Sometimes You Chase False Summits

I’d climbed many mountains before, but not ones out West where you cross the tree line with miles remaining to hike.

At Humphrey’s Peak, my goal was to reach the summit. Humphrey’s Peak, in Flagstaff, Arizona, served as a critical scene in a story I’d written. I needed to know what I conceived was accurate. I needed to make it to the peak.

Days before, I’d hiked in the nearby Grand Canyon, down Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point. It’s a 12-mile trail that starts at 7,000 feet of elevation and descends to 3,500 feet at Plateau Point.

After some less rigorous sightseeing, I drove to Flagstaff and carb loaded for the Humphrey’s Peak hike. At sunrise, I was at the trailhead, situated at 9,000 feet. The trail climbs over five miles to 12,700 feet at the peak. It was mid-November, the end of hiking season for a peak that could then just as easily be encased in snow and ice.

While there was ice on the trails at higher elevations, particularly in shaded areas below the tree line, it wasn’t the footing that made this hike difficult. I’d been in the Chicago area only a few days before. My only incline work had been at lower elevations in the Grand Canyon. I was far from altitude-adjusted. This became abundantly clear once I passed the tree line, trudging through the lunar landscape covering the last 1-1/2 miles to the summit.

The trail up to one of three false summits on Humphrey’s Peak.

Even more clear then was that I hadn’t trained enough. I was forced to stop frequently, to rest my legs and to keep my heart and lungs from bursting through my ribs.

As I approached what looked like the summit, I was relieved as much as delighted. I’d made it. The descent would be far easier.

I hadn’t made it though.

I’d been chasing a false summit. I had further to go.

Humphrey’s Peak has three false summits. They give you hope that you’re almost to your goal, only to crush your spirit as you take what you think are the final incline steps. When you look up, though, the trail continues over the ridge.

When I hit these false summits, in hiking and in life, I have to take a break, gather my thoughts and admit I’d been fooled. Hardest of all, I need to keep going. My goal hadn’t been to get to something that seemed like the summit. It had been to get to the top, even if that meant enduring 20-mile-per-hour winds aggravating nearly freezing temperatures.

On Humphrey’s Peak, as in life, my goals kept moving from what I had been envisioning, feeling at times nearly impossible to achieve. Several times during my career, I was told I needed just one more achievement or to wait to get past the current hiring freeze. A promotion was no more than months away. But something else would intervene. A bad quarter. New leadership. Different priorities. Internal politics.

The goal moved.

The disappointment of thinking I’d made it, only to find out that there more struggle to endure, could be debilitating. But I believed I could still make it. It was worth working toward that goal. It might have been further away than I thought, but I couldn’t give up.

Life is full of times we discover that it’s a far longer path to what we want to achieve than we can possibly see—or even imagine.

Those disappointments can either be roadblocks or hurdles, depending on how we face them. Often, I had to fight off my gut reactions—depleted energy and altered attitude.

When I hit those false summits on Humphrey’s Peak, I knew that if I ever wanted to reach the true summit, it was better to keep going than to climb down and start again another day on another mountain.

That meant shaking off my frustration, and trudging on.

NEXT WEEK: Sometimes You Are So Depleted, You Need Other People.

A Goal Provides Reason to Suck Up the Pain

Building a career sometimes takes fighting through dreary days in an unfulfilling job. You might face a manager determined to impede your progress, at least until you identify and secure an alternative path.

Fighting back from a mental health challenge—or any other life struggle—can feel the same. You have to face obstacles and take steps even when the benefits of your struggle seem so incremental as to be initially invisible.

Still, as I’ve found with hiking, having a goal you’re striving to achieve makes enduring the suck factor on difficult days far more bearable.

Reaching the summit of Pikes Peak was the goal that motivated me through tedious training.

Chicago’s western suburbs aren’t ideal training grounds for mountain hikes. Yet that’s where I spend most of my time. On good days, outdoor training seems at least connected to nature even if flat surfaces here constrict my enjoyment. On bad weather days, incline treadmills and stair climbers are my best options.

