Saturday, February 11, 2023

In this trembling moment

“In this trembling moment ... is it still possible to face the gathering darkness and say to the physical earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?”
— Barry Lopez

I'm still not sure what I want to do with this old blog, but I still feel compelled to check in from time to time if only to record my slow descent into madness. Friends have asked me if I'm doing better, and the truth is, I'm not. Insomnia and anxiety have been a major battle, and don't know which one leads to the other or whether it even matters. Each morning arrives after a fair to poor night of sleep, and I immediately feel overwhelmed with irrational but powerful negative emotions that I must wrestle with to get through each day. I believe I'm still succeeding on a functional level. But I am so very tired, and it's becoming harder not to, say, burst into tears during Saturday morning yoga class. 

A physical comparison I could make is that it feels like I am at mile 10 of a difficult 100-mile ultramarathon and my legs are already screaming at me. I am still able to effectively say "shut up legs," but it's almost impossible to conceive how I'm going to push through this pain all the way to the end. Similarly, it's difficult to conceive how I'm going to remain fully functional through the end of this year unless I can turn things around. I don't want to be overdramatic, but this is genuinely how I feel, and I want to convey as well as I can that no, I'm not okay. 

I have been working on myself. The beginning of 2023 spurred changes to my wellness routine including twice-weekly weight training and once-weekly restorative yoga (I love yoga. I'm about 6% competent but I love it and wish I could make room for more in-person classes.) I've been meeting online with a therapist who prompted me to cut my caffeine intake to one cup of coffee per day (about a third to a quarter of what I was taking in before) and do a nightly muscle relaxation exercise, which generally works better for me than sedentary meditation. 

She also encouraged me to start wearing my Garmin watch all of the time to better track my body metrics. I've only been doing this for a week, and while many metrics are not surprising (yes, I believe I'm starting each day with my body battery at 30% and yes, I would rate that sleep as "poor"), it did show a sharp drop in my oxygen saturation while I'm sleeping — sometimes as low as 83%. While I don't know how accurate this is, now I have sleep apnea or another form of sleep hypoxemia as another concern. It's another question I intend to bring to my doctor when I finally see her for all of the 15 minutes I'll probably get after waiting for an appointment for three weeks. Also on that list of questions are perimenopause, subclinical hypothyroidism, and antidepressants. 

I'm dreading this conversation more than I can convey and almost wish I could just ask for a medically induced coma to get me through my 40s. This daydream leads to admonishing myself for wishing away my one wild and precious life. But when you can't sleep, when you really can't sleep ... there's nothing in the world you wish for more. 

I have been leaning a little hard on exercise; physical activity is still the one state in which I feel mostly "normal." I'm not spending more time exercising than I was back when I was training for things, but I am already so very tired and admit that I am not fully listening to my body when it tells me I should dial back the intensity of my efforts. 

A couple of weeks ago, there were rumors of stellar trail conditions in the local mountains, so I excitedly packed up my fat bike and set an early alarm. My total amount of sleep was about two hours when the alarm went off, so I turned it off and instead snoozed several hours of morning daylight away. Waking up, I was filled with loathing and dread and couldn't bear the thought of driving into the mountains. But I also needed something to cope, so I used the excuse of a hard-to-get Zwift "badge" to spend the entire day riding my bike trainer. 

I logged 110 "miles" of mindless spinning. It was great. I felt a lot better. But does this sort of thing come with a price? Undoubtedly it does. But don't worry about me just yet; there aren't many days that I can find the time and energy for such exhaustive efforts. My watch still records my training status as "productive." But when another sleepless night passes into a depleted-battery morning, I'm right back where I started. 

One week later, I successfully boosted myself out the door for an excursion in Rocky Mountain National Park. Morning sunlight saturated the mountain skyline as I drove through Estes Park. Just past the park boundary, I caught a glimpse of a bald white slope speckled with blackened stumps — remnants of the 2020 East Troublesome Fire. Seeing this burn scar sent a shudder of sadness down my spine. I was deeply affected by that fire even though it didn't touch me at all. But I was paying attention on the October night when a wind-driven flare scorched 100,000 acres in fewer than 12 hours and jumped two miles of treeless tundra across the Continental Divide. Countless people assure me that wildfire is natural, but these late-fall megafires are anything but natural. There is growing evidence that Colorado's warming climate will not allow burned forests to return to their previous state — at least at mid-range altitudes. I live in the midst of hillsides that burned in 2000 — 23 years ago — where the trees haven't even begun to grow back. I'm just not a person who can cling to hope without evidence. The evidence points to a landscape that is rapidly and permanently changing. 

Stung with unexpected sadness, I continued toward Bear Lake. The gravelly voice of my anxiety whispered that this was too much and I should just turn around and go home. My stormy mind was deep in rumination when a dog darted out of the snow bank and galloped beside my car. As I slowed, the animal veered in front of me and I realized it was a coyote. What was it doing? I slowed some more to allow it to veer back into the woods, but it also slowed its pace and looked back. As I sped up again to capture this photo with my phone, it also picked up the pace but held steady on the double yellow line. We continued in this push and pull for more than a mile before the coyote veered off to the left and I was able to safely pass. Was it playing chase with my car? I'll never know, but the interaction did bring my head back to center. 

