Peaks and Valleys

This one's gonna be a little personal. 

*exhale*

Okay, let's talk about this past winter but let's start in California.

My life in California and my life here in Utah barely seem to share the same protagonist. Granted, it's been almost four years since I've moved to Utah and like most people, I've changed with time. But this new high altitude life barely follows the same trajectory as my time spent in California. 

Parties, happy hours, VIP tables at clubs, closing down the bars, and dancing on strangers ruled my life in California. I was more interested in running up bar tabs with friends than running the nature trails abundant in Sacramento.

It's a far cry from how I spend my time now, which consists of avoiding people at all costs and spending as much time on the trail as possible. A few things remain the same, though. I still hate washing my hair. I still enjoy a good craft beer with friends. I'm still competitive as fuck. Oh, and I still deal with cycles of depression. Fun stuff.

My battle with depression started before I was even born. It lurked in the DNA of my ancestors, slithered along our family lines for generations, before tangling itself in the genetic coding that would eventually produce me. I saw its effects on family members but was too young to pick up on the foreshadowing. The weight was placed upon my own shoulders the summer after 8th grade, when I went on anti-depressants for the first time.

The next four years would be a whirlwind of rebellion, textbook "teen angst", suicide attempts, and hospitalizations as I navigated the turbulent seas of standard high school bullshit, endless combinations of psychiatric drugs, my parents' divorce, and the end of what I considered my "perfect life". 

Once in college, things settled down. I was off antidepressants completely. Once in a while, I could still feel the weight of my genetic curse pressing down on me but it never felt as crippling as the years before. I felt aware enough to slow the cycle before it progressed to unmanageable levels. I was under control. I thought I was in the clear.

But this past winter, I thought about suicide for the first time in over a decade. I thought about it almost every day. It wasn't a fully formed plan, it was mostly just a whisper. An abstract wish. It blew in with the late winter snowstorms but refused to melt away when the springtime snow left the mountains. The weight of its suggestion threatened to suffocate me every morning as I lay in bed, unable to generate enough willpower to even sit up. What would happen if I just didn't get up? I wondered. What if I just quit? What if I just stopped ...existing? It would  be so much easier for everyone. But inevitably, Mak would rustle in his bed and my thoughts would then turn to the logistics of dying and how much of a hassle it would be for my family and friends who would be left to sort out my affairs postmortem. It was only after sighing at how much of a burden I was alive or dead that I would rise to start my day.

At this point in my life, I was working three jobs. Two of which I loved, none of which I hated. I still had a fantastic support system of friends, family, and coworkers who often reminded me I could ask them for help with anything. I had a wonderfully affectionate pup who loved me as much as I loved him, who depended on me to keep moving forward. I really did appreciate and love my life. But even as I spent wild nights with friends, went on adventures, played with Mak, and joked around with coworkers, I just couldn't shake the heavy fog that shrouded my every movement. I felt like I could barely muster the strength to breathe, let alone call for help. I felt frustrated and ashamed. How dare I feel this apathetic about my happy life when there are people in this world who are experiencing real hardships? Pitiful. How dare I feel so numb when my life is so rich with friends and rife with potential? Disgusting. I could no longer face myself in the mirror, this emotionless little asshole who couldn't even appreciate how good she truly had it. Pathetic. I could barely recognize myself let alone recognize that I was in dire need of help, so I stayed silent and overwhelmed, praying it would go away. Eager to escape the self-loathing and helplessness, I retreated deeper into the emptiness that threatened to swallow me whole. 

This is why it's difficult to explain depression to those who have never seen it or felt its gloomy grip. It's not a sadness, it's not an unhappiness. I really, really liked my life. I was still making people laugh, hanging with friends, going on dates, and for all the world, functioning like a normal chick in her late twenties. It just felt like it was happening to somebody else, like I was watching my own life projected on a distant screen. Emotions were superficial, actively flickering across the screen in real time but never reaching a place where they could actually touch me. I was losing connection to the world around me, my inner flame flickering more faintly every day. It's not the sadness that cuts you down, it's the heavy numbness that threatens to snuff you out of being.

It took months but eventually, I told my parents that I wasn't okay. I told my brother that I felt like I was crumbling under the burden of my own life. I told my roommate that I was distant because I wasn't myself, not because I didn't like her. It wasn't easy to articulate but I kept trying to explain in little ways that something was wrong. "I'm not okay." "I'm having a rough day." "I don't want to die, I just want to hibernate for a few months." "Can you tell me something good about myself? I hate myself today and need to hear something postive." The more I talked about it, the more I was able to identify what was happening to me and I began to take steps to save myself. Slowly, the fog began to thin and I began to get sensation back in my soul. I felt physically lighter in the morning, the burden having finally slipped from my shoulders. I felt alive enough to begin running again.

While this is my personal experience with depression, it's far from unique in the trail and ultra running community as well as the outdoor community at large. Most of us are former addicts, victims of abuse, or bearers of mental illnesses; all survivors of one battle or another. There's something therapeutic about grinding out tough endeavors in the wilderness. We don't run to escape as much as we run to discover. We push ourselves to map out the edges of our physical and mental limitations, to study the borders before charging past them into uncharted reserves of strength. In solitary mountain passes, we seek to explore the dizzying abysses that lurk within ourselves, to shine a light on the demons skulking in the shadows, and to relinquish their hold over us.

Not every single encounter with the trail is especially groundbreaking or filled with unbridled inspiration but the repetitive, physical exertion carries us far above our cluttered daily lives and raises us closer to nirvana. With every foot of rising elevation, our bodies and lives regain purpose, reconnecting us to something larger than ourselves. This is the gift Utah's trails gave me. This isn't the place I live, it's the reason why I'm still alive.

Sometimes the road to happiness isn't a road at all, but a dusty deer trail, winding its way up to a seemingly impossible summit. The joy isn't found in conquering the peak but in the unrelenting persistence it takes to raise ourselves up from the valley floor, like a phoenix ascending from the ashes that once confined it.  

Remember.
It's okay to not be okay. Just don't quit. You are needed and valuable; don't quit. 
If you (or anyone you know) are in this situation or feel overwhelmed and need to talk, please call 800-273-8255 or text "CONNECT" to 741741.