Above image: Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX
For the past year I have been undergoing a bit of an experiment on myself. Last May I made a commitment to spend as much time in the outdoors as possible and see how much of a tangible impact it would have on my mental health. Being a staunch believer in ecopsychology and using the natural world to heal mental health, this seemed logical.
Let’s start with where I was mentally at this time in 2015: Depressed, suicidal, burned-out on my job and my life. I was at an end, in a lot of ways. There didn’t seem to be very many options for me and giving up seemed like the easiest thing to do. It was at this point when I decided to reframe what it meant to “give up”. Instead of giving up my entire life, I would give up all of those things that held me down. I’m quite fond of the expression, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” and that was my intention.
The first thing I gave up was my job. In June I left my work as a behavioral health consultant and completely turned my back on the counseling career I had been building for upwards of a decade. My plan was to play music full-time; a plan which I have carried into fruition but had no idea the impact it would have on my outdoors adventuring. I no longer had to worry about paperwork and hours, taxes and billing, and most important of all I could focus on my own mental health concerns without being fettered by those of others. I began by taking walks in the east mountains every morning, fly-fishing in the Jemez on Fridays, and simply preparing dinner outside in our jungle of a backyard. The first month was brilliant and I felt fantastic pretty much the entire time. Sure enough, depression crept back in, but I had a hedge against it in the mountains.
I took 4 trips to Colorado last summer and enjoyed exploring what is one of my favorite states. From Durango and Telluride on the western edges, to the green valley of the south central (packed with mosquitos, by the way), to the red rocks of the front range. Colorado was my go-to state for 2 months. One of the better adventures happened later in the summer when I spontaneously drove from Albuquerque to the Green Mountain Reservoir near Rocky Mountain National Park. That trip instilled in me an idea: I could pretty much point to a place on the map and book shows all the way there. I could go anywhere, all I needed was the proper ride. In early October I got that wish when we bought Eleanor, the Gray Haven.
Eleanor is a gray and black, 2005 Honda Element. I removed the back seats and build a modular sleeping platform that is perfect for one. I hung curtains on bungee cords, built a drawer system that peeks out of the hatchback for kitchen supplies and food, as well as another drawer system that opens into the sleeping compartment for clothes. My musical equipment stores nicely under the sleeping platform, which is topped with a 4-inch, high-density foam mattress. I hung my hammock on the roof rack so that I can enjoy hammock naps no matter where I am (this has come in quite handy on long tours). I even set up a bit of an entertainment system so I could watch movies before turning in at night. It’s been a great little vehicle and has cut down on my costs quite a bit. No hotel rooms for me: I can live quite cheaply out of the Gray Haven. Furthermore, I have become fond of calling it my “kennel”. As dog owners know, kennel crates can be a safe and special place for dogs. That’s the way I feel about Eleanor. After a long day of driving, playing music, and socializing, its nice to get back there and relax in my own little space.
Eleanor, the Gray Haven
The maiden voyage of Eleanor was a week long trip through Utah before meeting my parents and Deborah in Zion National Park. Eleanor did fantastic and kept me warm and comfortable most of the nights. The final night before I met my family was a little rough for me, so I took a room at a hotel outside the park entrance. Even though I was staying in a room, nature had something special in store for me. As I walked up to my secluded suit I saw a young elk calf that was sitting on the porch directly adjacent to my room. He looked at me as I unloaded my things, and then I sat with him for about 2 hours as I read. He was about an arms length from me and didn’t get spooked once. I went to eat dinner (elk meatloaf, of all things) and when I came back he was gone. I was feeling incredibly depressed when I walked up to my room and that young elk seemed to lift my spirits quite a bit. As he sat there it was almost as though he was placed there for me, to be there with me while I healed. There are plenty of psychotherapists that could take notes from this gentle animal.
As fall was turning to winter I toured went on a seemingly disastrous tour through Arizona and southern New Mexico. I was depressed before I left but reluctant to cancel the tour. I thought that the exposure to the natural world would be healing. I made it through, but not without incident. I was stuck in Silver City, suicidal and miserable, for a few days before cancelling my show and heading back to Albuquerque. It made me nervous and took quite a while to recover from.
