Peaks and Valleys: The Recap

Wow.

Initially, I was a little hesitant about posting something so painfully personal and heavy here. However, I felt I had hidden behind my own ego long enough and reasoned that if even one person felt a little less alone in their struggle, it would be worth the risk of putting my story out there. 

I'm not sure what I was expecting to happen in the aftermath. I honestly didn't give it much thought. I was more concerned with just getting the words out there, to explain now what I couldn't say to those offering me a helping hand back then. I certainly didn't expect thousands of people to read it or dozens to contact me with their own stories. I drastically underestimated the commonality of my experience.

After posting the link on both Facebook and Instagram, my inbox was flooded with messages from friends and strangers alike, all sharing their personal battles with depression and suicide, many mirroring my own battle. Comments poured in as people offered support, explained their own struggles, or were glad to have a better understanding of what their friends and family might be going through. My page hits exploded, increasing unique readership by 3400%. THAT'S CRAZY. At the time, I thought I was completely alone in my struggle and that nobody would understand. But oh, I was so very wrong. 

Here is what I've learned from this experience:

1. PLEASE, PLEASE be kind to people. Both in real life and on the internet. You never know what could be lurking behind the scenes, no matter how happy and social they appear.

2. Don't compare your own day to day life with the highlight reels posted on social media.  Nobody is perfect or perfectly happy all of the time; everyone has something they wish they could change. Try to focus on the things that you love and appreciate about your own life everyday, no matter how small or simple they might be compared to what you see online. They are important and they are yours

3. You're not alone. No matter how isolated you feel in your darkest hour, you are not alone in your battle. There are 7.35 billion people on earth; we're all in this together. There are a million people who can identify with your pain, many within your own circle who are doing their best to hide just like you. Please share with close friends or family if you're not okay, even if you just send a simple text explaining "I'm not okay."

4. DON'T QUIT. Many of the stories were from people who persevered through their depression and who are living a richer life on the other side. It sucks but it's not forever. Please don't quit, you're stronger than you realize, give yourself a chance to fight. 

So, thank you. I appreciate everyone who took time to read, share, and respond to my post. Especially those who sent me messages recounting their darkest hours and their long road to recovery. And those who are still fighting their own exhaustive battles yet still offered me words of encouragement and hope. It takes bravery to bare your vulnerability and I appreciate every single message and comment. 

Cheers, 

Michelle

Lessons From the Galaxy

NOTE: Colombia. Holy shit. What a ride. The ultimate planned gone unplanned getaway. There are several stories and thoughts coming out of this trip but I'm also working on several side projects so be sure to stay tuned as they'll be rolling out slowly, one by one. 

 

I don't travel much. I'm usually training on the weekends and spend most of my vacation days on races or going home to visit family. However, I finally spun the travel roulette wheel, landed on Colombia, and booked tickets. 

Fast forward: Colombia. 

The first five days, I was stuck without luggage. If I had been a savvier traveler, I would've packed a solid carry-on stash of extra clothes/food. But I'm not, so I didn't. Baggageless, Akina and I decided to pass the time at Playa Blanca, a beach we had heard mixed reviews about that was a forty minute cab ride from our hostel in Cartegena. Sure, why not.

My first impression of the beach was pure horror. Shaded wet sand littered with cow shit gave way to burning hot sand, vendors shouted and shook their wares in our faces, screaming kids darted in between hordes of families and couples that covered every square inch of available beachfront real estate. It was my nightmare. 

The further we wandered down the beach, the thinner the crowds became until we eventually reached our hostel. Empty. We checked out the cabana, plopped down our money, and then plopped down our asses in the warm, crowd-free sand. Paradise. 

