Living Abroad, Personal Essay

What is an (Almost) Unsalvageable life?

What is an Almost Unsalvageable life

I rarely drink in public anymore. To be fair, I don’t do much of anything around large groups of people. I don’t drink in public because I prefer to do my drinking in places where crowd control won’t be an issue, but also because I seem to get cornered by strangers that need to unload a secret or issue they’ve been struggling with. As they tell me about losing their job, accidentally running over their dog with the car, and/or cheating on their husband, my nervous visual search for an emergency exit must look like everyone else’s empathy and attentive listening.


Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t care. Sometimes, we make such shameful messes that bar-stool confessions to strangers seems like a reasonable first step on the road to redemption. I get that. I really do. I’m quickly draining the dregs of my Jack and Coke to scurry to the exit because I can’t do anything meaningful to help, aside from listening. I wish I were still the guy that had life all figured out and could share its secrets. I wish I had a spray-bottle of life’s “stain-remover” that we could use to clean up messes. But I don’t.


For this reason (and several others), this post is particularly difficult for me to craft. I’m about to be the guy that unloads a pile of issues that I’ve been struggling with. There will be some surprises. However, you deserve to know what you’re getting into. So, I’m sorry in advance. The next round is on me…


I turned my otherwise idyllic life into a big pile of steaming mess in 2010.


A 13-year marriage ended in divorce. My ex-wife assumed sole custody of our adopted daughter. I medically retired from an 18-year military career as an Air Force surgeon/scientist. There was nearly complete alienation from friends and family. Not much sleep.


I was depressed. Very depressed.


I wasn’t much good at committing suicide (fortunately), but good enough to earn three ICU stays after each attempt. Persistent efforts from psychiatrists, psychologists and pastors to counsel me back from the precipice fell on deaf ears. Cocktails of antidepressants, anxiolytics, and even antipsychotics didn’t have much effect (aside from drastic swings in my sleep patterns and weight). Twelve sessions of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) left me with a profound distrust of uncapped batteries and electrical outlets. And depression.


I lived in limbo for two years. Unable to commit suicide, but too miserable to live.


Between periods of profound malaise, I experimented with life-threatening adventures in the hopes that fate would finish what I couldn’t. I tried parachuting, canyoneering, and even eating Taco Bell regularly. It was delicious fun, but I kept surviving. In fact, it was during some of these outdoor adventures that I made a surprising discovery. I enjoyed being outside. In nature. I could think more clearly. And, thank you sweet baby Jesus, I could get a full nights sleep again.


I eventually found that it wasn’t the thrill-seeking behavior that provided a reprieve from my crippling depressive symptoms; it was the directed movement surrounded by living things. I didn’t need a helmet (or Mylanta) any longer to regain the necessary focus and motivation to start putting my life back together.


Hiking is now my medication of choice. And I’m not the only one. It’s a thing now – it’s called Ecotherapy. It seems to be working for me: I’ve been able to venture out of my dad’s storage room (AKA “the cave”) long enough to travel most of Europe; I’ve convinced an amazingly patient woman that I’m stable enough to marry; and I haven’t had a severe depressive episode in three years.


My life is still a big pile of steaming mess, but its getting better. I think I’m ready to take on the challenge of a long distance hike, to feel like I have a purpose again, and to connect with people in a meaningful way…


Thank you very much for sticking it out with me (and I don’t blame you if you had the urge to run for the exit). I guess this means you’re either incredibly patient, it’s a slow news week, or (hopefully) you’re my kind of people.


  • Reply Monica March 17, 2016 at 6:24 pm

    Hi! First, I have to say I’m very honored to be part of this, and second, that I’m very lucky to call you my husband. I know who you are and I love you for what you are. I know life is not perfect and often seems unfair, but everything happens for a reason.
    That reason is sometimes surprising, but that is the beauty of life.
    I know you put a lot of work, time, dedication into this, so I want to thank you for it!
    Something that will help us better understand life and try to see its prospective as clear as possible.
    Let’s all enjoy this journey together!

  • Reply Matt McHale April 30, 2016 at 5:01 pm


    Thanks for posting a link to your blog. Congratulations to you and Monica! It will be great to track along with you on this next journey in your life. Love you, brother.

    • Reply Gabriel May 5, 2016 at 2:34 pm

      Thanks Matt! It would be great to get together again once I finish this hike brother. It has been far too long

  • Reply delrowbeatrice January 23, 2017 at 5:24 am

    Hi, Gabriel!
    First of all, I am so happy that I stumbled across your blog (even if, you stumbled across mine first! 🙂 )
    Your words, though written months ago, moved me today. I’m at a coffee shop right now, and it’s a good thing there’s not that many people here, because I smiled when I read the part where your life turned around for the better. I even gasped softly, and my mom, who’s beside me, asked why, so I ended up reading parts of this post to her. I don’t normally write comments this long, but with you and your moving words, how could I not go on and on?!
    I’m so happy for you and the joy you’ve found–the light at the end of your tunnel. You and your story are amazing. I’m sure you’re going to inspire so many others along the way!
    Thank you for writing this.

