A new place to climb in the Red River Gorge, KY

 

Back in 2010 I ventured outside of the climbing community and into the local community of Lee County, Ky — the heart of the Red River Gorge for rock climbing. I was drawn with curiosity to discovering how I could bring my network and skills and contribute something in a place where I witnessed poverty and a lack of means that I took for granted elsewhere.  It started with fitness and nutrition consultations at the local recreational facility that had a stellar fitness and conditioning area, complete with treadmills, weight benches, and cable machines. While exploring that avenue, I ventured out to investigate what computer access was like. Climbing, fitness, nutrition, and computers are my primary skills so it made sense that after making headway with these skills that I would explore how to integrate climbing.

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LCHS TEALS CS students get a photo opportunity with Senator Mitch McConnell during his visit to the school to learn more about TEALS in the region.

The Red River Gorge has the most amazing, steep sandstone in the world. People from all over the globe travel to climb here, spending months in the region, often rarely going into the neighboring towns for amenities. The reason for this is simple, the town is economically challenged and the offerings for these often urban acclimated visitors isn’t enough. Urban-ites want their Wholefood, organic, all natural, healthy, and gourmet options. It’s that simple. A town that has lost it’s major industries such as coal and tobacco is not one focused on opening new shops or equipping existing markets with specialty options. In recent years, they are bringing in more options for this clientele, but it is slow and marginal. Perhaps, if people stayed or visited the local communities, more offerings would appear.

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Photo by Mike Doyle

Last year’s economic impact study showed that climbers supported selective markets that were locally owned, think Miguel’s Pizza and Rockhouse. However, when you look at the numbers closer, you see that climbers who stay for a short period of time tend to spend more money (housing, food, fuel), than climbers who stay for longer. This might seem counter intuitive, but consider that there aren’t many things locally to attract a long term visitor. They tend to want to conserve money and reduce the number of trips into Lexington, Richmond, Winchester, or Stanton to get “real” supplies. This means, despite the number of people visiting the region, money is still leaving the area.

Now that we have a climbing facility built at the primary junction of climbers coming from the 498, heading to Lago Lindas or back to Miguels, they can stop in and get a training session whenever the Rec Center is open. Conveniently, the Rec Center also serves food, and while it’s not Miguel’s pizza, it’s still good pizza. And, they are willing to stock items that climbers are interested in once they know what the uptake looks like.

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Volunteers working long hours to finish the facility with quality and setting routes for the community grand opening. Photo by Joshua Sniezek

Now, with the attraction of a climbing facility for those bad weather days, the injured but committed days, the residential variation to training days, or the casual power rebuild day, we can start to serve healthier offerings. And, this isn’t just good for climbers, it’s good for the community.

One of the biggest reasons I wanted this facility was not simply to help attract climbers to stay locally and create more options catered towards climbers but to create healthier options for the locals, simply by proximity. Further, climbing is talked about in the community a lot, yet people are distanced from it. This facility brings climbing to the community and makes it accessible to everyone.

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Grand Opening saw climbers and Locals checking out the gym.

My vision is that over time, we’ll see a cross pollination of climbers and community members where together we will give back to the community through local events. This 90+% white town will have natural access to diverse backgrounds through interaction at the facility with people who travel from all over the world and will come session there. And, it’s not just diversity of race and culture that will be available to them, it will also be careers.

The economic impact study showed that climbers tend to be highly educated with most of them having college degrees (or working on one). This means, that kids will be exposed to different disciplines they might not otherwise be exposed to within their community. NPR did a study that showed why kids choose physics when others don’t (boys and girls). It comes down to role models. Is there someone in physics in their community? Transitively, if a kid can see someone doing something and it sparks an interest in them, it’s a win! A town in an economic depression is losing opportunities for their kids as more and more people leave the community, and yet, this is one place where they can regain some of that loss.

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Grand opening community clinics.

