the metamorphosis

At 30 years old, 16 months clean and sober, and eleven weeks into the love of my life, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. In January I may have hit a ten-year high, but nothing could prepare me for the changes March and April would bring. Not only am I happier, but it feels like my very capacity for happiness has increased.

I credit my time in recovery for a large part of this change, while a smaller but still significant part comes from attending to my psychiatric needs. But the element that has pushed it to full fruition is the relationship that has consumed the past eleven weeks of my life.

Throughout my twenties, playing out a series of variations on the theme of self destruction, I abandoned the ambitious dreams of my teenage years. Forget becoming an important writer or a successful academic—suddenly just being a reasonably happy and stable adult seemed like a loft goal. I slowly and fitfully resigned myself to the fact that even the idea of being a normal, happy person might be too much to achieve. I finally accepted the stark reality: I’d never be normal.

But that didn’t mean I’d never be happy.

Despite a soft spot for stories about enduring partnership, I had a sneaking suspicion (and in my mind, mounting evidence) that I was the kind of person who was happiest without the hassle of romantic love. My therapist told me that was not a kind of person. But I never understood the seemingly ubiquitous fear of “winding up alone,” which to me sounded like nothing so much as a relief. Living alone had always seemed like the ideal state. And while I did it, finally, it was great. But that was because I hadn’t yet gotten involved with the man who transformed me. People around me are alarmed by how quickly I packet my bags and moved in with my partner. But they can’t feel the radical sea change in my spirit he has triggered. I have a place I belong. I have a home. Intimacy with him feels natural, emotional, and unguarded to the point where the shame I felt for years has been turned inside out.

Also, thanks to recovery, my relationship with the universe is much less contentious than it used to be. I no longer feel like hiking 211 miles by myself proves much about my worth as a person, nor do I feel like I have much to prove in the first place. I won’t feel like a failure if I fail to complete the JMT. And doing it alone doesn’t seem as symbolic or necessary—though I’m still going to try. But if it turns out that I have to leave the trail early, I don’t know if I’d necessarily insist on a second solo attempt. I can’t go with my partner, who lacks the fitness or experience, but I could see myself recruiting a friend or family member for the next undertaking.  I’m comfortable enough in my own skin now that I can finally shed some of the armor I’ve been hiding out in.

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beyond satisfaction

On my 3.9-mile exploratory walk this morning, I forged a new loop that is destined to be a staple of my base fitness circuit. It turns out I love my new neighborhood even more than I thought. As I wound my way west I was blown away by how beautiful the residential streets were, how green with trees (even as the other side of the country suffers catastrophic snows). Then I turned to the north, where the Hollywood hills rose up like a crown in the middle distance. On my way south once more, I made my way past Melrose art galleries and the trendy juice bars of Larchmont Village. The weather could not have been more suited to walking. Suddenly it hit me that my life was better than it has ever been.

Things can turn around so fast. In November I was miserable. What’s changed? Even before I moved, the medication I’d started taking was beginning to work. Now it’s been seven weeks. But medication isn’t everything. Sticking with my recovery program and making it through the one-year mark has given me a boost too, especially since I’m making better friends on that pathway all the time. But moving into my own place—which I’ve wanted to do for years—kicked everything up a notch. Suddenly I wasn’t just content, I was ecstatic. I could scarcely keep my mouth shut today as I took in my new surroundings, wishing I suddenly had decades to absorb everything around me. To the local women out walking their dogs, I must have looked like a crazy person powering down the sidewalk, muttering, “I love my life. I’m so happy,” in genuine surprise.

I know this bright clean high won’t last forever. It’s another pink cloud, a shock of joy, a celebration of finally, finally being as independent as I’ve wanted to be since I was a small child. Things will level out and challenges are coming. But I can’t remember the last time I wanted to make each day last forever, yet felt so excited to see what happens next.

the joy of disappointment

I spent the afternoon walking around, but not, incidentally, training for the Muir Trail. I was hunting for apartments in Los Angeles, one of which I need to secure before the end of the month. Since my options are limited by a shoestring budget and an inconvenient cat, the most promising neighborhood on my radar is Koreatown. Highly pet friendly and chock full of studios with hardwood floors and cheeky checkerboard kitchens, it’s a bargain at its best. The downside is you may be more likely to find a cockroach than a parking space. But there are scads of affordable units in the quirky, New York style buildings. One of them has to be nice enough. Right?

