An Uphill Battle
Overcoming My Mountain + The Tale Behind The Tattoos
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Warning … this is a very personal feature dealing with mental illness and suicide. As such it may be a trigger for some dealing with similar issues or who know others who are.
Live the SnoCo Life got its inspiration and roots in the small town of Darrington in the Spring of 2016. Since then, the town and the Mountain Loop Highway which connects it with Granite Falls six months out of the year, became my happy place. It has been a constant reassurance that local only, or primarily local, cities can not only thrive, but be more interconnected and stronger than cities that are not.
It has also been an escape. Somewhere we go to get away from phones, work, and social media, while enjoying nature and the feeling of crisp, clean, and silence that comes with it. For those six months, over two years, we were out there at least once a week, sometimes for days, visiting, hiking, and camping.
If you are good at math or observant, then you probably caught on to the fact that we are turning three, and that visits/escapes to Darrington didn’t really happen over the last year. If you’ve really been paying attention, then you probably have realized not much of anything has happened for six (+) months. I use the (+) because it was actually closer to a year.
It turns out I was pretty good at covering up the fact that there were problems going on behind the scenes. But, I made a resolution in 2018 to always be an open book, especially when my personal life and local choices overlap, and I’ve been letting down not only myself, but all of you, by letting a year go by without saying anything and letting the magazine for a bit. That’s done!
So, what went wrong? Honestly, I didn’t really know myself for awhile, or at least I didn’t want admit I did, I brushed it all off as problems with my physical health or the health of a family member I was struggling with. Those were issues, but they weren’t THE issue. THE issue was an experience with my mental health that had a domino effect in my life. Within months, I was leaving my home less and less and making appearances online and with friends less and less. In fact, within four months I wasn’t doing either of those things at all.
Let’s back up a bit before we get to all of that though, because I think the physical mountain needs to be explained a bit before the psychological one.
I have had a love hate relationship with White Chuck Mountain in Darrington, you might even call it a curse. Since our first visit to the town, we have always made a trip to the overlook located across from it for the sole purpose of getting a good photo. That has never happened, even after fifty + stops at it. There is always something not right about conditions, the clouds, snow, or it just looked plain, average, and boring. I just couldn’t accept that.
Photogenic issues aside, we were in a serious car accident following a trip where we drove up that very mountain, camped there, and hiked to its summit in November of 2016. It was an amazing trip despite that, with lots of equally amazing photos (albeit from a different angle than the overlook). Maybe you’re starting to get the whole curse thing now. If not, you will soon.
Fast forward to Mother’s Day 2018, and the physical mountain met a psychological one. In the year leading up to that day, I had been dealing with the loss of three people that were, or should have been, important to me – my mother, my grandmother, and my daughter. They were all still alive, but essentially gone nonetheless for reasons I won’t get into. They were losses, relationships, I should have been grieving over and dealing with, but I wasn’t.
My inability to do so was the result of medication I had been taking. My ongoing health struggles resulted in nerve pain all over my body. Traditional pain medications weren’t an option for me, I needed to function, to work, and be a parent. Instead I began taking an anti-depressant / anti-anxiety medication that also treated nerve pain without the pain medication side effects and hindrances.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have struggled with depression and anxiety my whole life. Up until that point though, I had opted to not take medication for it. For me, it always made me feel like I wasn’t myself, that it only covered up issues instead of actually dealing with them, something I’d gotten rather good at on my own. It took about thirty years, but I got there.
I knew me, and taking it worried me. It turned out, I was right to worry. The medication didn’t just prevent me from dealing with things going on in my life, it made the reaction worse when those things became so much that they broke through and hit me all at once. I had random major anxiety attacks to things I never would have resulted in one before. My anxiety was with public speaking only, and law school mostly cured that.
Worse, what had before only been suicidal thoughts had in passing, there one second and gone the next without ever reaching a planning or carrying out level, became two very real and very scary experiences that could have led to me not being here to write these words today. Both experiences happened in the town of Darrington, in what was supposed to be my happy place. The second, it led me to the White Chuck Mountain Overlook.
I couldn’t tell you how I got there. The day had been spent exploring Concrete for a Beyond Our Borders piece, and I’d only intended to pass through Darrington on my way home. The drive from town to the overlook, and my time spent at it, were like an out of body experience. I can remember feeling very clearly that I wasn’t in control of what was going on in my mind or with my body. For the ten or so minutes I was there, both felt like they were literally screaming at me and dragging me, to throw myself off the edge of the overlook.
Despite how loud and hard both were to fight, I somehow managed to. In the background there was as small part of me, a smaller voice, repeating over and over with an equal amount of determination … this isn’t me, this isn’t what I want. It wasn’t enough to stop what was happening completely, but it was just enough to create one small distraction after another until I was driving away.