Similarly, while the community will benefit by climbers interacting more, climbers will also reap benefits. First, the stereotypes of what it’s like to be a kid or local in the community will be broken. It’s hard to hold onto stereotypes when you get to know someone. Climbers are genuinely good people (for the most part) and many of them have big hearts and want to help. Building a better rapport will help encourage them to participate in the community, which can help strengthen the community and forge better relations between climbers and locals. Finally, climbers spending money locally will help curb the economic depression the town is facing and over time possibly see new business opportunities appear.

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Metolius Climbing sent us a box of goodies!

I have high hopes for this establishment, even though its modest in nature. It’s a start and it has a strong backing with solid potential. It was built by the community of climbers, climbing companies, friends, relatives, and Mission members, but it operates out of the hearts of volunteers. This is a non-profit establishment, built for the community. We have seen a strong uptake and are continuing to refine the operation and get the facility operating like fine tuned wheel. Right now, we are limping and looking for corporate sponsors, other fundraising opportunities, and financial support to hire a gym manager that can help us make this what we know it can become.

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Sifting through a ton of donated holds thanks to Metolius Climbing and Touchstone Climbing & Fitness.

Finally, this establishment has a spiritual backing. The Rec Center and the Climbing Addition operate under the Kentucky Mountain Mission and we are very fortunate that it does. The Director is a mentor to me and operates with utmost integrity. He lifts people out of poverty by caring for the community and providing them spiritual guidance, recreational options, food and clothing opportunities, and serving as the Chairman of the School Board to help children get the best education they can.

He supported the effort to bring Computer Science as a curriculum to his school and now the entire education system throughout Kentucky State wants the same thing. Kids that graduated out of the pilot program are now working as Computer Scientists in prestigious companies. Working with this man for the last 6 almost 7 years and all that we have accomplished and done for the community has built a significant trust between us. It is for this reason, I am honored to have worked with him to bring climbing into his facility.

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A local girl climbs during one of the community nights. Volunteers staff specific hours to make the gym available to the general public.

I’m overwhelmed at the support we have received to make this happen. After the grand opening weekend a few weeks ago, I sat in the room by myself and marveled that we did it. I brought together an amazing team and worked hard to get the funds needed to create a facility I am proud of. My heart is still bursting from the accomplishment.

Today, we are seeing a steady stream of people and more importantly, community nights are a hit, especially with the girls. Have a look at this short video and enjoy the journey. We still need money for operations so if this inspired you, please take a minute to make a donation.

Posted in Climbing, Fun, Road Trip, Travel, Writings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Peru

Video summary of the trip

Image by Jacom Stephens Photography | based out of Salt Lake City, Utah | 801.979.1734 | http://www.jacomstephens.com

Spring leading up to this trip encouraged a profound sense of freedom along the Inca Trail and the children at the Aldea and the participants of this Radiating Hope trip warmed my heart in a way that was hard to say good-bye. In this blog post I will share a bit about my journey and give you tips for your own journey, should you decide to visit. I’ll include a gear list and some tips for training for the Inca Trail and time in Cusco.

Prelude

Machu Picchu has been on my bucket list for some time, though as a climber it never became a priority. To organize and take on climbing in addition to the sights I wanted to see, would have been a big ordeal. I didn’t have the bandwidth to tackle all of that so I was grateful when I came across Radiating Hope and their promotion to do the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu as part of a team to help raise money for cancer care in underdeveloped countries.

Spearheaded by Brandon Fischer, an oncologist and a climber, Brandon incorporates climbing as his means for fundraising. A few years ago, I went with a small group to Kilimanjaro, which was my first Radiating Hope experience, and loved it. Like Kilimanjaro, everything was planned for me, with time built in for self-exploration. This made traveling to a foreign country exciting and logistically simple. Just show up.

The organization brings together a team of people to support you on the adventure. It’s a relaxing way to enjoy something magical. You have instructions on how to prepare for the trip both physically and medically. Things to know about where you are traveling, what to pack, and the itinerary. I was very thankful for all of this because I know if takes a lot of time and research to pull together for one’s self.

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Fortunate to have a friend take on this adventure with me. Marjo and I just before the hiking begins.

