Car Camping and Mountain Climbing: Yeah, My Mental Health Journey Is Like That.

The author and their younger brother sit together at the top of Doubletop Mountain in Baxter State Park, Maine.
I made it to the top, and the view was absolutely worth the hike. There's no way my point-and-shoot film camera could do the scene justice.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so today I’m sharing with you a post about my mental health journey. I’m framing it like this in hopes that people who have never had a mental illness can get some idea of what it feels like to walk a hard trail to a good result.

On Labor Day weekend, many years ago, my brother, our friend Jean-Pierre, and I decided to do something we’d wanted to do for a long time: we were going to hike Mount Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park. I never imagined I’d look back at that trip through the eye of my literary study, love of mythology, and my mental health journey.

My brother and I had been born and raised in Maine, and we both had some level of mystical appreciation for Mount Katahdin. I also knew even back then that Katahdin was (and is) the spiritual home of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac, and Maliseet Nations, and thus I viewed it as a place of reverence, a spiritual place. Jean-Pierre had lived with my family for a year as a foreign exchange student during my brother’s senior year of high school, and had come from his home in France for a visit.

We were going to do it cheap because we were poor, so instead of getting a hotel room or setting up a luxurious four-person tent and a propane camp stove, we went “car camping.”

Now, if you see “car camping” and you think it means “I’ve outfitted my new SUV with a queen-size air mattress and I have lots of comfortable blankets and tech gadgets and a wi-fi hotspot I can charge with my car … um, it wasn’t like that.

1. My mental health journey is long. Yup, I said it.

The three of us drove the two and a half hours from our home near the coast to Baxter State Park in the Frankentruck, my brother’s ancient green Jeep pickup with a homemade wooden camper top built above its bed and an engine he’d rebuilt right down to the tiniest bits. The corrugated metal bed had been lined with a couple of foam “egg crate” style mattress covers, and we had some old Army surplus wool blankets to put over ourselves. The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty album was playing on the mono. (Hey, I can’t call it a stereo because it only had one speaker!)

The car camping experience wasn’t great for me, simply because my body is not compatible with sleeping on hard surfaces. I have 12 vertebrae fused and two stainless steel rods attached to my spine, to correct scoliosis. This means my body doesn’t naturally bend itself to the contours of my sleeping surface. Instead, if the surface is hard and flat, all my weight ends up on my shoulders and hip bones and then my back and hips get incredibly sore because the area between my shoulders and hips is hanging in the air, not supported by anything.

I’d known camping was going to hurt my back because of similar experiences. I chose to experience this pain and lousy sleep for the chance to hike Katahdin on a beautiful September day. Much like my mental health journey, I knew the reward would be worth the suffering.

2. My mental health journey has slight detours.

We woke up pretty early. After a quick breakfast of granola bars, orange juice, and apples, we set off to the park entrance, only to find out that Katahdin was full–in the interest of environmental preservation, the park staff weren’t letting anyone else hike those trails until some people came off. But, the ranger told us, Doubletop Mountain was open.

We’d all come to hike, and we decided it mattered less to hike Katahdin itself than it did to have the experience of hiking a mountain in Maine’s largest state park together. The ranger gave us a map showing the various trails on the mountain, and we hopped in the Frankentruck and drove off to the trailhead.

My mental health journey usually starts out pretty easy and straightforward, like the beginning of our trail to the peak of Doubletop. Image description: A view of the North Peak of Doubletop Mountain in Baxter State Park, Maine, USA. The mountain is in the background, and in the foreground is a marshy lake surrounded by evergreen trees.
About half a mile up the trail. Doubletop’s North Peak is in the distance, and in the foreground is a pond surrounded by marshy lands and evergreen trees. Photo by JaneA Kelley

3. There’s always gonna be a breakdown somewhere along the way.

My mental health journey always seems to include a breakdown somewhere along the way, as did my Doubletop hike. Image description: A stand of evergreen trees with some tall, dead bare tree trunks sticking out from the forest.
This tree shall ever be known as The Breakdown Tree. Photo by JaneA Kelley

We’d been hiking for a good four hours and we were about three quarters of the way up the mountain. Although I was doing fine in terms of cardiovascular endurance, my knees had begun to hurt and it was increasingly difficult for me to keep walking up the hill.