I’d much rather work out in actual mountains, taking on longer, steeper trails and higher elevations as my abilities expand. Conducting a mountain workout surrounded by thick oaks, tall pines and tiny squirrel feet scampering on matted leaves would turn training into its own goal. I don’t have that option.

When weather cooperates, two outdoor locations draw most of my incline workouts.

At Blackwell Forest Preserve, the wishfully named Mount Hoy is best known as a tubing slope developed on an old landfill. Hiking here provides 100 feet of elevation gain in a short distance, nothing compared to challenges in the Appalachians, Smokies, Rockies or Sierra Nevadas. Before I depart for a steeper challenge, I make sure I can go up and down the hill continuously for a few hours carrying a full pack.

On rare clear days, Chicago’s visible skyline is worth a view, even from 30 miles away. From the top of Mount Hoy, Blackwell’s treetops and surrounding lakes also provide welcome distraction. These are pretty views. However, by the time I’m into my 18th trip up the same hill, the setting loses its motivational lure.

The same can be said of Swallow Cliffs. It’s a Cook County toboggan run surrounded by two sets of stairs that provide less elevation change though steeper climbing than at Blackwell. A couple of hours going up and down stairs with full pack helps build muscle strength for more vertically challenging hikes.

When I don’t have a tough hike coming up, I have a hard time sustaining interest in the repetitive hiking at Blackwell or Swallow Cliffs. I often return to more leisurely and nature-infused walks at the Morton Arboretum.

Even when I distract myself by marveling at the diversity of people climbing stairs at Swallow Cliffs or the peacefulness of the far less frequently used Mount Hoy, it’s easy to let the pains and soreness that come with incline workouts deter me from continuing.

With a tough goal ahead, like a recent trip scripted to culminate on Pikes Peak’s Barr Trail, I can better muster the energy to fight through tired, pained exhaustion.

If I didn’t push while training, it would dramatically reduce the odds I’d achieve my real goal. I couldn’t expect to make the 26-mile, 7,000-foot-plus elevation gain Barr Trail hike if I couldn’t make the third hour at Swallow Cliffs or at Blackwell. So, rather than stop when my legs ached, I stretched out walking flat sections for a few extra minutes before returning to the hill or stairs.

Having a clear goal, something imaginable and at least potentially achievable, enabled me to put in work my body and mind were telling me I was too tired to accomplish.

The concept applies to every aspect of life. I sucked up a significant number of difficult workdays during my corporate career. I was determined to retire early to avoid my Dad’s fate of going straight from desk to casket. He never felt the freedom to pursue passions outside of his family.

Goals have also been essential to my mental health battle. Whenever I complete a goal, I figure out what I want to focus on next. There was a time in my life when that goal needed to be measured in hours and days. But having a longer-term goal, something I can be sure I don’t want to miss, provides the motivation I need now to fight through darker days.

A foreseeable, achievable future helps me take that next step when my mind and body conspire to tell me I’ve had enough.

Hiking, Life and Mental Health

During prolonged day hikes that challenge my ability to keep going when every twitch in my body begs for an end, the parallels between hiking and life twist into sharp focus.

It doesn’t matter whether I’m ascending to a pristine mountain lake surrounded by white-capped, sheer cliffs or plodding through a wildflower field salvaged to add a small dose of serenity to suburbia’s concrete chasms and rigid rules.

Hiking, for me, is an escape from the struggles of daily life, one that somehow reenergizes me mentally and physically even while demanding so much during the act itself. It’s my go-to coping mechanism.

The parallels between winning my mental health battle and succeeding on a trail are countless. Each week until I run out a few months from now, I’ll post the concepts I considered while miles from civilization—and remembered enough to write down later.

1) It’s irritating to descend when the goal is a mountain summit

This is among my most recurring trail thoughts. Nearly every mountain hike has downhill sections along the path to the top. At first, these sections are irritating. I don’t need descents adding to the agony of a day hike that takes me up 3,000 or 4,000 feet in elevation. It’s irritating to know I’m trying to head up, but have to traverse a downhill section to get there.

I’ve learned that descents have value. They use different muscles than I use hiking inclines. My quads, hamstrings, glutes and abs benefit from a little rest. The muscle stretching on a trail decline can be valuable, along with the ability to reduce oxygen demand on the body for a time.

