And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soulJohn Muir
Grief is a journey, like anything else. Finding my strength, resilience, compassion, and love has been the greatest gift I could have received from it. It was the mountains that brought me back to life and re-connected me with myself, and a few critical people, too. Unlike the mountains, my grief process was an ugly one. Reflecting on this past summer and the journey of my grief, love, and loss, I would spend more time doing mountain outings than sport climbing because I could find no better reprieve from the grief with which I struggled. To get a grasp meant heading into the great outdoors for as far and as long as I could possibly go hoping I would find myself and not kill myself in the process.
Instead of turning to some of the usual remedies for dealing with overwhelming pain like drinking myself into a stupor, sleeping all day, or indulging in self-harm and any other thing I could think of to shut out the world and make me numb, I turned to the mountains. I didn’t want anyone to see me weak and I wanted to avoid turning to self-destructive means. I didn’t know how to “be” in this space because it was all new territory for me. Opening up and being vulnerable especially when the pain was so physically and outwardly visible, was terrifying. Not only was I afraid that if I let someone in, I would drown by facing the overwhelming pain that was lying just beneath the surface but I really believed no one would understand. I thought if someone saw me like that, it would be too much, too heavy, and I would be too broken for them to love let alone want to be around. I felt really alone.
Putting on a brave face with false bravado was draining. Showing up trying to be something I wasn’t created a lot of pain and confusion for myself and others. I snapped at colleagues; I was ruthless with my boyfriend; I couldn’t get away from a temporary roommate making that situation complicated and uncomfortable; I’d miss climbing sessions without notice leaving my climbing partners hanging; etc. I was afraid to commit to anything and trying to will myself to do something only amplified my angst.
I stopped climbing and took a leave of absence from work. I couldn’t read emails, surf the internet, pay bills, do laundry, clean my room, organize anything, leave my condo, be in public for too long or hardly socialize with anyone. When I tried to show up, I could be happy and engaged but then I would retreat after and slump, sometimes just breaking down into tears. Sometimes, the tears would just come uncontrollably out of nowhere: sitting in a car, taking a shower, in the middle of conversation, standing in line at the coffee shop, in the middle of breakfast, or trying to climb. It was as if I had no control of my emotions and already feeling I had no control over the death of my nephew, I felt I was losing control of everything in my life and was afraid to do anything. The things I was able to do seemed like a big achievement, including getting out of bed every day.
One day I decided to go on a hike. Just to get out. I just needed to be in nature but I also didn’t want to be alone. I asked a particular friend to join me because I thought he’s quiet and won’t talk, and that’s exactly what I needed. If I started to talk, I was afraid I’d break down and the whole point of being outdoors was to avoid these heavy emotions. To my surprise, he became a chatter box. We laughed a lot and contrary to what I believed would happen, I actually welcomed the conversation and the company. Somehow and unexpectedly, he turned into an anchor of sorts. Bonus, he was joining me on a number of intense hikes and therefore was elevating his skills making him an ideal candidate for some bigger objectives I had in mind.
I found a sort of freedom and masochism in the mountains. I put all of my energy into the hikes, pushing myself as hard as I could go both up and back and sometimes just to go at all. There was no casual approach or descent. I wasn’t satisfied until I returned to the trailheads depleted of energy. There were times when I smiled from the feat, even passing out after some epics thinking I could wake up whole the next day. The feeling was short lived and I never woke up feeling whole. Instead, I was desperate for the next outing.
One friend worried about me saying “don’t get yourself killed out there,” which struck a nerve and brought a lump in my throat, a constriction in my chest, and tears to my eyes. Perhaps I was trying to kill myself indirectly: subjecting myself to the elements, pushing my limits, and maybe I wondered if I would let the elements take me if a chance arose (see Green Creek blog post). In hindsight, I believe going out on these adventures with someone helped push me but also kept me safe. It’s totally possible I could have gone in over my head otherwise. It also helped keep me moving forward and avoid those other potentially self-destructive patterns. Still, in that moment, I knew there was some truth in what he was saying because (also in hindsight) I had a type of survivors guilt I was facing and quietly replied “I won’t.”
Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”C.S. Lewis
Believing no one understood me made me feel isolated and alone. I know it’s not true because people would tell me if I needed anything to reach out, or they were there for me, but how do you use people who say that? I didn’t know what I needed and experiencing me in that state was not pretty. Who wants to be around that anyway?
I didn’t want to be that person either: someone who sleeps too much, or cries all the time, or is angry at everything and anything, or can’t be present with another person because of my emotional instability. I fought it and started fighting people who were close to me. I pushed people away, isolating myself so my grief wouldn’t spill into their happy lives.
One difficult moment was going to Reno for the Youth National Championships to support and cheer for my girl, Lora. I had to keep my distance so my emotional state didn’t impact her ability to have fun, enjoy her last year as a youth National competitor, and prevent her from competing effectively. I was still crying often and on the verge of breaking down spontaneously and without notice. I was incredibly self conscious about it all. I just wanted to hide myself away but I also didn’t want to miss this moment with her for anything. Therefore, I showed up and went through the motions, hoping she wouldn’t pick up on anything; hoping I wouldn’t ruin her event for her; hoping I could keep that time about her and not make it about me no matter how bad things felt for me.
The woman we were staying with in Reno was incredibly helpful in this regard. She lost her aunt some months before and as the anniversary of Josh’s death came while I was staying at her home, we talked. I confided about my grief and she shared her story. We bonded and that night I found a black rose (chocolate covered strawberry) waiting for me as a tribute to Josh. It was a beautiful, uplifting gesture and I felt seen without asking for anything.
Further, the thing about Lora is that she’s a beautiful woman whom I’ve had the pleasure to know since she was 13. We have shared a lot, grown close, and sometimes I think of her like a mini-me. She understands me and I was very fortunate that she would stop by as if my place was a second home to study, use my shower, pass some time, join me for dinner, or join me on a run (even though running is not her favorite thing). And, she would leave me the sweetest notes reminding me she loved me and how proud she was of me for the hard work I was doing — like getting out of bed! Even though I was embarrassed she saw me like that, we’d been through so much together over the years that she became and still is a rock in my life and I’m forever grateful for her.
Nature is the kind of friend that never leaves my side. Even in grief-stricken times in her soul I can confide.Angie Weiland-Crosby
After I started hiking, I realized all I wanted to do was go and go hard! It was an intense draw that I must get outside and not just to be outside but to be out in the mountains on the steepest, longest, most arduous, and least populated hikes I could find. Even if I couldn’t get up in the morning for a planned outing, my reliable hiking friend remained flexible and with some determination, I could squeeze in an outing even if it meant hiking in the dark after sunset. It wasn’t long before the adventures got a little crazy and I was becoming obsessed with using the outdoors as a way to escape.
At one point, I managed about 50 miles in 8 days with about 17,110 ft of elevation gain. Not quite the elevation gain in less mileage like when I did Kilimanjaro (19,341 ft in 31 miles over 6 days), but it’s still a lot.
Even still, getting that energy out didn’t stop me from blaming myself for what happened to Josh. It felt wrong that Josh wasn’t here, that everything he stood for and tried to make of our family was even more broken then it had been before he died. I felt like I let him down, that my guidance and counsel let him down. I had always tried to be there for him and show him we could make something of ourselves despite the odds. Yet even my efforts to fulfill his last wish, fell flat. It was disheartening. I felt all of the optimism and hope that I had clung to and had continued to instill in him evaporate. Once again, the mountains were a place I could go where I didn’t feel alienated and I could run myself into the ground and try to feel pain in other ways than in my heart and soul.
Then Green Creek happened and I turned a corner and instead of allowing myself to drown, I wanted to fight. I wanted to come out of this, be free of the chains weighing me down inside, find and “be” me, whatever that meant. And I met someone who knew exactly what I was going through without experiencing it with me. He was going through something much heavier and for longer than I. He recognized this space with me and with our epic Green Creek adventure, we bonded in a way only people who share an epic adventure together, can.
He asked what other mountain objectives I had because he had some alpine goals and wanted me to join him on one. My goals were more about mountain hiking and adventuring into the back country. I didn’t care about summits and I wasn’t really excited about climbing. He threw out some ideas all in Washington Pass (WA Pass). I’d never been up that way and when he heard that, he suggested we do Liberty Bell and some of the nearby spires in a day. It was something on his tic list and with my climbing skills, the objectives he had in mind should have been achievable. Nearby was Black Peak, a peak another friend of mine suggested along with a short list of other suggestions. It seemed we might be able to do both in a weekend. I’d always wanted to go up there to scope out Liberty Crack and Thin Red Line and Black Peak was on a list of things I should do so I agreed to go.