"Existential loneliness and a sense that one's life is inconsequential, both of which are hallmarks of modern civilizations, seem to me to derive in part from our abandoning a belief in the therapeutic dimensions of a relationship with place."

— Barry Lopez

Sometimes I feel ashamed over the depth of sadness I feel when I see a wildfire scar or images of Juneau's Mendenhall Glacier, shockingly diminished from photos I captured myself in the recent-seeming year of 2007. After all, this is the nature of things. All is impermanent, and grief only arises from our unwillingness to accept change. Still, I feel these losses as though I've lost a piece of myself. I feel it in the way I feel my own time slipping away. 

Acceptance, I know, is the only path to peace, and yet it's so hard to find. But in searching for acceptance, I have come to better understand how my difficulties with my mental health are anchored in grief — for the people in my life who I have loved and lost, for myself, and for the land. 

I stepped out of my car into the hard wind that nearly always rakes these canyons on the sharp edge of the Continental Divide. The wind is such a constant that even lake ice freezes in a rippled pattern. It's such a constant that if you spent all of your time here, you'd eventually stop noticing the wind. It would become its own comfort, and calm would feel eerie and strange. I sometimes wonder — if I had to choose a single, small place to spend the rest of my life, where that might be. I fall in love with nearly every place I visit, so it seems impossible to choose, but Rocky Mountain National Park might be near the top of the list. It — like any place really — could offer a lifetime of exploring and still yield countless discoveries. The weather is fearsome year-round, the terrain steep and frightening, and it's difficult to imagine ever feeling fully comfortable here. And yet if all I had was time, I can imagine becoming burned into this land. 

I strapped on snowshoes and started an audiobook. I had just finished "Arctic Dreams" by Barry Lopez, which I first read as a college freshman and remembered loving. The landscape, culture, and history of the Arctic were so alien to me at the time. Lopez's observations were enthralling. I wondered how I'd feel about the book as a jaded adult who had forged my own impressions of the Far North. I still loved the lyrical prose, but the book did leave me feeling more sad than enthralled. Perhaps it's just my current mental state, but there's also an element of "Arctic Dreams" — published in 1986 — that reads as a eulogy to a time and place already gone. 

Still, I enjoyed listening to "Arctic Dreams," so I purchased another book of essays by Lopez, published posthumously last year — "Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World." The title alone told me exactly what I wanted to hear, so I looked forward to diving in. 

"Evidence of the failure to love is everywhere around us. To contemplate what it is to love today brings us up against reefs of darkness and walls of despair. If we are to manage the havoc — ocean acidification, corporate malfeasance and government corruption, endless war — we have to reimagine what it means to live lives that matter, or we will only continue to push on with the unwarranted hope that things will work out."
— Barry Lopez

Life is easy when I am walking. Even when a cold wind sweeps down the mountainside, even when my snowshoe-laden feet bog down in stiff powder, even when hours pass and I run low on water and need to sprawl atop a precarious snowbank to dip my bottle beneath the ice of a swirling creek. All I had to do on this Friday was walk, listen to Lopez's soothing words, and believe they were written for me — a person who is trembling beneath the weight of life's uncertainties, who already feels crushed by grief while knowing so much more lies ahead, who can't take comfort in unwarranted hope. Lopez knew he was dying from prostate cancer when he wrote several of the essays in this book. The Covid-19 pandemic was already underway and the landscapes he explored in "Arctic Dreams" already drastically altered by climate change. His words read as those of a wisened elder exiting a breaking world — but also an optimist who is straining with all of his remaining energy to find the light shining through the cracks. 

While punching a trail toward a hanging lake called Sky Pond, I ventured too far up a steep slope and realized later than ideal that this was not a good idea. I had resolved not to hike into potential avalanche terrain or any slope that would require crampons and an ice ax. This was just such a slope. Normally my fear response would alert me sooner, but I am not receiving my usual signals right now. Feeling afraid of everything also means, in a way, I am afraid of nothing. Dangers and non-dangers alike fire the same synapses. Suddenly aware and humbled, I carefully picked my way back down the slope.  

"To survive what's headed our way — global climate disruption, a new pandemic, additional authoritarian governments — and to endure, we will have to stretch our imaginations. We will need to trust each other, because today, it's as if every safe place has melted into the sameness of water. We are searching for the boats we forgot to build."
— Barry Lopez

As real fatigue set in, my ability to concentrate flagged so I switched off the audiobook player. The roar of the wind returned — at first jarring, but soon it too faded to white noise.

"We can become accustomed to anything," I thought. "I need to keep that in mind." 

I descended the gorge below Loch Vale and veered up Glacier Gorge proper to tag Mills Lake and Black Lake. His Majesty, Longs Peak, loomed overhead. I find great comfort in mountains — visible reminders of what will remain long after our human machinations have flared and faded. But mountains are not eternal; even they are constantly changing. In a paradoxical way, I take comfort in this too. Everything is impermanent, forever in flux. This is the way of things, and that's okay.

“The central project of my adult life as a writer is to know and love what we have been given, and to urge others to do the same.
— Barry Lopez

I put Lopez's book away for another week of busyness and anxiety, but Friday rolled around and I again craved his gentle urging to pay attention and respect the places I love, which are all of the places. The forecast also called for a clear day with mild temperatures and light winds, which inspired me to finally take my fat bike for that ride I couldn't get out of bed for two weeks earlier. 

