2017: Mental Health Awareness Year

In May of 2016, I took my first real steps in disclosing my life-long struggle with PTSD and it’s kissing cousins: depression and anxiety. I wrote a lot of posts on social media that opened my life up to those who may not have known it about me. In fact, as my notoriety has increased due to my near constant touring for my music career, these statements and posts about my life began to hold greater weight inside my head. Who am I sharing this part of my life with? How will they react? Can I trust my fan base beyond those whom I call my friends? My answer to this question is I don’t really care. Trust has never been a friend of mine, and even those friends who think I have the deepest level of trust in them are usually wrong. I can count the people I truly trust on two hands with fingers to spare. I’ve been burned by trust far too many times for me to rely on it a great deal. But again, I don’t care. I have been living a life where trust has not been adequately present for 30 years; I’m used to it. If people want to use the words I type to vilify me, that’s fine. I never trusted people, to begin with.

Sharing your struggles is not a task taken lightly. The right people have to be involved and you have to know they are going to respond in a way that is empathic, compassionate, and understanding. When you don’t trust most people, this concern goes right out the window. So as my readership and fan base has grown, the question of whether or not I should continue revealing some of the most vulnerable parts of me is moot.

May is the designated Mental Health Awareness Month, and like most other months dedicated to honoring someone, a group of people, or a cause (et al), it’s a pretty cheap 28-31 days. I’m not satisfied with one month where we all talk about our depression, anxiety, bipolar, chronic illnesses, etc. I live with my depression, anxiety, and flashbacks on a daily basis. They don’t magically disappear on June 1st when I stop my daily posts about mental health. In fact, symptoms are likely to worsen.

2016 has been a magnificent year for me: I’ve successfully launched a music career, gained notoriety, and seen more of the country than I ever thought I would. I got to live at a national park for an entire month. I am a lucky person because my career and my lifestyle are finally in resonance. I understand how lucky I am that I don’t have to wake up and amble through the mundane existence of a 9-5 job, which has proven impossible for me in the past. Unfortunately, the decision to live in resonance does not mean that my mental health has improved; its been quite the opposite.

Without getting into details, I’ve made a lot of changes this year in hopes of treating or coping with my mental health, which only seems to get worse with every passing year. I’m sure there’s research that shows that the more depressive episodes you go through the more likely you are to go through them, but I don’t have the energy to do a Google Scholar search to cite them (I assume a more ambitious reader may do so). While some of the things worked (nature-based healing, EMDR, and cannabis being the top); a lot didn’t seem to make a difference.

“On the inside, there is a constant war going on and it’s anything but peaceful.” 

Living with chronic depression is hard to explain. On the outside I often look predominately fine: you may notice slight dark circles under my eyes and a bit of a slower speech pattern, but if you didn’t know me you wouldn’t recognize these things. On the inside, there is a constant war going on and it’s anything but peaceful. The images supplied to me are as horrific as any horror movie (picturing yourself in the midst of dying by suicide over and over and over again, all day, every day). This has been my life for at least 25 years. Voices in my head continue to tell me how worthless I am, how everyone is a liar and they are just telling me that I’m a good person so they can feel better; so they can feel like they did something if I ever were to pull the trigger. These thoughts are quite effectively reinforced by the fact that when I isolate myself (see: most of 2016) people don’t really notice that much. Some do, and I appreciate that, but my depressed brain even questions their motives. No one wants to feel like they could have done more when the dirt hits the coffin.

It was different during Mental Health Awareness Month; people paid attention. Then, they forget. They stop sending messages. I get it, I really do. It’s not in front of people so they don’t think about it. We live in a society with a very short attention span and if I’m not snapping my fingers in front of the faces of my readers every day they forget about what was once important to them. I’m not saying that mental health awareness loses its heart once June hits, but it fades from consciousness. This tells me that those who value mental health must needs make it more important. It needs to permeate the lives of those who do not suffer under its banner. It needs to be thought of on a constant basis and cannot be discarded like some rind once the fruit has been used.

