight across just below the toe seam.

These socks didn’t even last 20 miles before tearing open. I’ll be honest, prior to purchasing these socks I’ve been hiking in some real cute novelty socks with sea otters on them. My point here is that I’m by no means an expert, but I won’t be buying these socks again. If I’m being fair, they’re advertised as being for “light” hiking, which I wouldn’t use to describe 13.5 miles, but the terrain was not difficult, so I guess it balances? I regret that the benefits of these socks didn’t last long, and maybe it was a fluke, but I wouldn’t trust 2200 miles to them. So, the search for the perfect socks continue.

The Big Reaction

For some my determination to hike AT is unfathomable. Most recently I was discussing the topic with a friend and his response to my statement “I am going to hike the Appalachian Trail when I graduate next year” was an immediate “you?” Now, he insists that he did not hear me when I said “I” and was seeking clarification, but I will take liberty to doubt this. I get it, I’m kind of chubby, I’m short, I have expressed only a limited interest in hiking within my friend group, I don’t seem like the type to take on such a task. However, what I found most important in the exchange was not his visceral doubt, but my response to it. Without hesitation, I laughed out loud. His doubt is not my doubt, and my ability to see humor in his negative response was reassuring to me, because it speaks to my own confidence in my ability.

Now, I would like to take the opportunity to tell you a bit about how some of the important people in my life reacted. Now, to avoid any strife or suspicion of favoritism, I have placed these in order of seniority, rather than the actual order I told them.

My mother asked my why, that was her first question. I explained that it was simply because I wanted to, and she said OK. Days later, after I published my first post, I called her and she told me, “I read your blog, I’m in.” She asked about how I was going to get my gear and what she could do to help. Her eagerness was very reassuring to me, as I was expecting more opposition. She did express worries about my safety but decided it was best not to dwell. Her desire to help was actually overwhelming as she began to ask a multitude of questions I had yet to consider.

For the sake of their privacy, I won’t name my sisters, but I have four. The eldest, C had a very similar response to that of my mom. She asked me why and accepted my response. She then told me about a man who was biking for charity and suggested I could do something similar. I jokingly mentioned that she would probably have me tagged before I leave and watch every step I take. In all seriousness she told me how our other sister doesn’t like to give her flight information anymore because C tracks her progress through the air. She spent the next few days sending me links about how to seek sponsorship and a GPS tracker she expects me to carry.

Next would be T, I spent three days and called her about 4000 times before I actually got to speak to her. When we finally talked (on my mother’s phone because I got lucky and called her when they happened to be together) her first response was, “so wait, you’re inviting me right?” This is the sister mentioned in my first post, who seems to share my passion for hiking. We then discussed gear and she immediately added me to a facebook flea market to find cheap gear. She took the further step of connecting me with a friend who put me in touch with a gentleman who has been immensely helpful in starting me on the path to collecting my gear.

L, I think, was the most concerned. Everyone who knows her will know exactly the tone she adopted when I told her about my plans. She said nothing for about 30 seconds before saying “Oh my God Jax” in a tone that was a mixture of fear and exasperation at the fact that she has been given such a ridiculous sister who loves to try her patience. I am sad to say it was not the first time I have heard this phrase and it is unlikely to be the last. I’m assuming she did some quick googling and this likely did nothing to assuage her fears. I expressed some concerns about how I would manage my bills while away and she said simply “that’s what you have me for.” More recently she has begun planning our trip to Maine this year to see how well I do in the 100 mile wilderness to better inform my decision to go NOBO or SOBO.

Finally, I, of all of my family, she accepted my decision with the least questions. I don’t have any anecdote for our exchange due to the circumstances at the time that I told her. We were both dealing with a rather tiresome individual who had been testing our courtesy and hospitality for nearly a week and I believe by the time I told her about my trip she was beyond the point of offering any sort of emotional reaction beyond acceptance. Yet, her support is no less important than that of any of my other sisters.

My cousin, J, has also been essential in the journey I’ve taken. She will be my practice partner all this summer as we both become more skilled hikers. She has promised to make fun of me when I carry my full pack on a day hike and she has been my constant companion on the trail. Honestly, none of this would have happened if not for her. Back on that first day we went hiking together, I began a path that will lead me to Springer Mountain.

The support of my family is absolutely vital to me in all my endeavors, but their desire to help me with this momentous task is so inspiring to me. I fully expect to see them at a variety of points during my hike. Whether dropping me off at the beginning, hiking alongside me in the middle states, or cheering me on at the finish line, I am certain I have a wonderful family who will be invaluable.

I do feel the need to offer one more anecdote so everyone can understand just what it is I’m working with. My step father, for whom I have lots of respect, but also a great deal of resentment, reacted in a slightly disheartening way. I discussed completing a thru hike with him prior to me actually committing to the endeavor, but his words have left me slightly apprehensive about actually telling him I plan to make the hike. He told me a story about a woman he had met during his travels who smelled very unpleasantly. Apparently she used her odor to deter sexual assault while completing her thru hike. He did not tell this story as a cautionary, rather as an interesting thing he had learned, and thought nothing of how this might impact me. He offered neither support nor objection and this has left me wondering about what he will think of my decision.