I wanted to take my niece on this trip with me because I knew it would be adventurous, yet, comfortable. Porters would carry the bulk of our things leaving us to carry a day pack. Tents and food would be waiting for us at each stop and guides would lead us with points of interest and concern for the group’s welfare, never abandoning anyone and tending to any altitude or other sickness. Experiencing that kind of care for me is a luxury and freed me up to enjoy the sights and trek to its fullest.

My niece was unable to join me, and I didn’t want to go alone so I was fortunate to find someone who had the same ambition and together we signed up for this trip, almost 10 months in advance. Just before committing, I hurt my leg climbing. At first, I thought it would heal after a few weeks or a month, then I realized, it wasn’t healing quickly and in fact, the inflammation was getting worse. I pulled back from climbing and by spring, stopped hiking as well. I wasn’t sure how to train for this adventure given my situation.

To complicate training further, I got a job to help pay for medical treatment. It had been 6 months of injury and I thought it was time to do more investigation into what was wrong. The job was supposed to be part time, but turned into full-time, travel and overtime. While it was good pay, I had taken some smaller jobs before landing this one and had to close out that work at the same time. This meant, I was working 6 jobs at once for nearly 3 months and doing no climbing or training.

Working was great, since I had been struggling for income the last few months of the year prior. The new year looked promising that way and I took full advantage. I lined up Physio and Dr. appointments to get imaging and a prognosis. I was doing very little regular physical activity and working a ton instead. Each time my Dr. would try a new treatment on me, I was told to try to be sedentary. What they said was to go about my daily activities and avoid biking, hiking, running, climbing, etc. To which I had to reply: “those are my normal activities!”

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Short runs testing out my leg

Those 3 months of overload went by and all the while I worried about this Peru trip. Would I be able to hike the Inca trail? Would I have problems with the altitude because I hadn’t been training? As work slowly closed out and I was able to concentrate on fewer tasks, I had more time to focus on rehab and trip preparation, oh, and finding a new job…to reduce everything to one job.

I started to feel caged in, handcuffed, unable to actively expend the energy I had bubbling up inside of me. I was moving from one Airbnb to another, sometimes house sitting, which kept me feeling unsettled as well. A guy I’d been hanging out with and cared very much for, and I started having serious friction and estranged from my climbing and social communities, the spring became a dark and heavy period for me.

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Rehab

Peru was slated for June. I had already committed my spot and I really wanted to still go, but I started having doubts that I was ready and entertained bailing. I couldn’t sell my spot because all the permits for the trail etc. had already been secured under my Passport. It was already coming up on May and I was barely treading water in my life when I got a job offer to return to work at Microsoft. In fact, at this time, I’d notified the company I was working for and they wanted to keep me, so I had 2 fulltime offers to consider! I’d been working on the Microsoft potential opportunity since December and was excited to finally have the option to consolidate my life and focus on one, solid income generator AND have good medical benefits to finally take care of my injury properly.

All the injections and rehab I’d been doing leading up to June, had not helped me get the inflammation under control. I tried PRP, cortisone, and sub cutaneous nerve injections. Each one needed time to have effect, except the nerve injections. Immediately after those, the inflammation was dramatically decreased and the pain site more isolated. I could now walk, get out of my car, and *gasp* hike! Without severe backlash. This was amazing, and Peru was only a week away!

I didn’t have time to focus on training because now that I was returning to Microsoft, I had to find an apartment and prepare myself to be ready to work when I got back from Peru. I was doing it, regardless of my fitness, and now that the inflammation in my leg was dramatically reduced, I was like an athlete poised at the starting line, waiting for the gun to go off. I was ready to go!

Logistics

As with any underdeveloped country, or developing country, there is some concern for disease and sickness. In this case, for the Inca trail, there was no need for malaria pills, but some antibiotics and altitude sickness medication is a must. I always pack my vitamins and electrolytes as well.