This is a call to action. 2017 needs to be a mental health awareness year. Here is my commitment to you: I will step up my disclosures and share my walk with you. I will share ideas and tips for becoming more aware of how mental health affects our daily lives (even those of you are lucky enough to experience stability). I will write about how people without mental health conflict can assist those they love in a way that is not intrusive, and in a way that is authentic, genuine, and full of compassion. Those are the things most of us need, anyway. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Depressed and isolated friend? Don’t make plans with them. There’s a good chance they’ll get broken and your friend will just feel worse because he or she has “ruined your night”. Go to their house. Bring a cup of tea (chamomile, no caffeine). Don’t plan on staying long, just say hi and give a hug. WHY? Because it shows them that even if they’re isolating they’re still thought of and loved.
  • Offer to watch a movie with them. I’m partial to Harry Potter when I’m depressed, but super-heroes work as well. This is not “hang out” time. You shouldn’t say much. Just sit there, make them some popcorn (they may not eat it) and watch the movie. When its over, give them a hug and some love and go on your way.
  • Texts: Do this on a daily basis. Make them funny, full of love, or just normal stuff. A good way to send something special is using an app like Canva or Adobe Sparkpost. Throw some color into a drab day.
  • Bring over a healthy dinner. Make sure it’s something they’ll eat (don’t bring broccoli casserole if they hate broccoli). Then leave. Drop it off and leave.

A little known, but a well-researched fact is that you don’t need to say anything! In fact, 80% of whatever you say is going to get completely distorted in your depressed friend’s head and the outcome of something that seems so innocuous and loving ends up in a panic attack or furthering suicidal thoughts. Depression and mental health are exceptionally complex disorders in the brain and if you’re ever caught in a “What the fuck just happened?” moment you need to learn to roll with the punches, keep your gob shut, and nod your head with equal amounts empathy and sympathy.

 

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In the interest of authenticity and full-disclosure, I’ve been actively suicidal for the past few weeks. I am having to cancel the second leg of my winter tour as well as a 3-week long recording session. As of right now, I will be taking a full 2-month sabbatical from playing live music in order to straighten some things out. I plan on taking a lot of long walks, just me and my dog John Henry. I plan on reading and writing. I plan on once again reclaiming my spirit, whatever the hell that means. I do not plan on pulling the trigger.

Will you lean on me if I lean on you?

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-RJP

Everything in the Desert is Trying to Kill You

From my journal, 11/4:

Everything in the desert is trying to kill you. That’s what I’m surmising. Spiny, thorny everythings that jump out at you, almost with their own sense of malice, some sort of surprise vendetta play, reasons known only to them. Venomous insects and snakes: stingers and teeth. They’re all out there, trying to take you down every time you put boot to trail.

 Or so we would think. But the desert, like all the natural world, is majestically impersonal. We are shown that these things are not trying to hurt or kill, but to survive. The living things in the desert have produced though hides, sharp edges, and the ability to melt into the background, all so they can keep on living. Some, like the Saguaros of Southern Arizona, age gracefully, flowering only past 50 years. Those thorns are one of the most essential pieces to their long life. The thorns keep animals from drinking the lifeblood that flows through their fibrous cells.

 We’re the same way. We are just as fragile and we live in a harsh world full of attack. We develop defense mechanisms to ward off the violence and trauma. We prepare ourselves for it every day, and some of us develop spines, venomous bites, and offer them to anyone who gets close to us. We are trying to protect ourselves, trying to prevent any catastrophic damage.

 It’s a misnomer that we need to do this. We don’t need to take advice from the desert here; in fact, we should do the exact opposite. Where we have instinct to push people away with our needles and teeth gnashing we should instead act to pull them closer, allowing them to help us move through life and survive.

 Somewhere along the way we have collectively been damaged. It’s not just those of us who have been damaged directly; it’s everyone. For the past 150 years much of the world has had access to the most horrid tales of history, and the tales continue to be written day after day, and endless onslaught of secondary trauma. We are so afraid, and it is so disheartening. We seem to be seeing an uptick of these horrid tales, and why should we be surprised? It’s long been known that damaged people can easily damage others with those spines and thorns and teeth.