We spent the day in the sun, feeding ice to the adorable stray dogs, and sipping on pina coladas and cuba libres. As the sun set and the deliciously vibrant colours began to flood the skies, I stared out at the ocean and my heart caught in my throat. Happy. Pure, pure happiness shot through my body and warmed me from the inside out until it escaped, hot on my lips and pricked at the back of my eyes. I couldn't help but let the tears trickle down my beaming cheeks. Here on this beach, there were no worries, no problems. I wasn't a failure or a wannabe, I wasn't a disappointment. I wasn't filled with dread about what the hell I would do when I got back. I didn't care about my missing bag, full of irreplaceable gear. I didn't even think about the past moments that tend to haunt me at times like this. I just .... was. I was my toes in the sand, I was my breath, I was my own measured heartbeat, I was the wind gently tangling itself in my hair. It was pure and beautiful and real. How could there ever be a moment better than this? I stood there gazing out over the water until the light faded into velvety darkness.

"Hey," Akina's voice drifted over on the breeze. I looked up at her walking over, she continued, "So that guy over there says we can go see some bioluminescent plankton tonight. It's only $10, want to go?"

We had seen a speck of glowing blue earlier and I geeked out, I've never seen the aurora borealis of the sea and was stoked to see the one lone blue ranger drifting in front of us. I considered it briefly but remembered I had $30 in my account and a nonfunctioning credit card. "Ehhhh... no thanks. I don't want to pay and find out it's not a good night for it or only see, like, ten."

"Come on..." she pressed. "It'll still be worth it. You freaked out over one, even if you saw ten you know you'd be happy." Pause. I mulled it over. She leaned in, "Okay, what if I pay?"

I narrowed my eyes. "Fine."

Ten minutes later, we donned over-sized life jackets in the dark and headed into the blackness beyond the shore at a steady clip. The night was warm, the waters fairly gentle, the ride smooth. I kept trying to mentally talk myself down so I wouldn't be disappointed. I didn't want to picture the photos I had seen plastered all over the internet of glowing beaches and end up seeing ten measly specks. Tough life, right? Akina turned to me to set the record straight, "Imagine stars in the water, like Salt Lake City stars not Moab stars. City stars. It'll still be cool but those photos you always see online are super photoshopped. They're really hard to see in photos." I nodded. I felt less regretful for leaving my phone behind now since I wouldn't have gotten a decent photo anyway.

"Look at the water, do you see?" the guide's tiny shadow pointed to the wake our boat created. It was definitely illuminated but it was a full moon, so I was nonplussed. Meh. I've seen the moon on the ocean water before, nothing to get excited about. I glanced up to see the moon's position and saw it had slipped behind a cloud, leaving the sky black. Holy shit. The water was glowing faintly. My heart skipped. Glowing. Water.

 

Wide-eyed, I looked over at Akina. She caught a glimpse of my face and laughed, "I told you!" The boat was slowing down now, slipping into a dark glassy lagoon. The guide began giving instructions in Spanish but promised to repeat them in English. He didn't. I caught a couple words, something about water and uh...The next thing I knew, we were standing on the side of the boat, ready to jump. 

"3...2...1...JUMP!"

I didn't even hear him finish the word. Immediately, my eyes were filled with glowing salt water. Blue, vibrantly illuminated blue water churned around me as I whipped my head back and forth underwater trying to take it all in before my lungs burned up my breath. My first breath at the surface was a breathless laugh. 

I could hear Akina splashing on the other side of the boat, swimming around to where I was kicking my legs underneath me, whipping up a cloud of light. I couldn't stop laughing. We were kids again, splashing around, giggling, spitting water at each other, and just drinking in the incredible place we found ourselves. 

I cupped a handful of water and looked down, I was holding the Milky Way in my hands. Twinkling stars of tiny sea creatures blinked and shone out from my palms. Swirling with the motion of the water still looking to settle in its new space, they danced and whirled, creating constellations to last seconds instead of lightyears. 

I don't know how long we were in the water or how long the boat ride back to shore lasted. I vaguely remember rinsing off and heading to bed. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw thousands of tiny glowing stars. It was only after we returned that I remembered I hadn't had my phone on me, in fact, neither of us brought a phone. I couldn't have been happier. Had we been fussing with the lighting or choosing between flash or no flash, etc, we wouldn't have been able to truly enjoy those moments we spent swimming among the stars. We became gods in a tiny universe, creating life, watching constellations form and fade, and were both fully present to enjoy it. 