DXUK3376Packing for the trip was a challenge because you don’t want to be hauling heavy bags between hotels or other locations. My best advice is layers. Cusco is the city you will stay in to acclimate and tour prior to heading out on the Inca Trail. The city lies above 10,000 feet. You will experience altitude here. What that experience is for you will depend on a lot of variables. Typically, 10,000 feet is not a problem for me, yet this time, I had the most intense altitude sickness ever. I felt my head was going to explode and broke down to take one of my altitude sickness pills to help ease the pressure. After that first night, I never had any issues again. Others, however, had varying illnesses with altitude and diarrhea throughout the trip.

At this elevation, the sun is hot. You might think the air temperature is cold and not put on sunblock, but that would be a mistake if you plan to be outdoors for an extended period. A hat, sunglasses and sunblock are necessary for prolonged outdoor exposure on sunny days. Cusco weather remains about the same all year long, with cooler nights, and crisp but warmer days with an occasional downpour or rain. Heading up into the Andes has a similar clothing requirement. However, because you will be walking for hours, there is the chance to get too hot and when stopped for lunch, site seeing, or for the night, you might get too cold. Sleeping in tents, it’s a must to bring your own sleeping bag and sleeping mat. Make sure you bring something warm enough for the coolest temps. Remember it is always easier to disrobe than to make more layers appear out of nothing.

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Layers

It is possible to get rain along the hike and while that might seem unpleasant, having a poncho or Gore-Tex jacket will save you and make the experience tolerable and maybe even enjoyable. If you have forgotten a jacket, there are stores in Peru (Patagonia, North Face) where you can buy one and lots of local markets sell ponchos for cheap.

Electrolytes are important for hydration. I prefer Elete electrolytes, easy to travel with and simply pure electrolytes, no sugar or other ingredients. It’s concentrated, which makes it easy to adjust the amount I want whether it’s in my water or added to my food. I brought a water bladder for the Inca Trail. When I arrived in Cusco, I bought bottled water and filled the bladder adding my electrolytes to it. Because the electrolytes are concentrated, I didn’t need to bring a lot, which meant they didn’t take up much room.  I was very thankful to have this for the summit push and shared with others along the way.

Travel tip

Be mindful of what you have packed in your suitcase. One of our participants had things stolen from hers. It’s a good idea to keep essentials and a spare pair of underwear, socks, maybe clothes if you have the space, in your carry-on. Naturally, never leave important documents in your checked baggage. Always carry your passport, IDs, credit cards, medications, etc. with you.

Cusco

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Locals

This city is amazing and alive. There was a festival taking place every day I was there, which was amazing to watch. Each one was uniquely different with vibrant colors, dresses, dances, and music. There are a lot of markets to explore and many of them sell the same kinds of things. This makes it nice to bargain hunt and to find that perfect color combination, while supporting the local community. Our tours prior to the Inca hike took us to different places with markets outside of Cusco and I recommend you do your shopping there. I didn’t because I didn’t want to leave my things in the suitcase as I was doing the trail. However, others did, and no one lost anything during hotel transitions.

Things to do and how to acclimate

IMG_7156Blanco Cristo is a beautiful scaled down version of the one in Brazil. It’s a great hike to take early on before the Inca Trail to get yourself used to moving in thinner air. Take the stairs up first thing in the morning and observe the club dwellers ending their night and take in sunrise over the valley foothills. Walk back to town following the morning commute of locals. This site doesn’t cost anything to see and you’ll want to remember to gaze upward at night from the city to view the statue lit up.

If you have a few days in Cusco before you head out for Machu Picchu or after your trip, I recommend buying one of the tourist booklets for additional sites in the area. There is a lot to see and everything is reasonably priced. You can always take a cab up, but if you follow an organized group, such as Radiating Hope or Explore Peru, they will often include these in your tour price and arrange all the necessary transportation.

Peruvian Food and drink

IMG_7110For some amazing Peruvian food, add the restaurant Morena to your list. The smoothies, preparation, service, and quality of food is worth the stop.

A must try when visiting Peru is the Pisco Sour.

Inca Trail

The biggest challenges to doing the Inca Trail are hiking at altitude, summiting over 13,000 feet, the number of stairs to descend, and hydration.