Finally I just couldn’t do it anymore. I sat down on a fallen tree and rubbed my knees as tears fell from my eyes. My brother caught up to me and he said, “What’s wrong?”

“We’re so close to the top and even though I’ve got all the wind to do it, my legs are betraying me!” I cried. “I don’t want to give up! That’s so stupid, like quitting high school in your senior year!”

I felt a little bit better, having used my words to say how I was feeling! That alone seemed to ease some of my fatigue and pain.

That happens to me in my mental health journey, too. There are days when I’m just so overwhelmed by feelings and memories and despair that I can’t articulate what’s got me feeling that way. When I’m in counseling and my therapist gradually leads me to a place where I can put words to what I’m experiencing, I always feel tremendous relief.

4. Allies in healing help me through.

My brother sat next to me on the fallen tree and put an arm around my shoulder.

“JaneA,” he said, “I know you can do this. Let’s see how it goes after you rest for a few minutes. I’ll help you.”

The last time I was hospitalized, it was in 2022 after a “best friends breakup” that had left me feeling completely and utterly alone in the world. This was the one friend I’d trusted, ever. I didn’t even trust my biological family like I trusted her. We’d made our wills together, made mutual cat care arrangements (whoever dies first, the other friend takes in the cats and/or makes arrangements for a good home), were one another’s medical power of attorney … the whole nine yards.

She and I had a conflict that seems to have started when she decided to “try” telling me things about my behavior and lifestyle she had issues with. At no time did this trying ever involve sitting down and saying, “JaneA, when you did X, I felt Y. Can we talk about this?” Instead it was all passive hints that I didn’t get because my brain isn’t wired that way! (It”s that pesky ADHD thing).

A GIF of the Star Wars character with the words "Do or do not. There is no try."
I was furious at “I’ve been TRYING to tell you.” If I had been in a decent mental state, I would have come back with this.

Also, when I was 19, I started recovering from being raised by an alcoholic who was always playing mind games. After going to Al-Anon meetings for a few months, I resolved that I would no longer try to figure out what my alcoholic mom was really trying to say, but that I would respond to everything she said by taking her words at face value. The relief of not having to experience the stress of trying to figure out what other people really mean was wonderful! And I guess it just became a habit.

But after she vomited all of this crap out on me in an incredibly judgmental and shaming way, I started second guessing every thing she’d ever said to me, and that made me even crazier. Oh yeah, and by the way, I was already severely depressed when this happened–and she knew that!.

So, add to my janky brain chemistry this best friend breakup, the trauma reaction I had as a result–my whole body shook for weeks and added a whole new level of physical misery to my mental misery–and the then-undiagnosed ADHD that had given me a lifelong super-sensitivity to rejection, and it was a lethal combination. I soon found myself moving from “what’s the point?” to “I can’t do it anymore” to “there is nothing this life has for me, I have no future, and the only solution to end my life of being a burden to everyone, including my best friend, is to die.”

My mental health journey has included several grippy sock vacations! Image description: A social post by Not Rupi Kaur that reads "how to tell my psychiatrist how bad it is without taking grippy sock vacation."
It’s a fine line to walk!

And I started planning. “If it gets too bad and I just can’t stand it anymore, I will use this method, and this is how I’ll do it.”

One morning I found myself sitting at my desk, my head in my hands, my apartment utterly filthy because I hadn’t been able to do any cleaning in way too long, looking at a Slack message from my boss about a mistake I’d made on some client project or another.

