Kaya Williams: Inside Out
What happens when the usual mental health fixes aren’t working the way they used to?
Every time I report on mental health in the Roaring Fork Valley, I hear the same two messages: One, that our unparalleled access to the outdoors in this valley is an outstanding resource for solace and healing when we struggle with our mental health, and two, that it is perfectly OK to struggle with mental health in a mecca for outdoor recreation and natural beauty.
I cling to that first message, and I always have. The trails are my place of bliss and relief and release. Rolling, smooth singletrack helps me space out when I’m overwhelmed; steep technical terrain helps me manufacture a distraction when I need to force a reset.
It’s not by coincidence that my highest highs (and comebacks from some of my lower lows) have all come surrounded by snow and dirt and rocks and trees at altitudes well above sea level. I seek out the pain cave on steep, tough climbs because it is rewarding, sure, but also because I know that if I’m focused on how my legs and my lungs feel then I’m less likely to spiral deep into my thoughts; I spend time in the mountains seeking joy, yes, but also an escape from the things in life that aren’t so joyful.
I don’t think I’m the only one in this valley with that penchant for outdoor escapism. It’s probably the reason a lot of us came here in the first place. It’s easy to ignore what’s challenging us when we’re concentrating on flow trails and route-finding; besides, exercise releases endorphins, sunlight can yield serotonin, and we’ve got plenty of access to both. Even on a day that royally, cosmically sucks, we know we can sneak out the back door with our boots or bikes or skis in tow and feel a little better than we did before we left.
Maybe that’s why I find the latter message — that despite our surroundings, there will still be times we struggle with our mental health — so much harder to accept.
If I’m here because the outdoors are so key to my wellbeing, then what am I supposed to do when the usual mental health fixes — a long run in the backcountry, a few hours in the mountains — aren’t working as well as they used to?
At first, I thought it was a good kind of problem to have: the more time I spent recreating outside, the more I wanted and needed to recreate outside to keep my head screwed on straight. Whenever I was overwhelmed or vexed or struggling to articulate how I felt, I knew I could hit the trails and feel the problems melt away.
I figured it couldn’t hurt if it required a few more miles or a bit more elevation gain to get back on solid footing; smiles per hour beget more smiles per hour, right?
The feelings didn’t actually get resolved. They just got deferred. And in September, compounded by a work schedule I knowingly overpacked and a series of comically escalating car troubles brought about by a combination of hubris and misfortune, those confusing, stressful, overwhelming emotions I had so adamantly denied all summer steamrolled me.
Ignoring the dread wasn’t an effective solution anymore. I know because I tried, and on the longest run of the season, 15 miles through groves of golden aspens and forested trails that would normally elicit a big fat goofy grin and a lighter skip in my step, I couldn’t escape the deadweight feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I didn’t know what to do, because all I’ve ever done when I need to feel better is go outside. It was foolproof, until it wasn’t.
Logic and several phone calls with my mom suggested that time, rest and patience would help me address some of the things that were sucking me in, but even that was a hard pill to swallow without the deferral-by-distraction method I’ve relied on my whole life.
I still don’t really have a solution for now, except to write about it here. Maybe it means I start placing less emphasis on outdoor recreation as the be-all and end-all for wellbeing; it’s just one of many resources we have in this valley for mental health, though my own stubbornness and resistance to change means it will probably take me longer than most to embrace the alternatives.
In the meantime, I’ll probably still be out there on the trails almost every day of the week, trying to figure it out one mile at a time.
Kaya Williams would like to acknowledge that her mom was right, by the way: sometimes, it takes a bit of time, a few deep breaths and a bit of collective problem-solving to get back on solid ground. She covers education and the town of Snowmass Village for the Aspen Times and the Snowmass Sun; email her at email@example.com.