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Radiating Hope team

To be effective hiking at altitude, I recommend training hikes at altitude whenever you can. It would be best to hike with a pack and weight you anticipate taking along the trail with you. If you don’t have altitude, it’s possible to train your anaerobic system in preparation for the lack of oxygen you will feel while up there. Finally, regardless of your acclimatization training, hiking with a weighted pack for several hours and training your downhill muscles, will help.

In our group, we had people who had trained at altitude get sick on the hike and not enjoy the hike as much. They were often slower and in general sluggish. Then, there were those who hadn’t trained and were carrying full packs with no porters to offset the load and were doing completely fine the entire way. It was very individual, and I’m told fitness does not necessarily preclude your susceptibility to altitude sickness. It can help but you never know how it will affect you until you are there.

Avoid lots of alcohol or other substances that could leave you dehydrated and compromise your ability to function at high elevations.

IMG_7585The Inca Trail itself is a well-defined and well-traveled section of the Andes and because of that, it’s easy to put your head down and just go. If you are traveling in a group, expect the times between distances to be longer because the group will have varying speeds throughout. This may require patience if you find yourself at the front or back of the pack.

I didn’t have issues with altitude and after realizing my legs were doing fine with the hiking and weight, I simply had to bust ahead of the group when I could. I felt like handcuffs had been removed and I was free to explore, and roam and it was paramount that I find my own pace and just go. I am very glad that the guides and a few others, found that in themselves and together we kept a healthy distance ahead.  This helped me enjoy the trek immensely as the freedom factor increased such that by the time we got to Machu Picchu, I was not ready to leave the trail.

Some tips about this hike:

Make sure you have broken in your boots ahead of time. I wore hiking boots and did not regret it. You could do it in tennis shoes, but I wouldn’t advise it. If it rains, the path gets wet and the steps can be steep in places and uneven and can become slick. Some people slipped during our hike.

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Under the poncho, Andy carries an easy to access front pouch.

Make sure you have food, lip balm, tissue, camera, etc. pouch accessible at the waist from your backpack so you don’t have to take off your pack to dig these things out each time you need or want them.

Make sure you have your permits and passport with you when you head off on the trail. They will be checked at official checkpoints and they will turn you away if something doesn’t match: for instance, the names between the two.

Fill your water bladder with good drinking water and make sure you have your electrolytes either in the water or with you for along the way. Do not drink the local water. It will give you the runs and that’s the last thing you want when on the trail.

Eat at reputable restaurants, avoid street food. Be courageous after the hike.

Train your downhill muscles. There are hours’ worth of stairs to descend and it gets tough after a while.

Bring hiking poles, they can help take weight off and stabilize yourself under poor conditions.

Be prepared for rain or sun. Layers! And, don’t forget the sunblock.

Bring money for the porters, cooks, and staff who set up your tents and make sure you have an enjoyable, dry, experience to recuperate between hikes. If you want, you can donate school supplies, hiking shoes, socks, jackets, etc. These supplies and tips are usually distributed to the workers before the last hike to Machu Picchu so be prepared to hike with everything until then.

Packing suggestions:

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Our guide preparing us for the trail.

Prepare for Rain or Shine, warm and cold weather.

When hiking, you will be warm, but at altitude, if it’s overcast and rainy, it could be cool and crisp. If it’s clear and the sun is out, you will be very warm, even hot! In the evenings, temperatures can drop so layers will help. Don’t underestimate the sun at that elevation!

Since you will be hiking with a Day pack or full pack, it’s essential that you pare down to essentials. You won’t be showering for several days so you won’t need much in the way of clean clothes or shampoos. Dry Shampoo works well if you are desperate. Also, a washcloth and a touch of travel soap will take you a long way. All you need is some water to freshen up. I carried a Fozzil bowl with me, which is compact and ultra-portable as a tent wash basin. You can also carry two of them and use one for food, if you choose to carry food on the trail with you, such as oats.