Having spent a good chunk of the trip nursing a potentially damaged phone and letting it sit alone on timeout in its rice bag, I slowly began to cut the chain that bound me to it. Working in social media and marketing for a living, I'm never not on my phone. It was so bad that at one point, I even had two identical phones, one for work and one for me. Even on my runs, I sneak in a Snapchat or check socials if I'm lucky enough to find service. Date nights or listening to friends' stories, every two minutes, I scratch the phone itch and check my list of apps and sites that engrained the habit (addiction?). The greatest moments from the trip weren't captured on my phone, I was lucky enough to live them in real time, with all of my senses. 

Now that I'm sitting home, I think about how it worked out. Truly a blessing in disguise. I've been wanting to wean myself off my phone addiction for over a year, more than ever now that there is no real need lately, but didn't know how. Sometimes, the universe answers your request in a very different way than expected but it answers you all the same. I'm much better about my phone these past few days I've been back home. The time I've spent with others, I've been fully present. The time I've spent outside, I've been completely absorbed by the experience. The trip to Colombia certainly wasn't free and it probably wasn't the most fiscally responsible, but what it has given me in return is worth far more than the scarce cash I sacrificed to receive it.

Akina contemplating the Playa Blanca sunset.  

Akina contemplating the Playa Blanca sunset.  

LIFE, NEAR-DEATH, AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

If you're my mom or dad or if you work for my health insurance company, look away. Don't read. Stop. Right. Now. 

 

Still reading? Okay, cool.

 

A couple weeks ago (a month ago?  I hate math), Akina and I decided to head to Ouray, Colorado for their annual Ice Climbing Festival. Neither of us had ever been ice climbing before and we were dying to get our hands on some ice picks and bad-ass crampons. We both got off late-ish on Friday and headed east toward an icy weekend. 

The drive was relatively uneventful; it was mostly dark, we were hyper and obnoxious as only two road-trippers in their late twenties can be. We sang, we stopped for food, we complained about eating too much food, etc. The closer we got to Ouray, the more snow fell from the darkened sky. I  was uneasy. Not a great time to be in between health insurance coverage. What if I fell while ice climbing? What if I jammed an axe into my leg on the way down? I tried not to think about worst case scenarios for the rest of the drive.

We rolled through town in a near white-out storm around 1am. We were creeping along the road at an agonizingly slow pace but we couldn't see far enough ahead to go any faster.  I was getting impatient. I've never seen an ice park in person and was dying to go check it out, blizzard or not. 

"Let's go check out the ice park first and then find somewhere to park the car," I suggested. Akina didn't seem thrilled with the idea but I knew she was just as eager as I was to see the park, even if the weather was shitty. We cruised past the edge of town and began to wind up the road toward the park. 

Soon, we came to a fork in the road, the right hand side leading up the canyon had been blocked by a flimsy-looking temporary barrier. Akina continued on the unblocked road to the left, I pouted quietly for a second and tried again, "Hey, on the way back down, let's just go up and check out the park. Come onnnn."

The road was too flat to give us a good view of the sleeping city below. So we turned around and headed back toward the blocked off road. "I don't know, it looks like it's blocked off for a reason," she said. I rolled my eyes, "Oh, come on. If they really didn't want us to go up there, they would have tried way harder. I mean, at least block off both sides of the road, you know? That's such a half-assed barrier."

Still reluctant, Akina began to head up the canyon, rolling slowly past the barrier. I was giddy. I really love getting my way. 

Now, let me make this clear. By nature, I'm not a rule-breaker per se. I don't like getting caught breaking the rules and I don't like blatantly disobeying laws. BUT I am definitely a rule-bender. If there is a loophole, I'm so there. I'm a rule pusher, boundary toe-r. If the barrier had been all the way across the road, I don't think I would have been ballsy enough to get out and move it. Plus, it was below freezing outside and the snow looked pretty deep.

