This is for those of you still hiking or just ending your hikes.
I would like to discuss something which is well known, post-hike depression and what it means to someone after a hike and what it can do to you, the hiker, when you get off trail and have to face the real world again.
I would like to start by saying “I am fine.” Last year I am aware that one hiker killed himself after hiking the trail and another died in what may have been a suicide. I am not ‘that’ kind of depressed. Long ago in another life I was indeed ‘that’ kind of depressed and I realized that there is plenty of time for non-life later, I have too much living to do while I am indeed actually alive. So please do not worry about that.
When you get off the trail you are going to be lost, entirely and hopelessly lost. You are going to struggle with basic things, like dealing with the bank, family, looking for an apartment and everything else will seem pointless and complex, either moving too fast or too slow. You are going to dread work and feel like like the idea of an ‘interview’ is absurd. You will struggle to feel something, anything.
Anything at all…
That is ‘real’ depression stuff as say, a manic depressive would feel. It is the empty nothingness of eternity, the inability to feel a thing, to sustain yourself with energy to draw breath and get up. It is slowly bleeding out in front of all the people you love during a dinner party you are hosting, but not caring that it is happening, and them not noticing a thing because you keep on smiling and serving food.
That is the danger of depression, it likes the dark places, it needs them in fact.
Post-hike depression is your body chemistry going through the same things that seriously mentally sick people go through, I think it should give you some compassion for their plight if anything. It is going from walking twelve hours per day in an endorphin fog and being this mountaintop cloud-dancing-amazing-being to suddenly crashing back to earth bloody with your wings clipped and the jackals circling you for money.
In other words; it sucks.
When I first got off the trail at mile 1334 I was very very sick, I had to sit in a chair for almost two weeks without really moving and walking up stairs would leave me out of breath. It was not a good end to an amazing experience and I desperately wanted back on the trail. It was not going to happen though because it literally took about six weeks for me to recover. I am doubtful I am recovered fully here at seven weeks out, though I am biking around and feel better and am putting weight back on.
It really sucked.
I found an apartment in Marina del Rey, after living on a close friends generous couch in my old home of Venice for a few weeks. I was so anxious to find a place and a job that I broke out in hives. I was that nervous.
When I got my new place I put everything away and have color-coded almost everything because I didn’t know what else to do with all this stuff I had, I realized I have too many things now, or it feels like I do. I was feeling neurotic and anxious, I was feeling tired. My closet however is perfect and clean and my house is in order as it never has been. There is no mess.
You have to watch your food consumption after the trail, I can see it is easy to put on a lot of weight by eating like we did on the trail and your body will try to stash it away because of the calorie burn it is used to.
You will get weird reminders of the trail, things like the smell of wood smoke will take you right back or walking the aisle of a grocery store and passing the drink mixes will have you remembering all the stores you hunted for Gatorade powder. The drink aisle are in a similar way to how you react to the pet aisle after your animal is no longer with you, you still have the urge to reach out and look for something they might like, a toy or a treat and then you feel sad and wistful and rush on.
As in all depressions you need to make yourself go out and socialize, you cannot be a recluse or it will get worse. You just need to plow through it.
I have been interviewing and have some great job prospects, but I am still nervous about that ‘step’ back to life, that finalization of having the lease and now the job with the insurance and the 401k and career prospects and yadda yadda etc — who cares.
My suggestion is to run, run and run and run. When you finish the trail start running and don’t stop and stay in shape. Plan another hike, I am already plotting a second attempt for a couple years out, I made it ~1334 miles the first time, I can best that. If you can take time for yourself and ease into life, don’t go crazy and dive back in or it could really cause an adverse reaction, if I tried what I am doing now right off the bat I would be curled up in a ball unable to move. It would have backfired.
The trail life is so radically different from regular life that you need to take time going back in.
Take care of yourself, you deserve it.
I miss the trail and I miss you all out there, I am eagerly following along and waiting for your pictures at the northern monument. I’ll admit I am a little jealous as well, I was supposed to be there with you.