Tag Archives: depression

Finding Our Best Path and Pace in Hiking and Life

Whether it’s on a hiking trail or in life, trying to move at the pace of people speeding past me doesn’t work. It’s debilitating to think I must.

Every person is unique, a new tile on the mosaic of life. We come in different sizes, shapes, colors. Some are shiny, complex, even neon. Others are solid rectangles in muted tones. Each has a place and purpose. Some are meant to walk with you for a time, then one or another of you moves on. Some slow only for pleasantries. Others breeze past or fall behind at a pace so quick you barely notice each other.

The best hiking pace is different for each of us, just as our careers and life are meant to travel on different trajectories.

Finding the paths that we most enjoy and on which we can best succeed is part of our challenge. Some of us are better scramblers, adapting quickly to changing surfaces. Others are fearless climbers, willing to pull themselves without support below. Some speed along quickly, but only on flat surfaces. Others can hike inclines far longer than others, as long as the mountain isn’t too steep.

Even when we find our best path, moving too quickly can cause us to stumble, blowing out our legs before we reach our objective.

When out hiking, I could spend my time focused on how unfair it is that many others get to the end first. Countless trail runners and hikers blaze past me in any given day. They finish faster. I take comfort in knowing my pace allows me to absorb the beauty that surrounds me.

Sometimes I move too fast, missing what would have been a great moment. I did this hiking past a husband and wife, after brief conversation, on the way to Surprise and Amphitheater lakes in the Grand Tetons. Later, as I returned, they told me that a small, independent black bear had planted itself on the trail behind me to gorge on a huckleberry bush. It was so food focused that the bear gave assembling hikers only a passing glance as the group finally decided it was large enough to pass safely. As a solo hiker, bear encounters aren’t high on my list of desires. But I would have enjoyed watching a bear in that particular setting.

I could have become upset seeing a younger woman fly past with two miles still left to go up Pikes Peak. She was carrying only a large water bottle, wearing tight shorts and an array of tattoos. She was also running at a pace I couldn’t sustain on flat surfaces, let alone on a trail climbing 7,800 feet in the 13 miles up.

If I tried to speed up to follow at her pace, I would have blown my legs. It would have taken me longer, using more recovery time, than my body could handle to complete the hike in one day.

Sometimes, I pass other hikers. I don’t look on them with any air of superiority. I never know why I might have passed them. Sometimes, it can be as simple as I trained longer and harder, perhaps because I had fewer competing responsibilities. But often, the story is far more complicated. They may be recovering from an injury. They might have hiked further, or been on their fifth straight day of hiking. They may be older. They may have had an impediment handed to them at birth that adds to their challenges. This might be their first hike, or their first day at altitude.

On the hike up Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome trail.

Sometimes, the reason for a struggle is far clearer. As my youngest brother and I started hiking back down Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome trail, we saw a young woman standing on the side, hands on hips and appearing deeply pained. Her distress caught our attention long enough to hear her yelling ahead to her boyfriend, pleading with him to slow. She tried walking again, but could barely move. That’s when we noticed that she was carrying only a single 12-ounce plastic water bottle, emptied so long ago that even the water residue had evaporated.

He had told her that she had enough water when they started. He considered whether she could make it solely in the context of his own preparation. He was wrong. Fortunately, I had extra water bottles stuffed in my backpack.

A few hours later, this same young woman and her boyfriend passed us near the end of the return hike. She saw us and stopped: “There’s no way I would have made it without your water. Thank you so much.” Clearly, she was capable of moving far faster than I could, with the right fuel and equipment. But she had been immobilized by poor guidance and preparation. So often in life, it’s not fundamental skills and desires that derail careers. It’s inadequacy of preparation, or an absence of strong mentors willing to share their wisdom. (There are both public policy and personal responsibility implications here, but I leave those to your individual consideration.)

While hiking, I’ve had people check to see if I needed help. I’ve offered help to others. It’s part of the instant community that makes the outdoors a gratifying place to spend time.

Because I must move at my pace doesn’t mean I don’t ask questions. When I find an experienced hiker, I might ask about equipment choices, nutrition strategies or training plans. I try to figure out what they’re doing that might help me, just as I learned from literally hundreds of others during my government and corporate career.

But I don’t dwell on envy. It ruins the joy of the experience.

I learned long ago that I’m my best self mentally when I’m grateful for what I have rather than distressed at what I’m lacking. I need to find my best path, and travel on it at the pace I’m prepared to handle.

Mental Health Trail Lesson: The Right People Reenergize Us

When our human batteries run low, physically and mentally, we need to plug in. At times, recharging means sleep, nutrition, exercise, mindfulness or other forms of self-care. Often, however, the most nourishing self-care comes from spending time with good people.