Up, up, up the canyon we went. Big, fat flakes of snow whirled wildly around us. STOKED. We were going to see the ice pa-

"Dude, there's no way my car is going to make it up this," Akina cut into my thoughts. "Look at how much snow is on the road." I looked. Ulgh, she was right per usual. The snow was settling onto the road, covering it with a thick blanket of powdery white. She looked out at the white-speckled night, "Yeah, fuck this. I'm turning around." I sighed and stared out the passenger's side window past the sheer drop off and toward the city lights twinkling in the distance. Mad bummer. I really don't like not getting what I want.

She put her SUV in reverse and went to make a quick three point turn. She didn't even make it to the second point. The next few seconds felt like they lasted a lifetime. As she pressed the brake, the car instantly went into a slide. Backwards. Fast.

"Fuck! Fuck! What the fuck!" She screamed. 

"Akina! Put it in drive! Drive!" I shrieked. 

"IT IS. I ca-can't fucking stop!" the pure panic in her voice shot a surge of adrenaline through me.

Both of us scrambling around the center console desperately searching for the emergency brake while our right hands scrambled for the "oh shit" handle most car doors have. No luck. We were heading straight toward the cliff edge, where we would tumble hundreds of feet to our icy doom. The SUV was hurtling backwards now; the deep powdery snow eliminated any hopes of traction. 

Suddenly, the car jolted sideways as the tires miraculously found some grip. We shot across the road toward the mountainside and slammed into a snow bank. Stunned, we sat in silence for a beat. Snow whirled outside.

"Well, shit." 

Akina stared at me. I stared back. I couldn't even speak. Then suddenly I erupted into laughter. Hysterical, crazed laughter. I don't even know where it came from, it just bubbled out of me like a spring. The only way explanation is that my body was completely shocked and ecstatic to still be alive when it must've thought it was facing the end. 

She began to laugh uneasily after a minute, too. Understandably, she was worried about the state of her car. I hopped out into the knee deep snow and inspected the damage. Based on the sounds we heard, I was expecting nothing short of total fender carnage. Nope. Nothing. The grinding and crunching we heard ended up being icy snow being broken up under the front bumper, not the snow-covered boulders we had imagined. Luckily, we had service. We called the local police station to see if they could send somebody out to help us out. After waiting for about twenty minutes, a kindly officer in a Jeep helped shovel us out of the snow bank. He probably thought we were idiots. I'm glad he didn't confirm that fact by looking at my California ID. Oops.

But shit. What a crazy feeling, though. Not the laughing, which sounded more like breathless barks of relief than any type of glee, but the seconds we spent trapped in time, speeding out of control toward our inevitable demise. If you've ever faced your death, whether you were in actual danger of losing your life or just thought you were (like this story of mine), you know what this is like. Everything is happening at hyper-speed yet each millisecond feels stretched out and suspended in time, spread out like beads of water in zero gravity. In that moment, however short it was, I knew I was going to die. And oddly, I wasn't sad. I wasn't mad or panicked. I felt weirdly at peace, like a humble acceptance of the finality of it all. "Well, alright, self. This is it. We're at the end." I didn't find myself thinking about my family (sorry, fam) or seeing my life flash before my eyes, I was somewhere deep inside, in a place I've stumbled upon only a few times before. The feeling was somewhere between a long sigh and a tired smile. 

While it may not seem like much, that experience has stuck with both of us. It shook me to the core. It reminded me that we are constantly assessing situations and obsessing over limiting the risk in our lives. We forget that there are still innumerable factors we can never control. The whole time I was worried about the perceived risk posed by ice climbing yet what actually almost killed me was a situation I would have never thought to include in my worst case scenario planning. Not everything in this situation was out of our control. Yes, heading past the barrier was definitely our error (okay, my error, Akina, but would you really want to live without me? no) and not the result of some freak accident. However, shit happens. Think of how many car accidents do we see every day on our way home. How many times do we turn on the news to see the reports of fatal auto accidents, murder, or mass bombings?

