“I feel like I’ve been here before…”
No, I wasn’t having an episode of deja-vu, I was hiking switchbacks.
It was spring break 2019, and my family and I (sans Camron who was at Iowa State) were in Arizona doing one of our very favorite activities…exploring new territories.
After months of frigid temperatures, feet upon feet of snow, and heavily cloudy skies—the Arizona sunshine is exactly what we needed. It didn’t even matter the temps were lower than normal; mid to upper 60s felt down-right tropical after spending several weeks below zero and many more hovering just above it. Plus, the opportunity to be outside without feeling like Ralphie from A Christmas Story was intoxicating.
I love hiking and investigating new areas. It fills my soul!
- Taking in the landscape’s textures and colors
- Seeing new plants
- Spotting timid animals
- Listening to birds chatter
- Watching the light play off the rocks and trees
- Feeling the sun on my skin
- Hearing the crunch of soil beneath my feet
But the morning of our week’s first hike, my thoughts and emotions tempered those passions.
Even as I took 1001 pictures of plants, vignettes, and rock formations; even as I reveled in the vistas before me; even as I soaked in the sun and allowed its warmth to flow through me, I felt cold. My heart was downcast. I was empty. I had nothing left for anyone or anything. My physical health was in the tank. My spiritual health was rapidly eroding. My marriage was tepid. And my passion for my ministry was reduced to embers.
Less than a mile in, I looked back at the meandering trail and heard a whisper shatter the silence, “I feel like I’ve been here before.” The sound of my voice startled me. But I soon realized the shattered silence was my heart simultaneously finding its voice and demanding to be heard.
Before I knew it, I was engaged in the first raw conversation I’ve had with God in months. The result was several life lessons I learned from the switchbacks.
But before I get into that let me give you a little background.
For the last several months I’ve been wrestling with some significant health issues (which we’re still working to get to the bottom of) and the depressive effects of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder—Check out this link for more information).
For me, this life-long, annual battle varies in intensity each winter because there’s a strong correlation between the prolonged lack of sun, bitter temps, and the potency of my symptoms.
- The longer we go without sun = the more intense symptoms
- The longer we endure arctic temps = the more intense the symptoms
- When the two are combined = I make a considerable effort not to permanently crawl under the covers
For those of you living outside the Upper Midwest, our last few winters have been WONDERFUL! Mild. Sunny. Moderate snow accumulation. Yes, we had a few short cold snaps (0 degrees and colder), but they were laced with the sun. This was GREAT for me and my SAD! My symptoms were so bland, I didn’t concern myself with it anymore—it fell off my radar.
This year…not so much.
We made up for what we missed out on over the last few years. Record-shattering snowfalls and extended periods with temps well below zero and minimal sunshine made this a winter to remember. Or more like one we wish we could forget.
So did SAD.
Even those who don’t typically wrestle with SAD were hit with it this year. And those who do, had A LOT to contend with.
I admit, after so many mild winters, I’d grown complacent. Numb to the symptoms. SAD was an enemy of the past, one I no longer considered. One I figured was behind me. Out-of-sight-out-of-mind. My eyes were pointed forward, not looking back. So this year, SAD caught me by surprise as it rolled in with the snow infested clouds, darkening my mind and freezing my heart.
I just didn’t recognize it for what it was until I was hiking.
God had to point it out to me. (By hitting me over the head with it.)
I survived a major depression in my late-20s. And that dark season still haunts me.
I’m absolutely terrified of going back to that hopeless lonely place. To where happiness is a fairy tale and joy is an allusive dream. So not all that long ago, I was proactive in setting up defenses against SAD’s depressive symptoms. I was vigilant. Alert. I knew just what to do and when to do it to keep myself from sliding back into The Pit.
But this year, thanks to my complacency, SAD was nowhere on my radar. I was no longer able to recognize the early symptoms for what they were, and when they started to manifest themselves I put my head down, doubled my efforts, and determined to push through. I have big goals. Daunting dreams to tackle. To do lists to show who was boss. I figured, “this is just a bump in the road. No big deal.” My mantra was, “I got this. I’m fine. This won’t take me down. I’m bigger than this. I can handle this.”
And I could…until I couldn’t.
That bump in the road turned out to be a sinkhole.
And life kept on keeping on…
- Busy schedules
- Ever-growing to-do lists
…and I did my best to keep up.
