‘An Appalachian Education’
Elizabeth ‘Too Damn Short’ Wellner
In 2000, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II, anxiety disorder and chronic depression. I’ve lived through incest and the fallout has been severe. In 49 years, I have made it through suicide attempts, hospitals, weight loss, weight gain, self injury, OCD like tendencies, panic attacks, PTSD, alcohol abuse, too much food , not enough food, too much sleep, not enough sleep, thousands of hours ‘on the couch’, multiple psychologists/psychiatrists and at least 20 different medications in as many years.
Sometime in 2015, the AT came up in conversation with my husband and he casually said, ‘You should do that’. I said, ’Ok’. Much like the rest of our 28 years together, he had no idea what was about to happen and to be honest, neither did I. As a survivor, I’m constantly looking for things that will make me feel that my fight with ‘The Big Black Dog’ is not what defines me as a person and the trail felt like a challenging, or insane, way to investigate a new type of self care.
I boldly declared 2016 ‘The Year of Being a Badass’! Some of the items on my list included: Picking up a snake, removing my own stitches after knee surgery, spending a wedding anniversary apart from the hubs (I was on-trail, he was in another country), getting a tattoo, donating 8 inches of my hair and becoming a published author. I was convinced that my bad ass moves would make Chuck Norris stand in awe. Ok, well, maybe not, but I was sure impressed
I’ve been a hiker/camper since I was 6 months old so the newbie knowledge of the outdoors was safely tucked in my hip belt pocket. But 2,200 miles? In the rain? In the heat? In the snow? In a row? In 6 months? *gulp*
As so many times before, the doubt came crashing in and I routinely weighed my chance for success with the scales of my past. I was determined that this was a chance to lighten the load of those moments of self-doubt and helplessness that I have waded through all my life and carry a very different kind of load. One that would have me laughing, crying and wondering why the hell I packed deodorant.
I went down the magic rabbit hole of Google for detailed information and Facebook provided endless groups to join to get my inner happy hiker dance going. Once I got to the forum on managing menstruation on the trail, I ran screaming from the computer shouting, ‘No f*cking way! Are you kidding me? I am not dealing with THAT in the woods!’ In time, I realized that this too was part of Momma Nature and that’s just who I was looking to hang with. I managed to pull up my big girl gators and slid that information into the ‘That’s all part of it’ side pocket of my pack for easy access.
I read so much that it became shockingly clear that this was going. to. be. hard. We all know the physical game is often dwarfed by the mental game so the trick was to find balance between the two and stick with it like a tick in New Jersey.
I pointed myself north, to Maine, in late April on a flip flop from Harpers Ferry. I headed into the known, the unknown, the divine and the outrageous. Blisters, chaffing, twisted ankles, aching hips, knees swollen bigger than baseballs, critters, bears, bugs, everything wet for days and days and days and something called the ‘Deuce of Spades’ filled every day. It took a little while but I eventually saw and embraced the way of the trail— and the hiker box.
I hiked along thinking of things off the trail and kept waiting for some phantasmic epiphany to strike me in the middle of enjoying my Cliff Bar that would open the universe to me. Somehow, I was missing the message, the meaning and the answers. That moment never came. At least not that way.
I spent my days fumbling over boulder fields in Pennsylvania wondering how my relationship with my parents fell apart. I spent my nights in Maryland listening to crickets while thinking of how to manage the side effects of my medications. I trekked through New Jersey mulling over major life decisions and coming up with nothing. After the first week, I started to feel worse about the whole proposition and sat in my tent on a cold and rainy afternoon saying to myself, ‘What in the hell am I doing?’ I felt lost, confused and could still see doubt peeking out from every tree I passed chuckling and flipping me off.
While waiting for my Ramen to boil during a lunch break, I though of the question that so many people asked me before I began following the white blazes. ‘Why did you decide to hike the trail?’ I never really had an answer. To walk 5 millions steps? Because I like to poop in a privy? To control my pain and put it where it belonged? To see how long I could go without a shower? I had always wanted to run a marathon but even after years of trying, I just wasn’t a runner. Maybe this was my marathon? I still didn’t know. I kept walking.
I found that pushing the limits of my physical and mental game started to morph into confidence. Just knowing that I was hiking the AT, solo, began to make me feel fierce, empowered and undeniably ‘Badass’. Depression and hopelessness began to fade ever so slightly like the setting sun every night while I stretched out in my Big Agnes. I was happily exhausted after a day of fighting the terrain instead of anger and misery. I started to do what many hikers hike for; taking joy in the simple and pure moments of dazzling views, cold clean water, a ride to Walmart and dry socks.
Struggling with BiPolar, means I am just not capable of making modifications without help. I can’t, ’Just be happy” or ‘Just change the way I think’. Depression is never that kind. If I was able to do so I would, but the chemical imbalance in my brain just doesn’t allow it to happen. Mental health, so much like the AT, can find steady and even footing. The cycle is always revolving for me but there is calm to be found after traversing seemingly limitless rising, torturous falling and taking the twins, Lexapro and Lamictal. ‘I love being crippled by anxiety, depression and isolation’, said no one ever.
During my odyssey on the trail I found these few things to be as valuable as a Snickers bar: See the goal but remember that it’s only the goal, not the end to every day. Keep track of what’s in front of you, what might be coming up, ask for help and let others perform their Trail Magic. No one ever does it alone. Practice ‘Leave no Trace’ and collect those bits of reason and place them in your biggest stuff sack. I triumphantly came away with concepts to adapt and cope when I’m not on the trail fighting with mice over my peanut butter.
I hiked 350 miles in the summer of 2016 and finished 4 states. With all great struggles, I needed a break to reflect on my new-found capabilities and how they could boost my mental health now and in the future. Physical health relies on consistent attention and monitoring to reach your personal best and mental health is no different. I will be returning to the trail this summer (2017) to log more miles and gather more pebbles of courage, confidence and conviction. With my ‘Sanity Stuff Sack’ holding more weight than a porter in Peru, I won’t worry about the load. It won’t be anything that a badass can’t handle.
I am a professional survivor.