I couldn’t even function at work anymore, and if I couldn’t hold a job, I was going to be homeless, and so would my cats, and if I became homeless the kindest thing to do would be to surrender my cats somewhere they could find a good and loving home, and if I did have to give up my cats I’d want to die more than I ever have at any time in my life because I’d failed in my responsibility to the only beings who had ever consistently given me unconditional love.

I sat up, and the gaping emptiness that had been growing for weeks just about filled my entire body. The time had come. My mental health journey was going to be over soon.

Ally 1: My cats

Then Tara hopped up on my desk.

A black and white "tuxedo cat" with white paws sits atop a cat tree, looking to her left.
After Thomas died at age 19+, Tara took over as the life-saving cat. Photo by JaneA Kelley

She looked straight at me, her beautiful pale golden-green eyes filled with sorrow. This was a cat I’d rescued from the mean streets of Seattle on a cold, windy, rainy November night in 2015. I’d promised her she had a forever home with me. I’d also promised her feline housemate, Bella Donna, the same thing. I looked in her eyes and thought of a good friend who once told me it was her child randomly needing something at just the right moment that had saved her from suicide. Even if I am a complete failure at life, my cats need me, I thought. I can’t break my promise to them.

Ally 2: My boss

I sent my boss a Slack message that I had to go to the hospital. My depression had become dangerous, I told her, and I had to go now. Fortunately, my boss has been very supportive of me. A few years ago, I had disclosed to her that I have bipolar disorder after she’d asked me to manage a project for our most difficult client while I was in the middle of a hypomanic episode, and she reacted with compassion and did not, unlike some other employers I’ve had, come up with some bullshit reason to fire me because my mental illness was an inconvenience for them.

Ally 3: The ED staff

Despite my misgivings, I called my best friend and asked her if she could give me a ride to the ER and drop me off. She said no, claiming that her hip hurt.

She had been having chronic hip pain, so it was plausible. I said, somehow managing to sound cheerful, “Okay, thanks. I’ll just take a Lyft.”

Do you want to know what the loneliest feeling in the world is? Being suicidal and riding to the ER in a Lyft because the person who you thought cared about you like family refused to do it–even though it was for a legitimate reason?

I walked into the ED at Northwest Hospital and stood at the receptionist’s desk. “How can I help you?” he asked.

This wasn’t my first rodeo, so I know what to say: the truth. “I’m suicidal and I have a plan,” I told the clerk, and sat down to wait for however long with the legions of other coughing, puking people waiting to be seen by a doctor.

Ten minutes later, I was being seen by a triage nurse and then escorted into the part of the ED reserved for psychiatric emergencies. That day it was mercifully quiet. I’ve been in the mental health ER a couple of times, at different hospitals, when someone in the middle of a psychotic episode is handcuffed to a gurney, screaming and swearing and spitting at anyone who went into their cubicle, or someone really drunk or high ends up rambling down the hallway looking in every other room until one of the nurses brings them back.

I saw quite a few resentful glances as I was called into the treatment area. After all, I certainly didn’t look as sick as they felt! But hey, I’d trade those guys a sprained ankle, or even a bad case of COVID, for my suicidal depression any day of the week!

Once I got into my room, it was a long wait. The doctors were busy and I expected that. I tried to do some sleeping. Once the examination-labs-social worker-fighting with insurance process got going, I was treated with compassion, dignity, and respect. My Nice White Lady™ privilege and the fact that I have good commercial health insurance, were big factors in why I was treated so well.

To all you ER docs and nurses–yes, this is absolutely true. Sorry, not sorry. I know you’re trying and you’re really overburdened because of COVID, staff shortages, and end-stage capitalism, but we both know that Medicaid or uninsured patients, and BIPOC patients, and transgender patients, do not have and have never had health equity in the ER. I’ve used the ER while on Medicaid and while uninsured, and there were distinct differences in how I was treated compared to how wealthier people with good insurance were treated.

