The sun was shining brightly as I set out upon the mountain, the snow sparkling in its own quiet reflection within the trees surrounding me. At my feet, my snow shoes compressed the freshly fallen flakes with each step, crunching and crushing the delicate forms into the impressions of a man sized duck waddling his way up the trailhead. I cinched my pack tighter against my shoulders, feeling the heft of its reassuring weight against my back, as I headed upwards to the hanging glacier far above.
The lake was called a glacier of sorts, even though I was sure it melted every summer into a proper lake. I had never felt the compulsion to find out one way or another, instead falling back on my soft petaled ignorance of the world around me, steeped in its own ages and its own lost history. I called it a glacier, the maps called it a glacier, and my GPS called it a glacier, so the world was right by my estimation.
Each step crunching beneath me, the sound of cereal flakes being crushed winding its way up to my ears, I found myself lost in my own thoughts as I made my slow ascent into the mountains before me. My mind trailed over the options before me… the hunt for a new job, the desire to do something with my life, be a writer, travel the world, find a wife. All the things that a man of my age should think about. At least that was what I thought. I was not too sure. I hadn’t been sure for weeks, really. Months if you wanted me to be truly honest.
So this morning, as I rolled out of my warmth into the cold of another winter day, I knew that I had something to resolve in my life. As to how I was going to do that, and where I would reach that near constantly escaping epiphany was still a mystery to me, but I knew that if I started at a trailhead with my snowshoes on my feet and a lunch in my bag, my chances were better than staying at home, wallowing in my own depression.
Depression is a silly thing, really.
You are told that it is a minor inconvenience, a thing to control and subdue, another obstacle to a life that seems ever out of reach. Then it crashes down on you, an avalanche of self loathing, of a darkness that wraps its arms around you and squeezes until you can’t even cry about it. You just sit. Feeling unanchored, untethered, disconnected from everything in the universe, except the ugly part of your own mind. Feeling that acute obstruction turn into a wall, the wall turns into a prison, and the prison turn into a monster sitting on your chest, laughing at your stupidity.
And you realize that it is all silly, and the cycle starts all over again. Worse this time. And worse again after that.
That is when you realize that depression is crippling. Like losing a limb, a ghost of memories tickle your mind, telling you that something better used to be there, but it is gone now, and you don’t have a choice in the matter. It still feels. It still desires to be moved, and fingers made to wiggle, skin longing for touch, but none of that will ever happen because where that limb should be, there is only an empty place.
But this mountain will help me. This trail will show me the way, and my feet will take me to the glacier where I can start to figure things out for once in my life. And if I don’t, at least the hike will wear me out enough that I will be able to sleep tonight without taking all the meds that my fleet of highly paid guesswork artists that style themselves as doctors have instructed me to take.
The mountain was bright, the sun unleashing it’s fires down on my shoulders, lighting the reflections of the chrome frames of my snowshoes violently to the underside of the pines that held their boughy hands, arm in arm, down the sides of the trail before and behind me. They watch me progress, silent in their reverie of their own place, and whisper to one another when the wind touches their heads, giving them mouths, giving them breath, providing them the permission to tell each other how they feel. Trees are simple things, and they know their place. They are rooted in it, as they live and die. My place is nowhere and ambulatory, forever moving just slightly beyond my grasp, at the periphery of my understanding.
I want a thunderclap. I need the flash of lightning. I want my future to be made known to me immediately, painfully if need be. If God himself where to descend from his throne and corner me on the trail, explaining to me what I should do with my life, I would take the blindness gratefully. I crave purpose.
My pastor would tell me that God is my purpose. That serving the glory of heaven and bringing others to Christ is the goal. When I was a teenager, I felt the drive to be an instrument of God. It was a fire in my heart, a passion that fired me up. But as I have aged, I have learned that this world is far harsher than an ideal teenager would ever imagine. I have yet to see God give me a job, or a girlfriend, or a path… at least in any way that I could fathom.
I am alone. There is nothing standing by me, holding my hand, or telling me which way to go. Just my depression monster riding on my back like a goddamn fucking monkey.
