*Full disclosure* I actually climbed the mountain yesterday, but today flowed better. Also, it wasn’t really a “mountain” mountain. It was more like a hill. Okay, technically it was rocks. I climbed a pile of rocks.
Now that we have that out of the way…
I climbed a mountain yesterday, and it was a long time coming. May 3rd is just a few weeks away, and it marks the one year anniversary of when I finally went to the ER when the symptoms I’d been experiencing for months reached the point of unbearable, and thus began a year of the worst health (both mental and physical) I think I’ve ever experienced. It was chest pains, lower back pain, and nausea that finally made me act, but it was crazy relentless unexplained bruising, swollen lymph nodes in my clavicle – and eventually in a whole bunch of other places, – chronic flu-like symptoms, exhaustion, dizziness, and a racing heart that would confound my doctor and send me all over the city to no less than a dozen specialists.
In hindsight, it was most likely a panic attack that I had had that night we went to the ER (the first of MANY such panic attacks over the past year). We’d gone out that evening to watch an arena football game, and I already wasn’t feeling well when we left the house. The fear of any sort of medical event happening in public prompts my anxiety to kick in, and anxiety prompts my body to freak out, and a freaked out body does bad, bad things. The worst part of the evening, besides the fact that it took the EMTS five tries to get the IV placed, was that my then 7 year old asked Mike if I was going to die. I feel guilty about that, while simultaneously telling myself that it wasn’t my fault. Could I have willed myself better if I’d tried hard enough? I don’t know.
Chronic illness and pain (most of which is still unexplained, though some can finally be attributed to disc issues) is exhausting. And when I say, “exhausting”, I don’t mean very tiring. I mean it sucks the actual life out of you, to the point that you’re a shell. A human shell that can intellectually understand that things could be worse and that there is much to be thankful for…. but who is too lost in the muck and the mire to acknowledge it.
What I’ve realized over the past few months though – again, through the magic of hindsight – is that it isn’t the physical symptoms that have been my undoing. The much greater burden, beyond a shadow of doubt, is the depression and anxiety. I’m not a stranger to either one, but the past year has seen them both reach heights that I didn’t know were possible. Depression made me not care, about anything. Anxiety made me care too much, about everything. Too much, and not enough, all at the same time. One made me unable to get out of bed, the other made me too afraid of being alone with my own thoughts not to. In the past 12 months, I’ve gained and lost and gained again the same 30ish pounds, partly because eating/not eating helped with some of my physical symptoms, but mostly because I’m still that damaged 16 year old who believed that food – either restrictive, careful monitoring like a wrestler trying to make a weight class, OR eating ALL the things, all the time – was the answer. To everything.
I was hurt by friends who seemed to vanish when I needed them most, and pissed off at friends (and strangers) who offered solutions. Partly because unsolicited advice and people telling me what do make me crazy, but also because – and I’m not proud of it – I was pissed off at everyone. And everything.
Yes, I’ve been tested for Lyme disease. Yes, I take vitamins. Yes, they ruled out lupus. NO, it’s not all in my head. Yes, I do meditate. Yes, I understand the importance of sleep and nutrition. Yes, I’ve tried an elimination diet. Yes, I use essential oils. Yes, I’ve looked into non-pharmaceutical solutions. NO, I am not interested in your naturopathic doctor, or your liver flush, or the special drink that changed the life of your sister’s best friend’s coworker’s cousin’s ex-girlfriend. Leave me alone, leave me alone, LEAVE ME ALONE! Wait, I can’t do this alone. I take it back. I need someone. Please listen. Don’t leave me alone. Come back!!!
There was no winning with me. If they didn’t keep their distance because they didn’t know how to deal with me, I just pushed ’em away myself. Really, it’s a wonder if I have any friends left at all.
I think one of the most painful paradoxes of depression (really, of mental illness in general) is that it is excruciatingly difficult to interact with, to talk to, to be physically touched by others, at least in an authentic way …. and yet in equal measure lonely and terrifying to live in its self-created world of isolation.
I don’t believe that my depression and anxiety caused my physical symptoms, and I don’t believe that my physical symptoms caused my depression and anxiety. But mental health and physical health are of course irrevocably yolked together, and as such I know that any attempts to address either one need to be multi-pronged.
Which brings me (finally) back to my mountain.
I have a friend who posts lots of pictures of her hikes… these amazing day-long adventures up in to the mountains (mountains-mountains) all over Phoenix and its surrounding cities. I keep telling her – in my double-life, put-a-smile-on-my-face-and-pretend-I’m-not-falling-apart-inside alternate reality – that we should go hiking together sometime. But in reality, I am not able to do that right now. Side note: In yoga teacher training, which now feels like a lifetime ago, we had to give our teacher 25 cents every time she caught us saying, “I can’t” After losing a few dollars each, most of us broke the habit. Instead, we were told to say, and think, “Not today.” It’s not that we CAN’T do it, it’s just that we can’t YET do it. That stuck with me in a major way. Lengthy mountain hikes are not my reality today. Both because of my physical state (simple walks around the block render me out of commission for a day or days afterward), and because of the real possibility of a sudden mountainside panic attack that would leave me begging her to just go on without me.