This may be a mental health insight, but it applies equally well whether at work, home or play. For me, a hike etched the concept into my mind. The mental health trail lesson was clear. Sometimes we need people to reenergize us.

I can’t even begin to explain why I kept going past my planned limits.

I arrived at Yellowstone National Park only late the evening before. I woke up early to hike the Seven Mile Hole Trail. It’s a 10-mile out-and-back round trip, with the equivalent of less than 200 flights of stairs down and up in elevation change.

Looking up the Yellowstone River from the bottom of the Seven Mile Hole Trail.

Heading down to the 6,600 feet of elevation at the trail’s Yellowstone River bottom, I was okay. I had worried that hiking on my first day at altitude might hit hard. I did struggle coming back up. I stopped frequently to let my thighs and calves calm their throbbing. I had to control my heart rate and breathing. But I had expected to hurt with so much of the trail’s elevation change packed together.

Once I made it back out of the hole, my legs quickly reenergized. I hydrated and inhaled enough calories while I rested on a long-downed log. I drank extra to stave off risk of altitude sickness.

As I hiked back toward the trailhead, I saw a turnoff toward Mt. Washburn. Mt. Washburn had been my hiking plan for the next day. I decided to try and do it then in order to free up a day to see more. I didn’t consider that I was adding an extra thousand feet of elevation gain, and more miles too, taking the spur trail rather than going up and down from Dunraven Pass. More importantly, I was doing it on depleted muscles.

As I approached within about a mile of the peak, my legs gave out. I simply couldn’t go any more. If I could have taken an hour to rest, they might have refreshed. But thunder and lightning in the distance were moving rapidly my direction. As much as I wanted to reach the summit, I didn’t want to be exposed in the open just as lightning arrived. I certainly didn’t have the legs to speed up.

So I quit on the hike, turning around to head back down the spur trail. I had planned to say a prayer for my recently deceased uncle and godfather when I reached the summit. I don’t pray often, so was disappointed I hadn’t made it, feeling like I’d failed him.

Although the return down the spur trail was far easier than going up, it was still a struggle. By the time I reconnected to the Seven Mile Hole Trail, I had 15 miles on then-aching legs. I’d done a decent job hydrating so was fortunate not to feel altitude sickness. Still, I was short of water and had sucked down the Gatorade I packed. I was moving very slowly.

As I turned back onto the Seven Mile Hole Trail, two women were coming back from their hike down Seven Mile Hole. They slowed for a few minutes as we exchanged pleasantries and talked about the challenges of steep, gravelly trails. We talked about where we were from and what we did. After a while, they were anxious to move quicker. I couldn’t keep up.

Before long, they were out of view. Minutes later, I heard a voice shouting from ahead. It was one of the women. “Hey, we didn’t get your name,” one yelled back. I sped up enough to catch up and introduce myself to the couple.

They walked more slowly. I pushed as fast as my legs would allow. We talked about politics, religion, suicide prevention and the responses they received when they came out to their families, seemingly covering just about every subject that societal stigmas would tell us are taboo when meeting new people. The last three miles of what had been a tough hike passed quickly. I learned from their experiences, and hopefully shared some ideas in return. They reminded me of another couple, close friends who make life better every time I see them.

I’d been barely functional when I reconnected to the Seven Mile Hole Trail, but their energy gave me the motivation to keep moving. Their stories and insights distracted me from physical pain. I was grateful to have met them.

That day isn’t the only time I’ve felt sapped of energy. Even without the excuse of having already hiked 15 miles, I’ve found many times through life that I just didn’t have it in me to take the next step. I couldn’t get myself to do more. I wanted to collapse in front of the television and stay there immobile for countless hours, days, even weeks and months. Depression can have that effect, but so can pushing our bodies and minds past their capacities.

On the worst days, the best way for me to find the energy to get up and go is to walk side-by-side with someone who takes the time to care. The boost of energy I got from spending time with these women I had met as strangers carried me through the day. Family, friends and colleagues have served that role countless times over many decades, often at times more critical than they would know.

Maybe that’s why the best jobs are ones shared with good coworkers and managers. Perhaps that’s why the best relationships involve the give and take of recharging each other. Certainly that’s why the right human interactions are such an important part of mental health.

At a recent mental health forum, a speaker who had spent years in prison solitary confinement talked about how people there would deeply cut themselves just to be taken to the prison hospital. There, they would talk to someone who seemed to care. They would feel the long-lost sensation of touch, just enough to remind them of their humanity.

Appropriate hugs and other touch are certainly important parts of human connection. On that day, during that Seven Mile Hole hike, it was words that I needed.