While gorgeous and fun, riding a fat bike around the trails at Brainard Lake and Peaceful Valley is an endeavor I can muster the mental energy for only once or twice a year. Nothing comes for free here, absolutely nothing. The trails are ungroomed, ski-packed, narrow, and technical. Roots and rocks will catch you unaware in wind-scoured open areas. In the woods, a shimmy of the handlebars might leave you neck-deep in a tree well. I accepted long ago that I'm not a "mountain biker." I far prefer grinding the pedals on a mindless gravel climb over wrestling with my bike along a technical descent. Still, I do enjoy this activity in small doses. 

Brainard was a somewhat odd choice to make when I am battling so much brain fog and desperate to avoid stress. Still, I took advantage of the relative fearlessness of flatlined anxiety to rally for the twisting descent of South St. Vrain. A jolt of electricity buzzed in my veins. Is this adrenaline? Joy? It feels like it has been so long. I was beginning to worry I'd lost the capacity for such highs. 

The exhilerating descent and unfathomably blue day inspired another long climb to the edge of the wilderness boundary at Coney Flats. Really, it's only 1,500 feet of climbing in five miles, which my Zwift-addled brain tells me should take about 30 minutes. The reality of riding atop barely consolidated, narrow snow with < 3 psi in each tire was more than two hours, and I was expending far more calories than I realized. Despite temperatures near freezing with an afternoon breeze spiking to 20 mph, I had stripped to my base layer and was still dripping sweat onto my pogies. I loved losing myself in this demanding climb, but all things have their price. 

“Perhaps the first rule of everything we endeavor to do is to pay attention.”
— Barry Lopez

The fat bike made fast work of the descent, and then it was time to climb back to Brainard on the Sourdough Trail. A mere 1,000 feet of climbing in seven miles. Easy peasy. So imagine my confusion when, after a brief descent about two miles into the climb, I began to feel disoriented, dizzy, and nauseated. I stopped pedaling and took a few sips of water, but the woods continued spinning. What ... is happening? Is this a bonk? An actual bonk? It's been so long since this happened. Admittedly my base of endurance runs so deep that I didn't even think it was possible for me to truly bonk anymore — my central governor is very reliable and my body knows where to find the energy. But here I was, five miles from my car, utterly out of gas. 

I was too nauseated to eat much, but I did have energy chews in my frame bag and I was able to get most of them down. Still, the damage was done. I stumbled along dizzily, pressed against my bike as though this reasonably graded trail was a sheer wall. I took long breaks to gasp for air. I drank the rest of my water. Nothing was working. After several hours that my GPS told me was in reality just one mile, I threw both body and bike into the snow like the overtired toddler I had become and indulged in an absolute meltdown.

Yelling, swearing, crying. The works. But I got it all out and afterward, I felt an odd, peaceful sort of clarity. The day's light had grown rich, the shadows long. Was it already late afternoon? Was this 24-mile ride really going to take seven hours? Yes, yes it was. And I still had a long way to go. Four miles. An eternity. But that's okay. As in all things, we keep pushing forward because there's no other choice. 

I had long since turned off my audiobook when it became apparent that I needed all of my bandwidth to focus on the trail. But now that I was walking at a very slow pace, I took Lopez's advice to pay attention. I looked for tracks in the snow — rabbit and what appeared to be a fox or perhaps a bobcat. I listened to gusts of wind, rippling through the forest like sharp exhalations. I studied needles still holding onto flecks of snow despite days of wind and sun. This place is so very beautiful, and I was so lucky to be there, right there, experiencing this burst of life between dust and fire.

Just months before his death, Lopez watched as 170,000 acres of the land where he lived for half a century burned in The McKenzie Fire in Oregon.

"The land around us as far as we can see looks flayed," he wrote in a Facebook post on Nov. 5, 2020. "For 10 miles in both directions along the river from us, all that stands where a whole community once lived are bare chimneys. The devastation for some is catastrophic and irreparable."

It was the last post to appear on his public page.

 "It is more important to live for the possibilities that lie ahead than to die in despair over what has been lost."
— Barry Lopez, 1945-2020
Monday, January 16, 2023

When we cease to have nice things

Winter Solstice dealt a hard moment of self-awareness: I have a stunning lack of resilience. 

For two decades I’ve cultivated toughness, but toughness and resilience are not the same. In the past, I would have defined their differences as subtle, but now I see that they are stark. What helped me realize this was losing the tough thing I’d planned to do over the holidays and falling apart because I lacked the resilience to let go. 

Winter Solstice was the day we were set to leave for Alaska. Amid my mental health struggles in October and November, I clung to comforting daydreams about dragging my sled through the frozen stillness, with a silence so clear and deep that one can hear the faint wing beats of nearby chickadees. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of these tiny birds foraging through the snow — the only animal moving when it’s 40 below. When I see a chickadee, I’m always struck with reverence … and envy. What a life, to remain in constant motion just to survive. They forage all day and shiver all night. In the face of slim odds, they thrive. 

As the trip drew closer and the forecast called for colder and windier conditions, I only grew more excited. There was a good chance it was going to be 30 below with 25 mph winds. In such weather, the most any animal can achieve is to survive. Out there, all of my midlife crisis bullshit wouldn’t matter. I wouldn't have to endure my regular life of slogging through day after tedious day with a growing base of self-loathing and fading convictions about passions and purpose. Out in the roaring white silence, I would simply be a warm animal, one whose only job was to stay warm. I would wrap my body in a shield of its own heat and work hard to keep the furnace burning. I wouldn’t do this because I am tough; I would do it because I am soft and frightened. I am too tired for the life of a human being; I would like to be a black-capped chickadee. 

