“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” ~John Burroughs
I sat on the front stoop sobbing, unable to move. Hunched over like a heaving dog hugging my knees and clutching a wad of decomposing tissues. About fifteen minutes before, I’d managed to get myself off the couch where I’d been parked, withered and absent, for the fourth consecutive day, and had made it through the front door.
Once there, I tried to stay upright, but like cool syrup I slid down the side of the wrought iron railing and down onto the steps. Now all I had to do was get up and walk to the mailbox and back and maybe I’d feel better. But I couldn’t do it. It was too much.
I hoisted my ladened head from my knees and stared out the driveway to the mailbox about seven hundred feet away. It may as well have been ten miles… or fifteen feet. It didn’t matter, it was too far.
“Please just help me get up,” I pleaded to a somber sky. The help didn’t come and so there I sat crying, searching for the energy or the wherewithal to make myself move. Fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, twenty-five… the time oozed by thick and distorted.
It had happened before, more than once, and had overtaken me at varying speeds and intensity. Sometimes it leached in with the change of seasons; like an inflatable pool toy left floating past the end of summer, sad and wilted, the air having seeped out in infinitesimal degrees. Sometimes I could fight it off, catch it before things got too grim. Not this time. I’d felt myself spiraling down, hot wind escaping me until I was in a deflated heap, slack and flaccid on the sofa.
It had happened a few years ago, although not this bad, and a chirpy classmate had suggested that I just “snap out of it!”
“Just… ‘snap out of it?’” I repeated.
“Yeah!! Snap out of it!”
“It’s not that simple,” I said.
“Sure, it is! Like the song says, ‘Put on a happy face!’”
“Are you kidding me right now?”
“No, I’m not kidding,” she said. “It’s mind over matter. Just distract yourself by doing something that makes you happy. Stop thinking about it… you know, snap out of it!”
I looked at the woman through a haze of disbelief and deadpanned, “Just snap out of it. Gee. Why didn’t I think of that?”
Another friend enquired, “Why don’t you just ask for help when things get bad?”
“Because you can’t,” I said
“What do you mean you can’t? You just pick up the phone and ask for help. It takes two seconds!”
“I mean you can’t; not when you’re in the depths of it. That’s the insidiousness of it. When you need help the most is when you’re least able to ask for it.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” the friend replied. “If you’re sick you call the doctor. If your car breaks down you get it to a mechanic. If you have a drinking problem you go to AA. When you need help, you ask for help!”
“That’s like telling someone who is trapped under a piano to walk over to the phone and call the movers,” I scoffed. “You simply can’t”
“Of course, you can! You’re not actually trapped under a piano and you’re not paralyzed, are you?”
“Well, no, obviously it’s a metaphor. But in a way you are… paralyzed, I mean.”
“Oh, come on… I think you’re being a little dramatic.”
“And I think you’re being dismissive and oversimplifying it.”
“Because it’s pretty simple. You just ask for help.”
“I don’t think there’s anything I can say to help you to understand how it feels. I just don’t know how to explain it if you’ve never experienced it.”
“Well, I think if someone needs help, they should just ask for it.”
I sighed and said “Maybe the name says it all. It’s a good name for how you feel. ‘Depression.’ There’s the word depression like a hole in the ground and you definitely feel like you’re stuck down in a hole. And there’s depression in the sense that something is pressing down on you. It absolutely feels like there is a physical weight holding you down. It’s inexplicably heavy. It’s heavy in your mind. It’s heavy in your lungs. It’s heavy in your body. Sometimes, when it’s really bad, it’s nearly impossible to move.”
“Nearly impossible… but not impossible,” my friend said. “You could still get to the phone.”
But that was then and now I was alone. No nonbelievers to convert nor pep talks to deflect.
Medication had worked to a degree and only for a while. The struggle to find the right prescription and dosage combined with the ever-growing list of side effects had proven too much. I also swore I could feel the drugs in my system, and they made me feel toxic, for lack of a better term, and I couldn’t stand it. So, under my doctor’s guidance I’d titrated off my meds.
I’d discovered that, for me, the best way to loosen the grip of despair and keep it at bay was intense, intentional, physical exercise. As I slowly increased the time I spent walking, then running, my doctor kept close tabs on my progress. It had worked. It was my magic pill and like any prescription, I had to take it without fail or face a relapse.