    Oh! And thanks for following my blog too! 🙂

    • Reply Gabriel January 23, 2017 at 5:44 am

      Beatrice, thanks for the thoughtful comment. It’s kinda fun to look back on this post, written just over 6 months ago, and recognize the differences time, a 2,200 mile hike through the Appalachian mountains, and a lot of personal growth can trigger.

      The part about my life still being a mess is still probably true, but now the mess seems a little brighter, and a lot more manageable.

      Thanks for following here, and I’m looking forward to following along as you continue our journey as well!

  • Reply brickthomas January 24, 2017 at 7:36 pm

    Sharing you journey to hell and back was bold and inspirational. My other thought is your one heck of a writer. Your journey was a sad one but the way you told it made me smile more than once. But what the hell do I know, I studied medicine not literature. Nonetheless I’m going keep reading. Best wishes. Brick

    • Reply Gabriel January 24, 2017 at 8:55 pm

      That is perfect. I’m toying with the notion that the bad years and the depressive episodes might serve as an inspirational counterpoint on my way to becoming that better version of myself. Maybe there is some might find a bit of hope (or at least a bit of comic relief) in sharing the stumbling steps of a riches-to-rags-to-Hoodies blogger.

      It’s also great to meet a fellow doc. Although I quit my surgical career far earlier than is typical, this training, as I’m sure you can appreciate, might actually help us to appreciate the “right-brained” elements of our new vocation/vacation.

      Thanks for following me here, and I’ll absolutely be a regular follower on your blog as well. You’re logistic roadmap for the Camino is going to be very helpful as Monica and I prepare to walk the Camino this year.

      • Reply brickthomas January 24, 2017 at 9:27 pm

        I think you have a lot to offer and that medical experience gives you a unique view of humanity. Or perhaps inhumanity if we’re looking at medical training. 🙂 Have a great Camino. It’s a big change from the AT, espressos every day and a light pack.

        • Reply Gabriel January 25, 2017 at 10:18 pm

          I’m counting on those espressos (and pilgrims meals). Otherwise, I’d have a hard time convincing Monica to join me.

  • Reply lifelessons January 28, 2017 at 8:02 am

    Gabe–I’ve enjoying following your progress through several of your stories. Your solution to depression might be needed by millions –if there is an environment left to wander through after this administration is finished. Crossed fingers. Happy to be following your life as reflected in your blog and thanks for your comments on mine.

    • Reply Gabriel January 28, 2017 at 8:55 am

      Thanks so much Judy! It might be hypocritical for a surgeon to eschew traditional treatment (pharmacotherapy and counseling) for for mood disorders, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest to my patients dump their medication or cancel appointments with their therapist if it’s working for them. Fortunately, I’m retired, so promoting the efficacy of ecotherapy is less of an issue.

      However, I’ve seen miraculous improvement in others who, prior to starting a long hike, were unable to function in society. I’m one of them.

      But, it’s time for me to get off my soapbox (for now).

      Thanks so much for following. I have quite a bit to learn about blogging, and writing, but I’m very interested. Please feel free to share if you have feedback. In the meantime, I look forward to peeking in on your blog as well to learn from a veteran.

      • Reply lifelessons January 28, 2017 at 9:27 am

        I think more doctors could benefit by adding alternative treatment to regular western medical practices. After foot surgery, I recovered so quickly that my foot surgeon was amazed, but in spite of the fact that he was a friend, he paid little attention when I revealed I’d used aloe vera and rolfing to speed healing. I was up and walking normally within a few weeks rather than the months and even year that it took other friends who had the same surgery recover. Saying one way is the only way is short-sighted, even in medicine. I even had a poetry workshop “guru” use exercise as a cure for writer’s block. It worked.

  • Reply lifelessons January 28, 2017 at 8:04 am

    P.S. In regards to your vampire-hunting activities, try New Zealand. Have you seen the mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows?” If not, you must do so. It will aid you in your quest.

    • Reply Gabriel January 28, 2017 at 8:56 am

      Yes! Saw it several years ago and can still remember it very vividly. Almost as funny as Flight of the Concord!

      • Reply lifelessons January 28, 2017 at 9:23 am

        And have you seen the same director’s “Search for the Wilderpeople?”

        • Reply Gabriel January 28, 2017 at 11:51 pm

          I’ll have to add that one to my growing list of things to watch.

  • Reply lisanne3015 February 25, 2017 at 5:53 am

    Happy to read your brave story. Thanks for reading some of mine! Happy Saturday!

    • Reply Gabriel February 25, 2017 at 5:12 pm

      Wow, this seems like such a long time ago already. Thank you for prompting this reminder of the change that can happen in one short year.

      I’m happy to follow along on your blog, and hope you stop back by as well!

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