Despite agreeing on another adventure with this person after the Green Creek epic, I worried more about my emotional capacity to be out trying for goals and summits on popular climbs when I just wanted to be away from people and not have any pressure for sends. Even though I had turned a corner with the Green Creek incident, the healing process and release of that toxic energy wasn’t an instantaneous shift of being. It was a gradual process of release, of building trust within myself that I was safe with myself and others and that everything would be ok.
One [moment] you’re walking along like usual, and the next…you feel like an alien has invaded your body; your actions and reactions…become totally unpredictable and confusing.ELEANOR HALEY
Unfortunately, the Friday I was to drive up to meet him, I learned that a friend of mine had died of Covid. I hadn’t been on my computer much, not being able to sit still or focus for very long without breaking down in tears that the one time I chose to go online, this is what I found out.
I just lost it.
I’d already been struggling with anxiety and panic attacks, which would come out of nowhere, and had a persistent eye twitch that was driving me crazy. There was this moment of being completely frozen, staring at my computer, watching my fingers type: is this true? is this that friend?
My breath was caught in my chest and I stopped breathing and started hyperventilating. I couldn’t handle another loss…not another loss. Tears were streaming down my face and I slumped to the floor, pressed into the wall. I wanted desperately to be anywhere but where I was. No one was there with me. Who would I call anyway? What do I do? How long will this last?
I texted my friend who was expecting me later, warning him that I might not make it and admitting that I was having some sort of thing happening. I wanted to call someone to come be with me but I didn’t know who to call. Who would I be comfortable with seeing me like this? I was in such a bad state and was scared. What was happening to me? Why was I falling apart? Could I even take my shower as planned? Could I finish packing? Could I drive to the meetup? Could I do anything right now? I texted a couple people, not mentioning the state I was in, but no one was available.
I told my friend my situation, telling him I couldn’t breathe, that I was immobilized, and I didn’t know what to do. First he said he needed me to breathe, then he offered to come down to be with me. I didn’t think that was a good idea because it would just embarrass me further. It was clear I’d have to get a grip on this myself and decided if I could at least shower, maybe I could finish packing and if I could finish packing, maybe I could do the drive, and if I did the drive, maybe I could go on the climbs as planned.
He was being as understanding as you can imagine for someone being thrown into that situation. The primary factor that got me into and out of the shower was the fact that I didn’t want to be alone, stuck in my home like this. I figured some company was better than that! I focused on each step, carefully weighing my ability to do the drive. It seemed like getting out and away from this enclosed space knowing I’d be out in the mountains soon, made every step achievable. By the time I arrived to meet him, I was in a much better place, though drained and vulnerable.
Liberty Bell and Black Peak attempt #1
In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeksJohn Muir
Going up Liberty Bell was slow. It was cold, windy, the path long, and arduous. The climb itself was good. I was just slow. Really slow. I couldn’t motivate to lead any of the pitches but I did do the boulder problem near the summit up and down, which felt like a kind of achievement. Unfortunately, the plan was to climb several of the spires there and with my pace, that wasn’t about to happen. There were queues, I was slow, it was cold, I was somber, it just wasn’t in the cards. We hiked down and went into Mazama for dinner instead. The road was finally open after the wildfires had ravaged through and it was my first time. I have friends who live there or have moved there recently and I have always wanted to go but just never had, until then. I did contact my friends when I knew I was going to be in town, but no one was around and cell reception was non-existent in that area so further attempts at contact was futile.
Thankfully we ran into some of his friends and that took the emphasis off of me. I wasn’t very conversational or feeling very social and I was tired from trying to be upbeat when I felt emotionally exhausted and low. When we set up camp at the same spot as his friends, I excused myself and hid away inside my van under the guise of preparation for the next day. Eventually I went to bed and lay there hoping I would fall asleep when I heard them talking about shooting stars. I got up and looked out of the mesh window of my van at the starry night trying to spot one myself, but never did. I sighed and retreated back to bed thinking how much I could use a wish right now. As soon as that thought crossed my mind, I was reminded of the many times in the past when I had desperately wished for things and nothing ever changed. My wishes never came true. I resolved to stop wishing and despite the difficulty breathing due to the intensity of the smell of smoke from the wildfires that had been raging in the area, I lay back down and tried to sleep.
