It’s nearly 5:30PM and I’m ready to call it a night. I’ve just finished an 18hr transatlantic flight from Bucharest to Denver. Monica’s Prada-scented goodbye kiss and teary-eyed command to get back home as soon as I can is still fresh in my mind. I wondered how I managed to convince her that my sleeping in the outside for 6 months was a good idea…
Wouldn’t it be great if this sketch portrayed Monica’s initial reaction as I brought up the idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail? A hearty, full-body laugh releases all those pleasure generating neurotransmitters like dopamine and endorphins, flooding the brain with feel-good associations. This was the kind of environment I wanted her brain to be floating in as I broached the topic of a 6-month backpacking trip along the mountain ranges of the East Coast.
The sketch is Monica, and the infectious laugh is hers, but I’m pretty sure that we we’re in Barcelona at the time and I was probably telling her some story about fumbling through performing my first breast exam in medical school. Or it could have been the one about the conflicting expressions of relief on my patient’s face as I drained an enormous thigh abscess versus my expression when the stream of pus found its way to my face. Regardless, I’m sure I was telling one of my stock stories designed to make me look both heroic and adorable at the same time.
I didn’t have anymore heroic yet adorable stories to lead off with, and I had fairly low expectations of controlling Monica’s brain environment. This is partly because she’s too smart to let me get away with any of my scientific trickery, but mostly because I couldn’t even control my own brain environment. My brain was drowning in its own swirling sludge of doubts and depression.
In fact, I left Romania several weeks earlier in order to weather another depressive episode back in Colorado at Dad’s place. Despite Dad’s attempts to move me into a bedroom, my favorite place to hide when I was in one of my “funks” is a converted storage room. Packed with cardboard boxes, dusty books, unhung pictures leaning against the walls, and lit by a dim reading lamp, this space became my cave. A pile of blankets on the floor, wedged between the closet and a utility table, formed my cocoon. My cave is safe, and familiar, and an ideal place to ride out a funk (I know what you’re thinking, but I can’t let you have it – you’ll have to create your own cave). Dad would gently nudge me out of the house occasionally to go skiing or trail running (depending on the season), but otherwise, I rarely left my cocoon until my funk passed.
After a few weeks of denying the familiar lies that my depression told me: “I’m so broken, I’m unsalvageable,” and “the world would be a better place without me in it,” these lies faded into the periphery. Vague memories of my accomplishments as a surgeon, scientist, and long-distance runner stopped suggesting journeys that I failed to follow to completion. I sensed Dad’s unobtrusive but protective presence just beyond the door of my cave, and felt Monica’s devotion despite having a crazy husband. I must not be ALL bad if they were still sticking with me. I was ready to slough off the stale film created after several weeks of inertia. Time to start living again.
Emerging from my funk with an uncharacteristic sense of purpose, I did what anyone looking to commemorate a new beginning would do. I put on my cleanest hoodie and walked to the nearest Taco Bell. On the way to a celebratory feast, I envisioned myself in a position to make a meaningful contribution again, to connect with people. Particularly vivid images claimed center-stage in my mind: I was hoisted up on the shoulders of a grateful crowd, receiving the hand-shake praise from some important dignitary, seeing the joy-filled smile on the face of a previously injured child… that kind of thing.
My pace slowed as a few nagging doubts surfaced. Won’t the next depressive episode interrupt any big plans I make? That I hadn’t been gainfully employed for several years was something I could probably work around, but my tendency to turn into a cornered rabbit in social situations was going to limit my potential in corporate cultures. The more I thought about it, I hadn’t been able to avoid cave-worthy anxiety/depression while trying to tackle something challenging, around new people, for years. Except when I was hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail. Hiking the Appalachian Trail…
I kept walking. Each step of my right foot punctuated my internal dialog. “Fine. I’m not a normal person. Who is?” As traffic whizzed by me, I remembered the fresh air, silence aside from soothing nature noises, and the feel of damp leaves over packed dirt on my toes as I strolled through a forest. Yup. It’s time for another hike.
Taco Bell didn’t disappoint as I devoured a pile of burritos and crunchy tacos; doubly-deserved because I made it through another funk, and because I had a plan to do something meaningful again. I was going to hike until I discovered a better version of myself.
Selling the idea to Monica was going to be difficult. This would be my third trip to Georgia, and on each of the previous hikes, the strain of being apart became obvious despite her attempts to put on a brave face. I didn’t want to hurt her, but convinced myself that this journey would be less painful than following our current path.
I tried to ignore my elevated heart rate and the whooshing sound of helicopter rotors in my ears as my Skype request went through.
“Hey Love! Are you feeling better?” She looked concerned and a little sad and beautiful.
I told her I was feeling better and apologized for having to escape to my cave (again). I briefly considered abandoning any plans that didn’t take me back to her, but ultimately decided to jump in. “Love, we can’t keep doing this. I’ve got to find a way to exist. To live. You know?” I wasn’t doing a very good job of getting my point across. I was about to dig up one of my heroic/adorable stories, but she spoke first.
“You’re going to take another hike aren’t you?”
Maybe this was going to be OK after all. “Yes, Love. I don’t really know why, but while I’m hiking, I’m able to think, to relax, and maybe, hopefully, this time I’ll be able to find a way to live through the funks AND be around people again. We can be happy, together.”
We caught up on recent events in our respective continents, then the conversation shifted to logistics. I would fly back so we could spend a month together, then I would head for Georgia (after a brief pit stop in Colorado to collect my gear and hopefully the chance to sneak in one last ski trip with Dad).
I thought we were about to wrap up the conversation when she apparently reached a decision.
“Love, I think you should hike the whole trail this time. You need to get your confidence back. And if you don’t finish it this time, you’re probably just going to want to try again next year.”
I love that she knows me so well.