I am going to say something and I want you to think about the first thing that enters your mind when I do. Are you ready? The Wall. Yes, I capitalized “Wall” because this thing is a proper noun, it is for real. Now, I am going to say it again and I want you to visualize it this time. The Wall. Are you looking at it? Are you facing it? Is it near? Far? High? Low? What is it made of? Is it a brick, wood, fire? Great, good job.
Now keep that in mind while I tell you about my wall. It is an actual wall of ice and snow. I am alone in a crevasse on a glacier, it’s getting dark, my team is above me, some of them injured and need to get down this mountain to warmth and safety. The only problem is, I am down here. I am the last one to be lifted out and in order to do that, I have to reach the rope which is 20 feet above me. Everyone who was lifted out before me could only reach the rope by the rest of us lifting them or them standing on knees and shoulders, how am I supposed to do that now I am alone? You see the problem right? As if that wasn’t bad enough, communicating with my team is nearly impossible because I dropped my radio when we fell down here and they can’t yell for fear of triggering an avalanche. My only hope is to dig my crampons into this snow, use my ice axe and climb the height to the rope, secure it to my harness and then I am home free. Easy enough in theory, but factor in fatigue, hunger, my cold and shivering body, and numb fingers and it becomes much more difficult. I have already tried twice and lost my grip, sliding back down to the ledge I started on, which is a terrifying feeling I can hardly describe. My fear is starting to get the best of me and the adrenaline is kicking in. I am starting to feel trapped, my chaotic mind is taking over, I don’t know if I can do this.
Have you ever had that happen? No, not falling into a crevasse, that’s a rare privilege. I mean have you ever had circumstances which made you feel trapped but at the same time you felt like you would explode from the inside out? That’s anxiety. That’s depression. Welcome to the club, no we don’t have jackets. We do have scars and battle wounds, though you’ll never see them. We are experts at covert suffering. Much like a team of Navy Seals who sneak into hostile territory without being detected, we are among you and you don’t even know it. I don’t have statistics for you, we don’t really keep a roster, but we are a big club. Unlike your friendly neighborhood book or running club, you don’t want in on this one. It’s not a voluntary or social thing. What’s even more ironic is that once you are in the club you go deeply covert because you don’t even want the other club members to know you are there. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? I know, but this is just how it is.
Why am I telling you this and what does it have to do with The Wall? Because chances are you are in this club too, and much like the Hotel California, you have realized you will never be able to leave. This morning, I woke up around 4:30 a.m. (again) thinking about all the things I haven’t accomplished this week and trying to calm the growing pressure in my mind of what I still have to do. Brick upon brick, I added to my Wall. See, that’s where my anxiety comes from, or rather where it starts to fester. The pressures I put on myself to constantly be and do more. Not perfection, hah, I know that’s not happening. Just good ol’ fashion self-talk, “Molly, you’re failing again.” My anxiety comes from my 20’s and a messy marriage that ended in flames. I am not going to give you a laundry list of my grievances, I’ve learned to not give them power like that, but I will tell you there was an abuse of every kind, except physical violence. Thanks to two wonderful therapists who gave me much needed recovery and tools, I can usually keep the symptoms of my fear and anxiety from those years at bay. However, the past two weeks I’ve been locked into a project with an urgent timeline and when that happens I pretty much get obsessive until it's done. It’s all I can think about, so my tools for exercise, yoga, prayer, and spending time in forests and on mountains, have suffered. The result is festering anxiety, depression, fear, and anger. If I’m not careful, it boils over. So here its, my Wall, it has hit me again. Sound familiar?
Recently, I learned how trauma, in all its many forms, is so damaging to the mind, body, and soul. It’s due to something called dissociation. The first thing a victim of trauma will do psychologically is automatically disconnect from their physical body. Their mind goes one way, and the body another. This may help explain why substance abuse is so common among trauma victims. If life gets too difficult or stressful, I find myself initiating this process of disassociation. I don’t have a substance abuse problem, but I do have other ways of disconnecting my mind and body in order to cope. This manifests in ugly ways, many of which I have learned to keep inside, but I’m not always good at it. Oh, you do that too? Phew, I’m glad I’m not the only one.
That’s living with anxiety and depression, in a nutshell. No, that’s not all the gory details, but the point is that it never really goes away. I know, that was a terrible pep-talk, good thing that’s not my goal. I am simply raising my hand and asking, “Does anyone else see that big scary wall, or is it just me?” Funny thing is, the more I become still and understand where that wall comes from and that I have the power to walk right through it, the less scary it becomes (did you notice I didn’t capitalize “the wall” this time? Good job). How does that happen? Well, that’s another conversation, but I can tell you it does happen. I have my tools, and I can either choose to put them to good use or just let myself be a hot mess. Some days I am simply a hot mess and it just has to happen, but the sunsets on those days too.
So, did I ever climb out of that crevasse? Well, of course, I’m here to tell you the story, aren’t I? Was it real? Of course, it is, I fall in it all the time, that’s why I am such a good climber. I don’t mind the cold anymore, I don’t mind the ice anymore, and I have learned to love the climb because I have done it a thousand times...and I will do it a thousand more. Now, I will be honest, I’ve been in that crevasse and thought to myself, “You are a hot mess right now, and heat melts ice, so just stay in and wait for it to melt.” And then I say to myself, “Aww, you’re so cute. It’s a GLACIER. It’s been here for millions of years and you think YOU can melt it? Yeah, start climbing.” Every time I have climbed out of that crevasse, my team is there, and that humbles me. My family sticks around through the stormy conditions, even when they are hurt and need to get down the mountain. That’s also what it means to live with anxiety and depression, to live with others.
Remember your wall? Think back...think of what it looks like, think of how you felt at the beginning of this story when you pictured it. Are you ready? Belay on. Climb on.
Molly Neal is a Co-founder of Adventure for Women which helps all women rediscover themselves through outdoor experiences. Learn more at adventure4women.com