The next day we attempted Black Peak but my knee started bothering me not even half way into the hike. I felt really, really bad. First, I almost don’t show up for the climbs, then I show up but I am in no condition to do the objectives, now I have a knee issue and it’s possible I’ll have to bail on this objective as well. Part of me thought I never should have agreed to come out and do this but I knew what the alternative was so despite thinking I was letting him down there was nothing I could do about it. This situation was exactly the type of scenario I had been trying to avoid and was afraid of creating. To not be able to show up in a functional state and impair other people’s experiences was the worst thing I could think of doing to someone.
I wrote about Black Peak in another blog post, but the net of the first attempt is that I pushed myself as far as Wing Lake before admitting I couldn’t go any further. He probably already knew that because I was taking forever to catch up to him, having to stop often because of the pain. Still, after taking some pain relievers and having lunch, I reassessed knowing he was still hoping we could make it, but the knee was not good. Disheartened, I had to admit I couldn’t continue without putting us at risk on the mountain. For the line we wanted to do, the only way to bail was to continue up! And, let’s not forget that I still had to hike out.
We descended slowly and he suggested we head out into a meadow and picnic instead of driving directly back. It was still early in the day and we had our lunch fixings and fresh baguette from the Mazama store to snack on. I thought that sounded like a good idea because I wasn’t psyched to go home for fear I would regress and honestly I was just going through the motions of climbing and hiking, anyway. Although I felt numb inside, I forced smiles and avoided crying. We picked wild blueberries, found a spot in the meadow and enjoyed our view of WA Pass. I kept apologizing for being the reason he couldn’t get his objectives and thought he’d never want to climb with me again. He told me that my emotional stress was probably really high and that this was most likely why we weren’t able to do what we set out to do. He also said he cared more about spending time in the mountains with people he loved than getting a summit. I relaxed a bit thinking perhaps he understood what I was going through and we agreed we’d go back for Black Peak some other day.
Love and Loss
I sat with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name was grief.C.S. Lewis
My boyfriend at the time was the closest person to me and I did a great job of pushing him away by creating the kind of cruel atmosphere my entire being wanted. It was another form of self-abuse. A way to confirm the narratives playing within. A way to feed the ugliness and somehow be “right” about deserving that kind of treatment. This played out spectacularly well when we were in person, especially if he was in my space. I expected abandonment, criticism, blame, distance, etc. and when all I got was patience, care and love, I didn’t know what to do with it. If he wasn’t going to be cruel and mean it was as if I needed to create that environment to satisfy this idea that I didn’t deserve such kindness.
Our long distance communications felt safer because I could hide all of the ugly and never admit what was really going on out of shame or embarrassment. I could put on a happy face and be happy for that time glossing over the heavy aspects of my life. But in person, with no escape or room to breathe, I couldn’t hide. He could see and feel what I was up against but the fear of letting him in, of breaking down the walls and letting him see how I was really doing seemed scarier than being frustrated at him at every turn. It started with me thinking I had to be something I wasn’t: happy, strong, loving, secure, together. And, because I wasn’t honest about how I was really feeling, what was really going on, and what I really needed, I became distant, edgy and difficult instead.
I lost my best friend not only by pushing him away but by putting on him unreasonable pressure and expectations, as if he could simply take away the pain by absorbing it from me. I self-fulfilled my belief that what I was, was too much, too heavy, and I too broken for someone to love, let alone want to be around. The moment I saw him again after some time apart (to give me space to figure out this dark period), I wished I hadn’t pushed him away. I missed him so much. On top of losing my nephew, losing close friends, losing family, I lost him. This Holiday Season will be particularly rough for me to navigate emotionally, though I’m going to continue to do the best I can.
