Mental Illness and the Pursuit of Hiking

My First Overnight Hiking Trip  January 10 - 11, 2015

My First Overnight Hiking Trip

January 10 - 11, 2015

Every year you grow older, the percentage of your remaining life becomes smaller. When you are five years old, you still have 95% of your life left. That is why older folks always comment, "I know I say this every year, but I swear this year went by faster than the last!" Well Grandma, last year you were 82 and you had 18% of your life left, but this year you are 83 so you 17% fo your life remaining. Makes sense, right? It doesn't have to be depressing if you think of it as to always live your life worth living because time is inevitable and will eventually end. 

This concept recently hit me hard recently because when I think 'just five years ago' in my mind I think it is still 2010, not 2013.  I am still dreaming of 18-year-old-me back in the summer of 2010, welcoming a new season of life and preparing to start to college in the big city of Atlanta.

One thing that drew me to Georgia State University was that big city feel. I grew up in a very suburban town where minivan's ruled the roads and strip malls and QuikTrips were anchored at every intersection. Growing up, road trips to the beach typically meant passing though Atlanta. I would wait to fall asleep in the car until we drove through the city so I could look up at the buildings and experience the amber glow of the tunnel lights on the highway, which was my favorite part. It felt so different from my dark, wooded little lake town I grew up in where the streets were now lined with new car lots and big box stores.

Following the start of college in the Fall of 2010, the demons I had been bearing inside me my whole life were knocking down my emotional door. I felt desperate and relieved to go away from where I grew up so I could finally find the help I know I needed. I started searching therapy and counseling services at Georgia State University and found that every student was allotted a certain amount of sessions a semester. When you pay tuition at any University you pay for a lot of things you aren't usually aware of (gym fees, bus fees, career services, therapy.) As a student you have access to all of these perks and you pay for them whether you use them or not. I made the appointment, walked a few blocks down to the counseling center and took a long, intimidating intake questionnaire. It's asking me questions like, on a scale of 1-5 how often do you think about dying? I was putting down solid fives throughout the entire answer sheet. It's completely terrifying and overwhelming to scroll though hundreds of questions and feel like you failed some personal test where there are no right or wrong answers, just truthful results which ended up being PTSD, clinical depression and anxiety. I was devoted to bettering myself and started going to therapy sessions every Monday morning at 8:00 a.m. for the remainder of my freshman year of college. 

2011 wasn't any easier.

When the Spring semester of 2011 was over, my sessions ended with my then therapist who was moving across the country and I was supposed to transition and find someone new. Later that year in the Fall, I was admitted to the psych ward at Grady Hospital for a suicide attempt. I was discharged from the hospital under the promise that I would find a new therapist and continue working on myself. I met my current therapist when she was an intern at the Anxiety and Stress Management Institute. (If you feel like you need help and want to talk to someone but don't know how to start the process or where to go, please reach out. I would be more than happy to help.) A lot of people want to get help but feel like they can't afford it and it's intimating- $150 for a 50-minute session... I was working retail making $8.25/hour, so I knew there was no way I could afford it. Luckily, many therapists offer something called a 'sliding scale' for those that are students or make below a certain wage. You would be surprised, I started out paying around $30 for a session. The idea is that you will eventually work your way up the scale to make room for others who need to also benefit from the service. I have been seeing my therapist since the fall of 2011 consistently, ranging from every other week to once a month depending on my season of life. 

Over the next few years it was a hard balance of healing, medicine, and being consistent. It wasn't easy and it still isn't easy but it has gotten a whole hell of a lot better because I have done the work. One of my hardest challenges has been learning to be consistent with medicine and that it is a necessity for me to be my best self. I have struggled with feeling resistant to medicine because I didn't want to feel like I had to rely on it the rest of my life in order to be a functioning member of society. Depression medicine felt very restricting and embarrassing and I truthfully felt diseased. I have been through this cycle many times: getting back on my medicine, feeling GREAT, stop taking medicine, mental breakdown, start taking medicine again, six weeks later feel great, another six weeks later stop taking medicine and another six weeks go mental. What I have learned from this is that I seriously need my meds to in order to function and have a happy life. My therapist put it to me this way, "If you had diabetes, you wouldn't just stop taking your diabetes medicine would you?" I have depression, an illness caused by changes in your brain chemistry to put it simply. Of course there are other things that can cause depression including genetics, inbalance in hormone levels, the loss of a loved one, stress, grief and difficult life circumstances. 


On January 10th, 2015 my boyfriend Trey, his friend Joey and I set out on an overnight hiking trip taking us 5.5 miles the top of Big Frog Mountain. Trey thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2012 before we met, so we had been on a few day hikes together but nothing serious. I grew up going to a small camp in North Georgia every year for two weeks in the summer where we would crick walk, day hike and cowboy camp beneath the stars but I had never hiked with a large backpack or camped overnight in a tent. I don't know who was more nervous for this trip me or Trey. It was January in North Georgia and the forecast for that weekend was mid 20's and that was not considering elevation. Trey was nervous because he didn't want me to be miserable and I was nervous because I literally didn't know what I was getting myself into. I borrowed boots and a jacket from one friend and Joey's wife, Michelle gave me literally everything else I needed for this trip, a backpack, down pants, down booties, sleeping bag, sleeping pad... you name it. The whole reason I started this long tangent is because I remember so vividly a moment in time from this hiking trip. It was three years ago but it feels like yesterday. I felt like I had been walking forever and like we had to be getting close to the top. My legs were aching and I was trying to muster any last ounce of energy I had remaining to place one foot in front of the other. I turned the corner to see Trey and Joey at the top of what looked like the steepest hill ever and that was the first time hiking I thought to myself, "I literally cannot do this." Somehow though, just as it happens every time, I overcome my self-doubt and the next thing I know we are waking up just in time to see the sunrise as we descend Big Frog Mountain. I was left feeling fulfilled, proud, and ready to do it again. 

