It seems like yesterday when I hiked the Grand Canyon, but in reality it has been many years ago. Much time has passed and most of the last 15 years I have spent battling a mental illness. It has consumed my energy, stolen away many of my dreams, and kept me from doing the things I love to do.
But somewhere deep inside of me I have tapped into the fighting spirit, the very same spirit that led me to hike that beautiful canyon and strive relentlessly back to the top of the mountain.
The Grand Canyon hike is very opposite of a typical hike up a mountain and then back down again. When you set off to hike the Canyon, you start at the top and descend down 13 miles to the bottom. While it seems only physically challenging to go up, it is equally difficult to pound down the winding trail to the bold and rushing waters of the Colorado River.
I think hiking is a great deal like living with a mental illness. When bipolar disorder started to get worse, I descended rapidly into an emotional abyss. By the time I got to the bottom of understanding bipolar disorder, I had to climb a long way to get my life back again.
There were days when I really did not think I was going to make it. The challenges were so steep that I wondered if I could overcome the odds and beat my illness. Winning is something I stumbled upon with every step I took to recover. I count the small wins, like learning to manage my symptoms and understanding how bipolar disorder affected me. The large wins were finding a good doctor and searching to find the right combination of medications.
On a long hike a blister that forms is terribly painful and makes it more difficult to continue walking. Living with bipolar disorder rubs a lot of blisters all over the body. It is only when those blisters heal that the pain goes away. Sometimes it takes years for that to happen.
Learning to cope with all the unexpected challenges in life is what makes it all very interesting. When you are in the desert hiking at over 100 degrees the very intensity of the heat can leave you exhausted. When it comes to mental illness, equally challenging is dealing with those external factors like stigma, that can drag a person down and keep her in silent suffering for years. Not being aware of those feelings of shame, blame, guilt and feeling “less than,” strips a person of much needed energy to make the journey.
What do you do when you are facing a steep climb?
What works for me is putting my head down and taking one small step at a time. Sure, it gets frustrating and at times I can honestly say I have wanted to give up. But the hopeful promise of reaching the goal I set out to accomplish keeps me in the game. The blisters have healed and the walk is much more enjoyable.
I have no plans to descend down a mountain that I cannot walk back up again. I might take a few steps down every now and then, but I really focus on enjoying the view right from where I am standing.
I pray I never need the amount of perseverance or energy that it took to climb my way out of the bipolar canyon. It’s always going to be there, but I have learned to respect it and cope with what challenges it has caused me.