The first time I truly enjoyed myself on a camping trip was two months ago in Moab. I have loved camping and backpacking my whole life, and I often experienced joy on these adventures, but underlying that happiness I always felt anxious, scared, or stressed. The quiet of wild spaces that most people find to be relaxing often used to make me feel stressed or upset, because my idle mind tends to linger on possible worst case scenarios or revisit and fixate on painful times in my past. Summer breaks, backpacking trips, and hikes, all of which are meant to rejuvenate – usually had the reverse effect for me because they allowed my mind and its obsessions unadulterated freedom.
This road trip to mountain bike and rock climb with some girlfriends in Moab was my first camping trip since I was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) this past fall. Although I had plenty of time within the confines of my mind while we mountain biked and climbed up rock faces, I found that I could actually control my thoughts – a new phenomenon for me – and that a feeling of contentedness and peace dominated my consciousness, rather than anxiety or stress. I found that learning to rock climb didn’t cause me to panic (well, admittedly, I did freak out when I was belayed down for the first time) and that I could use my rational understanding of the relationship between the rope, my harness, and the bolts on the wall in order to calm myself, whereas in the past the possibility of falling, despite my understanding of its low likelihood, would have paralyzed me from the start. Details like forgetting our tent, which might have ruffled me a year ago, didn’t seem to phase me on this trip. For the first time, I returned home from a trip feeling refreshed, joyful, and proud of myself.
I think the main difference between my pre- and post-OCD self is that now my default state of mind is ‘happy’ with some moments of stress or worry, compared with my previous state of mind which was predominantly characterized by anxiety, interrupted by moments of happiness. Now this is not to say that before diagnosis I was miserable and always stressed – I have experienced a lot of joy and contentedness thus far in my life – but stress and anxiety often created a sort of edge on my ability to be happy. My moments of elation would be tinged with anxiousness, or I would cut short the appreciation of successes with new worries and fears.
For the longest time I wondered why I could not control the spiraling thoughts that constantly bombarded me. How I could sit across from a friend over lunch and listen to her without actually hearing a single word she said over the interruptions of my anxiety, screaming at me, demanding my full attention.
“DID YOU REMEMBER TO SUBMIT YOUR FINAL PAPER ONLINE? YOU PROBABLY DIDN’T. YOU PROBABLY FORGOT TO TURN IT IN AND NOW THE PAPER WILL BE LATE AND YOU WILL FAIL THE CLASS AND WON’T GRADUATE AND WON’T GET TO GO TO LAW SCHOOL. YOU’LLNEVERNEVERNEVERYOU’VERUINEDEVERYTHING.”
Sometimes I would be so gripped by these thoughts that I would actually feel irritated by other people, because they were distracting me from this process of checking and rechecking, reviewing and revisiting – a process that I needed to complete in order to relieve temporarily the crushing feeling in my chest. I would constantly verbalize these fears and worries to my friends, asking them over and over for confirmation that things would be OK, that I hadn’t missed something or made a mistake, that I wouldn’t get sick, that I didn’t say the wrong thing, that I, that I, that I…
If only it were as simple as adhering to friend’s suggestions to ‘worry less,’ to ‘stop thinking so much,’ or to ‘try to relax.’ Often times I wondered what it would feel like to turn in a paper without triple-checking each citation, to return from camping in Wisconsin without the paralyzing “certainty” that I contracted Lyme’s Disease, to talk to a friend without reviewing, hours later, the conversation repeatedly in my mind to determine whether I said something offensive, to drive home from a restaurant and not want to circle the block in order to relieve the clutching fear that I might have hit someone unknowingly while driving, to say ‘yes’ to a spontaneous adventure and actually enjoy the unexpected. Most of all I wondered what it would feel like to silence my mind’s cacophony at will.
Looking back at previous backpacking trips, I can see clearly how OCD affected my experiences. Some memories cause me to look back and laugh, like remembering how, on the second morning of our Colorado Trail hike, I was stopped mid-spoonful by the thought that I might have accidentally allowed my sister and me to get Giardiasis because I didn’t let our breakfast water reach a complete rolling boil. I could picture the water bubbling, and rationally knew that there was no way that those little Giardia guys could have survived at that temperature, but couldn’t banish the idea that I had made a mistake that would end our trip early. Throughout the rest of the trip, I worried that every fart might be a sign of Giardiasis onset.
Other memories, however, are a bit more difficult for me to think about, because they bring back the feelings of pain and frustration with my inability to control my thoughts and anxieties. On the second to last afternoon of our Colorado Trail hike, my sister and I had to cross an exposed alpine ridge that our guide book had cautioned was a dangerous place to get caught during thunderstorms. We did our best to arrive at the ridge before mid-day (the typical time for thunderstorms to begin in Colorado), but as we set out to walk along the ridge we quickly realized that the rain had beaten us. We doubled back to wait in some trees below the exposed pass, and after an hour or so, decided that the storm was clearly not a thunderstorm but just a rain system. We would get wet crossing the ridge, but wouldn’t run a risk of electrocution. I could not get the idea of lightning out of my mind though, and urged my sister to hike faster so that we could reach the safety of Taylor Lake on the other side of the pass.
“Perrin, we agreed that this was safe. You know we are safe. I want to enjoy the views as we hike! We are fine,” my sister stressed, hoping that she could calm me down.
“WE NEED TO GET OF THE RIDGE, EVA. I DON’T WANT US TO DIE.”