I’d found that he more/less I exercised the more/less I wanted to, and the better/worse I felt; it was self-perpetuating in both directions, and over the past couple of months I had gotten lazy; my laziness turned into malaise, the malaise had become despondence, and despondence had gotten me here. Sitting languid and bleak between a spitting gray sky and the gravel drive.
It was late September in Mid-Coast Maine. The days were growing shorter and winter would not be long behind. The hibernal season was always a struggle and it was harder to manage my mood. The window of opportunity was closing. If I didn’t get ahead of it straightaway there’d be no escaping without medical intervention. I had to move my body so my mind could follow, it was the only way out and would happen right now or not at all.
I had to dig down deep, excavate some minuscule untapped reserve, the survival instinct maybe, and use it to push back against the darkness with everything I had left.
Okay. On the count of one… two… three… I took a deep breath in and with the exhale, slowly rolled forward off the step onto my hands and knees into the small dusty stones. I looked out to the end of the drive, toward the empty road and the stand of pines beyond, then hooked my eyes onto the mailbox. Just get there. Crawl if you have to, but go.
I crept a few feet forward on all fours, the sharp pebbles jabbing into my knees and palms “I think you’re being a little dramatic…” I rolled my eyes and set my jaw. Sitting back on my heels, I pushed with my hands and came up into a four-point squat. I sat there for a minute keep moving keep moving then, fingers splayed on the ground, I stuck my fanny in the air, grabbed hold of my thighs one at a time, and hauled myself up.
Arms crossed over my stomach and chest, stooped and shivering, I hugged myself. Move. Move your feet Taking tiny steps, increments of half a foot-length, I shuffled forward; right, left, pause… right, left, pause… “God it’s so hard.” Keep going keep going…
Over the past couple of years I’d become an athlete, a trail runner. I ran twenty-five or thirty miles a week, up and down ski slopes in the summertime, yet right then I could barely move. There was nothing physically wrong with me, but depression is an autocrat and I’d fallen under its totalitarian rule. It forbade me from moving with my normal grace and ease and instead had me shackled and chained… but I kept going.
“You should die from this,” I breathed out loud. “If there was a true, proportionate cause and effect, feeling this bad should, in all fairness, kill a person.” Keep going keep going.
“But it doesn’t. It squeezes the life out of you but doesn’t actually kill you.”
I was halfway to the mailbox. I didn’t pick up my feet, just sort of slid them along, rocking back and forth like a sickly penguin leaving drag marks behind. It hurt to move, it hurt to breathe.
“Please help me,” I turned my face upward and beseeched the misting sky. “Please give me a sign. I need something, anything, so I know this will be worth it. If you do, I promise I’ll believe it and I won’t give up. I promise I’ll keep going.” Right, left, right, left. I was closing in on the letterbox, tears flowing. My body ached.
I got no sign, no random flash of light nor clap of thunder, just the sound of the breeze in the pines and my feet scratching in the pebbles.
When I was about ten feet away, I extended an arm, right, left, right, left, almost there… reaching… fingertips touching the cold damp metal. “I did it,” I feebly cried. Maybe there’s something in the mail today… maybe that will be my sign. I opened the box and peered inside. Nothing. Just a flyer from the market with its weekly specials—not even real mail, just more junk.
But with or without a sign, I’d made it.
Oh… God… I turned around and, clamping my Kleenex and the stupid flyer to my chest, stared blankly back down the driveway to the house. Now I have to do it again. It was so far. “Just get it over with and then you can be done.”
I breathed in and started back… right, left, right, left, right, left, I resumed my melancholy march. My gaze was fixed yet something moving high in a tree caught in my periphery… a bird; a crow or raven maybe.
I paused and looked up, and there he was flapping his wings just a bit, arranging himself on his perch. The huge chocolate-colored body and glorious white crown were unmistakable, even at this distance.
Bald Eagles were common up here, but this was no ordinary creature and I knew it. Strength, pride, power, Mother Nature to the rescue again. Yes, this was my eagle and I understood the message he brought. I sniffled, dragged my damp sleeve across my nose and cheek, and nodded. “Okay,” I whispered. “Thank you. This is good. I can do this”
I regained momentum. Right, left, right, left. I’m a runner, I’m an athlete, I eat hills for breakfast, Goddammit. Keep going. Hand outstretched, I grabbed hold of the railing and climbed the three steps to the house. I made it back, albeit barely, and let myself inside.