A friend of mine from college passed away a couple weeks ago in a horrific car crash, which is partially why this topic and that night have been weighing so heavily on my mind lately. The night he died he also made a couple of choices that fateful night that made the difference between him driving around town today and not, just like I did. Why was I so lucky? We can be so quick to blame others for the decisions they made that lead to their deaths (Why was he not wearing a seat belt? Why was that girl walking through that part of town? Who the hell vacations in the wartorn Middle-East?) but we fail to recognize how many times we've made similar choices but walked away, completely unaware that the choice we made just saved our life. How many times have you texted while driving? Not worn a seat belt? Didn't look both ways before crossing? And honestly, how many times have you gotten behind the wheel after a night out when you probably should've called a cab? Maybe these scenarios don't apply to you. Maybe you follow all the rules. But living carefully won't always protect you from those who choose unwisely. And that could mean the difference between you getting to see another morning or not. 

But this shouldn't be depressing news. In fact, this should be a little freeing. Why? Well, because usually the shit we stress over in our daily lives is very rarely life or death. It's often self-imposed, unproductive, and completely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. In 100 years, will anyone remember? Probably not. Putting too much emphasis on work, social, or personal situations robs us of the time we do have on this planet, which never seems to be as much as we'd like to think. It takes away time better spent being productive and cultivating happiness. We should be taking more time to just enjoy the things and people we're lucky enough to have. Tell that person how you feel. Smile at a stranger. Smile at your reflection. Hug your mother. Let go of grudges. Pick up that book. Travel to that place. Drink in the sunshine. Breathe deeply and enjoy it. And the next breath and the next one, too. One day, this will end and for most of us, we won't be ready. We have so much left to do. But we're the masters of putting things off, claiming, "I'll do that tomorrow/next week/next month" when we know damn well that we won't do it. Do the fucking thing. And that thing, do that, too. Do it now.  Maximize your time on this planet. Get the most out of this human experience we're given. We always convince ourselves we have forever but the truth is, we don't always have more time.

 

If you'd like to donate to the Brett Jones Memorial Fund (to help with funeral expenses and flight costs for his brother overseas), click here.  

 

 

Go With the Flow

Before starting, my climbing partner told me,"Don't fall. Not if you're tired. Not if you're scared. Do. Not. Fall." The spire loomed over me as I quieted the doubts, sore muscles, and bruised limbs scraped raw by too many brushes with sandstone. I shielded my eyes and contemplated the gloomy promise of a bad time rumbling steadily towards us. Was I really doing this right now? I turned my back on the doubt creeping in, pulled my shoes on and wiggled into my harness. 

Read More

The Art of Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

"What the fuck did I just do?!" I put my hands over my face as my heart leapt to my throat and my stomach dropped as I began to shake.

I spend a lot of time thinking about fear. Mostly because it plays such a huge role in my everyday life. Whether it's the good kind of instinctual fear that keeps me from acting on insane impulses like driving off a bridge "just to see what would happen" to the fear that holds me back from racking up huge amounts of debt on my credit card, it occupies a huge part of my life.

Humans have such an interesting relationship with fear. There's the deep seated primordial kind that we have no control over, the adrenaline kick when you get startled, the immediate urge to duck when you see a shadow passing over head, those dreams where you're falling and suddenly jolt awake. You know, the kind of sudden fear that makes your heart leap to your throat while your blood roars in your ears. Most animals operate solely in this base level of reactionary living, acting instantly on these fear impulses but they lack the capacity to override it.  That's our job. As humans, we get this unique cognitive boost that allows us to experience this absolute terror but also physically engage our minds to weigh the potential costs associated with the risk, decide it's worth it, and then command our muscles to move us forward to do the thing. Sometimes it's instantaneous, other times it takes a little coaxing but the fact that we can do that at all is so fascinating to me.