I took off down the trail, leaving Eva behind as I bolted for the end of the pass. My breathing was rapid and my thoughts cycled through all the signs of lightning danger as I looked for places where we could run for cover if the “storm” hit. As I summited the last climb of the pass and looked down onto Taylor Lake below, I broke down into tears.
I was relieved, but also deeply frustrated with myself. Despite knowing rationally that Eva and I were in no danger, I could not shake the intense anxiety that I felt nor could I stop my reaction to those feelings. I felt completely helpless. When Eva caught up, she set down her pack and put her arms around me.
“I wish I wasn’t like this,” I sobbed, “I wish I knew how to stop. I am so sick of feeling afraid like this all the time.”
“It will be ok, Perrin,” she said, “we will find a way to figure this out.”
Many more permutations of that conversation and a year later, I finally found out that I could control my thoughts, and that I didn’t have to feel afraid anymore.
I think because people tend to focus on the severe examples when talking about OCD, we assume that OCD always manifests itself in extreme, often frightening, ways. There are many people for whom OCD is a scary and debilitating reality, whose obsessions and compulsions have drastically and possibly permanently altered their lives. But illnesses, including mental illnesses, exist on a spectrum. A person’s experiences with OCD are influenced by various intersections of identity, and, thus, no two people with OCD experience it in the same way. There are also many people who live with moderate to mild OCD, but our stories garner less attention because the do not captivate the fascination of the general public. In fact, OCD is quite common – the International OCD Foundation estimates that two to three million Americans have OCD. And those of us with OCD are in good company; among us are people like the actor and comedian Alec Baldwin, writer David Sedaris, soccer player David Beckham and many others. Many people even believe that Ludvig Van Beethoven suffered from OCD.
On the reverse, however, we also tend to trivialize OCD and other mental illnesses, which leads to misconceptions about what living with these illnesses is actually like. No, you don’t have OCD if you organize your planner with color coded gel pens and highlighters. No, your cute little “need” to catch every hair smoothly into your pony tail is not obsessive compulsive. By definition, compulsions are actions that those with OCD wish that they could stop doing, not something that they are implicitly proud of, like being organized or looking presentable. Living with OCD is painful and can be very challenging. When we reduce our understanding of OCD to a need to keep things organized or tidy, or when we characterize OCD as an extreme condition that only ‘crazy’ people have, we create images of the condition that are totally inaccurate – overly trivial or overly extreme.
Talking about the relationships between mental illness and outdoor recreation are important partly because many people don’t necessarily think about the difficulties presented by activities like backpacking, skiing, or rock climbing for people with mental illnesses. Embarking on a ten day backpacking trip might seem like an overwhelming endeavor for someone suffering from OCD – especially if that person feels unable to reach out for support from teammates on the trip or isolated by comments like, “stop worrying,” or “chill out.” Acknowledging these potential mental health difficulties seems just as necessary to me as discussing possible physical health challenges in the outdoor recreation setting, but we tend to focus on the latter when doing things like trip planning or goal setting.
Another reason for discussing mental health and the outdoors? Researchers are finding that exposure to outdoor spaces and outdoor activities can actually reduce the risk of depression and can have a “dampening affect” on the intensity of anxiety. Florence Williams of National Geographic reports that “in 2009 a team of Dutch researchers found a lower incidence of 15 diseases—including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines—in people who lived within about a half mile of green space.” She states that researchers believe that the positive relationship between time spent outdoors and one’s mental and physical wellbeing is due at least in part to the ability of natural spaces to reduce stress. Williams writes, “measurements of stress hormones, respiration, heart rate, and sweating suggest that short doses of nature…can calm people down and sharpen their performance.” While participating in outdoor activities might pose challenges for those with mental illnesses, spending time in nature could also provide significant benefits for people with these conditions. My experiences, while merely anecdotal evidence, are consistent with the existence of this positive relationship between nature and overall mental health.
Knowing that I have OCD doesn’t bother me (side note: how could it bother me? I’m the happiest that I have been in my whole life). Sure, it has made some things more difficult or complicated for me, but in no way has it limited my ability to achieve my goals. In fact, thinking about what I have already accomplished in spite of this mental illness makes me feel proud. I graduated from college summa cum laude and co-valedictorian (I share the title with another badass lady), spent a summer living and working in Glacier National Park with no electricity or running water, I have planned and led multiple successful backpacking trips, played varsity college soccer, and made many wonderful friends – all with untreated OCD. Now that I have started receiving treatment for this condition I feel as if my possibilities are boundless, and I know that I can succeed even in the face of difficulty.
The only thing that bothers me now is the idea that I almost chose ignorance and anonymity over happiness. I always thought that I was doing well, that I was content – I had no idea how much I could gain in assigning a title to this cycle of thoughts. Yes, naming comes with some risk and insecurity, but it also comes with relief, joy, quiet, confidence, and lightness. Knowing is a gift. I am not afraid to name my OCD anymore, because with that name, I can set happiness as my default.
Interview with David Sedaris: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZoPSjsWt_4
The International OCD Foundation: https://iocdf.org/about-ocd/who-gets-ocd/
Jordan, Rob. “Stanford researchers find mental health prescription: Nature.” Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment – Stanford News. June 30, 2015. http://news.stanford.edu/2015/06/30/hiking-mental-health-063015/
Williams, Florence. “This Is Your Brain on Nature.” National Geographic Magazine – Online. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/01/call-to-wild/
**Photos 1, 2, 5, and the featured image for this piece were taken by Jessie L.