Those words, suggesting care, concern and interest, gave me the energy to keep going.

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.

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.
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Mental Health Steps to Reverse Troubling Suicide Trends

DSC_0176Last week’s Centers for Disease Control release of deeply disturbing suicide trend data reminds us that even many proven mental health steps still require widespread attention and support. Even as understanding of brain function and chemistry expands, adoption of beneficial physical and mental health practices remains woefully inadequate.

Our minds are vital temples; each worthy of protection, repair and expansion. Our bodies provide foundations for these temples; requiring protection, nourishment and strength to support mental and spiritual health. Many of our temples are in disrepair, though, with data suggesting that far too many are collapsing or teetering on the flimsiest of cornerstones.

So how do we repair and rebuild?

Training Our Minds

A growing body of evidence shows that troubled minds don’t need to remain in a state of pain. A multitude of mental health steps support individuals seeking first relief and then fulfillment.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other brain development and thought techniques used by professional therapists have proven effective at helping individuals struggling with self-belittlement, impulse control and a myriad of other issues. At a research forum hosted last week in Chicago by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Dr. Jon Grant noted that suicide rate reductions attributed to CBT can be as high as 50 percent for those with recent attempts, though he warned that properly trained CBT practitioners are in very short supply.

Seeing a professional therapist isn’t the only path toward better mental health:

  • Meditation and mindfulness techniques have a proven track record of aiding brain healing and development. For those particularly struggling, it is often beneficial to pursue these activities with guidance.
  • Expressing gratitude for elements of life helps to route how we view the world through the more positive aspects of our minds.
  • In addition, prayer to a loving god (when believed by the person praying) has been shown to generate mental health benefits, while participation in a religious community is often connected to better physical self-care practices that also help build a strong foundation for mental health.

Feeding Our Brains

Whether better mental health starts with exercising the brain or exercising the body depends on factors that include individual brain chemistry. For many, finding the energy needed to pray, meditate or participate in mindfulness-oriented therapies may first require a physical boost.

Among the critical physical tasks that help us build the foundation for mental health are:

  • Sleep. Professional athletes increasingly emphasize sleep to achieve peak performance, but everyone needs sleep’s healing and restorative powers to be our best selves.
  • Exercise. Brain chemistry imbalances are key contributors in most instances of depression, bipolar disorder and many other mental illnesses. Exercising helps generate critical chemistries the brain requires.
  • Improved nutrition. Many studies show that healthy diet, including Omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics and other nutritional elements, is an essential mental health step.
  • Substance abuse avoidance. If the mind and body are consuming energy to fight toxins, they aren’t building a stronger foundation.
  • Gaining sunlight needed for the Vitamin D our brain requires can be an important part of mental health development.

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I Want to Die; Dealing with Severe Teen Depression

It has been many months since I joined Dr. James Sutton on The Changing Behavior Network, but he still considers that interview to be “one of his best.” Discussing my years when “I want to die” was more than a passing thought for me, the interview focuses substantially on the coping strategies that helped extricate me from that pain.

Dr. Sutton is an experienced, insightful and nationally-recognized psychologist, author and speaker focused on supporting emotionally troubled youth. If you struggle with depression or know someone who might need your support, check out our interview at The Changing Behavior Network. If you are struggling with other family or youth development issues, chances are he’s done an exceptional program that will help you too.


Mental Illness, Politics Increasingly Intersect

It’s a bit frightening watching as the mental illness and political worlds increasingly overlap.

When I started writing on two tracks—one focused on mental illness and another on politics and public policy—I thought I was covering different subjects. Now, it’s clear that understanding mental illness and its remedies contributes to comprehending and working in our political system—recognition I share with no desire to diminish either topic.

Consider the following:

  • Schizophrenia is a mental disorder often characterized by abnormal social behavior and failure to recognize what is real,” according to Wikipedia. “Common symptoms include false beliefs, unclear or confused thinking, auditory hallucinations, reduced social engagement and emotional expression, and lack of motivation.” As we look at public policy today, how often do we find political debates rooted in falsehoods, clear policy inconsistencies and words twisted by political opponents to suggest they mean something other than what we heard. As is the case with schizophrenia, improving our political system requires multimodal treatment that includes educational, social and other interventions, including direct treatment of some of the primary causes of the psychosis in the system. In government, the psychosis often originates in a disconnected, dysfunctional political system.
  • According to Mayo Clinic, Narcissistic Personality Disorder “is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultra confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.” Can you think of anyone from the political world for whom this description applies? Understanding narcissism is too often critical to understanding politicians.

