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.

Pushing Limits 

Two posts in one day!? Yeah, just making up for last week, I was moving guys, give me a break. This week I took my very first steps on the AT. It was beautiful and everyone was so much nicer there than anywhere I’ve ever hiked. Seeing the sign that read “Appalachian trail” was magnificent. The overlook at Weverton had my heart all aflutter, despite the couple making out a few yards away. For the precious moments that I had with only three others, it was very affirming. Unfortunately we were soon overrun by what appeared to be a field trip and I had to dodge photo bombing a bunch of selfies. 

Back to the beginning. A friend of mine, J, invited me to go for a hike on the Monday following a Memorial Day cookout with our friends. If you’re following my story, you may remember in The Big Reaction I spoke about a friend who doubted my prowess in hiking. Well, they all did, this hike felt very much like a test, I went in knowing that J thought I was going to do poorly, or be very slow, or display some other shortcoming.  Anyone who knows me knows that I am stubborn as fuck, and if there is one thing I hate, it’s being told (whether explicitly or implicitly) that I can’t do something. So I set out that day to prove not only to my friends, but also myself, that their doubts don’t mean anything. 

After staying up well past 2 and moving all day Saturday and most of Sunday, I begrudgingly rolled out of bed at 8am. From there I drove to pick up a fairly hungover J from the house where the cookout was held. I brought him home to change and pack a quick lunch (turkey, cheese, and butter, GROSS), and we headed on our way. Not long before we reached Gathland State Park, our starting point, we made a quick stop at Sheets. I went in the bathroom and had a quick talk with myself. I looked into the mirror and saw a face with dark circles under the eyes and a look of fear. This was the longest hike I had ever been on and I was already feeling pain down my right leg due to my back injury being irritated by my move. But, I wasn’t going to fail. 

We arrived at the park, me with my day pack and water bladder, wearing hiking shoes. J in goddamn Jordan’s and carrying a backpack that contained 2 water bottles, a pack of cigarettes, and his turkey sandwiches. Away we went. I find that the first mile is almost always the most difficult for me, my muscles are cold, my body hasn’t adjusted yet, the beginning is still reasonably close enough to turn back. Finally, I’m starting to hit my peak when suddenly I feel like someone is knifing me in the gut, like I’m about to vomit and shit my pants at the same time. For those of you not familiar with what an ovarian cyst is like, this is how I experience them when they rupture. I’m lucky, my polycystic ovarian syndrome, or shit ton of cysts on my ovaries, presents with hemorrhagic cysts, so basically a slow leak rather than a sudden burst. What this means is I’m in pain but probably don’t need to be hospitalized. The joys of womanhood. 

So here I am standing in the middle of the woods in quite a lot of pain trying to prove myself with this hike. I’m proud to say that I didn’t even consider turning back, I stood for about 30 seconds and calmly explained what was happening to J. He watched me with a mixture of concern and a clear attempt to suppress the thought that I was probably being a drama queen. I probably was. We began walking again and I made it about half a mile before I needed to rest again. Leaning against a log I went to battle with myself. 

Now for my nonsequitor, but my tangents almost always have a point, so be patient. There is a concept that I use frequently in my professional life. Imagine your mind is a house, with separate rooms dedicated to the separate parts of yourself. For example, a woman might have a room for her motherhood, her role as a wife, her profession, her obsession with some band or TV show, her humor, her depression, and so on. The number of rooms is pretty incalculable, everchanging, and totally unique to the individual. If done properly, this can help close the door on parts of yourself not helpful for certain roles. For example, your mom room should be away from your professional room. I doubt yohr boss would appreciate being talked to like a toddler. I use this in my social work practice because it helps to isolate the parts of me that wouldn’t be helpful to a client. The room with my potty mouth gets closed, my personal experience that may influence how I view a client is sealed, there is a room for my judgement, and one for my shock and strong emotions. This allows me to treat a client in the best way possible because my mind is clear of the factors that could impact my professionalism. This also helps maintain boundaries between worker and client and allows me to disengage from the more shocking or terrible things I hear. This may seem cold, but it it’s necessary to protect myself and provide the best treatment I can. Another wonderful concept you’ll find I’m social work fairly often is mindfullness, for those not aware of what this is, here is the Google definition: 

” a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique. “

Back to the original story as promised, I got through the remaining 12 miles of that hike through the application of these mental tools. Anyone telepathic would have thought I was an idiot, my mantra was “close the door” as I repeatedly forced my mind away from the pain. I practiced mindfullness by focusing on my present. I listened to the sound of mud squishing at each step, the feel of rocks under my feet and the strain of muscle in my thighs, I smelled sweat and the pungent odor of J’s cigarettes (seriously! Who smokes while hiking!?). Through this constant mental battle and a hand placed firmly on my abdomen, I made it to the overlook. At one point during the trek, I told J that I was taking the lead because I knew I would be slower and I thought it would be easier to set the pace, he informed me that he was content with this and that we were actually hiking at the pace he would normally go. I smiled then with what must have been feral ferocity, luckily J didn’t notice as he was both behind me and preoccupied with mushrooms or his cigarettes or some such nonsence. Either way, I don’t think he understood that significance of the exchange. 

We made it to the overlook and sat down to enjoy sunshine and lunch. I removed socks and shoes and began to scale the rocks barefoot. The view from Weverton is amazing, the river and the train tracks make quite a scene. Eventually perturbed by the amourous couple and gaggle of teens, I made it back to my sunning rock. I shoveled a bunch of walnuts down my throat and we were off again. The half an hour rest had allowed my muscles to cool so the first mile back was excruciating. I had lost my mental focus and my whole body was sore from the first 7 miles. But I did it, and we hit our stride once more, making mile 11 our fastest mile, a fact I find rather astounding. We spent the last few miles in amicable conversation, both of us elated to be so close to the end and preemptively proud of our accomplishment. When I walked out of the woods in was awash with relief… because there was the bathroom. Guys I still haven’t gotten the courage to pee in the woods. 

Before I close this post with something adequately inspirational I have one more story to tell. As we started the hike I rolled my ankle a few times, apparently I’m blessed with flexible ankles because this is a near daily occurrence and I’ve never sprained one. Due to this, J was certain I was going to faceplant into the mud. I had the reciprocal certainty because of his ridiculous foot wear (Jordans, really!?). Guess which one of us took the tumble? I haven’t laughed so hard in quite a while as I did when I watched him stagger to his feet all muddy, cranky, and flushed with embarrassment. I felt a bit guilty about the laughter, but there was some definite triumph mixed in with the guilt. Here is this guy, an avid hiker, who doubted my ability, and I’m the one who stayed on my feet. 

I’ll admit that my confidence in my prowess was a bit dampened by the fact that J probably had a bad hangover, but still, I made it through my longest hike yet, exhausted, sore from moving into a third floor apartment with no elevator, and doing war with my ovary. I know it will be different with more than a day pack, but God it felt good and I’m taking a step in the right direction. We finished our day off with a bit of reckless speeding on the hour drive home, gotta make that turbo whistle, and like a lot of chipotle. Overall I’d say it was a success.