IMG_7320Our guide service had amazing breakfasts, lunch, and dinners so I never needed to use any of the extra food I brought (as a just in case). Extra food can be cumbersome and add to the weight so think carefully before packing any.

Waterproof, breathable shoes. I wore these on the hike. If you can bring a pair of extra shoes for Machu Picchu, or after the hike and for the trip back to the hotel, you might enjoy that…also, could help if for some reason you get sore feet on the Inca Trail, or just for unwinding in camp (for camp consider these).

For a sleeping bag, I used this one.  Light, packs small, and warm.

Enjoying some sun

How quickly the weather can change! Pack layers.

You’ll want a couple of shirts, pick a short sleeve and a long sleeve that is moisture-wicking. I like to wear a fleece vest to add a touch of warmth, like this one. Easy to pack and a good layering item that won’t bulk up under a rain jacket, for example.

Take a rain jacket or invest in a simple poncho when in Cusco. I really appreciated this Gore-tex jacket. It’s both capable of keeping me warm, dry, and has lots of ways to open it up to add more breathability when needed. That coupled with a pack cover, kept me and my stuff dry.

Pants should be lightweight, breathable, and water proof. Invest in ones that can become shorts if you want versatility, too. I opted for two separate pairs of pants with the primary pair being a softshell, like this one. Aim for ones with zippers for breathability and an underlayer for warmth.

Merino wool socks are a must! Just do it. I wear DarnTough socks. They have a great assortment and if you want added warmth, go for these. For a simple hiking socks, try these.

Spare underwear, sports bras, gloves, hat are also pleasantries that can make the trek feel comfortable.

IMG_7430Hiking poles are nice to help take some pressure off the knees both up and down the trail. My advice, take them just in case. Also, remember to buy rubber tips. These are not optional on the trail.  I enjoyed using these Leki poles, which were compact, lightweight, and simply perfect. At 212 g per pole, this can’t be beat!

Don’t forget to pack a water bladder for your pack so you can easily drink while you hike. And, don’t forget the electrolytes! I use Elete Electrolyte Add-in, which is easy to consume and won’t create bacteria in the bladder. You definitely want this for the summit push. There are water stations scattered along the way up until the last push to the summit so it’s possible to take a small bladder and add bottled water collected along the way, which can save some space and weight.

Money

Unfortunately, if you decide to buy water and snacks along the hike, you will need some cash.  And, for the tips for the porters, staff, and cooks, you will need cash. How much you take is entirely up to you. Better to bring Soles (Peruvian cash, rather than Dollars or Euros). Remember, these people work hard and tips are a huge part of their income. There are a lot of people who make your trip happen so it takes more money to spread some money around. If you aren’t comfortable with carrying cash, or giving cash, consider packing extra clothes or donating hiking supplies such as your hiking poles, shoes, gloves, hats, jackets, shirts, etc. Just remember you will lose those items at the last camp before Machu Picchu.

Tourism

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One of the many festivals we witnessed in Cusco.

Spend time in Peru because it’s a beautiful and the people are friendly, the food is wonderful, and there’s a bit of everything to do: Historic sites to see, modern sites to explore, and lots of culture to observe and experience.

Closing

This trip was special, not because it was an exploration of a place I had wanted to see, but because I went with a group of people that made the trip special. Inspired by the hikers who themselves had overcome some feat, it put into perspective the struggles I’d had throughout the spring. I didn’t realize how many of our group had experienced and survived cancer. It was mind blowing to hear their stories and to think of how much they had endured and the strength it took them to make it on this trip let alone for some of them to complete the hike. It was incredible to be around such energy and life that it gave the trip something extra special. I felt privileged to share in their journey and get to know them and I keep them, and this trip, in my heart, even today.

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Just be happy

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Red Rock Canyon. Photo by Luke Allen Humphrey

I saw a friend post on mental illness and was compelled to speak out on a topic that’s been on my mind. I find it difficult to draw a hard line to say that suicide is a case of mental illness because is it illness that drives them to suicide or the obsession of thoughts that spiral out of control because they have no where else to go with them and no one who would understand to guide them on a different path? When I think of those I’ve lost, it’s easy to see how we can overlook the deep, dark places within someone when those challenged are often very good at hiding their pain–not to mention our societal mindset to ignore or dismiss those suffering.

