Walking to infinity
During the most difficult times, which could last up to several weeks, I made sure to get out and hike. When I started on the trail, I paid close attention to my breath, watching it go in and out of my mouth and lungs with my mind’s eye, silently chanting a walking meditation I’d learned from one of Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh’s books. Focusing on the breath gave me a reprieve from the nearly constant worry I experienced, which felt like a sharp-toothed creature feeding off my mind.
I had long known that following a trail through the woods, skirting a mountain lake or hiking along a ridge overlooking the ocean soothed me. But once I resolved to heal what had ailed me for so long, hiking became a natural medicine. The walking meditation made the medicine even more effective.
I first tried the walking meditation on the Bear Valley Trail. The trail isn’t difficult, more like a good long walk than a hike. It is, however, located in an exceptionally beautiful park – Point Reyes National Seashore – and is probably the park’s most popular.
Flat and wide, with almost no elevation gain, it’s a stroll through the woods, with a creek alongside, sometimes on the left and other times on the right. A large grassy meadow sits at the halfway point, given the most unimaginative name – Divide Meadow. In spring, purple Douglas irises appear, just before the path ascends slightly and the trees open up to the sky.
The difficult times mostly occurred during the first few years I spent in therapy. What led me to start seeing a clinical psychologist was that I had fallen down a deep hole. After I had been in therapy for some time, I realized that I had slid down this same hole many times before. This descent, though, was different. I couldn’t manage to get out. The tricks I’d used in the past didn’t help.
Much later, my therapist would inform me that the clinical term for the hole was Depression. She believed that I had suffered from a chronic, low-level version, known as dysthymia, most of my life. When too many stresses, hurts or disappointments came on, I sometimes sank deeper, into Major Depression’s muddy mire.
I saw my therapist once a week. Though she charged by the hour, each session lasted only fifty minutes. When I first started, I didn’t realize that I had built up layers of defensive armor over the years, in hopes of keeping my super-sensitive self from being wounded. Later, I would come to see this armor as depression. I also kept the depression in place with my constant worrying, about small things I was adept at blowing up into big concerns. In each therapy session, the talk, followed by tears, helped me lift up a layer or two, if only for a short time.
As with the walking meditation I practiced on the trail, I learned to use my breath in therapy to slip beneath the defenses, in order to feel a bit of the mountain of buried anger, sadness and shame. Once I’d released some of those feelings, usually by crying, I felt lighter, and even experienced joy.
But long before I ever considered that I might need help for the low moods from which I suffered, I understood that hiking on a trail cheered me. After I began those weekly sessions, though, and especially once I received a diagnosis of depression, I understood that being in nature was essential.
I knew right off that I didn’t want to medicate myself out of depression. A child of alcoholics, the last thing I wanted was to rely on some substance to cheer myself up. But I also made the decision because therapy helped me. Bit by bit, I uncovered the myriad reasons why I had become depressed. Depression wasn’t a mysterious illness buried in my genetic code. Growing up in a family with two alcoholic parents, constantly moving because my father was a career Air Force officer, and with no one to turn to for help, positive feedback, or support, I probably couldn’t have turned out any other way.
My second therapist, Lori, often referred to my efforts to heal depression as “being on the path.” Since I loved to hike, this image worked for me. And week after week, month after month, and year after year in therapy, as I moved down the path, I got better.
Unfortunately, no matter how far down the path I went, I never reached the point of being cured. Eight years after I started therapy, though, I knew I was done. It wasn’t because the depression and accompanying anxiety had finally left me. I was done because I had made significant positive changes in my life. More important, I had taken many of the tools my therapist used and made them my own.
It’s un-American to admit that you can’t fix your life, no matter how hard and long you have tried. I rarely share the news with people that I suffer from depression and anxiety and don’t expect these conditions to go away any time soon. At one point, I coined the phrase living with depression, to capture what I view as a chronic condition for which I am not passively standing by. This means that though I stopped my weekly therapy sessions years ago, I nevertheless live each day as if I never stepped off the healing path.
That path brings me to a trail almost every week. Whether I am alone or with someone – usually my husband Richard – I stay quiet for a time and practice the walking meditation. The walking meditation not only takes me out of my head, it also focuses my attention on the surroundings. Every time I do this I learn that the world is a far more beautiful place than I ever realized. Small, bright chartreuse green ferns growing up the sides of redwood trunks shimmer alongside the otherwise dark forested trail. Red, golden and brown leaves that have fallen to the ground weave an exotic Eastern carpet.
Even when I am not paying attention to my breath, hiking a trail changes me. Frequently, by the time I reach the trailhead parking lot, my mind feels overstuffed. I’ve tried over the years to figure this out and have come to the conclusion that I never quite developed the emotional armor necessary for living in the world as an adult. The slightest things hurt and worry me. The problem is that this usually happens in a completely unconscious way.
I might suddenly realize that I’m feeling down, which will have caused my forehead to feel as if it were packed in cotton. At that point, I have to sit down and breathe, trace back in my mind everything that happened in the past twenty-four hours. Once I discover the incidents that have contributed to my latest fall, I can start to reassure myself that everything, in the end, will be all right.
What happens in a plodding, mechanical way indoors, unfolds almost magically on a trail. The rhythm of my booted feet moving me forward, sometimes on soft earth strewn with dried, dead pine needles, and at other times, carefully picking my way over rocks, clears my brain like a drug. Even after I’ve given myself a break from meditation and let my mind wander wherever it cares to go, a miracle occurs. Instead of chewing over the same old disappointments or worries about anticipated crises that will amount to nothing, my thinking turns down a more hopeful path. I don’t have to force it in that direction. Being on the trail automatically transports me there.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I’m probably taking in more oxygen than I would be sitting at home or that the sunlight peeks in through the forest canopy, turning the whitewater in the creek to molten silver. It also doesn’t matter that the trail, if I follow it all the way, eventually ends. Being on the trail causes me to feel that I could walk to infinity, that there is no end to hope, which I find in short supply when I’m caught in depression’s muddy mire.
In the early days of our relationship almost a quarter century ago, Richard and I made a habit of stopping at Divide Meadow for a snack and a talk. We often didn’t leave the house until close to four o’clock. By the time we reached the meadow, the sun had dropped behind the hills and the resident deer had come out.
Nearly every time we hiked out there, we witnessed what felt like a miraculous sight. Along with the usual tawny-colored deer would be one lone albino. From a distance where we sat, this special creature appeared to be pure white.
I haven’t seen that albino deer for years. Yet, every time I take a seat on one of the carved logs at the edge of the meadow, I imagine that special deer to be there. Like me, that deer might be viewed as a misfit or even a mistake. But as I’ve learned making my way down the healing path, what initially appears to be a deficit can sometimes be turned into a gift. Such a transformation will only occur, though, if one is willing to follow the path wherever it might lead.
Patty Somlo’s most recent books are The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil), a short story collection which was a Finalist in the 2016 International Book Awards and a Finalist in the 2016 Best Book Awards, and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing). Her fourth book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, is forthcoming from Cherry Castle Publishing in January 2017. She has received four Pushcart Prize nominations, been nominated for storySouth Million Writers Award and had an essay selected as a Notable Essay for Best American Essays 2014. Her work has appeared in journals, including the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, Under the Sun, Guernica, Gravel, and Sheepshead Review, and in numerous anthologies.