How A Trek To The Mountains Helped Me Fight Depression

Posted by Bijaya Biswal in Mental Health
May 8, 2017

It’s been months now that I stand at the terrace, looking at the ground below and wondering if it must take a very long fall. A very long time spent in the air to rethink if the problems were fixable. A very long period of helplessly jerking your arms, seeking help with nothing to hold on to, and a quiet last second when you hit the ground and everything blacks out and you finally find out if there is God at all.

You fool yourself into living another day with tiny excuses. Vesting hopes on the last leaf of the tree outside your window till it’s fall, only to come back from college and see that the storm took down the tree itself. Reaching out for a piece of poetry, or a cigarette butt, another cup of coffee or another romance but the thing about them is that at one point, they all come to an end, leaving you sniffing for more. It’s just a vicious cycle that goes round and round. Like days and nights which mean nothing for someone, who does not sleep.

Like the ceiling fan which gives me company while I stay awake. I think they call suicide an act of cowardice because they know that no one is bold enough to succeed in it at the first time. We can see it in the signs it leaves behind. The scars of a thousand shallow cuts before a deep one. Too many public breakdowns and family embarrassments before your mother can boldly accept that something has to be wrong. A lot of worthless questions from the therapist before it is too late to start with the right ones. Too many occasions of having denied sex to the boyfriend before he takes you out one day and with welled up eyes asks you if there is someone else. Your hands intertwined in his, tremble like a broken heart and you nod your head and swallow some of your words and say, “Yes, there is. And it is me.” Both of you hold each other and cry for the rest of the night.

You do not think of long-term plans, renew your library, don’t eat according to your dietary plans. And there is a constant inability to reciprocate love since maintaining relationships is now a temporary matter. The aftermath of impulsive screaming at your old parents and banging the door at their faces, or ignoring your partner’s phone call for weeks, even if that includes their birthday, is that you end up sitting in a dark store room locked-in alone. You pull your legs towards your body and bury your face between your knees. And then you think that the only thing worse than being in love with a person is being in love with a mere shadow.

You shrink into a little insect in the darkness, crushed under the weight of your own heavy heart. You think of how Kafka wrote a story they taught you in school, in which Gregor Samsa turned into a frightening giant bug and you could feel yourself transforming just along those lines. The void has almost overpowered you when you hear a little knock on the door, a faint voice asking if you could join them for dinner, and it pulls you back to the realisation, that there is still some world left out there. There have been instances of you waking up in the middle of the night and crying loudly, howling while rolling on the floor. Your friends think you had a break-up, neighbours think its drugs and your parents think it’s the fault of their upbringing. No one ever diagnoses the right cause, including you.

When I had stopped attending classes completely and was about to get unregistered, my boyfriend came over. It’s weird how these lovers find their ways back to you all the time, no matter where you hide. And offer you homemade sandwiches or cappuccinos in your worst times and act, as if nothing ever happened. It is the most special feeling in the world, and also the loneliest.

I know how love can be the solution to everything but depression is not one of those things. You can only hug their bodies but not their souls. In the end, the responsibilities of people can only be taken by their own selves. And I do not know if he could read my mind, but he extended a piece of paper towards me which had some dates and schedules and asked if I would like to travel. I said, “No, I hate travelling.” I love enclosed spaces and I simply hate those trains where people sit so close to your faces where you have no option but to start a conversation.

He said it was not that kind of travel. I could see he did not use words bordering on mockery like ‘soul-searching’ but what else could it be, when someone suggests you to go for a week long solo trek. For the next few days, I banged my hands against the walls of my room. Did this mean I had reached a point where I needed a break? I went days only surviving on coffee. It is the kind of fuel which can keep my body working and I went days without speaking to anyone in the family. But after two weeks like these, I looked into the mirror. It was like staring at a stranger. The weight loss, the balding head, the wrinkled face. I needed sunlight on my skin and fresh air to purge me from the premature process of decaying even before I was dead. I decided that I needed to go for that trek.

We were seated in the bus, preparing for an overnight journey to the place where we would begin walking. I tried (they tried first, and I just tried back) to converse with other people involved. There was a guy with a camera creeping everyone out by making them the subject of his portraits and there was this attractive guy with a guitar, who could easily pull off an Eddie Vedder and there were a few working women who had a lot of inside jokes to giggle about. Then, there were two trek leaders, athletic and extrovert, owing to the nature of the work. They made the introduction very easy for all of us.

I was drowsy enough to fall into a deep sleep when I heard some men behind me talking about homoeopathy and spirituality. This convinced me that I should not have come here. I cursed my boyfriend who thought this was a ‘good plan’ and was convinced now that a guy who reads Malcolm Gladwell should never be trusted with instincts. But I was already here, among strangers whom I could talk to however I want. And would never have to deal with again. Outside the window, there was an army of trees waving me goodbye under a sky filled with twilight. It was like dawn throughout the night, and ahead was a journey which would teach me a lot about both the strength of my legs and the strength of my mind. It did not seem very bad anymore.

The next morning the trek started. We walked through a forest cradled between narrow streams under canopies. We crushed dried leaves as we went and the winter breeze passed so quietly by my neck. It was like nature whispering its secret recipes. I could not get enough of the purple wildflowers, the orchestra of frogs croaking and beehives buzzing, the shreds of sunlight that could reach me through the leaves and especially, the abundance of a strange countryside silence.