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Mental Health Through Dramatic Change

A dramatic life change, solo hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, helped Cheryl Strayed restore her life path in the biographical movie “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl. Dramatic gestures may not be enough, though, for those searching for mental health.

After her Ghana volunteer trip failed her expectations, Carly was left to ponder her future. Following is how Carly contemplated her experience:

How many times am I going to do this before I realize it doesn’t work? Leaving home in high school. Didn’t fix me. Quitting Tiffany’s for a whole new career. Already saw how well that worked. Going to volunteer in Africa thinking that focusing only on others would pull me out. Torment.

Find a damn balance, Carly. Come on, be smarter.

You can’t do this in one dramatic move. But you know you can do this. You know you can feel better, be better. You’ve done it before. One step at a time. Use your coping skills, all of them. Well, I still can drink, can’t I? Yeah I can still have some wine, maybe just not so much. I can handle that.

I just can’t count on a single change to fix everything. It’s such hard work to fix everything. So hard. But I don’t need it all to be perfect, do I? I’ve felt okay before without it all being perfect. I just need to keep enough on track that I don’t fall back.

Why does it work for others? They go on a long, spiritual journey in a strange land or on some mountain trail and come home healed. That would be so much easier. Why can’t I be like that? Why can’t I just love me for me?

Good question, Carly? Why can’t I?


Fight or Flight for Mental Health

Fight or flight instincts don’t help if you have no idea which way to run. Carly’s search for mental health as an attempt survivor continues:

Carly’s tipping point came on the way home from a weekly volunteer meeting in Akuapem Hills, Ghana. The taxi driver had been told in his native language to take Carly to Central Station. He turned the wrong direction.

“No. No. No,” Carly said. “Central Station. Please. Central Station.”

God no. I’m dead. Raped or dead. Or both, she thought.

A group of people started coming toward the car.

“Please. Central Station,” she begged, eliciting no reaction.

Her California colleague, the one who had given directions to the driver, had spoken to him in Twi. Carly had no idea how to do that.

Carly’s fear quickly elevated. I’m dead. I’m not going to be someone’s slave. Oh no, not in this life.

She tensed her fists and prepared to fight and run, even if she wasn’t quite sure which direction to go. A group piled quickly into the taxi around her, leaving no time to do anything and no escape.

Carly prepared for the worst. Instead, they left Carly alone. Fifteen minutes later, she was at Central Station, coated in sweat and in the midst of an uncontrollable anxiety attack, even after figuring out that shared taxis picked up passengers whenever and wherever they could. When a volunteer leader spotted Carly, that leader could tell something was wrong.

“I need a cigarette,” was all Carly could muster.

“Well, you can’t smoke here. Women don’t smoke,” Carly was informed, adding to her already chest-crushing anxiety.

“I know a place,” the leader reassured Carly, taking her to a nearby hut where the family invited them to sit at their family table. The leader bought two cigarettes and two beers from the mother, who allowed them to enjoy the comforting taste and aroma until Carly was calm enough to return to her host house.

The next day, Carly began a trek home that included 24 hours at Kotoka international, a story about an emergency family illness, hundreds of dollars in texting and phone charges and a self-promise that she was done seeking dramatic life changes.

The long plane ride provided plenty of opportunity for Carly to ruminate.

Seeking Mental Health in Ghana

Another is a series of stories on attempt survivor Carly Jacobson’s search for mental health:

When Carly finally arrived at the Projects Abroad center in Akuapem, she was immediately taken to her host house. Her luck turned for the better, though she could hardly tell. All eight of the volunteers had beds and nets, luxuries she didn’t immediately know to appreciate. One of her eight shelter mates was a girl from Canada who spoke English, another comfort Carly would learn to cherish. Though Ghana is officially an English-speaking country, finding English speakers wasn’t as easy as Carly anticipated. Twi is Akuapem’s primary language. Projects Abroad volunteers came from all over the world, sharing only an interest in the promised experience.

Carly’s second day in Ghana was adventurous.

Stuffed into a tro-tro, a shared taxi van carrying 20 people dripping sweat onto each other, Carly was escorted on a full-day journey by a project coordinator to the nearest city where she could exchange her money, an exchange Carly’s operational efficiency mind figured could have been done in less than an extra hour in Accra the day before.

Day three was her first as a functional volunteer, dumping a muddy cinder slime into brick molds that were packed down and set out to dry. Once dried, the bricks were carried, stacked and cemented to build a local schoolhouse. When class in a nearby school ended, the best part of Carly’s volunteer work began. Children swarmed the volunteers, including Carly. She held offered hands, knelt to allow many to run their fingers through hair that was neither dark nor curled and hugged dozens eager for human embrace. Continue reading