The weariness caused by the again-ness of life is magnified significantly when coupled with SAD for the simple fact that my energy level is on a steady decline no matter how much or how well I sleep at night. And when my energy is tanked, focus and concentration aren’t happening. Neither is good writing or deep thinking. And the desire to minister to the needs of other is out the window, frozen before it hits the ground. This leads to a downward spiral that’s challenging to stop or pull out of.
My insecurities take center stage —> feeling guilty about not being able to get everything done (in my personal and writing lives) —> feeling worthless —> loss of interest in the things I love —> thoughts that all would be better off without me.
Yes, I said it—suicidal thoughts.
Today, those thoughts are atypical flickers followed by a rebuke of Satan and his lies. But there was a time when those thoughts were a close companion. An intense desire. An escape-hatch. A viable option.
However, I still fear that darkness…
This was my mental state when we stepped onto the trail in White Tank Mountain Park.
I love Arizona.
Granted, I’ve only been there for spring break after the rainy season when the desert is lush with vegetation and blanketed with wildflowers. When various colors and textures captivate the senses and temps fluctuate between 75 and 80 degrees. It’s a perfect escape from a Minnesota winter.
There’s also something seductive about the rugged terrain of the desert.
It’s rendered me breathless countless times and lures me back year-after-year. There’s no better way to appreciate this phenomenon than hiking. Plus, I get to let my inner plant nerd out of hibernation for a bit.
When we first started out I was caught up in the beauty of my surroundings.
- The rough terrain.
- The brightly colored flowers, a bejeweled crown on coarse foliage.
- The rich greens of the cactus and scrubby shrubbery.
- The kaleidoscope colors in the rocks and soil of the wash.
- The sun warming my skin.
- The various birds’ songs.
- The cute little lizards.
About a quarter-mile into our hike, the switchbacks began.
Switchbacks are funny things. Even though I’m making progress toward my destination, I constantly feel like I’m backtracking because there’s little change to my view or surroundings. It isn’t until I look back that I can see where I’ve been, the ground I’ve traveled, the obstacles I’ve navigated, and the progress I’ve made.
As I looked back, I laughed at the irony of the situation—the metaphor these switchbacks were for my present circumstances. And my life.
For weeks I’d been feeling incredibly down and unable to get back up again. Migraines were getting more and more frequent and intense. Fatigue was a wet blanket I couldn’t shove off. And focus and concentration were elusive at best. I knew something was wrong. I had no idea what. I knew my physical health wasn’t doing so hot, but it never occurred to me my mental health was in jeopardy.
So as my passion for writing, ministry, and studying God’s Word was progressively reduced to embers, I pulled within myself. Shut down.
And that beautiful March morning, as I looked across at the cactus and creosote, the rock and the wildflowers, all I could think was, “How did I get back here again?”
Then God spoke to my heart, “SAD Baby. Among many other things. Ready to talk?”
I figured no time like the present. And since I had 8 more miles to go…I had the time. So I hiked and invited God to plow through all my defenses and get to the truth of the issue.
And He did.
He used the switchbacks to teach me some valuable life and faith lessons. (I will share them with you in detail in posts to come):
- As I hike, I’m developing steadfast endurance to equip and enable to for “life at the top, ” aka–when I reach my goal and want to maintain or advance from there
- Switchback paths take you on the safest route
- Not all parts of the path will be smooth and easy to travel–that’s they way it should be!
- I’m not in the same place. I’ve advanced. Moved forward. But some old remaining patterns need to go
- I will encounter people along the way, but God is my constant
- Though I travel with companions, my journey is my own
- There’s beauty around each bend. Expect it Look for it.
- Pause often to enjoy the view…take in your surroundings and appreciate how far you’ve come
- Rest when you need, then get up and get going
- When you reach your goal, you feel like a conqueror, and have more confidence to get after the next one
For those of you who suffer from mental illness, if you haven’t yet, get help. Solid Christian Counseling is a great place to start. Don’t be afraid to try different counselors until you find one you connect with and one who is able to give you tools for the present and future. If one of those tools is medication, that’s OK! It may be just a leg up until you work through some tings or it might become part of your life to even out the chemicals in your brain. There is no shame in either counseling or medication—both a tools to help you have an abundant life.
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