There was a kind of intimacy in walking through an inaccessible part of the world, knowing that you are thousands of miles away from those drunken car drivers crashing into each other and humans ripping themselves apart due to difference in opinions and with nothing for miles that could provoke your lust, your gluttony, your capitalistic ambitions and no one around has the power to hurt you, except strangers, living directionless lives just like yours and hence, seeking shelter amidst the same woods as you.

Image used for representative purposes only.

Every time we halted, I washed my face in the chilly stream and looked at the world below the peak where the blushful mountains pulled the fog over their naked bodies like blankets, where the horizon was a zigzag series of peaks and not a crumbling skyline. Where you could be sure of not being bombed out at any random moment or being assaulted over a social media comment. I breathed in, held my breath a little and breathed out as if letting it change something inside me as if it could take out the dead parts of me and make space for me to grow them anew. I looked at the whole group, sitting under a tree and laughing as if they have all known each other for a long while. But why do we need to know each other at all, to talk. We have all been living the same bloody lives, with a forgotten beginning, an unbearable present and an unfathomable future.

In the mornings we trekked, and in the evenings we sat wrapped in shawls around a bonfire and talked about each other’s lives. The camera guy shared that once during his regular street photography assignments, he captured a group of rag-pickers playing cards and eating berries on the other side of the pavement, where a Hard Rock Cafe was located. He loved how they were laughing and feeding each other from their shares. After that, he went into the cafe for a beer and found rich, rotten, straight faces sitting alone and smoking. Staring like lifeless cover page icons of business magazines. All so well clad in fur and leather, but all too poor to even afford sleep. It was like these white collared folks, and not the people belonging to the working class the pavement, who were the real slaves.

The guitarist spoke about this song by Steven Wilson which was based on a man who loses his sister in childhood and later in life comes across a raven which sings just like her. He cages it to hear it sing but it never does and hence, when he opens the cage and lets it free one day, he also feels freed from the grip of his past. The trek leaders were talking about their full-time jobs as software engineers which sucked their souls out of them and one of the women told us about how she supports her children despite being a single parent and works as a waitress. The nights passed swiftly like pleasant dreams but the bonfire would never go out.

It’s strange, how even after walking for 70 kilometres, your fatigued muscles could still gather strength for more. The breathing became difficult, the last peak was not yet visible, the ankles were strained out from overworking but you walked as if it was nothing but your duty. As if it came naturally to you and stopping would be understating your human abilities as a whole. You look at the height which you are sure is unconquerable and the next thing you know is you are already at its peak, panting heavily, tying your shoelaces and looking through your pessimistic vision again at the next ‘impossible-to-scale height’, which is going to be your next surprise. But trekking is not about physical endurance only. It is much more about mental and emotional endurance. It is a lot of patting your own back, looking at your wounded toes and pulling up the socks again, shouting motivational victory slogans every time you are about to give up and rest. At one point you do not appreciate even the beauty of the valley of flowers around you anymore, and you grow into a competitive beast and groan due to the pain, but somehow wriggle through it as if you were raised as a fighter. Now you know why journeys were so overrated and destinations so underrated.

Image used for representative purposes only.

And then it is that moment, the highest peak, the end of the trek when you look down and see whatever you have managed to cross. It was long and rough, but you are tougher now. You sit down at the edges of the cliff with your legs dangling in the air, close your eyes and shout at the top of your lungs. No one hears you. No one acknowledges you for your courage or resilience. No audience stands up to applaud you but this time you do not care about it. It is this moment that you understand why your success cannot be measured from the feedback of others. Your group somehow reaches the top just behind you, and everyone falls down on the ground, relieving themselves of the weight on their shoulders and all talk in unison about the beauty of isolation. If there is any experience that can make you feel the closest to the freedom you were born with, before taxes and rents grappled you and pushed your head into the system, it is this. Simply sitting on top of the world and watching it at peace.

When the trek ended and everyone was getting off at their respective bus stops, I watched them with a quiet smile on my face while noting their faces in my memory. These were the people who co-witnessed the best time of my whole life. Back at home, people seemed to be preparing for days to welcome me. The well-laid beds and the well-made cuisines, the fairy light decorations and wind-chimes, the floral window curtains and a little labrador puppy. My life seemed to have turned upside down, and the most surprising thing was my boyfriend had aborted his reading of Gladwell and had finally shifted to Kahneman. So many changes and all I had to give in return was a week of taking off from routine. I spent the next few days resting since I could not feel my calves anymore. Mother served burritos and pudding at my bedside, my boyfriend read out to me the editorials I missed from The New Yorker, father went to the extent of taking leave from work, and the therapist was not required anymore.

Things had changed.

Outside my window, a new tree had come up and was growing leaves rather than shedding them. Maybe it was the approaching spring. I made sitting beside my window a poor man’s urban replacement for sitting at the top of the world. And when I looked at myself in the mirror, I at least did not feel offended anymore. College resumed, so did long distance running, movie dates and social media accounts. I could feel how monotony, no matter how despicable, sets the rhythm to our lives and disrupting the order of that, brings absolutely everything to a freeze. So I just started to fit into my daily routines and tried my best to hold on. And the best part, whenever I go to the terrace I do not think of the fall anymore. I just sit on the edge, with my legs dangling, and sometimes, start crying.

A version of this article has been published here.