 Breathe.  

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The desert is full of surprises. One of the scariest looking creatures, the tarantula, is also the one of the meekest. It trundles across the road like a furry, eight-legged turtle. The formidable cactus can surprise us, too: get past the thorns and teeth and there is life and sweet fruit inside. More lessons from the desert.

Prelude

The sun set an orange blaze to see the day’s end arrive. I drove, as I have so many times before, with that fire to my right and a cold blue washing over the fields to my left. Eastern New Mexico is often ignored for the more prominent northern and southern parts, yet the flat plains and farms are certainly pastoral and such land has long held my fascination. I grew up in a city, then just on the outskirts (although we had a wonderful creek that rippled behind our house), but not far from Lancaster city proper lies the rolling hills and farms of the Amish and Mennonite communities: green and gold, thriving or fallow. I chose to move away from the populated areas when I was 19 when I went to college in the smallest of towns in central Kansas. The flatlands lacked the green waves of Lancaster County, but they were nonetheless beautiful. I can remember quite clearly the first summer storms I experienced in the middle of a picked over milo field. There were at least half a dozen gray, silver, and charcoal systems pounding the land in the distance, stabbing it with hot lightening. I don’t know if it was the storms or my fancy, but the air felt electric. I then moved on to the mountains of Virginia, which held more farms plowed into the side of the Appalachia. The glens did sing true in the spring and fall, painting with the sound of growing and dying, both colors handsome and new.

And here, more than a decade from the time I left the emerald east, I drive through land that has been recently harvested and so reflects the burning of the day. Silos and grain elevators silhouette against the oncoming rush of blue while irrigation pivots still themselves for the night. I’ve secured a small and simple cabin about ten miles north of Carlsbad. I’m on my way to Big Bend National Park in Texas, and this is the first of thirty-one nights I will spend alone. Tonight is Halloween; I won’t be home until the calendar reads December.

I’ve been chosen to explore, and craft music inspired by a harsh and beautiful piece of far west Texas called the Big Bend. It’s named so because the seemingly never ending Rio Grande cuts a sharp U-turn north after having travelled south since the Colorado/New Mexico border. It carves its way through a canyon land seldom seen by America. A dusty corner, forgotten and sunburnt, where the sun shines hot and hard and only the most adaptable of creatures, human or otherwise, survive. It is a place of trial, but as is so often the case with such places, it is the perfect environment for healing and creating.

The dark fog of the past three months has moved on from me and for this I am grateful. To begin this journey free of depression is nothing short of a miracle. The level of anxiety I have experienced over this trip has been observably more than your average person would experience, but a lot less considering what passes for normal in my brain. As I packed the Gray Haven full of every essential piece of camping and survival gear, music and recording equipment of all types, an inflatable kayak, and what seemed to my wife and I to be an adequate amount of frozen chili and lentils to last me an entire month, I found that I was stalling. There was a charged excitement that had slowly settled over me in the months since I found out about my appointment as one of centennial resident artists for Big Bend National Park, it over the weekend it had approached its zenith. But I kept slowing myself down, even when I was in the car and on the road there were last minute errands that “just had to be done” (they didn’t). I said goodbye to Deborah in the morning when she left for work. It was hard but we had a great weekend together and I’ll see her the week of Thanksgiving. I’m not sure that was what was holding me in town. Although I will miss having her next to me every night, I think what was chaining me to the middle Rio Grande valley was not a fear of what negative encounters I may have, but of the positive changes and healing that could occur during such a sojourn. Change has always been an exciting prospect throughout my life, one that has kept me moving forward, but in recent years I have grown weary and apprehensive of change. Subsequently, I feel my progression in healing has been stunted, and perhaps it is a change of this nature that can be a shot in the arm.