But winter arrived and with it the holiday season. Deborah and I had decided that we would take a week-long trip to Joshua Tree National Park, which is my favorite national park. Deborah had never been and I was excited to share with her the magic of that desert wonderland. Looking at the forecast caused some concern: the nighttime temperature was supposed to average in the 20’s. It didn’t matter to us. We hit the road on a blustery, snowy day after Christmas and drove till the snow was gone. Our first night at J-Tree was the coldest I’ve ever spent and one of the best times I’ve ever had with my wife. We snuggled into our sleeping bags and laughed at how cold it was outside of them. We bundled ourselves together and slept wonderfully, waking the next morning with the sun to hot coffee (her) and tea (me). We spent the next 5 days hiking through the rocks and desert. It was the best vacation I’d ever had in my life.
Winter held a lot of depression. Although it was mild in the high desert of Albuquerque, I stayed in quite a bit. Depression has a way of Velcro-ing a body to the couch, or the bed, and as a result my access to nature was confined to what I could see out my window (when the shades weren’t drawn) and snuggling with my dogs. I had another Arizona tour in February. This time I made my way north from Tucson to Flagstaff. I camped in Saguaro National Park, the Mogollon Rim of Sedona, and Petrified Forest National Park. The latter being a surprising little gem that everyone driving along I-40 should stop and experience. The tour was better, I was buoyed, and I returned home to record my debut solo album.
Spring arrived with another opportunity to travel. I booked a last-minute tour from Hood River, Oregon all the way to Yuma, Arizona. As I passed the Colorado border into Utah it started sprinkling rain. By the time I hit Salt Lake City it was pouring. It didn’t stop raining until the final day of the tour, a week and a half later. This tour was fraught with battles inside my head. Even though I was sleeping amongst the redwoods I found myself trapped in a cycle of awful thoughts and by the time I got off the Pacific Coast Highway a couple days later I was in bad shape. The rain followed me to Joshua Tree and finally let up once I hit Yuma. Brow-beaten, I turned eastward toward the warm comfort of home.
After getting back from the west coast I as able assess the functionality of my medication with a new psychiatric provider and we found that I was a far too high a dose. I had known that some people can experience an increase in depression and anxiety due to SSRI medication, but never fully understood it till it happened to me. My doctor lowered my dose of Zoloft and the effects were almost instantaneous. The fog of depression lifted for the first time in at least two years, just in time for my latest escapade: a month-long journey across the country. From Tucson to Philadelphia and back.
I just got home from that tour this past Monday. I was able to see both the Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend National Parks. It rained most of the time, but it didn’t bother me a bit. I was happy and in a good mood for the majority of the tour. I slept in the Gray Haven even though I didn’t have to. I realized that I could be alive.
Hot Spring Trail, Rio Grande River, Big Bend National Park, TX
Here I am, a year later. My mental health is better than it was at this point last year, but it’s not without its struggles. There are times when I feel like giving up, but those times are fewer and further between than they ever have been. My depression doesn’t feel like a life sentence anymore, and that is something special. I know that it will be there for the rest of my life, but it won’t always have the same affect. I can cope with it now.
How much of this do I attribute to the natural world? Quite a bit, to be sure. My desire to be in the natural world helped lead me to decisions that have been incredibly beneficial: Leaving my job, playing music full-time, living in a small SUV… The contact I’ve had with nature has left a tangible mark on me as well. From the sunburns and the weight-loss, to the focus and the energy, nature has been more helpful to me than any medications, therapists, or hospital stays ever have. That’s not to say that everyone will have this reaction, but I firmly believe that connection with the natural world must be an adjunctive treatment for anyone who is struggling with mental health. The healing property is undeniable. Getting out there can be tough, and being there can be tough, but when it’s all said and done it is clearly beneficial for everyone to renew their connection with the natural world.