It also fascinates me that so many of us have these paralyzing fears that aren't instinctual, like the fear of what other people will think of us if we stray from the beaten path, what will happen if we quit the job we hate to start a completely new career. We thrive on safety. We relinquish our freedom of choice so we can lounge in the safety of the cage we've created for ourselves. We find homes we can retreat to at the end of the day and lock out the world. We find the safest cars we can afford to transport us to jobs we're not passionate about because they "offer great benefits" and "job security". This has come to be defined as the "American Dream". So many of us are afraid of taking risks, without realising that by taking your car on the road every day or eating junk food regularly, we're engaging in daily behaviours that are far more likely to kill us than chasing our passions. We suffer from stress about our emails and deadlines, projects and bills, money and debt without realizing the huge toll this takes on our health and on the enjoyment of the very "life" we are supposed to be working toward.

At what point did we move from that instinctual fear to this fear of the hypothetical and why can't we use the same manual override technique to conquer it? What is this fear costing us every time we feed it at the expense of our passions? We let this passive fear put a leash on our abilities and build a cage around us, while we stare longingly at those living meaningfully beyond our prison's bars. So much of what we suffer through on a daily basis, we do because we believe it's "safe" and that if we keep grinding at it, in a few decades we'll finally begin to chase the dreams of our youth. We are gambling on our youth. We're operating on the false promise that maybe one day, we will have the time, money, and opportunity to do the things that bring our life meaning. What bullshit.

There will never be a right time to do something. Never. There will always be reasons why you shouldn't or "signs"/people that will try to convince you the timing isn't right or that it's too hard or too different from what you know. But by giving into these obstacles, you're taking the risk that things won't get worse, conditions won't change.

You should do the thing.

Last night, while re-reading and editing this very post, I did the thing. A very stupid thing, but a thing I did nonetheless. I've been wanting to sign up for ultra races this year but I've been letting excuses masquerade as sound "reasons" and have successfully put it off for over two months. Thanks, fear. After reading this post, over and over, I finally decided to get off my preachy pulpit and put my money where my mouth is (okay, so I was peer-pressured. Same thing, right?). I signed up for not one, but TWO, ultramarathon races. My 2016 officially begins in two weeks with the Red Hot 55K in Moab, Utah. The second I submitted my payment information, I felt sick to my stomach with agonising fear.

"What the fuck did I just do?!" I put my hands over my face as my heart leapt to my throat and my stomach dropped as I began to shake. I stared at my computer. I stared at my mushy, out of shape legs swinging on the kitchen barstool. I stared at my intact, normal-coloured toenails. What the hell was I thinking? And, more importantly, what the hell am I going to do now? Do the thing, I guess.

Humans are excellent survivalists, our primitive ancestors were found living in some of the harshest conditions on earth. We adapt and thrive. As hearty as humans are, we're not immortal and we millions of us die everyday doing the most mundane things. The odds are in your favour that you'll survive whatever big undertaking you've got up your sleeve, don't let the "what-ifs" hold you back. The biggest risk you could take is falsely believing you have more time. Do the thing and do it now.

Source: www.gofundme.com/romophobic2016

the Importance of Defining "a Li'l Sketch"

 Ice crystals blasted our weary faces while the swirling snow in the air dropped visibility to almost nothing. Some gusts were ferocious enough to knock us over and pummel us down into the snow. It promised to be slow going yet every minute we wasted at the top of the mountain increased the chances we would run into avalanches further down the slopes. Nobody wanted to think of the endless miles of steep traverses, treacherous avalanche chutes, and rocky cliff faces between us and the whiskey waiting for us in the car. 

Read More

Befriending Failure

From the day you set your goal to the day you reach it, you will wage a battle between what’s safe and what’s right. So how do you confront failure and use it to your advantage?

Read More

Humble Beginning

While the road to my first marathon isn’t particularly tragic, it was incredibly challenging. I faced down a million signs telling me to turn around, to quit. Working toward what seem like impossible goals is daunting and frankly, terrifying. But I’ve found that the biggest limits we face are the ones we impose on ourselves.

Read More