Even so, I have worked hard to keep myself from holding any expectations for the following weeks. Tempered expectations are one of the keys to a good life. My aunt always told me, “If you don’t expect anything, you won’t get disappointed.” A Zen master couldn’t have spoken truth more clearly. It’s hard to have expectations for something you have never attempted before, and its for the best. Still, creating goals is always a smart thing and I definitely have some broadly defined ideas as to what I would like to see happen, without forming an attachment to them:

  1. Write music.
  2. Hike a lot.
  3. Get better.

I feel these are reasonable and accomplishable goals when given a month in one of the most amazing and dramatic national parks in America. I’ll stay in my little cabin tonight, no doubt listening to a Stephen King audio book until my eyelids feel heavy. Tomorrow I’ll explore Carlsbad Caverns in the morning before making the final push towards Big Bend. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of positive mystery.

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Night time needle grass infestation in Carlsbad, NM.

The earth has fascinated me since I was a small boy playing in our tiny backyard in downtown Lancaster. I’ve watched that fascination grow with each move forward in my life. The correlation is not coincidental: the earth has a power that can only be understood when connected to it. I began that journey a long time ago, and it’s taken me more time than some others to get where I am. Now that I’m here I won’t be wasting any time. I’m at another point where that forward momentum is going to take me somewhere. As hard as I try to temper it, my imagination is running wild tonight.

Walk On

What if I got rid of everything that is unnecessary in my life and just started walking? Not going anywhere in particular, just walking. I’d come home, but it would be unencumbered by things I don’t need. What if I sold all my comic books, blu-rays, and TV? What If I got rid of the superfluous clothes and only kept what I needed? So many unused books could go to ones who would benefit from them. Then I would walk.

I would start by going north on 47th Street, towards Atrisco and the desert edge of the Bosque. There’s a path there, about a quarter of a mile from our house, going east and cutting down a slope of thick desert sage before it reaches the golden banks of the muddy river. I’ve seen it when I’ve been driving somewhere to buy things I don’t need. I’d walk that path slowly and forget about The Noise. I would breathe deep, and it would be a dry pull of air that hits my throat. It would be savory, like a wedding dinner for an old friend.

The path would hit the trail  running the strand of the Rio Grande and cutting through the heart of Albuquerque. I could go south, ducking under the golden cottonwoods and oakbrush, listening to the fallen leaves crack beneath me like broken old bones. I’d breathe deep, and it would be the sickly sweet aroma of fall foliage littering the soil, decomposing, giving itself back to which it came. It would remind me of my childhood in Pennsylvania, piles of leaves in the yard by the creek, and the fear and sadness.

In a mile I would hit Central Avenue and The City and The Noise. I would breathe deep the death that lay there. My hands, until that point hanging freely by my side and swinging with the sway of my walk, would inevitably wriggle into my pockets. Instead of looking up through a golden green canopy to the light of the sun, I would look down at the dead sidewalk and quickly circle back to my house.

There I would breathe deep the musky balm of home, of dogs and food, and living. Where I would sit, in patient silence, without things, and wait for my next walk.

TOP 5 THINGS YOU NEED FOR SUMMER ADVENTURES!!!

I love Pinterest. I discovered it a few months ago and have not looked back. When I’m bored I pull it up and read about Star Wars, cannabis, and recipes. I use it to dream about my next tour vehicle and discovering new camping hacks. It is truly junk food in the written word. One of my favorite things about Pinterest is the amount of lists for camping gear they have. Headlines almost always include some arbitrary number: 49 Things you MUST have for your next camping trip. The same items appear on almost every list and yet I read them each time and think to myself, “I absolutely need to get that inflatable lantern.”

The truth is nobody needs to get the inflatable lantern, the inflatable tent, or even the inflatable hammock (all real things, by the way). What do we need for summer camping? Or camping and outdoors-ing in general? My list for the things I need this summer looks a lot different than the ones I have seen on Pinterest.