 Just a couple of hours before we were set to leave, Beat called out that Alaska Air had canceled our flight. You may remember the Arctic Blast that hit most of the Lower 48 just before Christmas. Seattle was buried in several inches of snow. The cold air was barreling toward Denver. There wasn’t another flight available for three days. We’d have to cancel our first cabin trip, and did we really want to battle backed-up air travel on Christmas Eve? What if our return trip was equally affected? Conceding to the nightmare that travel has become in recent years, we canceled the entire trip. 

“Doesn’t it seem like, since 2020, we can no longer have nice things?” I lamented to a friend. 

And yes, I realize that I have many, many nice things in my life. This is what I mean about lacking resilience. A resilient person would say, okay, we’ll postpone the trip and make the most of this vacation time we already scheduled. It’s Christmas! Let’s spend time with family. I said all of these things out loud, but the unmanageable part of my brain that controls my emotions was despondent. The mental house of cards that I’d so carefully reconstructed in recent weeks collapsed. 

My reaction was so strange. It’s not as though what I’d lost was all that important or irreplaceable. Intellectually I knew this, but my still mind plunged into a pit of unfocused grief. The brain fog was pronounced. Time contracted and expanded. Little made sense. Where am I? What day is this? Why am I pushing a cart through Safeway? Oh yes, we now need provisions for our empty fridge. The grocery store was overcrowded with shoppers in a pre-Christmas, pre-Arctic Blast frenzy. As I reached for an apple, a lady who had been blocking the narrow produce aisle for seeming hours turned and screamed at me, full-on screamed, to wait my turn. Did I time-travel back to March 2020? What year is this? I rushed to the checkout line with only half of the items I’d planned to buy and then rushed to my car while gulping down sobs. What is wrong with me? Am I actually losing my mind? 

The next few days did little to temper my fear that, actually, I might be losing my mind. The Arctic Blast arrived early on Dec. 22. The temperature at our house plunged to 23 below zero — by far the coldest we’ve seen in seven years in Colorado. I pulled the Alaska layers out of my suitcase and trudged two miles to South Boulder Creek, to what I’ve come to think of as my “mental health bench." I go there when I need to just cope; it's a lovely place to sit and listen to water flow effortlessly by. Only the water doesn’t flow so effortlessly at 10 below. The trickle under a thick layer of ice wasn’t audible. It was too cold to sit on the bench for long. It wasn’t Alaska, and it wasn't the same, it just wasn’t the same. 

Early the following morning, I left to drive to Utah. It was still 10 below and roads were snow-packed and icy. In spite of this, I-70 flowed surprisingly well. Brain fog softened my usual driving anxiety. But in more ways, the stupor was upsetting. For example, I managed to leave home without my laptop, which I needed for work. But I did bring my mountain bike, which — for a trip to snowbound Salt Lake City in late December — wasn’t all that practical. Several times I wavered on the edge of awareness while admonishing myself to pay attention to the road. 

“Maybe I should not be driving.”

I needed a break. Since I had the mountain bike, I decided to pull off the highway into an empty expanse of desert just west of the state line. My plan was to ride whatever random road headed north toward the Book Cliffs. There wasn’t an obvious place to pull my car off the narrow dirt road, so I kept driving — back and forth, back and forth. Without even realizing it, a full 45 minutes passed. I looked down at the clock and thought, “Wait? It’s already 11:54? Wasn’t it 11:10 just five minutes ago?”

This realization was, honestly, terrifying. Where was my mind? I immediately veered into a random strip of sand parallel to the road and pulled the bike out of the car. Having not exactly planned the ride, I didn’t have the best provisions in my backpack — just a light jacket, some water, and a few other items. Temperatures were no longer in the Arctic Blast danger cold range, but they were in the 20s. A stiff breeze blew from the west. I began pedaling toward the “Harley Dome Road” I’d pinpointed on the car’s navigation map and was now looking for on my Garmin. I was surprised to discover the junction was a full three miles from the point where I’d parked my car. How did I end up so far away? Where was my mind? Am I safe? Should I really just be riding alone into this remote and icy desert? At least I’d turned on my tracker so Beat would know where to locate my frozen body if it came to that. 

The west wind needled through thin tights into the soft flesh of my thighs. I wished for shell pants and a warmer pair of mittens. Why didn’t I bring those? It is winter. Should I turn around? I felt weirdly terrified and yet incapable of making decisions. Similar to when I was driving aimlessly while searching for a “parking space,” my awareness of the present pulsed and flickered. Time contracted and expanded. I just kept pedaling north as emotions gurgled to the surface. Tears began to flow. I was so scared. Why was I so scared? The only thing I could think to do was send a plea to the universe — to my dad — for help. 

"Please, please, help me,” I whimpered to the wind. “I don’t know what’s happening to me.”