I crested the edge of the sunken lake, the sides of the lake tumbling downwards, the frozen earth covered in feet of snow. It is mid-winter, and the heaviest snow has yet to arrive. When spring starts to think about showing up, the mountain prays for more snow to stave off the ever marching approach of summer, and the skies grant such wishes with aplomb. These trees will be buried up to their middle trunks, and the lake will become a field of white, with no proof a body of water is hidden underneath. I have always thought this could be the home of winter, if the season was personified as a deity of some sort, nestled deep in the frozen water, to emerge in a crystalline form at night to wander the forest like a yeti appreciating his surroundings. I step carefully among the buried boulders, my bulky boots twisting gently in the harnesses that connect me to my transport. I sat heavily on a partially exposed rock, freeing my backpack to eat my snack, drink my water, and commune with a part of myself that I needed to bring to the forefront.
My mother would tell me that the best parts of myself are always hidden. Secreted away in the darkest, deepest chambers of my heart, protected from horrors of the world around me. I would call her a liar, but now, I know she was right. I am a complex being, filled with history, memories, feelings, and dreams, and they merge and tumble, mix and agitate each other to become what I consider myself to be me. I am by all accounts, something human. And I hope that deep inside of myself, there is a secret me. A happy me. A positive emulation of what I should be everyday. A doppelganger of myself, ready to spring forth from a closet connected to Narnia, like my own personal Mr. Tumnus. He will look at me in shock, and say “Where, oh where, have you been?”, and I will reply, “how the fuck would I know, I have been buried in sadness the color of shit!”
My sandwich is good. The peanut butter is crunchy, the bread is soothing, and they jelly is tart. Maybe I should have been a chef. A chef of PB&Js and nothing else. Maybe I should have been a trail guide, showing people the secret places in this forest, sharing with them the awe of creation. Perhaps I should have been a mountaineer, climbing for its own sake, just me, my backpack, and the sky. I could be all those things, but a part of me knows I won’t. Still I could do with the better version of me to make an appearance today.
The crunch crunch crunch of someone walking my way swims its way through the trees, and I turn my head to gauge the approach, looking for the flashes of dark or color of a ski jacket through the trees, anything that would betray the location of the unknowing participant in my deep self reflection.
“Beautiful day!” A voice calls out from the trees.
“The best!” I lie.
“That was a lie!” The voice retorts rapid fire.
“I am working through issues!” I yell back.
“I liked the lie better!” The breathless voice calls back with an edge of humor.
The source of the voice crests the edge of the embankment, and smiles down at me. She is a brunette, wrapped in black ski pants and a purple jacket, a blue backpack slung against her back. Her smile is as brilliant as her mirrored sunglasses, and I almost have to squint to survive the glare.
“You don’t look like you are working through issues,” she laughed. “What kind of issues could you possibly have? You are in a beautiful place surrounded by an awesome day, and what? You eating a peanut butter sandwich? Everything is great!”
“Are you telling me that you are jealous of my sandwich?” I tease.
“Lauren,” she grins.
“Why are you telling me your name?” I frowned clownishly.
“So you are more inclined to share your sandwich.”
“You say that to all the boys you encounter on the trail?”
“Only the ones with oversized, delicious looking, properly lavished peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. So this is the first, if you really must know. Lauren.” Lauren said as she pulled a glove off and walked towards me with her hand extended. “Mind if I share your warm looking rock?”
“So you are stealing my sandwich and my rock? Now I have two new issues.”
“Cry-baby. You depressed or something?”
I handed half of my sandwich to Lauren and answered honestly. “Yes.”
“I was depressed once.”
“Oh yeah?” I took a bite of the sandwich I had left.
“Yeah, but then I dumped the asshole and moved on.” Lauren grinned again.
“Wish I could do the same.”
Lauren sat there for a minute and chewed a few bites down, taking a drink from her water bottle in turns.
“Depression sucks. Seriously. It sucks.” Lauren said.
“Yeah, it has its moments. Sorry you had to stumble on a sad sack.”
“Eh, I got a free sandwich. Win in my book,” Lauren laughed. Her laugh was nearly magical. It tinkled and rang, bouncing around the enclosed lake side like a rubber ball in a small room. “My dad told me once that this lake was built on memories.”
“Yeah?” I replied.
“Yeah. The lake is the things you remember today, the glacier behind it is the things you will remember later. It drips and melts, filling the lake all summer. If you just yell your problems at it, the glacier will soak up all your memories and save them for later.”
“Does it work?”
“I think it does. Yes. It does.” Lauren laughed again. “Try it, slowmo. You might feel better.”