Heading downhill into Paintbrush Canyon in the Grand Tetons.

While on one downhill section in the Grand Tetons, thinking about how I really needed the change of pace and path to keep going, I realized that this lesson applied to my life. It was frustrating when my career seemed to plateau at various points, particularly when I didn’t recognize how beautiful the view was from where I stood.

In hindsight, I realized that those plateaus and descents gave me the chance to strengthen my skills and refresh my energy for the next climb. Many of the most successful people I know stumbled along the way, went the wrong direction for a while, even descended against their will. Rather than turn around completely, they gathered strength by reengaging and learning new skills before tackling their next objective.

Now, when I encounter drops on a steep hike, I think of all my “failures” in life, how I learned from them, how I fought through them, and how I ultimately made my way to destinations I could enjoy. I wouldn’t be who I am today without them.

Next Up: A Goal Provides Reason to Suck Up the Pain

 

Glorious Moments, Disturbed

It should be the most glorious of moments.

Holding his grandson in his arms is the brightest of lights in Rob’s life. There’s no joy greater than the chance to “just love that child,” as Rob (not his real name) said recently.

But his son’s wife, his daughter-in-law, sits right next to him, glaring. She won’t leave the room while Rob holds his grandson. She won’t let him out of eyesight. She stays close enough to extract her child in an instant.

Rob has never done anything to hurt another person, certainly not his grandson. “I love that child with every bit of my heart,” he says.

But he feels the fear. He feels the judgment. He feels the absence of trust.

Rob has indeed hurt someone in the past—himself. Continue reading

Leading Integrated, Supportive Lives

In groups I’m co-facilitating in Chicago, discussing and supporting each other through common struggles quickly erases boundaries of race, age, gender, religion and sexual orientation. I feel the same way when I’m out on the trails. Everyone watches each other’s back, offering helpful hints on the next obstacle, like this waterfall climb in Rocky Mountain National Park.
 
While too many political leaders encourage divides (no, this is not directed at just one person), no one can prevent us from leading integrated, supportive lives if we choose to pursue unity and peace over segregation and conflict.
Hiking up the side of a waterfall in Rocky Mountain National Park.

13 Reasons Why Not on Suicide

For someone struggling in the depths of what seems inescapable mental health agony or tragic trauma, it’s easy enough to see suicide through a media lens. Often, suicide is shown as glamorized, predetermined escape pursued with a clear rationale and no reasonable alternatives. The reality is far different.

Speaking at an Up With Life suicide prevention fundraiser/rally for No Stigmas.
Photo courtesy Adam Pitra and No Stigmas.

With 13 Reasons Why now a popular, often binge-watched Netflix series, it’s time to think again about why suicide is not the right answer. I’ll start by sharing 13 Reasons Why Not Suicide that I highlighted at an Up With Life suicide prevention fundraiser and rally just a few days ago. Literally hundreds of other reasons to keep fighting exist. While traumas highlighted in 13 Reasons Why merit thoughtful discussion beyond what the show presents, we need to focus on how to survive, manage, recover and then share lessons learned with others facing similar struggles.

During more than 35 years since the worst of my struggles with suicide ideation, I’ve learned some of those why nots for me. The why nots are reasons I was incapable of seeing when it felt like my chest was collapsing in a four-way vise grip—squeezing to prevent me from absorbing even a wisp of any nourishment.

My 13 Reasons Why Not Suicide List:

