Following a rural road through northern Virginia, my wife and I found the post in the ground that marked the trailhead. It had been about a month since I had quit my job, overwhelmed and unable to function due to issues with depression and anxiety. I had once been very successful, but was worn down by stress and fatigue. I was feeling very depressed, the excitement and relief from quitting was wearing off and the real world was coming back at me with a vengeance. So my wife and I arranged this trip to Virginia to do something we had never done before.
We were in Shenandoah National Park looking up into the woods at the path we were about to follow. Doing something that had literal significance in my life since I was now unemployed, we were going to climb a mountain. I needed to do something that would challenge me, something I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do.
My confidence needed a boost. My opinion of myself was low. I was filled with self-doubt, questioning what value I had to anyone. I had no idea of how I was going to get another job or even what I wanted to do for a living. Plenty more questions than answers bounced around my head as we took pictures of ourselves before setting out up the trail.
The trail was peaceful at first, just a path through the woods, slowly climbing upwards. There were a few trees down across the path, and some boulders alongside, but nothing that challenged us greatly. The weather was warm and we were sweating, but we weren’t making any great exertions. It reminded me of the way I had been acting towards my unemployed status so far. It was there, but I wasn’t going to sweat it just yet.
After a while, the trail started to steepen and I found myself breathing harder. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. The mileage on my wife’s Garmin told me we hadn’t gone that far, but I found myself already needing to stop to take breaks. I was embarrassed at my apparent weakness, that I wasn’t able to push through and carry on, but I had to stop from time to time. In retrospect, I think some of my problem was just that I was excited about what we were doing and wanted to go too fast, but at the time, I was really feeling weak and burdensome. I was embarrassed about asking for help.
We went through a series of switchbacks as the trail continued to climb. Rocks and roots and pine straw underfoot, the shade of tall trees all around us. I was settling into a rhythm and while the work was hard, I was able to continue. At one of the last few switchbacks, we came to a small clearing where we got our first view from the mountain. We leaned against a waist high boulder and looked out across a valley to the right. We could see farmland and forests for miles in the early morning sun. To our left was the rest of Old Rag, the mountain we were climbing. The world was peaceful up here, our first reward for the work we were putting up. It reminded me of the recovery process, you do a lot of work on yourself and one day things become clearer and easier.
Although the mountain wasn’t ready to become easier just yet. As we finished the last switchback, we started seeing some of the boulders that the top part of this mountain was known for. Way bigger than either of us, we crouched through a cave of boulders, up a set of stone steps, we squeezed between rocks so close together we had to remove our backpacks.
We had to jump across gaps between rocks, had to lower ourselves down a ten-foot crevasse with only sheer rock for footholds, we had to edge along the top of rock cliffs and my wife was scared of heights. These boulder fields and rock scrambles challenged us both. Unexpected and relentless, we were constantly faced with the choice – keep going and figure out the next obstacle or backtrack and retread the challenges we had just overcome. Just like life, fear and exhaustion could be the overwhelming emotions we felt, but to move on we had to push them aside, think clearly and assess and execute on the next challenge in front of us. Looking to the summit, the end result, did us no good, nor did dwelling on the steps we had already taken. Our goal, over and over on this climb, was simply to get past the next obstacle, not knowing what the other side would present.
The summit of the mountain snuck up on us, we came up a small hill and there were the signs, pointing up to the small paths we could take to the top. We took a bunch of pictures and talked to other hikers, enjoying our accomplishment. Physically, this was the most demanding thing I had ever done. Mentally, it was an excellent exercise for me. I had to face problems I didn’t think I could overcome. I had to tackle challenges as they presented themselves to me. The end result meant nothing without the hard work it took to get there.
I took many lessons from climbing this mountain in Virginia. It taught me how to attack problems and face them head-on. It showed me how dwelling on the future and the past really do me no good. But most importantly, I learned that I was capable of doing much more than I gave myself credit for. Doubts I had about myself disappeared as I was forced into making immediate decisions and actions. I carried these lessons with me as I faced more challenges in life, and they have helped me many times.
Author Bio – Jason has suffered from depression and anxiety for over twenty years. He can be contacted on his Facebook.