As I cried, I heard a high-pitched whine, punctuated by wind gusts. The sound wasn’t unlike the “dee dee dee” song of a chickadee. I jerked my head around. There was nothing for miles but sand and sage. Confused, I looked up. Directly over me, not more than 100 feet off the ground, was a small red airplane that I hadn’t noticed before. It had approached from the east where headwinds masked the sound. As the plane passed overhead, the pilot tipped one wing toward me — that unmistakable friendly maneuver. I waved back in awe. Where did this airplane even come from? We weren’t all that far from airstrips in Fruita or Moab, but in my fragile mental state, I felt like a marooned astronaut on Mars interacting with a spacecraft from Earth. 

 “Dad loved flying over the desert in small planes,” I thought. This image filled me with intense relief and joy. It doesn’t really matter what I believe about spirits or an afterlife; just telling myself this story helped me feel immediately better. Buoyed away from my slow-rolling panic attack, I continued pedaling north with purpose. 

 The bike ride didn’t cure me, though. Not by a long shot. I continued to make inexplicable choices. In a fluster of frustration after learning I’d forgotten my laptop, I didn’t end up buying anything for breakfast in Colorado and neglected to eat during my 32-mile ride in eastern Utah. Suddenly it was 5 p.m. and I felt alarmingly dizzy while driving down Spanish Fork Canyon. Just a half hour from my mom’s house, I pulled into an overwhelmingly crowded shopping center to buy a Subway sandwich. After ordering, I tried to ask for a napkin but forgot the word for napkin. It didn’t come to me in time. I finally just mumbled “never mind” and walked out the door in a fluster of shame. 

What I wouldn't give for this sort of focus.

Christmas with my family was good but hard. Holidays are hard. My mom wasn’t in a great place to celebrate, and I don’t blame her. My sister whipped up a fantastic fondue dinner. It was fun to be around the excitement of four children on Christmas Eve. We stayed up past midnight completing a puzzle; I mostly just stared off into space while my mom and sister furiously worked. My sister put me up in my 4-year-old nephew’s room, a warm and dark space with a miniature bed and a Jesus night light. There I collapsed into my best sleep in weeks, before or since. I slept through Christmas morning, which I regret, but also … I needed that sleep. 

My sister and I did hike to the top of Grandeur Peak on Dec. 26, which was really nice.

The sleep didn’t cure me, though. Not by a long shot. I realize weeks have passed since Christmas and I am still struggling. I have been taking steps to address my tenuous mental state. I reached out to a telehealth counselor and scheduled my first sessions (I had been holding out for a local therapist that I could visit in person, but it has become clear that no one is available now or anytime soon.) I joined a gym so I can work on my mind-body connection through strength training and yoga. I make time for at least some meditation and stretching during the day. I’m open to trying new things. I need to try new things.

Specifically, I need to work on building my resilience. I need better ways to weather life’s disappointments and losses. I need to let go of my reliance on novelty and excitement. I need to move away from using physical exhaustion as my best coping mechanism, and embrace more sustainable practices — gratitude, presence, and acceptance. I can’t bear to exist in a universe that has no purpose or meaning; the only way to muffle the siren call of nihilism is to create purpose and meaning for myself. 

 I don’t know what that is. If it were easy it would be … endurance racing. But this is life. There’s no straightforward beginning or end, no immutable achievements or consequence-free failures. It’s challenging and bewildering and painful and there’s no reward in the end … just an end. It’s accepting that the little joys are enough. It’s realizing that life is incredible and life is enough. I still have a long way to go to get there. 

I see why I imagine myself as a tiny bird, my dad as a tiny plane, bound to everything and nothing, soaring through the sky. It’s something beyond life to take comfort in. Sometimes it feels like the comforting things I once took for granted have gone away. I can imagine the perfect silence in Alaska but I can no longer rely on an airline to take me there. I can visit my family in Utah but can’t avoid an anxiety meltdown when I-70 closures trap me in standstill traffic. I can cultivate gratitude for the present but can't muster faith in a better future. I can resolve to fix my life but no longer trust my brain. I can’t even trust my brain to remember the word for napkin. I can ask my dad for help, but …

My dad’s birthday was Friday the 13th. He would have turned 70 years old. I was having a really hard day. I barely slept. My anxiety had spiked to the point that morning dread made it almost impossible to get out of bed. But I needed to get my monthly allergy shot. I hate allergy shot day. The shots make me feel lousy on my best days. I usually try to self-soothe with something. On this day, a hike seemed appropriate. 

 I pulled up to the tiny Cragmoor trailhead and stepped into a blaze of sunshine. It had been overcast for much of the morning, but the sun emerged nearly in line with the strike of noon. It was 54 degrees. Despite days of melting heat, the trail was still a friendly mixture of dry dirt along the mesa and packed snow in Fern Canyon. The type of conditions where one can strap microspikes to their shoes and fly. But I felt too heavy and sad to fly. I tried to focus on my favorite memories but found myself mostly just missing my dad. 

For a while my brain shut down as I trudged upward through the woods — slogging is my best coping mechanism. Suddenly I emerged in the sunlight on top of Bear Peak. There wasn’t a breath of wind. It was so warm. Dad would have loved this January day. The sound of his laugh came to me: A visceral memory from the evening Beat and I were married on Bear Peak in September 2020. Dad was dealing with a painful back injury for which he had surgery just two weeks later. I didn’t know the extent of his pain because I hadn’t seen him in nearly a year. He could barely walk. But he pulled himself all the way up this mountain just for me, so I could have the mountaintop wedding I’d dreamed of. He never showed a hint of pain … just an abundance of happiness. The memory of his smile evoked a sense of peace I hadn’t felt since that little plane over Harley Dome.