  1. Life’s journeys could take you somewhere awesome. Struggling through those difficult, painful months and years is necessary to get there. That thought struck me hundreds of times over the years, but I make a particular point of reflecting on it when I reach the top of a mountain after a thigh-throbbing, calf-cleaving hike.
  2. Humanity comes in many colors and fabrics, each of us with our own strengths and elements of attraction. It is only when we weave gently together that we create the most stunning of tapestries. Each thread is essential to the beauty of the whole. You are a critical, irreplaceable thread.
  3. That pain you feel today—and maybe felt for weeks, months or years—can pass. It may take hard work and perseverance, but you can get to points of contentment and, sometimes, even joy.
  4. There is a child, a friend, a colleague, a love you haven’t yet met whose life will be far better with you by their side. When you get there, you’ll know it was worth enduring the difficulties.
  5. Urgent help exists, starting with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255. For those who prefer, the 741741 crisis text line serves a similar immediate support role. For those who don’t know where else to turn for help, start with these outlets. Finding the right long-term support from there isn’t always easy and may take multiple efforts. But it is transforming.
  6. Brain chemistry science advances every year. Whether it’s prescription medications or sunlight, Omega 3s or exercise as gateways to the pharmacies in our brains, the medical community is getting better at helping us manage brain chemistry. For many who haven’t found the right medication or life changes yet, keep searching. There’s a good chance solutions are out there or under development.
  7. Neuroscientists are learning more each day about the role brain circuitry plays in mental health. Cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, gratitude exercises and many alternatives help us reroute our thoughts through synapses that never connected or stopped connecting properly. We’re learning that our brains need to be trained the way athletes train muscle groups to work together. When stresses or traumas break us down, sometimes we have to reorient or intensity our training.
  8. About 75 years ago, a young man named Martin thought he had contributed to the death of his beloved grandmother. Beset by grief and shame, this 12-year-old boy made an attempt to end his life. Fortunately, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. survived that pain-filled, impulse reaction. This country and this world are substantially better off for the many years we had him. The same can be said for the many millions of other attempt and ideation survivors.
  9. Giving and receiving compliments is essential to our humanity, but we’re often stingy with both. A few compliments when I desperately needed and was open to them helped me. Suicide, unfortunately, confines the compliments that would otherwise nourish us to a single eulogy.
  10. People struggling with mental health disorders, particularly those contemplating suicide, generally see a distorted figure in their mirror. They don’t see the warmth, empathy, humor, beauty or whatever other attributes they exhibit in plain view to everyone else. When you can’t see anything good in yourself or any hope in your life, know that it’s the equivalent of having heavily impaired eyesight, sometimes to the point of being blinded. You need help getting your vision of yourself repaired.
  11. Suicide doesn’t end pain. It just moves it, even if those who die by suicide often think they are relieving others of a burden.
  12. A few years ago, I stared up the last section of Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome Mountain, terrified that I couldn’t make it up even with the chains, boards and stanchions the Park Service had built into the steep, slick granite. Fortunately, I was far from first up the mountain so I could watch as others made the final trek. The helping hand I needed was there. It took me time to look around and find it. It was worth searching around.
  13. If we keep working together and supporting each other, we can make a difference. When we talk about mental health, raise money and reach out, we enable people in need to realize they aren’t alone. We provide hope and support.

These are just 13 of the reasons why suicide is not the answer. I could identify hundreds more for those who don’t see a reason that works for them on the list.

I know it’s difficult to fight through the worst of times; to believe that a solution exists that you haven’t found yet. It requires time and energy to find the right answers to mental health challenges and tragic circumstances. Give yourself that time.

You’re worth it.

My Post-Retirement Performance Report

This was supposed to be a bonding experience with my daughter.
This was supposed to be a bonding experience with my daughter.

Five years ago, I took a leap scarier than jumping out of a plane. It was the last day I had a boss other than the one I married. I’m grateful for these years, particularly for the chance to:

  1. Be flexible with my time so my wife’s move 2-1/2 years ago to New York City for her work strengthened rather than strained our relationship.
  2. Live with my children as a better person than while I carried the stress of my corporate work years–and to be part of the lives of young adults and children we now consider to be bonus family members.
  3. Write five books, publish four of them and even start on a sixth.
  4. Volunteer with great groups like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, No Stigmas, 360 Youth Services and the University of Illinois Leadership Center.
  5. Hike to the top of Humphrey’s Peak in Arizona, Yosemite’s Half Dome and several sites along the Appalachian Trail, along with into the Grand Canyon.
  6. Travel with my family, Mom, in-laws and brothers, developing deeper connections on each trip.
  7. Be present for extended family, and for people who gave me the opportunity to help them through tough challenges in their lives.
  8. Speak and teach, as a university guest lecturer, as a mental health advocate and as a judge for literary contests.