After having time to reflect and process what was going on, I’ve come to understand that everything I experienced and the coping mechanisms chosen or avoided were all natural and common responses to grief, trauma, and PTSD. Despite coming to terms with that, I can’t change what happened, and I can’t help but feel sorry for the hurt I caused others. I can’t rationalize the behaviors because feelings aren’t rational. Grief, trauma, PTSD isn’t rational. There’s no script to follow, no prescription for healing. It’s all a muddled mess of loss, sadness, pain, detachment, numbness, isolation, depression, insecurity, judgement, blame, guilt, love, and anger. And those closest to the grieving may pay a price when the grieving don’t turn to them for solace, which is hard not to take personally.
I was lucky I chose the mountains as my escape and therapy (of sorts) because I discovered I’m not just a survivor, I’m a fighter and I’ll never give up on myself. After intense months of hard internal work with the support of a good therapist that continues to this day, I am finding a way to allow myself to grieve and come to terms with my personal traumas and PTSD. I came out of the darkest period with a clearer head and a fuller heart. That experience changed me, though let’s be honest, I’ll always have work to do. Grief, trauma, and PTSD never leaves. It just changes as I learn to live with and embrace the strengths and gifts I’ve received from them.
I’ve lost a number of people over the last few years but losing Josh was like losing a part of my very soul. A fabric of my being is now missing and will never be replaced. I never knew you could experience a loss quite like that.
Today, my process with grief looks different and my ability to “be” me dramatically improved. I’ve exhausted some of my shields and can stand on my own two feet, grounded, secure, safe, and loved for who I am, by the most important person it matters to, me. Just like my experience in the mountains, I learned that beauty and pain can co-exist, and that it is possible to be sad, happy, and at peace at the same time. That story I’ll save for another time: the process of becoming “me” again.
I’m off the mountains and back to rock climbing. I’m able to be more open and I’m practicing being vulnerable and letting people in. I feel so much and cherish those I love more deeply because I feel intimately how precious and short our lives are. Therefore, I continue to look for ways to celebrate Josh’s life, keeping his memory alive in everything I do that reminds me of him. The bond we shared will forever live on in me and how can I be anything but happy about that?
I don’t need to escape to the mountains anymore or hide my vulnerabilities. I’m still learning how to communicate what is really going on with me in the moment, but I’m having the hard conversations, even if they aren’t elegant and well formed. I’m also trying to stay open to what comes back, without judgement or defense–of them or myself. I know I’ve made a mess of some things and I only hope to repair what I can and ask forgiveness, otherwise. Grief is a journey, like anything else. Finding my strength, resilience, compassion, and love within myself during the darkest of times has been the greatest gift I could have received from all of this.
Excerpt from Surviving Grief
Sometimes I want to sugarcoat my process with grief, but there’s no sugarcoating it. Writing is one way I have learned how to be open and vulnerable, which has really helped me heal. I appreciate everyone who reads my story however raw it plays out and I appreciate everyone who continues to show up in my life and become part of my healing process.
Here’s an excerpt I found that hit the nail on the head for me. Rather than paraphrasing it, I’ll just leave it here but you can find this and other posts on the Surviving Grief facebook page and blog.
"There’s just no sugarcoating grief. It’s one of the hardest experiences imaginable. There’s so much loneliness, sadness, blame, confusion, and anger that comes with it. It’s crying yourself to sleep, pushing people away, feeling depressed, detaching from the world, and not wanting to go on. It’s crippling anxiety, and not getting enough sleep, or getting too much. It’s questioning everything, or being so numb that you stop caring about anything. Here’s the thing…the death of a loved one is brutal and cruel, and it will beat you down and kick your butt, until you have no fight left...Grief sucks! There’s just no way to make it sound like walking on sunshine. I know it’s not…because I’ve lived it. Only if you’ve suffered a significant loss can you understand that by not acknowledging the pain, you’re not allowing yourself to move forward in the way you deserve…in the way all of us who have faced loss deserve. I know all too well that grief is a downer. It’s sad. I’ve come to realize that the only way to truly turn that pain into something positive is to allow yourself to be vulnerable and to just ‘feel’. Forget about putting on a brave face. Cry it out…because there’s healing power in vulnerability. There’s strength in sadness. But I still refuse to sugarcoat grief. Instead, I write the honest truth about it…but I also try to share what I’ve discovered. That by embracing the pain…you gain strength. You love harder and care deeper. Pain in life is inevitable...but pain is power. Pain allows you to understand yourself in ways you never knew."