(This is a post I wrote for Appalachian Trials, but I wanted to share it here, too. It’s full of messy emotions and feelings, because that’s the kind of month it’s been. But now that I’ve written it all down, I’m feeling better and moving forward. In a way, publicly sharing both what my family has been like to me, and the mental illnesses I deal with has felt like a “coming out”, of sorts. Maybe some of you will relate. Thanks for reading!)
Dear Reader: Four years ago, at age 35, I was diagnosed with a few fun mental disorders: Bipolar 2, Borderline Personality and Major Depressive. This wasn’t a surprise to me; I had been diagnosed originally when I was around 16, but at that age, having someone label me as Manic was kinda cool. Like it separated me from others, gave me an identity and presumably a unique perspective of the world. I tried several times to be serious about it- to get help, take the meds and change my crazy, whirling-dervish ways. Like most Bipolar people, though, as I felt better, I’d stop taking the meds and soon enough, I’d be back to staying up for days at a time, then crashing- and not just sleep-wise; I would crash everything and everyone around me.
There is no denying that clinical mental illness is a biological malfunction of how the brain fires it’s chemicals. But environmental factors can trigger those mis-fires, and I was born into a crappy family. Oh, of course they were all mentally ill themselves, and they deserve a certain amount of compassion for that, but they were shitty to me, and their inability to take care of themselves set me up to continue their shitty legacy with my own shitty chaotic life. In a very real way, I was handicapped by my family. From the physical and emotional abuse, to the constant mind games and manipulations- it’s no wonder that by 27, I was suicidal, with no friends, afraid to leave the house, and aggressively trying to push away my husband- the only person who had been brave enough to love me in spite of my shittiness.
This is about the PCT, I promise.
At 35, my outer life was non-existent, and my inner life was a vast, dark anti-matter. As in, nothing mattered. A day came where my husband went to work, and I spent hours in the tub, with a razor blade in my hand. I wanted it to end. But I was scared. I kept picturing my husband coming home and finding not me- but his wife- dead in the tub. Being in tune with his potential shock and horror and loss eventually led me to a moment of clarity- that wanting to kill myself was not a logical, rational response to pain. It was a craziness. It was a sickness. Once I saw that I was experiencing a sickness, I couldn’t un-see it, and I admitted myself to a hospital right away.
By 37, I had been managing my mental illness successfully, and had found something I loved-backpacking- in my quest to regulate moods and improve my life. I even backpacked the John Muir Trail, which encouraged me to set my sights on the Pacific Crest Trail. I had not been in contact with my family for over ten years at this point- a result of one of my mother’s many moments of abandonment. But they were in my thoughts all the time.
People like to attach reasons to their thru-hike. They often want to get something from it: clarity, a better understanding of themselves, what they should do next in life. I like to downplay any romantic notions I have about thru-hiking, but really, I’m no different. Hiking the PCT has symbolic value to me; that I can have a goal/dream and strive for it, that I am no longer suffering, nor am I in the perpetual survival mode my family forced me to enact-that, in fact, I have survived, even though they damaged me, and even though I continued damaging myself, long after they had any real control over me.
Also, I imagined myself as a kind of Ambassador for my family. They are real people, with real problems, even if here I depict them as bad guys. I wanted to accomplish the PCT for all of us. As a kind of recognition that they couldn’t break the cycle- but I did. I broke the mental illness chain and I would go and do all the things they might never get to go and do. I wanted them to be with me on the PCT, in name, in spirit, in rebellion of the crappy cards given to each of us.
A few years ago, after my success on the JMT, I reconnected with my mother and we began to re-form a relationship. I felt incredibly lucky to have a second chance to be a better daughter, and that I was in a place where I could give her a second chance to be a better mother. Then, two weeks ago, my mother did what she has always done, which is ditch me-abandon me, for no good reason. I’m not saying she has no reasons- I’m sure she does- just no good ones. It’s wounded me, and I’m having a hard time with it.
In my mother’s last mail to me, the one where she tells me she gives up, she wrote, “Fly away, Amy Bee, go be free…” This makes me so mad. Because I’m already free, and that’s not something for her to give. And she didn’t ‘set me free’, anyway. She kicked me out, like she always does. And getting ‘kicked out’ at nearly 40 years old, is an especially cruel punch in the gut.
So, in conclusion, Readers, I need to revise my “Why I’m doing the PCT” declaration. Oh, most of it is still true, but I am no longer doing it for my family. I’m doing it against my family, against their hurtful words and selfish actions. I’m doing it not because I am a part of them, but because I am apart from them. When I get to Canada next year, I hope that somehow, someway, through some psychic revelation or prescient dream in the middle of the night, that they feel- like a punch in the gut- that my accomplishment has nothing to do with them. They are absent from my success. When I touch that monument at the northern terminus, I will give them a single moment, a single, heartfelt thought: “Fuck you.”