Today, I had bad luck. Most of the places I checked out today weren’t ready to view yet or had just been sold. And while one junior bedroom boasted a nice balcony, a garage and a steal of a price tag, I wasn’t encouraged by the broken oven lights, the damaged looking cabinets or the insect carcasses in the bathroom. When I asked the manager if the lights would get fixed before move-in, she replied that the owners were very old, and things get fixed very slowly, if at all. She was not doing a good job at selling the place. Other places had unreachable managers or were still in the process of remodeling.

At one point I still had many more apartments to look at, I felt a down mood creeping in. I was tired, a little hungry, and more than anything I was disappointed. But I also noticed something else: the disappointment stopped short of defeat. I was able to experience disappointment without descending into despair.

I’m one month into a new prescription regimen, and apparently it’s working like gangbusters. Self-defeating thoughts that would have swooped in like vultures— “I’ll never find a place I can afford,” “I’m a failure as an adult,” “I just can’t do this”—none of these things crossed my mind. My unhappiness was proportional to the situation. I bought a boba tea, took a breather, and planned one last stop before heading home and calling it a day. I’d never felt so pleased to be disappointed. It was one of those moments when I realized, hey, this is what normal people’s feelings feel like! It was a stark reminder of how much I’ve been handicapped (and cheating myself) by going unmedicated for so long. But it also gave me a lot of confidence. After all, there are bound to be disappointing days on the JMT when gear breaks down or I don’t cover as much ground as I expected. So it’s good to experience disappointment as a temporary, manageable occurrence.

Fortunately, there remain many unexplored studios in K-town, and I enjoyed walking around the neighborhood, so I’ll go back tomorrow to visit the other half of the apartments on my list and call some of the managers who were out today. I haven’t given up on my BBQ joints and thousand-dollar rent just yet.

 

the opposite of regret

10822490_10100695441366724_1295437619_nWhat is the opposite of regret? That’s the thought that popped into my head Saturday morning as I stood on Santa Monica State Beach gazing out at panoramic blue. It was a few degrees too chilly to qualify as beach weather, and I almost hadn’t bothered to make the drive to the meditation meeting. But I know myself, and I knew that the less I felt like going, the more I needed to. Sure enough, once I got there, all I could think of was how glad I was that I’d mustered the willingness to roll myself off my leaky air mattress (long story), put on sandals and leave the house.

I couldn’t have asked for a lovelier day. The colder temperature made for a thinner crowd, and honestly, the fewer people cramping my seaside style the better. It had rained hard Thursday night and intermittently on Friday, and the top of the sand had crispened into that thin brown sugar crust that crumbles to softness underfoot.

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The relative solitude is what makes winter my favorite time to visit the ocean. That’s what I call it. “Going to the beach” sounds so sand-centric, conjuring up boogie boards and tanning and kids running around with tiny plastic shovels. For me, it’s all about the sea: its sound and scent, its rhythm, its unfathomable vastness. I don’t even need to get my feet wet. The payoff comes from just looking out over the water, listening to the deep yoga breathing of the waves, processing how small and ephemeral my troubles are against the great slow churn of the undying sea. It’s my one sure ticket to conscious contact.

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I’d intended to go for a longer walk on the sand, but I soaked up too much of the morning with coffee and conversation. That’s fine. I need those things, too. Saturday morning set the tone for the whole weekend. I spent more time than usual with friends—and less time writing and working out. I’m not too bothered about the drop in productivity, though, since I’m settling into holiday mode. In a few days I’ll be headed to Bangladesh for a good friend’s wedding (which clearly warrants its own post), so right now I’m struggling to cram everything in before I leave. I’ve accepted that the ten-day vacation is going to reset my physical fitness levels, so inner fitness is my top priority right now. And in that respect, I’m doing something right.

 

going it alone

Now that I’ve started telling my friends about my plans to hike the John Muir Trail, those who know me aren’t surprised that I’d voluntarily spend two to three weeks sleeping on mountainsides. But what does consistently raise eyebrows is my choice to tackle the trail alone.

Granted, you’re never really alone on the JMT in peak season . Even after clearing the swarms of tourists in Yosemite and Tuolumne, it’s impossible to go a day without human contact. But at the end of the day, especially for a woman, a solo trip is undeniably a risky endeavor.