Six hours later I was in the back of an ambulance on my way to an inpatient behavioral health unit.

Ally 4: The behavioral health unit staff

A T-shirt with an image of a pair of blue hospital "grippy socks" and text that reads, "I went to the psych ward, and all I got was these shitty socks and 15 grand worth of medical debt."
Many people who have been hospitalized for mental health crises call their stay a “grippy sock vacation.”

The behavioral health unit I was in was a very good one! The cool thing about living in a place where highly paid tech workers live is that the hospitals in the area have pretty high-end accommodations: I had a single room, which is not the case with many mental health inpatient programs. I had a psychiatrist who knew what the hell he was talking about and actually listened to me when I had questions. The social workers actually helped patients access long-term care after their “grippy sock vacations.” We had helpful workshops every day. The nurses made themselves available if we needed to have a short one-on-one talk.

One day I asked one of these nurses if she had a few minutes to talk. She came and got me as soon as she finished the task she was working on, and we went into a small one-on-one room … where I proceeded to cry for half an hour while talking about my friend breakup, how it triggered my foundational traumas, how I wondered if I’d ever be able to talk to her again or if I even wanted to, how I didn’t earn enough to live on and I was terrified that I was going to end up homeless, and on and on. She listened compassionately and reminded me that there are things I can do to help me in my precarious emotional and financial situation. When I’m severely depressed, I literally can’t see any other choices to resolve my situation beyond despair and death.

Ally 5: My regular mental health providers

I’ve been working with the ARNP who manages my psychiatric medications for at least five years now, so we know and trust one another. I trust her to have my best interests at heart and to treat me with compassion and respect–and she does! She also trusts me to be honest about the state of my mental health, and I am; sometimes that’s really hard when I feel really bad and I’m afraid I’ll get sent to the hospital, but I want my illness to be well managed and I’m willing to do the work to make that happen.

The counselor I’ve been working with for the past couple of years has also been fantastic! She’s been helping me process heavy stuff ranging from the death of my life-saving cat, Thomas, to the death of my mother, to my big best friend breakup, and I’m really glad she’s been there for me.

6. My mental health journey takes a lot of hard work, but I eventually reach my goal.

The start of the journey, the changes in direction, the breakdowns…no matter how long it takes and how hard a climb it is, I do reach my mental health goal, which I think of as a state of general mental wellness. I can get sad, but that doesn’t slide into despair. I can be joyful and enthusiastic without being hypomanic. I have my creativity and my passion for art and justice.

A back view of two white men sitting on the rocks at the peak of Doubletop Mountain in Baxter State Park, Maine.
As you can see, I made it to the top! I took this photo of my brother and Jean-Pierre as we were getting ready to share a snack of bread, cheese, and wine. Photo by JaneA Kelley

On that Doubletop hike, I reached my goal: I made it to the peak! It was probably one of the hardest physical things I’ve ever done, much like my mental health journey is among the hardest emotional and mental things I’ve done. Harder than graduate school by a lot!

My mental health journey is ever evolving. I’ve met my goal of processing the worst of the effects of my best friend breakup, but there’s always more. I was diagnosed with ADHD just a few months ago, and being under treatment for that has also been huge for my mental health. I’ve got more resources for coping because my emotions are more regulated and my reactions to rejection (actual or perceived) are also a lot more manageable.

Will I ever be friends with my best friend again? I don’t know. She’s offered to pay for therapy for us to resolve the conflict together, which is great. Still, I waffle back and forth between “it’s ridiculous to throw away a 35-year friendship because of one conflict” and “yeah, but it was a huge, existential conflict that turned my entire life upside down in the worst possible way, and I no longer feel you’re a safe person and I never want to talk to you again.” That part of my mental health journey is ongoing.

Have you had a similar experience? What does your mental health journey look like? What are you doing to celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month? Let me know in the comments!

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JaneA Kelley - Author, Educator, Mental Health Advocate

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