I got out of my wet clothes and wrapped myself up in my accomplishment and a fluffy robe. I would get a little something to eat, I thought, take a hot shower, go to bed, and watch TV. I still felt like hell, but I did it. I would get some sleep tonight and first thing tomorrow morning, I told myself, I would go to the mailbox again… and maybe just a little bit farther.
* * * *
When a person releases any type of toxicity from their lives or stops accepting their drug of choice, in whatever form it takes, after years of abuse, they discover all sorts of things about themselves that may have been masked by, or mistaken for, their addiction.
One of the things I unearthed when I got sober was a history of severe depression that I’d attributed to alcoholism; I was wrong, they weren’t one and the same. They were, however, mutually parasitic, two separate entities that fed off one another.
Which came first, the depression or the alcoholism, I have no idea and, frankly, it didn’t really matter to me. My substance abuse certainly exacerbated my despondency, but cessation didn’t cure it; I was left with chronic, sometimes debilitating bouts of despair.
My first twelve-step sponsor suggested we meet for weekly walks at the town reservoir, a three thousand-acre forested reserve dotted with pristine watershed lakes. It was to become a transformative practice.
Once a week, we walked and talked our way around a popular three-mile loop where I learned, among many other things, a quote that I believe helped save my life: “Move a muscle, change a thought.”
This quote introduced me to the theory that physically moving the body helps dislodge negativity and facilitates a healthy thought process. It also reintroduced me to my love of the woods, something I’d forfeited long ago to alcoholism.
The activity became so enjoyable that I began to seek out my new like-minded friends for a “walk at the Res,” building healthy relationships in a tranquil setting, eventually heading out on my own as well.
I’d walk the loop after work as the days grew long and hike for hours on sunny weekend mornings. I’d often catch glimpses of deer, even a doe with her fawn. It relaxed me and made me smile, which may not sound like much but for me, as sick as I’d been, it was a big deal.
Surrounded by the soft shapes and sounds of the forest, the whispers of the breeze rustling the leaves, the sound of water moving over rocks in the creeks and the birdsong in the trees, and the rich smell and feel of earth under my feet, I found the magical world I’d claimed as a girl and then left behind.
Being alone in nature I found peace and my very first feelings of joy as an adult. I’d forgotten that joy existed, let alone that it was something that might be available to me. Not to be understated, it also kept me occupied, away from dangerous environments and temptation.
As the happiness in my heart grew and my healthful body returned, I began going for short runs. It wasn’t easy, but I kept at it, physically challenging myself gradually, mindfully, and without impunity. The endorphins, already being released on walks and hikes, increased proportionately with the pace, the distance, and demand of the terrain.
I was feeling strong, happy, empowered; literally and intentionally changing the chemical balance in my brain. With the blessing and guidance of my therapist, I slowly replaced my antidepressants with scheduled, purposeful exercise, proud to be scaling my active participation in my recovery under the watchful eye of my doctor.
After several years, I traded regular visits with my shrink for the occasional tune-up with a sports physician. Nature was at the center of my spiritual healing and running and hiking had become my medicine. And like any medicine, if I kept taking it, it kept working and, well, if I didn’t…
Day by day, I had allowed one excuse after another to erode my commitment to exercise and disrupt my healthy routine, but I’d just sloughed it off. “No big deal,” I told myself. “I’ll get back to it tomorrow.”
But my “tomorrows” were adding up and before I knew it, momentum was lost and the pendulum had swung. Then, my relationship fell apart. My conditioned response would have been to run it off; take my anger and pain into the woods and leave it there rather than turn it inward. But it was too late. My depression had already taken hold and gotten ahead of me, so instead of hitting the trail I’d spiraled down and hit the couch… and I stayed there for days. It was a very difficult lesson, but I learned it. I have yet to make that mistake again.
Today, nearly twenty years after my long journey to the mailbox, I have a million things to do. But first, I went for a run.
I know I need to make intentional exercise a priority, and to celebrate the small victories when all I can manage is a short walk. When you’re depressed it can be hard to see this, but small wins are wins, nonetheless.
If you’re struggling right now, I get it. I know you can’t just snap out of it. I know it’s hard to ask for help. I know you might need medication, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But perhaps, like me, you’ll find it helpful to get out of your head, get outside, and get moving.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s to never underestimate the healing power of physical exercise and mother nature.