I drank because I was maladjusted to life, and to a certain extent I still am. So are you. Life’s not entirely comfy for anyone, no matter how selfish or spiritual, because we constantly bump up against a reality that doesn’t suit our expectations. Even Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea who can send any annoying person to prison with a snap of his fingers, probably has a list of reasons to be pissed at the end of each day. The Dalai Lama, when I heard him speak, told about a fussy toddler on the plane whose mother kept trailing her up and down the aisle until he reflected, “I’m the Dalai Lama, and this woman has more patience than I do!”
One solution is to drink. Drinking doesn’t change the world, but it dulls our reactions to it, granting us a temporary peace. But notice that it’s our reactions to life, not life itself, that cause us pain. And to go even further, what I called “life” by the end of my drinking was a conception thoroughly skewed by my distorted thinking.
I once worked with a sponsee who kept relapsing because she “needed to take the edge off.” What was this “edge?” I would ask her. Together we worked out a definition as “tension that mounts incrementally as I am untrue to myself.” She felt her job forced her to simulate relationships and attitudes she did not really have, but rather than examining her reactions to people and situations, she A) suffered then B) medicated.
For me to react authentically in life, I have to know who I am and what I’m feeling – a feat easier said than done for a codependent adult child of an alcoholic. (How do codependents greet each other? “Hi! How am I?”) Hiking alone is, for me, one of the most powerful ways to arrive at this knowledge – especially longer thru-hikes that entail a week or so on the trail. In 2012 I did the Wonderland Trail, about 100 miles and 22K’ of climbing/descending, and in 2013, still recovering from radiation treatment, I did a section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) covering 75 miles and 16K’ of climbing/descending. Hiking alone, the only interactions are between you and “nature,” people who’ve made or walked the trail before you, and the present-day hikers you meet. Many, many hours are spent in your own company. Incredible beauties are witnessed. Countless decisions are made. And each day brings a few hazards that call for courage.
The first days, in my case, are about purging. On Rainier, I found myself crying for two days. This was my first major hike after breaking up with my boyfriend, who had taught me nearly every trail skill I knew. But beyond that, I was coming to terms with the passing of youthful illusions that life stretches on and on. How did I, Louisa, get to be 52? Who was this lined, graying woman I’d become? On the PCT, I expected tears again, but instead met with fear. I’d begun by traversing Stevens Pass ski resort, and when the trail dropped from there into woods and rounded a hillside to a wholly new vista of indifferent, towering mountains through which I would pass, I got scared. “What the fuck am I doing?!” I thought. “What if a bear comes? Mountain lion? Rapist? What if I fall and no one even knows?” It took me a day or two to realize my deepest fears centered around cancer. It had struck me, it seemed, out of nowhere, threatening everything I love, forcing me through a prolonged nightmare of treatment from which there was no escape.
In both cases, I had nowhere to run from these feelings. I had to walk in their company, trudge in their muck until I truly got to know them. In both cases, I came out on the other side to delight in a freedom so airy and light, I can’t possibly describe it. The grief for all I’d lost turned to gratitude for the immense wealth I still had – these stunningly gorgeous surroundings plus the strength and know-how to travel though them. The fear of cancer and all other scariness turned into a reconciliation with god. Cancer happens, but I could choose to love all the cells on my team striving to protect me from it, and the many generations of medical experts all working to cure people. I would choose to put my trust in goodness.
There’s nothing cozier than your own little camp, bedding down in your own tidy one-bitch tent, when you know what you’re doing. You look at the map and see what’s coming up tomorrow. Few moments are more empowering than, after passing warning signs of a high creek or a trail damaged by landslide, you gather your gumption and do what you need to. Amid the roar of rushing water you choose your stepping rocks with care, plant your trekking pole and orient your balance to push off toward the next stance until, somehow, you’re across. Or refusing to look down on the now tiny creek that wends far below, you focus on the narrow strip of trail that remains and keep moving. Once you’ve passed these obstacles, they’re behind you. Damn right, they are! You don’t look back and analyze; your attention, buoyed by accomplishment, is all for what’s to come.
Finally, on both trips, I acquired an unexpected companion – both young men who loved the wilderness and had cobbled together from REI displays an idea of what they needed to get through it. How could my pack be that small? Why was I not wearing boots? Why no Mountain House food pouches? They asked to hike with me a few days and bombarded me with questions. In each case, I developed love for a total stranger – one a butler to the most glamorous movie star couple alive, the other a Taiwanese Christian Electrical Engineer – sharing a grubby, spontaneous sincerity unimaginable in normal life.
The moral is that if I can practice all these skills on a daily basis – know what’s really going on with me, take each challenge as it comes, and love others by sharing whatever I have to offer – I am in tune with life. And for as long as that is true, I will not develop an “edge” I need to “take off” by self-medicating. There are ways to be free within the confines of our own skin.
Emerald Ridge, Wonderland Trail 2012