“You’re bringing pepper spray, right?” non-hiker types ask me. I tell them I’m armed with a GPS unit, a SPOT messenger, and a Leatherman. I joke that I’m probably safer alone in the wild l than I am in the city. As for bears, I’ve had several close encounters before and spray was never the answer.

Dangers aside, hiking alone also means a heavier pack load, fewer distractions, and, well, zero emotional support.

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Still, while I’m not saying it’s the best idea, or even a good one, I’m absolutely set on it.

The first reasons I usually give people—or used to—seem reasonable enough:

  • I can hike completely at my own pace minute by minute and day by day. Nobody else’s injuries or bad decisions are going to prevent me from completing the hike. Likewise, I won’t dash anybody else’s Whitney dreams should I decide to bail early.
  • Eighteen days is a long time to spend in the constant company of someone else. One one of us would start to hopelessly annoy the other. Alone, instead of lashing out at other people in moments of anxiety, I’ll have to learn to cope with my own inner resources.

But really, these reasons are a bit of a copout. The real reason isn’t about spending less time with others, it’s about spending more time with myself. One feature of people with my particular cluster of psychological symptoms is a lack of a sense of self. And backpacking is one of maybe three or four through-lines I can pinpoint as integral to my identity.

Many of my friends are surprised to hear me say that I don’t have a strong self-concept. On the contrary, they see me as a very distinct personality: outspoken in my views, expressive in my personal style, and unabashed about whatever geeky obsession I happen to be hooked on at the time. However, my relationship with myself has been tenuous since I was a small child. I was always was pretending to be a different character or creature years after it was socially acceptable. This is harmless, even common behavior for kids, but I took it to extremes, always electing to live in fantasy rather than reality.

As a teen, while I’d long given up openly role playing as fictional heroes, I instead immersed myself in subculture. I was the kid who spent a year of high school dressing “goth” and the next year improbably transformed into a hippie . And it wasn’t just because I wanted to stand out from the crowd or market myself as anything other than a nerd. Rather, at some gut level I felt I needed a framework to define myself by and obsess over. Otherwise, I felt kind of lost. I was ripe for indoctrination into a religious cult. Thank goodness nobody got their holy hands on me.

Over the years, everything from my career path to my sexual identification has been in constant flux. Once, an incredibly insightful boyfriend, dumbfounded that I had suddenly decided to resume the PhD program I’d supposedly abandoned, accused me of not knowing who I was. I thought he was being overdramatic, perhaps projecting. In fact, he was right on. Despite having spent a hell of a lot of time thinking about myself, I didn’t really know. Again, it’s common for twenty-somethings to feel directionless. But I made so many 180-degree turns that I eventually lost the ability to trust my own feelings.

Yet the wilderness never came into question. Along with my passion for writing (which I ignored for a time due to fear of failure) and a fairly consistent sociopolitical stance, my love of the outdoors has remained steady through umpteen career reboots and band shirts and chemicals of choice. Reconnecting with nature is integral to recovery for me. When I’m in the woods, I don’t have a “brand” to hide behind. And when I’m hiking alone, I don’t have an audience for whatever identity I feel compelled to project. It’s just me and the closest thing I’ve got to God. It’s a freedom I got a taste of this past September,  when I hiked a three-day solo loop through the Cottonwood Lakes area.

“Won’t you be lonely on a longer trip?” my friends ask, but the reality is that my loneliness isn’t a function of the people around me. I can be every bit as lonely at a party as I am alone on the trail. (A quote to this effect appears in the trailer for Wild, which I still haven’t seen. But while I certainly find Cheryl Strayed a kindred spirit of sorts, we differ in that hiking was never central to Strayed’s life before she took on the PCT.)

You could make the argument that, rather than isolating, it would better serve my recovery to practice coexisting with others. And you’d be right—but I have to do that every day. And while I’ve definitely wondered how motivated I am by the desire to say I hiked the JMT, to brag about it on Facebook, to brand myself all over again as That Hiking Girl—well, I really am that hiking girl. I always have been.

