Not Even Climbing A Mountain Could Help Me Escape My Mental Illness

by Alyson Herzig
Originally Published: 
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I lie on the white down comforter unable to move, every muscle burning as waves of pain sear through my legs. My eyes focus on the palm trees swaying in the ocean trade winds outside my Caribbean hotel. Alone in the small room, I stare at the psychiatrist’s number. I should have made this phone call months earlier.

I’ve reached rock bottom. I need help.

The last three years have been a struggle. I went from sleeping 10 hours a night to waking before the birds. I was exhausted, but my mind would not rest. It was a mental marathon every evening with no end in sight. I also suffered from panic attacks, forcing me to leave functions early or avoid opportunities I knew would trigger my attack—like public speaking.

Many days I hated everyone, including myself. Sometimes I fantasized about jumping in my crumb-strewn minivan and driving off into oblivion. I had no real destination in mind, I only knew I felt like running.

But I didn’t run. I stayed for my children, for my husband. For everyone else but me.

At one point in my life, I had it all together. I was a successful businesswoman; I ascended my own proverbial career mountain. Somewhere along the journey I tripped, falling down the side of the mountain and hitting every bump along the way. As I spent more time at home with my children, I fell farther down the hillside; attempting to catch myself, I thrust out my arms to grab hold of the exposed roots, but nothing helped. Medicines did nothing to stem the ache. Counseling was a Band-Aid on the gash. Those I socialized with did not know how far I had plunged, or that I had even stumbled. I didn’t even know it. My insanity had evolved into my new normal.

But my family had recognized how off-centered I was. Irritability had crept into everything I did. My kids didn’t move fast enough, the dog wouldn’t get out of my way, the laundry was never-ending. Life became infuriating. My yelling escalated. My husband walked on eggshells. The anger was all consuming, and I was helpless against its grip. The pain no longer affected only me, now my children were impacted.

It was about this time when I started drinking most evenings. I paced myself, three craft beers a night, enough for a slight buzz without the morning pain. I went from never drinking with our neighbors to falling over the fence at 4 in the morning and waking up on the bathroom floor with beach towels as my blanket. I hadn’t had a cigarette in 15 years, but all of a sudden I was bumming smokes.

I didn’t read the downward spiral for what it was. I told myself I was reliving the days of my youth. Caution was kicked to the curb and the freedom that comes with being 21 years old enveloped me. Except I was a married 39-year-old mother of two living in suburbia. My life involved drop-off and pickup lines, sporting events, lunch making and dishwasher emptying. I had given up my corporate career to stay at home with my children and never missed it, not for a second, until my children started school. Now, I found myself with large swaths of time and not enough purpose to fill the void. It created the perfect storm.

It all came to a head in that hotel room with the palm trees swaying outside. Alone and in pain, I stared at the ceiling and realized how far I had fallen. I was a shell of who I used to be and barely a whisper of who I wanted to be. I was a hypocrite of epic proportions. I had just launched my first book about surviving mental illness through humor, but I was all out of laughs. I was drowning in my illness; one I didn’t even know existed until that moment.

© Courtesy Alyson Herzig

What made me think I could travel alone to the Caribbean to hike a mountain is beyond me. Maybe I was subconsciously trying to take back the me I had always envisioned. Maybe I had to prove to myself I could take a trip alone at 39 years old and succeed. Maybe it was a desire to put my aggression somewhere and show all the naysayers I could do it. Maybe I already felt lost and wanted to actually be lost. Perhaps it was my way of running away. I wish I knew.

I trained for two months for this hike, the first exercise I had done in years, and it wasn’t enough to sustain me on the trail. My lungs were not prepared to gulp air at 3,500 feet in the humid Caribbean. My stubbornness and the potential disappointment in my children’s eyes propelled my legs forward through jagged shallow breaths and unrelenting negative thoughts. On the side of the mountain, as the sweat dripped down my body, I wondered how I had come to be in this situation. And that is why I am now lying in bed the day after my hike searching for a psychiatrist to help me. For in the six excruciating hours it took me to climb that mountain, I tasted success—I was proud of myself and humbled by my surroundings in a developing nation, but I also realized how far I had sunk.

I wipe the tears running down my face, and make the call I should have made years earlier. My heart rate accelerates as my hand clenches the phone. The agony in my muscles from the hike is nothing compared to my internal pain. I know something has snapped, and I need help from an outsider to make myself whole. I look out the window and watch the trees sway on the majestic mountains that erupt from the ocean. Will I ever rise from this desolate spot? Will I ever descend this mountain, or will I fall from it hitting the rocks and roots as I tumble into the frothy ocean waters below? The pounding water pulling me under, as I claw for one more breath just as I gasped for air on my hike. My teeth clench and I strengthen both my grip and resolve as I hear the voice on the other end, “Hello, how may I help you?”

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