There are people I did not mention here and I want to say thank you to them as well. I have not and will not forget any support I have been provided. Overall, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive. I don’t know what I would do without each and every one of you and all that you do to love and support me.

 

Where do I start?

This is the awkward beginning to an improbable journey.

First, I would like to begin by saying thank you. Just the fact that you’ve made it this far into reading what I’ve written seems astounding to me. I am not a person who ever thought I had anything important to say and each of you who takes the time to share my journey is an inspiration to me.

Throughout my life I have always felt an obligation to care for the people around me. From bottle feeding orphaned squirrels, to comforting my mother, to reading my big sister a bedtime story,  I always wanted to be there for everyone. Ultimately this has led me to pursue a career in social work, currently I am a year away from achieving my masters. Unfortunately, I am not nearly as good at taking care of myself.

So begins the story of my decision to hike the Appalachian Trail, this might be a bit circuitous, but please bear with me.

It started with a relationship. A terrible no good very bad relationship. I spent close to two years of my life with a partner who was not appropriate for me and I realized that I was loving him far more than I loved myself. By the time I could leave my self confidence was practically nonexistent and I looked around and realized I was a stranger to myself. I have experienced depression frequently throughout my life, but nothing compared to the worthlessness I felt at that time.

So I made changes. I was lucky enough to have family to support me and a wonderful cousin to take me in. I started changing the way I ate, I made more time for friends, I started saving money, and finally, I began hiking. The aforementioned wonderful cousin decided we were going out one day, with no destination in mind. We ended up on a local trail, me in jeans and chucks, her in flip flops. We looked ridiculous, but it was the best I’d felt in a long time. We planned to go again and then again. Eventually we settled into a different trail in a state park and it was the one thing I looked forward to most during the week. I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but thank you my lovely cousin, you helped save me that day in your flip flops.

When I began going to graduate school again I no longer had time to hike and I began to feel poorly again. I was working full time overnight, struggling in an internship I hated and trying to keep up with my course load. The result of so much on my plate was a herniated disc, between L4 and L5, pressing on my sciatic nerve. I was in serious pain and walking with a heavy limp for close to a year. I ended up having a bilateral discectomy in January of 2017.

I couldn’t walk independently for days. I was in tears when I moved at all and I only had a week to recover before returning to school. I quit my job, and gave myself time to recover. Unfortunately, if you go from working 40 hours of manual labor to doing almost nothing, you get fat. I don’t mean to criticize others’ weight, but I was unhappy with myself. On top of physical therapy, I joined a gym and began exercising. I bought new clothes, I started building muscle, I dyed my hair. I made it my mission to feel good again.

In April I began hiking again. I think the simple action of walking in the woods was newly empowering after my surgery. I could not only walk again, but I could probably make it up the steep hill that my cousin lovingly calls murder hill. Now that I wasn’t working overnight and exhausted I had a whole new appreciation for the world around me. I saw the world grow green and warm, I watched turtles sunning, I disturbed snakes on the trail. We deviated from our comfortable path and each trip was like an adventure. One day on the trail I mentioned in passing that I would like to hike the Appalachian Trail at some point in my life.

This is going to seem like a nonsequitor, but I have a point, I promise. In my final class of my first year of graduate school, my professor asked us to consider what brought us to social work and come up with a quote that represented this. A touch cliche, I know, but this was mine:

“Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” -A.A. Milne

I wanted to be there to tell people this. I want to be a part of their process, on the road to their success, whatever other cliche you want to apply. This is what was floating around I’m my head that Friday, and into the weekend.

That Monday I brought my sister to my usual trail and got to experience it with fresh eyes as I watched her discover the wonders that had become familiar to me. Namely there were a shit ton of turtles all in a row on a fallen tree and we decided it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to go for a swim in the placid river. She was proud because she could outpace me and I got the chance to see something that I have seen so rarely in this sister. True pride, self confidence, happiness. This beautiful woman who has struggled throughout  her life was happier than I have seen her in years. Hiking contributed to that.

When we got home I found three books sitting on the kitchen table with a note from my cousin. She had bought me a data book, a guide book, and a mental guide for preparing to hike the AT. I was up until well past 2 the next two nights finishing the mental guide (thanks Badger). I was less than a paragraph in when I said to myself, “I am going to do this.”

What followed was a furious consumption of the books my cousin had given me and a Rollercoaster of emotions. I was excited and terrified, I immediately started panicking about the money and told myself I was no where near strong enough to do something so monumental. But then I remembered,

I’m braver than I believe, I’m stronger than I seem, and smarter than I think.

I want that pride I saw on my sister’s face, I want to feel confident in my body’s abilities, I want that delicious endorohin laced exhaustion that follows a work out. I want to thru hike the Appalachian Trail. I decided that I need to be selfish, I need to do something crazy and adventurous. I need to be who I’m supposed to be. So I figured, why not take a half a year off before I settle to my life as a public servant.

So I ask you, join me on my journey. Watch my triumphs and my lows. Watch me embarrass myself and overcome my fear. Come with me as I become me.