The first, taking the time to stop and take photos of the mountain, right there from that edge I’d been dragged to, because that’s what I always did there and that’s what I had to do in that moment whether they would be good or not. The second, somehow convincing myself to backtrack into the parking lot and go to the bathroom first, no matter how illogical that was. When you gotta go, you gotta go … and that was most definitely that small bit of me and my humor trying to break through. And, then, by some miracle or act of fate, seeing a single rose laying on the ground in front of the drivers side of my car.
It had to be a Mother’s Day gift dropped or left behind, in the most unusual of places, but something about it was calling to me to photograph it. So I crossed to the other side of the path that would have taken me back to the edge of the overlook and did just that. Then I took advantage of the fact that the door to my car was literally feet away, and got back in it. The fight didn’t end there. Once in the car, I looked up at the overlook, and the screaming and dragging was once again there in full force, telling me the path to it was wide enough for my car, that I could just drive off it.
It took everything in me to pull out one more little distraction, looking at the photos I’d just taken on my camera, convincing myself that I needed to go home. I had to know, had to see, how the photos of the mountain (which I clearly knew were going to be bad) came out and how the photos of the rose came out. So after a few minutes of looking down at my screen and keeping my eyes off the overlook, I somehow managed to back out of the parking lot and head back towards town, making it as far as the pull off where I knew my phone would once again have service, before stopping.
I stopped there, not because the thoughts and feelings had passed, but because I knew I needed a few minutes to process what had just happened and to reach out to someone. While there, I took the time to write on my phone, everything that had happened during the first experience and just minutes before, everything I was thinking and feeling good or bad. I then sent it to the one person I felt comfortable with seeing it, making it so I didn’t feel alone with something so big. After that, I made my way back to town and then home, but the control the experience had over me was far from over.
I did my best to forget what happened. I’d written it out, taken the time to work through it, and it was done. I thought I could just move on like it hadn’t happened, but I was wrong. For a few months, I was able to keep everything together and pretend like I was doing just that. We participated in farmers markets and events I’d said yes to. The magazine still came out, only it was two issues over four months.
I avoided going to Darrington. We tried to maintain our usual driving, hiking, and camping along the Mountain Loop Highway, entering from the Granite Falls side instead, but only made it out there less times than I could count on one hand. The town and the highway were my happy place, and I was too scared to visit them. I didn’t trust myself to be there and not have the same experience happen again, or a final time.
It got to the point that I stopped taking the medication, accepting the fact that the nerve pain would come back everywhere and I would just have to deal with it so I could get my life back. I didn’t though. By the end of July the pain was back and we weren’t going anywhere beyond the grocery store just down the road. The only times we went beyond that through the end of 2018 was to deliver the September issue of the magazine and our annual holiday event in December.
I tried to blame not going anywhere on the pain I was in. While it was true that the pain made it hard to get out of bed sometimes, I wasn’t being honest with myself. The reality was that, what was keeping me away from my happy place, was now keeping me away from every city in Snohomish County. I was too scared to visit them, too scared I would have the same experience somewhere else and ruin that place for me too.
Just the thought of leaving my city, of running into people I knew, or who recognized me, led to anxiety attacks that I couldn’t seem to get past. So, days turned into weeks and months where we didn’t go anywhere or see anyone. By the end of September, I was out of articles for the magazine and had no way of creating more. So, I made the decision to let it go.
Oddly enough, what should have been the end, turned into my main inspiration to get things back on track. The second the email went out to subscribers and shops, the little voice from that day was back, repeating over and over … this isn’t me, this isn’t what I want. I worked too hard, and put too much into the magazine and getting it to where it was. It, and the experiences we had, were too important to just give up like that.
I was nowhere near ready to get it all back, but I was ready to start forcing myself back out there, to meet with people, put articles together, and take pictures. Very slowly, I did just that. I did what I could to hold onto what was left, the blog and social media, and to work towards getting the magazine back. It took six months, but we got there, with the first issue back coming out at the end of April.
I’m not going to lie, the anxiety is still there anytime we leave the house, and sometimes we still don’t, but I’m getting there. We are making it out to Darrington again, and I’ve visited the overlook several times since that day. The last time was a week ago, when we took the photos for this piece, and it was the first time back where I felt like I could trust myself there, what had happened that day is nothing more than an echo now.
How do my new tattoos fit with all of this? For those that read my January 2018 article that made my difficult past and my life and open book, you know that a photo of myself as a baby has played a huge role in how I have dealt with my depression and anxiety. That photo is something I look to in order to remind myself of who I am, what I want, and what I deserve despite everything that I have gone through.
The tattoos, they do they do the same thing, but in a more permanent way. They are a reminder that I was strong enough to walk away that day, that I’m strong enough to walk away from anything. One is the rose that distracted me then, there to do it again if I needed. The other the mountain, along with the coordinates of the outlook, that will never beat me. And mixed among them, a quote, that reminds me of who I am, what I want, and what to do if I’m ever in that place again.
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