Two hours later, a nurse injected my arms with poisons I have been intentionally taking for more than six years. I sat in the waiting room for the mandatory half-hour it takes to ensure I wasn’t going to lapse into anaphylactic shock. While dizzying serum coursed through my blood, I wrote up a stilted Facebook caption on my phone so I could share my photo of Bear Peak with loved ones. I still can’t do a better job to describe the experience, so I’ll record it here: 

You would have turned 70 today. 
I carried your memory up Bear Peak. 
That heaviness on my chest, a weight so familiar now. 
50 degrees and sunny. 
You would have loved this day. 
Just like that day in September 2020. 
We were together again after so many months of resolve to stay apart. It was my wedding day. 
You were hurt; you were in so much pain. 
You didn't tell me. 
You wouldn't let us change our plans. 
You dragged yourself up this mountain. 
Sunset that night was stunning. The clearest evening in weeks. 
You looked so happy, so proud, your smile shining through the fading light, through all of your pain. 
I fear with each passing day I forget something else, but I will never forget that moment. 
We were together and full of hope. 
Now on your birthday I'm here alone. 
With all of life in front of me.  

Niwot Ridge — like Alaska, a place so harsh that it becomes comforting in its simplicity.

Maybe I’m past my charmed years, when nice things seemed to come more easily, and my greatest source of comfort was alive and climbing mountains for me. But it’s not over. There's still life in front of me.
Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Anxiety and endurance-racing platitudes

Niwot Ridge, Dec. 11, 2022

Thank you to everyone who commented on my last post. It means a lot to me that you’re still around. My hope is to continue using this medium to connect with people, which is the motivation for this post. Mental health is a difficult and complex subject. But I gain comfort and insight from the stories of others willing to share their struggles, so here it goes. 

I want to talk about anxiety and depression. Although mental health is nearly everywhere in public discourse right now, it still seems a somewhat taboo subject in endurance racing and outdoor adventure circles. After all, you can do anything you set your mind to and you can choose to be brave and strong and endorphins make you happy and nature is my antidepressant. End discussion. 

I want to talk about anxiety and depression because I used to buy into all of those ideas until anxiety came for me. It’s difficult to draw a clear origin because truthfully I’ve always struggled with some level of anxiety. As a young child, I had terrible separation anxiety. I was still in grade school when I started obsessively ruminating about the grief of the world (I still have nightmares about images I saw on the news after the 1989 San Fransisco earthquake, and television was the only way I experienced that disaster.) Young adulthood brought all of this to a head (strange fears at benign moments triggered panic attacks.) Then my mid-20s brought a lengthy reprieve that coincided with big life changes, leading me to conclude that confronting my fears was “the way.” 

These leaps of faith launched incredible life experiences that I may never have pursued if my brain had been in a worse spot. But they did not conquer anxiety. I understand this now. Anxiety isn’t something one can wish away or vanquish with the power of positive thinking. Endurance racers are too prone to magical thinking. Telling yourself your swollen knee isn’t a big deal and it’s only 50 kilometers and you’re going to finish the race because you’re brave and strong and can do anything you set your mind to … that isn’t going to stop a torn MCL from sidelining you for weeks afterward (ask me because I’ve been there.) We’re beholden to the same biological and physical laws as everything else, and yet we’re determined to feel special and powerful by feeding ourselves bullshit to the bitter end. 

I’m not immune to magical thinking, and I can’t resist a steady diet of shame: 
“You’ve crossed Alaska on your bike in the winter, why are you so scared to leave the house?” 
“No one cares if you do this or don’t, why are you so stressed?” 
“Today was a good day, why are you crying?” 
“You have it so good, what is your problem?” 

Indeed, this last question irks me the most. I am incredibly privileged. There are no big traumas in my past that I can blame. I was essentially born anxious but had an idyllic childhood and maintain positive and meaningful relationships with my family. I’ve looked into trauma therapies such as EMDR, but where could I even focus on said trauma? Here’s what I consider the top five traumatic events of my adult life, in chronological order: 

• A rock-bottom blackout during a brief stint with alcoholism, July 2005. This experience was the catalyst that led to “pulling my life together” and moving to Alaska to live happily ever after with no problems ever again. 
• My long-time boyfriend, Geoff, ended our relationship abruptly and unexpectedly one day before we were set to leave on a summer-long vacation, April 2009. 
 • A “psychotic break” after 96 sleep-deprived hours of navigating dangerous mountain terrain and team discord during an endurance foot race called Petite Trotte a Leon, August 2013. 
• The weeks leading up to my Graves Disease diagnosis, when I was quite sick and very much in denial (see endurance racers and magical thinking), February 2017. 
• Losing my father suddenly when he died in a hiking accident, June 2021. 

 There are other, more broad experiences I’d include, such as the 2016 election that burst the bubble around my understanding of the world, or when the Covid pandemic broke open in March 2020 — events that affected almost everyone and affected me relatively little (see, privilege) but that I still absorbed deeply. My point is that I believe my anxiety has no grounding, no justification. Lots of people go through phases of substance abuse, chronic illness, losing relationships, losing parents. Nearly everyone, when you put it that way. So what’s wrong with me? 