It hasn’t all been rosy. I’ve made mistakes along the way. I’ve struggled at times to find energy and motivation. I’m not in as good of shape as I thought I would achieve, though I’m far better off than when I started. Financial results from my endeavors are what I expected. Unfortunately, I had very low expectations.

To everyone who has been part of my life these last five years, thank you. To my former colleagues at Nalco, Quaker Oats, with Congressman Terry Bruce and at The Daily Illini, I miss my interactions with you even though I can’t say I miss the corporate world in particular.

I look forward continuing my efforts to make the world just a little bit better while enjoying its beauty along the way. And I promise myself I’ll spend just a little more time blogging as well.

Helping Employees Cope Through PTSD

While workplace bullying can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder in some employees, PTSD damages employee performance even when it originates outside work.

PTSD causes are more wide-ranging and frequent than many believe. Sometimes, an employee’s co-workers or managers engaging in repeated threats, intimidation, humiliation or work sabotage trigger PTSD. Managers may be sensitive to issues faced by a recently hired veteran, having likely heard of the links between combat and PTSD. You’ll also likely be aware when an employee suffers a major, sudden family loss. But few know when an employee is battered at home, suffers rape or assault, or is exposed to frequent neighborhood violence. Even fewer know if an employee is still struggling with early, severe childhood neglect or other severe events that might not include risk of physical injury or death. All can lead to PTSD.

(This article was originally written for and can be found in the Learning Center of mental health advocacy group No Stigmas.)

Some studies have found that more than half of the population experiences major traumas during their lifetime. While many experience post-trauma symptoms for a short time, fewer than 10 percent develop PTSD. In any given year, an estimated 3 to 5 percent of adults struggle with PTSD while about 8 percent of the population will encounter PTSD at some point in their lives.

Screen+Shot+2016-08-23+at+2.39.25+PMThe ease with which home safety struggles are missed struck me after I spoke on a mental health panel to interested Northern Trust employees globally. I extolled the virtues of walking outside to gain the brain chemistry benefits of exercise and sunlight in battling depression. But I didn’t consider that location matters, including in parts of Chicago where the panel discussion was based. Exposure to violence or fear while walking could easily negate the benefits of sunlight and exercise for those suffering from PTSD and other anxiety disorders, along with exposing anyone who took my advice to very real physical risk in rough neighborhoods.

Could a caring leader/manager responsible for an employee struggling with PTSD also miss such connections? Certainly. Recognizing symptoms might be easier.

Continue reading

Coaching Employees Out of a Depression Spiral

Version 2It was at least a year too late when I realized that my firing of a talented, once-energetic employee didn’t need to happen. Her bubbly, sarcastic wit had turned at times malicious. Her engaging personality became more frequently sullen and withdrawn. Work performance deteriorated after years of strength.

I didn’t know it then, but extremely difficult home circumstances triggered this woman into an episodic depression spiral, one she was not then equipped to pull herself from alone. Not knowing the circumstances, I mistook her poor results for apathy. I didn’t explore alternative explanations and enough options to restore her results. I failed her as a leader/manager. Remarkably, she has since forgiven my inability to discern the true situation and remains a personal friend today.

If any manager should have seen the symptoms of depression and known how to help, it should have been me. I had gone through several depressive cycles, the worst coming as a teen when my pain turned for long stretches to suicide ideation. But I had pulled out of these cycles through trial-and-error rather than a clinical understanding of my disease. I figured out which behavioral changes helped turn my spirals upward without knowing there was evidence that these were the right approaches for many.

I hid my disease for decades, fearful that acknowledging I sometimes struggled with depression would damage my career or cause others to avoid or, perhaps even worse, pity me. Once publicly acknowledged, I dove into researching mental health challenges as an author and volunteer for NoStigmas, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and other organizations.

What I’ve learned would have made me far more effective in several prior roles leading a global corporate team, a Washington, D.C. congressional office, and even back to long-ago days as editor-in-chief of a large college newspaper.

For managers, the struggle in managing a depressed employee starts with even recognizing the behavior.
Continue reading

Stepping Up When Anxiety Shuts An Employee Down

(Part of a series written originally for mental health advocacy group NoStigmas.)