Openness

Openness to experience, or the level to which someone accepts new experiences, is incredibly important to reaching full potential when exploring nature. Not only does it cause a statistically significant increase in cognitive ability and decision making (Lapine, Colquit, & Erez, 2000), it affords the mind a respite from the normal worries of every day life back in the city. Accepting and inviting whatever it is that comes our way means we won’t get bent out of shape when things don’t go according to plan. It means losing our attachment to the way we think things ought to be. When exploring nature this trait is invaluable and constantly utilized. Sometimes you forget the can opener and you don’t realize it until you unpack at the campsite that’s an hour and a half from anywhere. Other times it unexpectedly pours down rain the entire weekend for a backpacking trip and you forgot the cover to your backpack. Or maybe your keys fell out of your pocket when you were hiking out of the Grand Canyon that one time and you didn’t realize it until you got to the car. Yeah, these have all happened to me and caused minor to major meltdowns. Not this year, friends. If I drive all the way to the Jemez and forget my fishing rod I’m going to go hiking instead. Who knows? I may see something I’ve never seen before.

Mindfulness

Take it all in. What does the air smell like exactly? How cold is the water in the stream? How do different trails feel beneath your feet? What happens to your mind and body during a long hike? How does the campfire smell? What memories comeback when that smell lingers on your clothes? What thoughts are you having as you sit by the lake? Think about how you are part of nature, not separate from it when you lay down in camp at night. By being mindful of every aspect of our outdoors experience we ground ourselves in the natural world and allow it to work its healing in our lives. Five deep breaths are all it takes to connect yourself to the moment. When your mind naturally makes its way towards problems and stressors you’ve encountered during the work week, allow them to pass like leaves on a river. Observe them, then move your attention back to the present moment by connecting with the feeling of your breath and labeling your five sense. A more enriching interaction with the natural world is your reward.

Compassion

As we walk through the natural world we must do so with the intention that we will keep it as such: natural. This is a result of the compassion we feel towards ourselves, our communities, and the earth we live in. The three realms are not separate from each other. When we feel compassion for one realm it will inform our interactions with another. We feel compassion towards ourselves, this will extend to our community. If we have compassion for our community and ourselves, we will desire to enrich and conserve the natural environment we find ourselves in. Our environment feeds our communities in many ways, from the farms that grow our food to the mountains that feed our souls. Having compassion towards our environment means that we tread lightly and preserve them so the community we love can continue to benefit from the land long into the future.

Stealth

Have you ever been hiking in pristine wilderness only to come around a bend in the trail and see leftover food trash? It’s a miserable experience. Leave no trace ethics are paramount to keeping our natural lands healthy and ensuring their survival. Do you know how to poop in the woods? What about what you should do to erase your campsite? Do you know what cryptobiotic soil is? Educate yourself on how you can enjoy the natural world in the most responsible way. Wherever you are, leave the earth looking better than when you found it.

Self-Reflexivity

This refers to your ability to think and process your experiences while they are happening and after they happen. When you are in the wild it is important to let your mind explore your soul. What better place to ask the big questions than surrounded by a cluster of 14,000 foot peaks? Or staring at a sunset while listening to the lull of waves at the shore?  The ability to reflect on your experiences is the key to learning from them. Sometimes it doesn’t come naturally, but here are some questions you can ask yourself if you’re finding it hard to get started:

  • How is this experience affecting me?
  • Why did I do that?
  • What do I really need right now?

IMG_3729Enjoy your adventures this summer. Wear sunscreen and drink plenty of water. Bring your maps and a raincoat. Don’t forget the snacks and inflatable hammock. Don’t forget why your doing it, either.

365 Days

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.

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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.IMG_3301

Hot Spring Trail, Rio Grande River, Big Bend National Park, TX

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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.

In This Together

I drove north, planning on camping on the Pecos river and fly-fishing for a few days. As I passed the brown Adobe of Santa Fe I didn’t understand why I would stop at the Pecos Wilderness. I could keep driving north, on through to Colorado, meeting my wife in Denver for a concert later in the week. So I did.