Though there were isolated incidents before then, I believe my anxiety waited until 2018 to move into the “generalized” category. It was a strange time to meet this monster. After a tough 18 months of adjustments, my thyroid disease was under control. I was again dreaming about big endurance racing goals after emotionally letting everything go during my health struggles. The political landscape was bad, but geez, I had no idea what was coming — in hindsight, the world was still somewhat sane. From a rational perspective, life was good. 

I was staying with a friend in Geneva after a stressful week of supporting Beat in a week-long mountain race called the Swiss Peaks 360. And the week was packed with stress — driving along precipitous mountain roads, meeting Beat at remote aid stations at all hours of the night, sleeping in the car, hunting for open grocery stores in tiny mountain towns because Swiss sandwiches were all Beat could stomach, and still hiking five to seven hours at a stretch because I’m not giving up that. 

Crewing Swiss Peaks was stressful, but not in a way that could remotely justify what happened when I left to meet Beat at his race finish more than an hour away — of course, in the middle of the night. I tried to use a code to get into the parking garage that held my rental car. When it didn’t work, I began hyperventilating. Then the tears burst out and I inexplicably started running. Round and round a city block in central Geneva, racing at a full sprint, stopping only to rattle locked doors and gasp, “Please!” 

 I felt as terrified as I would if being chased by a monster. My chest throbbed with a crushing pain that I thought might be a real heart attack. What was I so panicked about? Missing Beat’s finish? While my head spun, I wasn’t even thinking about the reasons I wanted to be inside that parking garage. There was nothing else, just anxiety, the red-eyed sea monster rising out of the depths, draping itself over everything with no discernible beginning or end. 

Sometimes I think about the security cameras that inevitably caught my parking garage panic attack and laugh at the ridiculousness they must have portrayed. Some minutes or even hours lapsed after I collapsed on the sidewalk, but I did get my head together and figure out how to access the garage. Then I drove for an hour around Lake Geneva, reaching the race finish line well after Beat had arrived. He was understandably irked and I couldn’t explain myself. I was deeply exhausted. Anxiety exhaustion, I’ve come to understand, falls far beyond any endurance-racing exhaustion I’ve known. It cuts even deeper than walking for 96 hours essentially without sleep, although in hindsight, my PTL “psychotic break” was actually an intense panic attack. 

The sea monster has lurked beneath my life ever since. Sometimes it’s just below the surface, and sometimes it's well below the surface, but it always seems to burst out when I least anticipate it. This happened two months ago. There had been flickers of shadows — usual life stress, really, but there were at least hints that the monster was surfacing. Then one night, I secured a Brainard Lake parking permit and went to sleep excited about the long mountain excursion I had planned for the following day. But when I woke up in the morning, I couldn’t face it. Leaving the house felt impossibly hard. So I didn’t go. Then I didn’t go anywhere the next weekend or the next. I’d lost all interest. 

A few friends reached out during this time, and I replied that I was feeling “a little bit depressed.” I realize depression is not anxiety, but mental health is complex and these issues seem to be two sides of the same coin. I lamented my “mid-life crisis” and “unquenchable thirst for some sort of meaning.” These issues are a big part of my thought cycle right now, but truthfully they also have little to do with my acute state of mental health. 

Some days, I feel an overwhelming zeal for life and can’t wait to go for a 25-mile hike in the mountains. On these days, it’s not as though I’ve stopped ruminating about climate change and nihilism and the grief of the world. I’m just … normal me, unhindered me, not smothered by invisible sea monsters, and thus free to think about how amazing it is just to be alive on this fresh morning in this broken world. (Yes, I did steal that line from Mary Oliver.) 

The days when I think little about the broken world are my bad days. My emotional capacity has collapsed and there’s no longer space for engaging ruminations. I’ll actually spend less time with social media, stop reading the news (although I currently keep up with the news because it’s my job) and stop writing. I’ll listen to Tom Rosenthal’s “There is a Dark Place” for two hours on repeat while running my fastest-yet times on Green Mountain or Walker Ranch while caring little about success or scenery. I’m merely grateful for those two hours of relief from my exhaustion. Literal running is a great way to escape the sea monster, but it isn’t sustainable and it never lasts past the final step. 

I don’t know what to do. I have been in therapy before but left because therapy became another thing I couldn’t deal with after my dad died. Now I am struggling to find a way back in. I’m open to various strategies but also skeptical and even leery of talk therapy after my last experience, which ended badly. Even so, I submitted what amount to "I feel this level of bad" assessments and got myself on a few waiting lists. Availability is low right now. 

I have not yet tried medication beyond my favorite supplements (CBD capsules), which I believe do help but aren’t a cure-all. I’m open to medication, but admittedly also skeptical and leery of this sort of intervention. Either way, it seems moot if I can’t even find a therapist who could do the prescribing. Since I’m not in crisis, I’d rather try other time-tested techniques. My New Year's resolutions include participating in yoga classes, working daily on at least some type of writing, lavender tea, improving my diet, and committing to adventures — but maintaining a step back from racing. 

 Understanding that mental health is complex, I can’t help but speculate that my anxiety is just a chronic and likely hereditary twinge, not unlike the Achilles tendonitis that flares up from time to time. There’s not a lot I can do for my Achilles either, beyond strengthening the muscles around it and simply waiting for the flares to subside. I’m great about sticking with my physical therapy exercises when I’m in pain and less so when I’m not. But I've accepted that my Achilles tendonitis is always there, another scar on a meat sack that has the audacity to grow old. Are brains different? Yes, but perhaps also no?

