How Nature Saved My Life
I looked down the cliff face at the rocks below, having just finished work on a big budget film in Hawaii. Life had self-destructed in a whirlwind of chaos that left me with no place of my own and no funds to start anywhere else. After being given what most would view as a “blessing”, nothing about how I felt had changed, and my abysmal perspective on life only worsened. I held my phone out in front of me, saying to whatever forces might be listening, "Give me a sign you want me to live before I fall off!”
Immediately a text came in after the word escaped my lips. “Lunch?” An invitation from a friend. I was two steps from the edge and life just told me to try sticking around.
The hardest thing about talking about suicidal depression is who you are talking to – most people are either not educated or empathetic enough to understand the level of internal pain the individual is going through. This article isn't an emphasis on those states, but I can tell you that I've been there. On top of the day to day struggle to live (get out of bed, eat, repeat) there is a shift in perspective that's removed from social pretenses and everything appears meaningless.
Without any feelings of positive reinforcement from anything that you do, whether it be making money or eating food, the feelings of pointlessness further increase. Committed to living, and doing everything to escape or manage these feelings, I started to walk as much as I could. Some days I cannot walk at all. What arrested my attention though, is that sometimes when I would get confused or lost to where I was, my state was noticeably altered. Suddenly I was forced to pay attention to where I was, I couldn’t just be stuck in my head or on my phone and get out. I had to be here and now, and in the wilderness that felt beautiful.
Beauty? I didn’t feel beauty before for a long time but after being lost, I did. Was there something to this? I started to think of this in terms of neuroplasticity and novel stimulation - could forcing myself to think on my feet in the wilderness cause the brain to wire itself differently? Maybe, but at the very least – I'll be forced to pay attention to everything that’s going on.
After shipping my car back to Los Angeles from Hawaii, I committed to move to Georgia for a new start. That in itself is a long story, but this is about the road trip there – I logged in about 8,000 miles exploring the Pacific Northwest and cutting across to Georgia. The entire trip took a bit over five weeks and the experimental requirements were simple: I cannot plan on where to sleep until the sun starts setting and I see as much as I can during the day.
It was hard to really focus on what's bothering you when you are hunting in the dark wilderness for a spot to sleep. The first night was easy; a free spot in the Sequoias, a week later I camp near a beautiful hot spring with horses running free, a week after that an elderly couple put me up for the night after helping me with a blown tire. In between the nights of uncertainty were brilliant days of nomadic adventure through the wild. Of course it feels like that now, much of it still felt like hell in pretty surroundings at the time.
The mental mantra of "I want to kill myself I want to kill myself I want to kill myself" still took about eight months after this trip to cut down by half. The key thing is that it definitely did elicit a change; so much ever-changing environments combined with the natural beauty of North America gave me a greater perspective on life, while being a catalyst to break the heavy spell of depression. All of these towns I drove through were the birthplaces and homes of millions of people, all with their own stories. All of these parks and woods were places of fond childhood memories and first time kisses for countless people. Even if my life seem meaningless now, just contemplating the lives of others in places where I would not be tomorrow gave me something to ponder besides my past mistakes.
The constant exposure to the natural world provided moments of introspective insights that helped me sort out the havoc of the past year that I desperately needed. There’s something about solitude in the wilderness that gives an individual the ability to be one’s own therapist; thoughts unravel and clues about life’s path show themselves as clearings and vistas are physically reached. I believe this symbolic synergy of epiphanies and mountain tops are more than coincidental storytelling.
In the natural kingdom our minds are free to dream, or blend with our dream worlds; every state of mind is also a state of brain. Being activated in a way where our thoughts are simultaneously blending with the imagery provided, the dream-like quality of having revelations and insights while roaming the natural world is more rule than exception, as long as we open ourselves to what the spirit of nature can teach us. As much as we try with all of our will to be efficient, logical and predictable machines, a vast part of our hearts and minds have the mysteries and needs of a wild animal who can only be fully understood in its own territory. Walking through the desert shrub or redwood forests with this understanding in mind, a dialogue too deep for friends and family can be initiated with the deeper and at times darker parts of your Self.
Keep moving, keep adapting, stay in the moment. The benefits of movement and exercise are well documented, and the daily amount of walking and hiking throughout this cross-country voyage usually took a couple, if not several hours a day. Besides the endorphins released through physical activity, there’s an incredible amount of sensory stimulation that comes from being in the wilderness. After being in the wilderness for a couple weeks, I had a realization that having a bed in a room felt bizarre and unnatural. When your senses adapt back to visually processing the enormous amount of detail and depth that living in the natural world provides, being back in a room felt like being an animal in a man-made cage.
Our minds are capable of being simultaneously aware of thousands and millions of different details and dimensions at once. Taking in a tree with all of its leaves while the songbirds come in from a hundred directions and distances, the smell of wildflowers releases the tension in my shoulders. As I turn around in this stream, I walk back to the trail on a bed of smooth rocks, taking my time to give myself a foot massage with every step through the river. Comparing this to the hard lines and grid patterns of our day to day lives, it’s a completely different world of being immersed in your senses and using them to their potential.
Week after week, I retrained my senses to take in more and more details on every level of input. Day by day, I felt something was changing. You can’t consciously stimulate your mind like this without something changing. Patterns of sensory repetition get broken up with the unpredictable environments and circumstances, if anything about depression had to do with breaking emotional patterns – I knew this would help. The bridges between our mind, body and hearts only exist in our imagination. In truth there are no bridges, only reflections of each other.
After five weeks I arrived in Georgia, I found a place in Athens, a town about 60 miles east of Atlanta. My home is surrounded in forest and I share it with two wonderful dogs, an outdoor cat and dozens of deer passing through. Even in this wonderful, accidental home, I found that if I was not doing what I was on the road in some way, the edges of darkness would close in quickly. With every bit of strength I had, I would walk in parks and nature centers, trying to take in as much detail of the forests as I could. As much as I could afford, I would explore and drive. This year I logged 24,000 miles of exploration so far. Somewhere in between those miles, life started healing itself on its own. The moments of hope started adding up. Jobs came in and things started feeling stable, but more importantly, I felt alive. The days where I never wanted to get up started to become fewer and far between. The leaves seemed greener for some reason. So, I keep walking and driving, walking and driving.
Depression is incredibly multifaceted and varies from individual to individual. I believe in many cases they are what you would call psycho-spiritual aspects. Your inner world and outer world are out of whack with each other. Yet whatever the cause for them being out of sync, I implore you to go take a walk in the woods – I promise it won’t make it worse.