I drove through the setting sun, into the mountains of southern Colorado, and watched as their silhouettes grew more jagged and prominent in the rising moon. I climbed further north and deeper into the night. I had no real destination to speak of, but my directions were taking me towards Rocky Mountain National Park. As I began to tire I pulled over somewhere northwest of Silverthorne, about an hour south of the park. I found a campground and set myself up as light shown through the gathering clouds. I heard the slapping of waves coming from somewhere just beyond the mouth of my tent, but, exhausted, I decided to leave that exploring for the morning.

When I awoke I saw I had chosen a campsite alongside a large body of water with lower-hanging mountains on its eastern edge. My hamlet rested fairly lonesome above the high-water line, less that a hundred yards east of the entrance to a cove, about three-hundred yards across from north to south. The water was sapphire blue with occasional chop lapping against the banks: stoney outcrops backed by steep black pack, crested with sage and purple and yellow asters. A beauty to be sure. The gray clouds had gathered significantly and framed my yellow tent with a swath of pencil-lead. It was here I would lay my head for the next few days, exploring the nearby Arkansas River and hiking the relatively low mountains. Rain came and went and I enjoyed the rhythm of the waves on those dark and cloudy August nights. Lightening provided a show the likes of which cannot be duplicated by a television.

I packed leisurely the morning of my departure, looking upon my inlet in content and nostalgic silence until the hum of a motor grew louder and I saw a speed boat power through my field of vision, straight into the narrow cove, pulling a water skier in it’s wake. The chop increased. Time to go, I thought, and started the car with a sense of irony.

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As I drove away from that space a question entered my mind regarding how we are to enjoy the natural world. Is there a better way? Ed Abbey railed against motorists in the National Parks 50 years ago to no avail, and if you travel to any of our nation’s most protected lands you will see the results of over half-a-century of automobile use and motorized recreation. These mod cons bring more people to the land and that can possibly cause more conservation efforts by those who have been touched by nature. More often motorists bring litter, pollution (both air and noise), and that sense of entitlement that comes with the privilege of being a private transportation traveler. It’s indicative of a greater problem: humans see themselves as separate from the natural world, observing it as though through a window at a zoo. This viewpoint has led to a health crisis not only for the Earth, but for the human race as well.

The answer to my previously posed question is a resounding “YES!” There is a correct way to enjoy nature, but not entirely for the reason some might think. The idea that human beings are separate from the natural world is an example of dualistic thinking. It’s the age-old “us and them” mentality and, as with most dualistic thinking, it’s quite incorrect. Humans are a part of the natural world; just like plants, animals, insects, dirt, and rivers. We come from the natural world, we are not born from something other. The two transitive properties that we now have are thus:

  1. Humans are separate from the natural world, we have consciousness and therefore we are above the nature. This leads to thoughts and actions that can be destructive to the environment.
  2. Humans are an intrinsic part of the natural world, our sense of consciousness encompasses all living things. If we are part of the natural world, we are subject to the all the consequences the natural world experiences. This leads to thoughts and actions that are uplifting and life-giving, both for the Earth and for ourselves.

One of the basic tenets of ecopsychology is that by healing the earth we can heal ourselves. There are a lot of reasons for this: a basic sense of altruism and fulfillment, a feeling of being grounded, and the simple fact that you get a heavy dose of vitamin D and endorphins when you engage outdoors activities being a only a few. I think the more salient affect comes from the innate connection human beings have with the planet: When we give life to the Earth, we give life to ourselves. The increased sense of isolation from our planet is killing both of us.

When we enjoy our public lands we have a responsibility to care for those lands so that they survive. If they don’t survive, we don’t survive. It’s not as simple a problem of hearing a buzzing dirt bike when you’re trying to quietly observe an eagle’s nest or fix a fly to your line. The problem is that the buzzing of a dirt bike cuts deep into the health of the Earth, and thereby cuts deep into the health of our society.

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We must enjoy nature with the care and responsibility that we approach anything else in our lives. It sustains us and it is a litmus for the health of humanity. Right now the prognosis is dim, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be turned around. Outdoors writer Ad Crable once told me that we should always aim to leave nature looking better than we found it. Perhaps that’s where we start. ATVs and dirt bikes are next.