Beat in the Ventana Wilderness, July 2013

Remember the sentence about tearing my MCL in a fall while running a 50K race? That happened in June 2013. One month later, I was still limping painfully and worried that I wouldn’t be able to participate in the big adventures I had planned for the summer: A 250-kilometer stage race in Iceland and the ill-fated PTL. Beat and I decided to embark on a weekend backpacking trip in the Ventana Wilderness, a rugged coastal range above Big Sur, California. For the first three miles, I dragged myself up an unbelievably steep slope, barely able to bend my knee and cursing my hubris. We descended the other side of the mountain through a recent burn. The dirt was soft and loose. The foot beneath my good knee slid forward and I fell onto my butt with the other foot wedged in place, forcing the bad knee to a full, high-impact bend. The burst of pain was excruciating, some of the worst I’ve experienced. For several seconds my vision blacked out and I was convinced I’d need a complicated helicopter rescue. After several minutes I attempted to stand. After several more, I tried shifting my weight to my bad knee. It held. When I attempted to walk, the pain dissipated. It did not return. I walked for two days through the wilderness without another issue. My knee was cured. 

A week later, I recounted the miracle cure to my massage therapist. He nodded knowingly. “You broke up the scar tissue,” he speculated. “Physical therapists sometimes try this when injuries aren’t healing. Hurts like hell.” 

I think about this experience frequently. My traumas are small, but they add up. Perhaps my brain is, in the proverbial sense, riddled with scar tissue. What if I could just get in and break it all up? Perhaps through meditation? Or meaningful suffering? Then I realize that I’m thinking about endurance racing again. No! This is not what I want! This is not the way. I need calm. I need peace. I need to quiet my mind, not inflict further trauma. 

It was interesting, though, how the rather awful running fall I took on Nov. 9 started to turn things around. Suddenly I didn’t have my best emotional outlet — exercise — and I was dealing with a decent amount of physical pain. I may have even asked Beat for a “mercy killing.” In my old, endurance-racing-focused mindset, my sternum and rib injuries would have been a big setback, worthy of having a big cry over. Instead, the fog over my mind began to lift. The sea monster slowly sank back into the depths. The view outside my window became clearer, more beautiful. It’s astonishing, really, the beauty in this view outside my window. And it’s astonishing how sometimes I don’t see it, can’t see it, for reasons I don’t understand. 

 This past weekend, I returned to the Indian Peaks Wilderness for my first mountain adventure in months. Beat and I are again planning to travel to Fairbanks over Christmas, and I wanted to ensure that my healing but still-painful torso could manage a sled. During the October slump, I thought about asking Beat to cancel the trip, but now I’m excited again. So I loaded up our smallest sled with an admittedly negligible amount of weight and headed toward a place that has been a reliable test of fortitude — Niwot Ridge. 

 I wasn’t interested in testing my fortitude, but I was interested in avoiding the considerable avalanche risk in these mountains right now. Niwot rises on a steep-for-feet but gentle-for-snow incline toward a veritable wind tunnel beneath the Continental Divide. The slopes are alternately covered in rock-solid sastrugi and nearly-bare tundra. The West Wind blows constantly and nothing that could slide stays for long. 

The wind is what makes Niwot so fearsome. It can be a calm, warm day in Denver and the wind will be gusting to 60mph on Niwot Ridge, which is what it was doing on Saturday. I schlepped the sled five miles and 3,000 feet to our usual high point, scraping my “rock snowshoes” on tussocks and boulders. Occasionally the sled caught on alder branches and the harness yanked my tender rib, provoking involuntary yelps. Despite not being a terribly cold winter day — +15F — the windchill felt like daggers through my clothing. The sled was full of poor choices on this first-of-the-season adventure. I forgot to bring goggles. My eyebrows burned. In every logical way, my body was in pain, but I didn’t really care. I was not in danger, and admittedly this felt amazing — these exhilarating sensations after two months of flatness. This pain I could choose. 

 For this reason, I kept going, pressing deeper into the wind as gusts grew increasingly menacing. After another mile of squinting into the ground blizzard, I caught a snowshoe on hidden branches and nearly toppled over. This was what it took to turn me around — I was never going to forgive myself if I re-broke a rib or anything else up here. 

The tailwind ushered me along, the only human in seeming miles, surrounded by an amphitheater of astonishing peaks. Spindrift raced toward the foothills, and beyond that, the Great Plains sprawled out seemingly forever. Niwot Ridge, my cantankerous old friend, seemed to embrace me with its hard-pressing gale. “Everything starts here and flows from here. Didn’t you miss this?”

I did miss it, and didn’t want to leave as I meandered back to the forest and the deep snow it protected. I didn’t even feel tired as I retraced my snowshoe tracks beneath evergreens drenched in the most gorgeous winter afternoon light. It’s rather astonishing how simple this is, how just walking and breathing in such a place lets me feel so intensely alive. This is the way anxiety lies to me: That these places don’t exist anymore. The crushing darkness is all that remains. Why bother leaving if there’s nowhere else to go?

 I’m under no delusion that the sea monster left forever, but at least it’s gone for now. I also have no idea what I did to convince it to leave. But perhaps the takeaway is as simple as an endurance racing platitude: If you’re going through Hell, keep going.