The truth is, I do have a self. I’m just so uncomfortable with it (for whatever reason) that I channel and project and distract and morph and pretend to avoid inhabiting it. So it’s not that I’m hiking to find myself, exactly. How anticlimactic would that be? No, I’m hiking alone to accept myself. To practice really living in my own skin, without distractions to help me escape. With nobody to dress up for or make snarky quips to, I’ll have to face the fact that I exist independently of the external trappings so easily confused for identity. I’ll have to get to know what’s under my own mask, to make some measure of peace with what’s there, and what’s not. I’m going out there alone to get real.

getting stuff done

I’m not afraid of bears. I’m not afraid of sleeping in the woods alone or of falling off rocky outcroppings to my doom. I am, however, terrified of making phone calls.

One of the challenges of being an adult is handling the pesky little logistical details that seem to crop up like weeds while you’re trying to focus on the big picture. Everyone agrees that calling the cable company or the doctor’s office is “a pain”, but most people don’t actually experience these tasks as painful.

Yet for many people with mental health disorders, these seemingly minor inconveniences can be genuinely challenging. Ask a clinically depressed person to pick up the phone and call a complete stranger, and you may as well ask them to move a mountain.  For me, the usual culprit is anxiety. Whenever I need to make an appointment or ask a question over the phone—especially in the sort of situation that requires a Member ID number—the task takes on a weight that borders on physical. It almost hurts. Even if the day is wide open, I dread the possibility that the service rep might not understand me, that there will be complications, that I might completely flip out at the poor soul who was unlucky enough to score that shift. (Yes, anxiety about anxiety is totally a thing.) And if I have other things to do in the middle of the day (i.e. working), then I’d better put off that phone call until tomorrow. Meanwhile, the entire day’s work is shadowed by the looming threat of That Thing I Haven’t Done Yet.

Of course, procrastination just exacerbates the dread. I noticed mentally healthy people taking care of these matters without wallowing in avoidance and fear, so I’ve been trying (with mixed success) to emulate them. And while there are those demoralizing instances where your innocent question opens up an entire Pandora’s box of More Things You Haven’t Done Yet and hopelessness descends, generally the Just Do It approach has the effect of ripping off the proverbial bandaid.

The best mental strategy I’ve applied this challenge is something I call reframing. Instead of repeating the automatic thought, “%$*@, I have to call the insurance company” after an accident, I tell myself, “I am going to get my car fixed.” Likewise, while “I have to call the doctor” feels so onerous that it occupies a whole morning, “I’m going to get the medicine I need” is empowering. This practice has revolutionized the way I cope with day-to-day anxiety and cut my procrastinating in half.

What does this have to do with the John Muir Trail? Well, logistics play a pivotal role in any big trip. Luckily, most backpacking prep doesn’t require phone calls. Perhaps because they’re solitary and familiar, projects like meal planning and route mapping are downright enjoyable activities for me. The tougher parts will be booking a permit six months in advance, mailing resupply boxes to the key checkpoints, and securing transportation back to my car. I’m not too worried about any of these things right now, but that’s because they’re too far off for me to feel them looming. As deadlines approach, I refuse to let my fear of dealing with the little unknowns things dampen my enthusiasm for the trip. That’s why I’m going to be practicing task-reframing with all the dread-inducing minutiae that come my way.

 

stormclouds redux

Leaves02I went on the most beautiful, cleansing walk yesterday. It was just the longer version of my standard 3-5 mile neighborhood jaunt, but it was sprinkling, and the colors after yesterday’s storm were so intensely rich and true. Years of schooling in the northeast turned me against rain, but I can tell I’m going through spiritual change again now because I’m sorry the rain is over. I didn’t bring my phone to take a photograph, so I wrote a poem instead, which is something I haven’t done in a long time.

 

The first rain in Los Angeles
is like the end of a war
and the sugargums all brandish their bright flags
and scatter them over the road like paper stars.

The grass that leaps up neon from the black earth
glows fiercely from within.
The sun has left the white sky and taken hold in the electric grass
and in the yellowgreen leaves,
the red and the gold,

and not just the plants but the stones
in all the houses and the walkways sing their wild selves.
What was gray is now green pink ochre blue mountain alive
and the red bricks of chimneys sing their canyon clay.

I am a desert thing. I can wait for rain.
No matter how many times I die I will be reborn.
No matter how many days pass in dryness, the rain
that has always returned will once again pass over
and each pore of the thirsty earth will sing open
and the silver drops of sky will kiss our skins, saying,
“You too are made of this. You too are part of the real.”

 

Photo by Robert Caruso