In the Summer of 2016- I had another one of these life episodes and I felt like truly lost control of my life. During a session with my therapist one particular day, I was telling her how I felt like out of touch with myself and thought I needed to be admitted into a mental hospital. She challenged me and made me realize the realities of this, but it was a desperate cry for help and change that I needed in my life so she suggested that I commit to 24-weeks of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). This small group therapy would meet every Tuesday night for almost two hours. July 19th, 2016 was my first group session and I was nervous and reluctant but it would teach me the skills I needed to take my life back and start building my life worth living. At the core of DBT therapy is mindfulness. Every sessions begun with a mindfulness activity and every skill we learned depended on being mindful. Mindfulness is simply being present. This means paying attention to what is happening right now. Without judgment. Without overthinking. Without invalidating your experience. Mindfulness is just being willing to show up to the present moment. It is acceptance of the present moment. 

A few months later in December of 2016, Trey and I went to Joshua Tree for a mini hiking vacation. On the flight home I was flipping through the Southwest Magazine and there was an article about Shinrin-yoku which is a term that means, "taking in the forest atmosphere" or "forest bathing". It is a practice that was developed in Japan in the 1980's. Shinrin-yoku is all about breathing, relaxing, wandering, touching, listening, and healing. It's basically being extremely mindful in the forest. This term would stay constant in the back of my mind over the next eight months. 

July 17th, 2017- I lost my job. 

This was almost a year to the day that I had my first session in DBT and little did I know that the past 52 weeks would ultimately be preparing me for this moment. Dialectical Behavior Therapy taught me that when there is a problem, there are really only four options you can use to solve it, regardless of the problem. 

1. Solve the problem

  • change or leave the sitaution

2. Feel better about the problem

  • regular your emotions that the problem elicits

3. Accept the problem

  • tolerate the problem

4. Stay miserable

  • don't do anything! 

So when I lost my job, I knew there was only a few things I could do. I couldn't solve the problem because losing my job was the problem. I sure as hell was not going to let this make me any more miserable than working my corporate job already made me. Later that day I went on a short hike up Stone Mountain to clear my head because I couldn't take sitting around and feeling miserable for myself anymore. On the drive home, the word Shinrin-yoku crossed my mind again. I googled it as I usually did but this time an NPR article popped up that had just been published that day. "Forest Bathing: A Retreat To Nature Can Boost Immunity And Mood" I started reading more about the benefits of forest bathing and how hand and hand that it went with practicing mindfulness. Hiking was always apart of my life worth living goal and I felt like I needed to take this bad situation and turn it into something better.

July 26th, 2017  MA/VT Border at the start of The Long Trail

July 26th, 2017

MA/VT Border at the start of The Long Trail

The next day I booked a one-way flight to Boston, MA to go hike The Long Trail in Vermont which would begin my ultimate hiking journey. The woods were calling my name and I just felt like I needed a break from life before I hit that 'reset' button on life. Later that night I had my final session of DBT which would round me out at 52-weeks, completing two entire rounds of Dialectical Behavior Therapy. 

One week later on July 25th, 2017 I took a plane to Boston, Massachusetts and then an Amtrak to Pittsfield and finally a taxi to Williamstown. I was dropped off on the curb over 1,000 miles from my home in Atlanta, in an unfamiliar yuppy college town where I started to completely question every bone in my body.

Over the next three weeks I would challenge myself mental and physically more than I ever have. There would be times that I didn't think I could keep going but I practiced mindfulness. I laid on rocks and let the sun beams radiate on my face while I soaked my blistered feet in the cold creeks. Every time I wanted to give up I thanked my body. I thanked my legs for carrying me so far and my eyes for always capturing the tiniest details. When I would stop to catch my breath I made sure to always observe what was around me. What was the smallest thing I could find? What was the largest thing I could find? What forest critters were running around me? I know I was seeing things other hikers that were blowing past me never even noticed. There were snakes curled up in the fallen bark that laid next to the trail, an inch worm dangling from my sleeve, tiny toads hopping across my toes, chipmunks scurrying across tree branches barking at me, salamanders swimming around my water hose as I filtered my water from the pond. I was surrounded by beauty everywhere I looked, even when I felt like wanting to die. If I didn't practice mindfulness during my time on the Long Trail my hike would have been completely different and I honestly don't know if I would have enjoyed it as much. I ended up being able to hike 168 miles before my heart called me home to be with my Nanny before she passed away a week later. A week after that I was in Jackson, Wyoming hiking over 70 miles Wind River Range.

Needless to say, I have come 'miles' from that first hiking trip three years ago. 

Hiking reminded me how resilient I am and it taught me that even though you might have planned something out so meticulously it will never go exactly how you wanted, but to be trusting in the universe and you will be rewarded greatly. During that first overnight hiking trip of 11-miles I would have never imagined that three years later I would have hiked so far, especially alone. I would have never imagined the peace and happiness I would gain from walking in the woods. My hiking goal is to encourage others, especially women, that they too can do it. I want to help educate others about trail etiquette, leave-no-trace, backcountry cooking and ultra-lite backpacking skills. 

Avery Hayden3 Comments