I always used the metaphor of climbing a mountain to describe my healing journey. Then I was able to experience a real mountain climb. I am traveling to those 14ers again next week. I’m not sure if I will attempt to climb it again. Last night, I started to fear I would experience HACE (high altitude cerebral edema) again. And even though we have a plan in place this time, I may just stare at its majesty from below 10,000 feet, and with overwhelming gratitude remember these lessons from a real and metaphorical mountain climb.
- The road to the trailhead is wrought with bumps, divots, potholes, and dusty uneven terrain. It is hot, cold, sunny, cloudy, ever-changing but it’s possible to start the hike by crossing a wooden bridge at the trailhead, or climb the stairs to the safety of my therapists’ office.
- The air at the trailhead is cleaner, crisper, and alive with possibility and excitement. As I breathe in, my lungs are filled with clean air and I want to take deep cleansing breaths. As I begin to climb into unfamiliar altitude my lungs keep me from moving too fast and I find I gasping for air. I have to remind myself to breathe. I listen to how my Sherpa breathes and try to follow what he is doing and take slow deep breaths. When I listen to him and remember to breathe and take rest stops I am able to keep walking up the mountain.
- I know there is a rocky, snow-streaked tall foreboding mountain peak just around the corner but I haven’t had the chance to get a glimpse of it yet. Then, as I round the corner I am at once awestruck by the beauty of the two mountain peaks and overwhelmed by the enormity of what I am looking at. I am determined to climb this mountain that is in front of me, to conquer my past, while keeping brave and optimistic while climbing towards the summit.
- As I turn around I see a breathtaking, almost indescribable scene and I am in the middle of a cirque. Surrounded by mountains on all sides of me. A place to rest, and restore, to reflect and take the time to notice the here and now. I notice the beauty, the critters, the flora, the fauna the many obstacles that I have already overcome just hiking up this far in life and on this trail.
- I start to notice the wonderful people we encounter along the way. These people are climbing for their own personal reasons but each person has goals and each person is there to help along the way. Support from others in the form of a friendly hello, or a smile or a vote of confidence to keep going. We are all on the same trail and when the terrain gets too steep or when my Sherpa needs to consult with others, he finds the right person to help along our journey.
- The altitude is starting to get to me now. It has been hard work and I am starting to feel the effects of my journey. I am getting sicker with each step, but I keep telling myself, “take 10 more steps.” I am starting to lose sight of the reason I am climbing this mountain and focusing instead on just reaching the summit. I find I am slowly losing my ability to see the beauty around me and all I think about is taking 10 more steps and the reward will come at the top.
- The rocks are so hard to climb, the switchbacks look confusing to me. I’m scared I will make a wrong turn and fall off this mountain. I am deep in the throws and committed to continue to climb the mountain, but self-doubt seeps in with each step. I’m scared and getting sick like I felt while facing the absolute truth of my past but I am determined to keep going.
- I am starting to fade quickly and then I hear the wonderful words from my Sherpa, “This is your summit.” I thought we made it to the very top. When I realize we didn’t, I felt so upset inside. I felt as if I failed myself, my Sherpa and my family. Then I hear that negative voice inside that suggests this is punishment and I would never reach the summit so I began to bargain and plead to keep going, feeling like my ability to conquer “them” was climbing those last 200 feet. Then I realized that this Was my summit. It was beautiful and quiet and wondrous and rocky and very high. I was sitting on top of the world and the view was the same here as it would be 200 ft higher.
- I was beginning to feel my head get sick but I was overcome with what I accomplished in reality and metaphorically. For me, the metaphor did not break down. For me, it lived up to everything I had worked so hard to accomplish. I climbed up the rope out of the skeleton hands that have tried to keep me down!
- Then I am sick! I can’t think straight; my legs won’t work the way I want them to and something deep inside of me says get down. I see the look of fear on my Sherpa’s face, I hear the tone in my daughter’s voice, who had climbed the mountain with us, and I feel the urgency as I am being led down the mountain towards safety. Along the way, climbing up the mountain I got sick, coming down the mountain there were moments I wasn’t quite sure I was going to make it. But just as the journey of the mountain is sometimes wrought with sickness and safety concerns, perhaps descending down a mountain pose some challenges too.
- I was emotionally disoriented for days following the climb. I was scared because I had developed such severe altitude sickness, but I was also proud of my accomplishment. I was scared because I realized how many summits there would be in reality to accomplish before I could feel healthy. I lost sight of the fact, that I had accomplished so much already, and that each summit is a victory, no matter how high the climb. I had to fight to keep my sense of accomplishment. But fight, I did and now I understand just how many summits’ I have accomplished over the years.
Some of the lessons my mountain climb has taught me are that it’s the beauty, fear, wonder, excitement, tears, and help that constitutes being able to say I climbed a real 14,000-foot mountain and a metaphorical unyielding mountain range.
Thank you for reading my books: If I Could Tell You How It Feels, and Untangled, A Story of Resilience, Courage, and Triumph