In our society, people encouraged to talk about their pain typically when normal situations occur like the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, something like that. Counseling and therapy have a stigma that perhaps something is wrong with you. Saying you have a mental illness definitely sounds like something is wrong with you. No one wants something to be wrong with them. Further, if it’s a pain we consider normal, then it’s acceptable to be sad and depressed, but don’t be sad or depressed for too long because then it becomes uncomfortable for others. It’s like we have rules for how to embrace and accept someone’s emotional vulnerabilities, pain, or challenges. It’s no wonder people feel lost or avoid getting help.

Our society thinks we need to be happy 100% of the time. Just look at our social media. If I post about a hard day, I don’t share that I’ve been crying for most of the day, feeling beyond low and wanting to hole away from the world. Who wants to read that? And, when I post about hard times, inevitably the first thing I hear is “Everything will be ok,” “You are strong,” “It will pass,” “Sorry you are going through this, “First world problems.” While all of these things are true, in the moment of despair, those remarks aren’t helpful. They don’t really see the person for what they are going through. And, in all fairness, the person suffering isn’t about to spill the beans because they don’t want to make it seem like something is wrong with them or appear weak. Sometimes those struggling have been the strongest people I’ve known.

Because of stereotypes and societal pressures, we are turned off from wanting to expose our dark spaces and find it uncomfortable to sit in that space with others.  Instead, we attempt to push those people away from their pain in a way that dismisses it so they can “get over it” sooner.  Or, we simply ignore those that are dark or sad or struggling. In fact, we are often reinforced through social media and media in general, to look for bright and shiny people and to surround ourselves with light so we can be brighter, too.

“…get rid of anything today that does not spark joy…”

Is it any wonder that we turn a blind eye to those in need? Perhaps we are afraid their darkness will infect us?

I lost someone recently and the loss has stuck with me. It’s not that there was anything I or anyone else could have done; but I remember the times I wanted to reach out, the times I was curious how he was doing, and the times I hoped he was ok (because of his profession) and through all of those times I never reached out. I also remember the times when we had connected and how dismissive I was of his vulnerability.

I think about the times over the years when I’ve been vulnerable and hurt and alone and struggling and there was no one there to help me. I know it’s been a long and arduous road to get to where I am today and I am thankful for those that appeared in my life and made a difference, but I’ve hardened myself to others pain because I’ve had to deal with my own, alone. It shouldn’t have to be that way and I’m glad I’m still here to reflect on that past and to acknowledge how far I’ve come. Maybe I can turn this insight into a deeper appreciation for everyone’s individual struggle. Maybe I can work on being a better listener, and a better empathizer.

We need to lose the stigma that mental illness is a bad thing, that people in emotional pain are weak, that seeking professional outlets for dealing with life’s challenges (especially when they don’t fit the societal norms) means there is something wrong with you. Just because we live in a first world country doesn’t mean we are without problems. We are fortunate for a lot, but emotional pain, obsessive mindsets, and mental illness can cloud these perceptions creating only the darkest of images and entrenching dismal impressions. Ignoring people suffering is not going to help anyone. Chances are by ignoring them, you are ignoring your own internal sufferings (even if they are less scarred or jaded).  The first step towards change is acknowledging there is a problem.

Let’s acknowledge our society has a problem and a stigma towards mental illness and vow to make a change by talking about it. Break down the stigma by changing our perceptions, and standing up or be a friend for a friend in need. Create some compassion for those in need and we’ll create some compassion for ourselves in return.

Here are a few questions to think about that could shift the way we interact with each other and those suffering from mental illness:

  •  Am I listening to this person beyond social media posts?
  • Am I connecting with this person beyond their words?
  • Do I have the skill to hear pain and am I willing to step into the darkness in an attempt to empathize and potentially guide them out without the fear of falling in myself?

 

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