On Mountains and Dichotomy

Mountains have been a recurring theme for me over the past few months. They hold a symbolism I can’t seem to escape. When I was in the hospital, one of my friends (who is a queen of metaphor and puns and all other things creative expression) kept referring to my journey as a hike up a mountain. When I asked my husband to leave, I thought I was getting ready to climb a steep hill and the journey would be tiring and painful but over soon enough. When PTSD hit, it turned out that hill was a treacherous mountain. When Bipolar came to light, that hike up that treacherous mountain was suddenly happening in the midst of a terrible rainstorm. But my job, my one focus, needed to be to continue the climb. Because, my friend promised, the view from the top would be so beautiful and amazing and worth every single twisted ankle and slip and slide and every moment of complete and utter exhaustion and pain.

Independent of my friend, one of the group leaders at the hospital used the mountain analogy for recovery, reminding all of us that there would be times that we felt we couldn’t take another step forward, and it was ok to rest as long as we didn’t build a house there and call it home. There would be times when the path was so steep and slippery that we would fall and slide down the mountain a little bit, and that was ok, too, so long as we tended to any injuries and then got back up again and continued the climb. The group facilitator also summoned the image of the view from the top of the mountain, and how very worth it it would be to reach the summit.

Earlier this week, in a mindfulness group in which I am participating as a part of my treatment, we did a guided meditation in which we were asked to picture a mountain. Mountains have also, not unreasonably, been popping up in my dreams a lot lately.

Today, I had to drive about 40 miles away to pick up my car. I was the victim of a hit and run a week and a half ago and the nearest-to-me-insurance-company-partner body shop happens to be up in the middle of no where. (Welcome to Vermont, friends.) As I drove, I saw the most beautiful mountain range. The skies were overcast but clearing and sun beams were breaking through and lighting the mountains and valleys in a way I have never seen before. Unfortunately, there was no safe spot to pull off and snap a few pictures, otherwise I definitely would have and this blog post would be a lot prettier. But, as I looked at the sun touching those jagged, snow-covered peaks, all of the talk of mountains over the past few months began to truly resonate.

I spent the whole drive there and back thinking about the nature of mountains. The dichotomy, if you will. When you think about a mountain, what comes to mind? Do you think of spiritual leaders like Moses connecting readily with the Divine? There’s a strong tradition in the collective myths of humanity of mountains being the place where the earth connects withe the heavens and, thus, mountains have traditionally been considered places of spiritual significance. (Not only of Judeo-Christian significance, but going back to the Greeks with Zeus and likely inspiring all of the pyramids prevalent in so many ancient societies.)

In many tales, mountains are also a place of great trial and suffering. (I’m looking at you, Frodo and Samwise.) The pinnacle of the hero’s quest to self sacrifice or self actualization (respectively, I would argue – but my analysis of the imagery in Lord of the Rings is probably best kept for another post).

That said, I live in New England, and it’s winter (minus the current global warming, spring like temperatures we’re experiencing, but the topic of the slow death of the earth at humanity’s hand is probably also best left for another post). When mountains are mentioned around these parts this time of year, the immediate thought that comes to mind is winter sports. Some, I’m sure, would argue that winter sports are a spiritual experience (especially my snowboarding friends) – being “one with the powder” and such – but really, it’s recreation. (Sorry to minimize, guys, but smoking a bowl at the top of the lift is not quite the type of “burning bush” moment to which I am referring.) At the end of the day, it’s a recreational experience. It’s exercise. It’s fun.

All of that to say, mountains hold a somewhat contradictory nature in our collective consciousness. On the one hand, many of us are drawn to climb them, to explore, to see the summit, really just to say we did. This allure is, for me at least, undeniable. The flip side, though, is that mountains can be deadly if you’re not properly prepared. Even if you are a veteran hiker with all the right gear, if you get off-trail, your life is in very real danger.

Mountains are viewed as the example of steadfastness. They stand immovable, yet are formed by shifting fault lines and the general instability of the ground upon with they stand. Back to my snowboarding friends – they are a place of immense fun, a playground of snow and tricks and endless rides, yet if you attempt a run on an untouched surface of the mountain’s face, you may trigger and avalanche and be buried. Mountains are considered staples of our landscape, unchanging; yet, a rock slide can completely alter the shape of a mountain forever. (Anyone remember The Old Man on the Mountain in the Notch?)

The dichotomy of mountains has been intriguing me all afternoon. I think that “climbing a mountain” is a very apt metaphor for living with mental illness and for the “hero’s quest” we are all on, I believe, toward self discovery and self actualization. When you look at the mountain, in the thunderous rain, and you see the signs warning you that the trail is muddy and overgrown and covered in gnarled roots and may be flooded out in some areas, you don’t want to climb it. You start looking around desperately to see if there’s a trail lift that can carry you smoothly to the top.

I admit, when I first went to the hospital, I thought I was hopping on that lift and everything would be good from there. I thought I’d sit back passively and let doctors and meds smoothly carry me to that beautiful view everyone kept talking about. When it turned out that the hospital didn’t have access to the lift, they sent me off with hiking boots and a walking stick and rations for a few days to go to the partial hospitalization program.

This is where I hop in the lift! I thought heading in. It wasn’t. They gave me a compass, though, and sent me off to the Intensive Outpatient Program, which, they promised, was a good point to resupply.

Ah! Surely this is where I get on the lift! But it wasn’t. It turns out, there is no lift. There is no easy, bump free ride to the top of the mountain. In fact, the only way to get there is to climb. And it’s a hell of a climb, let me tell you. But, the good news is there are resupply points and there are shelters and there are trail markers and if you just follow them, stay supplied, and keep going, you will hit the summit eventually.  And maybe, once there, you will have some semblance of a spiritual experience – getting to know yourself on a deeper level. Getting to know the “you” you were before the world fucked you up. Getting in touch with your higher self. Or your higher power. Or the universe. Whatever you want to label it. It might not be a burning bush moment, but it will be well worth the climb. I believe that fully. But, as you begin and commit to your ascent, remind yourself of the duality of the mountain. Stay safe. Stay well stocked. Stay on the trail. Because the mountain will kill you if you’re not mindful.

If you lost me in the metaphor – doctors appointments, meds, therapy, friends, peer supports, etc. are excellent places to restock and rest and make sure you’re still traveling with functional equipment.  And they are essential.

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