“Just yell at it?”
“Sure. I’ve done it.”
“You?” I raised an eyebrow.
“More than once,” she smiled. She was beautiful in every way I could possibly imagine. A primal part of my brain finally kicked on and I felt the flush as my face turned red.
I stood up and looked at the ice wall across the lake. It was a deep blue, crowned in white, appearing to hover above the surface of the lake below it. I guess I never thought about it, but that is probably why it was called the Hanging Glacier.
“Go on.” I felt a poke in my back.
“I HATE…” I stopped, feeling more foolish than ever. But I knew I had to do this. Why here and why now and why with a girl I had just met, but I knew it was inevitable. “I HATE THE WAY MY JOB MAKES ME FEEL.”
“I HATE THE WAY COOKIES GO STALE!” Lauren yelled in response.
Emboldened, I continued. “I HATE MY FAMILY. THEY ARE ALL ASSHOLES.”
“I HATE GRAPE SODA.” Lauren yelled next.
“I HATE HOW I FEEL WHEN I REMEMBER FUCK UPS.”
“I HATE COLD PASTA.”
I felt something break in me.
“I HATE HOW I FEEL GUILTY THAT MY BROTHER IS DEAD. I HATE HOW I FEEL SAD THAT HE FUCKED UP. I hate how I feel so angry all the time about something out of my control. I hate that I am glad that I am still alive. I hate how he was selfish in his final act. I hate my mom for trying to fix everything… I hate my dad for finding excuses to work,” I felt tears track down my cheeks, the cold made them feel like ice chips running down my face. “I HATE FEELING HELPLESS all the time. I hate being sad, and lonely, and that no one will ever love me for me. I HATE THAT I am so wrapped up in myself, I miss friends and activities, and I FUCKING LIE ABOUT IT.”
“I HATE CABBAGE.” Lauren yelled as if I had said nothing at all.
I stood there, my hands clenched at my sides, feeling the anguish and anger and sadness and grief and fear being set alight as I cried as silently as I could. My shoulders heaved up and down, turning my hitched breathing into wracking sobs, tsunamis of emotion pushing against me physically, seeking out all the corners of myself. I was exposed. Afraid and alone.
“I HATE HOW I HATE SPECIFIC FOOD STUFFS.” Lauren continued without me.
I felt a laugh bubble up and break out through my sloppy wet tears. It turned into a deep laugh, shaking my frame, and it was a balm on the ragged injury of all my pain being vomited at loud volume at the Hanging Glacier. I won’t say I was healed, but I felt almost human again. Normality was closer than I had felt in years. It was amazing. Freeing. Liberating.
I had never been in a war. I had never seen the enemy flee my city as a liberation force crested the edge of the city in their tanks and their planes, and soldiers marched forward with chocolate and candy for the filthy, bedraggled children with soot on their faces and ears that would never hear again. I had never seen anything like that, but for a split moment, I believed I knew how it felt.
I turned to thank the snarky angel that had inadvertently become my therapist. “Lauren, that was…”
Lauren was gone. In fact, there were no prints in the snow, no crumbs at the rock, nothing. Only my tracks, and half a sandwich of mine, still uneaten sitting on top of my bag.
“Lauren?” I called hesitantly. Nothing called back. There was no sound except the trees, the wind, and the occasional bird call far off in the distance.
So this is what a psychotic break is. I rubbed my temples, feeling my cold fingers press hard at the soft parts of my skull, the throbbing reminding me that my heart still beat on and that I still had to hike down. I gathered my bag, carefully pushing my sandwich back into it, threw it over my shoulders and started back towards the trail.
“Michael?” A familiar voice called out behind me.
I turned to find Lauren, dressed in different clothes, wearing a different backpack, looking at me incredulously.
“Lauren?” I said confused.
“You disappeared. Where did you go? How are you wearing a different outfit?” Lauren rambled. She was as beautiful as she had been a moment ago.
“No… you disappeared. You are definitely wearing different clothes too,” I said.
“I… was crying. I was yelling at the glacier. You told me to. You even poked me in the back. I gave you a granola bar and everything.”
“Huh. I did… you did… the same for me.”
We both stood there in silence looking at each other, millions of things unsaid tumbling in the air between us. Moments of something shared, however strange they were, still existed. Lauren knew it. I knew it.
I winked at her and smiled.
She smiled back. And it was radiant.