If you manage a large team or even a few people over a number of years, chances are you’ve encountered an employee struggling with an anxiety disorder. React well as a leader/manager and you’ll help the struggling employee recover and contribute to your organizational success. Pile onto their problem and you’ll help send that employee, and your results, into downward spiral.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18 percent of U.S. adults experience at least one type of anxiety disorder in a typical year.  While anxiety disorders are treatable, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) has found that only one-third of those struggling seek help.

As a leader/manager in any organizational setting, you don’t need to diagnose the disorder to recognize when an employee needs help. If you believe help is needed, consider the following:

Draw attention to Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). Many organizations establish EAP outlets because they pay off financially. An employee struggling with an anxiety disorder is more valuable to the company after learning to manage their mental health. If you believe an employee who may need help would be uncomfortable directly discussing EAP programs with you, ask a human resources partner to talk to your full team about EAP offerings.

Consider your employee’s workload. An employee struggling with generalized anxiety disorder, for example, may need you to hand out work assignments at a pace they can handle. If you overwhelm them with more work than they can conceivably accomplish – and don’t help set priorities – you may trigger a debilitating reaction.

Create an environment for success. Social Anxiety Disorder is among the most common anxiety challenges. From a leader/manager perspective, you may notice an employee blushing, shaking, tensing muscles or even displaying periods of unusual confusion that can accompany panic attacks. If this happens, create safer situations for the employee to build social success. An employee may be “afraid that he or she will make mistakes, look bad, and be embarrassed or humiliated in front of others,” according to WebMD, with the fear potentially compounded by a lack of social skills or situational experience. You can create confidence that comes from experience by slowly building an employee’s comfort in social situations. Consider asking them to present a topic to you individually, inviting their active participation in small group discussions, and offering to be their practice audience if you know they are facing an uncomfortable speaking role. Even being the center of attention without needing to speak can make someone struggling with anxiety uncomfortable. Ensure that this attention doesn’t last long enough to trigger a tough reaction.

Provide advance warning. Anxiety disorders can be triggered if an employee faces a situation without time to identify a success path. To the extent you can give an employee a heads up on a new work requirement and bolster their confidence, you might mitigate an episodic reaction. Some anxiety disorders prevent people from thinking through issues, getting ideas stuck in the “fight-or-flight” section of their brain. Time, problem resolution discussions and encouragement can help the brain find circuits past its instinctive amygdala to problem-solving regions of the mind.

Anxiety disorders are categorized as mental illnesses, but they are not mental capacity limits. Theories about the causes of anxiety disorders include components of brain chemistry, brain circuitry and genetic traits. High-stress life experiences can contribute to chemical imbalances and circuit stresses. Fortunately, treatments for anxiety disorders are available with proven success records. Some individuals can recover in as little as a few weeks, while treatments in tougher cases can take more than a year (usually simultaneous with work).

To treat a chemical imbalance, redirect thought patterns or alleviate anxiety symptoms, your employee may need to search for a therapist, find a support group, and/or get medical help in identifying an appropriate prescription. Managers don’t play a role in these actions (other than through recommending EAP connections). Managers, however, can play a role in helping an employee follow through on many coping strategies recommended by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

ADAA suggestions for an anxiety disorder sufferer include:

  • Managing time with to-do lists and engaging managers in setting priorities.
  • Not procrastinating so that work is done well before an agreed deadline.
  • Not overcommitting.
  • Asking for help.
  • Avoiding toxic coworkers. (Managers can help here.)
  • Taking breaks. A walk around the block or a few minutes of deep breathing can help clear one’s head.
  • Setting boundaries.
  • Savoring success. Celebrate good work before moving on.
  • Be healthy. Eat healthy. Sleep. Exercise. Limit caffeine and alcohol.

Keep these practices in mind. Consider adjusting your management style on everything from the food brought in as treats to the frequency at which you change priorities, the ways in which you communicate and the team members with whom the anxiety sufferer must interact.

A good employee may trigger into an anxiety disorder, even after years of great performance. The good employee is still there. As a leader/manager, you can help bring the best back out of them with a little care and concern. It’s in your interest to make the effort.

The Golden Rule, Mental Health & More