But I really do want to start hiking again. The desert is my happy place. I can breathe easier there than anywhere else. The solitude and the wide open spaces feel healing, not oppressive. In fact I’ve pretty much convinced myself if I ever moved back to New Hampshire (or anywhere else surrounded by trees), that I would effectively suffocate. My mental health thanks me whenever I venture out into the desert. Plus,
I miss my old butt regaining a higher level of physical fitness is good not just for my body, but also for every other area of my life. I know this. I do.
And still, it took me a month of pep-talks to do it. There’s a nature preserve that’s a five minute walk from my house, and I decided that I would start there. I’d gone for walks on its trails a few times in the past several weeks, but it had been years since I’d climbed to the top of its not-quite-a-mountain. It suddenly became really important that I do so, as a literal AND symbolic first step. But first I had to get there.
It’s way too hot.
It might hurt.
I don’t have anything appropriate to wear.
What if I trip on the loose rocks and fall and hit my head and knock myself unconscious?
What if I’m not knocked unconscious, and think I’m fine, but later suffer a brain bleed?
What if I’m near a drop-off and get light-headed and can’t sit down fast enough to keep from toppling over the edge?
What if I forget to pay attention to where I’m walking and I startle a rattle-snake who thinks he needs to bite me? (In my defense, of the three live rattlesnakes we’ve come across in the ten years that we’ve lived in Phoenix, one of them was at that very park)
What if I don’t bring enough water and I get dehydrated and can’t go on? We like to joke about it because of the quote in The Breakfast Club, but I really do have a low tolerance for dehydration.
What if I lose my cell service at the top, and have a medical emergency and can’t call anyone for help?
There were a million reasons not to go, and two really really good ones to suck it up and make myself do it. I deserve to practice self-care. My kids deserve a healthy mother. All the people who’ve suffered the collateral damage of my unintentionally treating them like shit for the past year deserve some atonement. (I guess that’s three reasons.)
Hiking to the top of that ridge wouldn’t cure me. But it would be something.
So I made myself go, and with each step I repeated a mantra that was more feelings than words. If it had had words, they wouldn’t have been sweet and flowery, but more like:
Screw you, depression. Screw you, anxiety. Screw you, bad discs and chronic migraines and muscle pain and achy joints. Screw you fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome or whatever the hell else they want to call my mystery ailment this week. You don’t get to make the decisions for me. Not today. All the way to the top, and all the way back down again.
I wish that I could conclude this post with a mountaintop epiphany, or a defining moment of catharsis. But, you know… sometimes life is epiphanies and defining moments, and sometimes life is just a red-faced, slightly overweight, sweaty middle-aged mom scrambling her way to the top of a rocky hill in Northern Phoenix on a random Wednesday in April. A girl who felt okay for a moment, but who knows she still has a lot of work ahead of her.
It took 45 minutes, to the top and back down.
I climbed a mountain and I lived.
Today my calves hurt, and I find it delightful because I haven’t done any sort of level of activity that would lead to sore calves for an entire year. Delightful is good. Delightful is rare.
And now (if you’ve gotten this far, and if you have, thank you) it’s 12:45 in the afternoon, and I haven’t yet left the couch, but I will. Later I’ll take the 12 year old to football, and the 8 year old to the playground, and I’ll smile politely at the people around me, and they won’t know my secret. They won’t know that I hurt, in so many different ways. But they also won’t know my other secret. They won’t know that I decided I’m stronger than all of it. They won’t know that I climbed a mountain, or HOW MUCH FREAKING EFFORT it took to do it. I
sometimes often tell Mike how hard it is to be me, how hard it is to live inside my brain, and over the past year inside my body as well. But I wouldn’t want to be anyone else. I really wouldn’t. Because the wiring that makes me prone to depression and anxiety is the same wiring that makes me passionate, and creative, and someone who loves and lives and feels deeply. It’s the same part of me that allows me to express myself through writing! I realized a long time ago that it’s kind of a package deal.
I think there’s a sort of poetic and beautiful and bittersweet synchronicity to the fact that my least favorite part of my psyche comes inextricably linked with my favorite. I wouldn’t take the magic pill (if such a pill existed) to take away all my problems, if the price was also taking away the very essence of who I am.
So I have to resolve – again and again and again – to do the work I need to do to be well, whatever wellness is going to ultimately look like. I can’t WILL myself well, this much is true. But I can take steps, both literal and figurative, towards wellness. I can.
I have the sore calves to prove it.
P.S. This article is the most apt description of depression that I’ve ever read. He so eloquently puts into words what I’ve so often tried – and failed – to write myself.