Staying Sane and Moving Forward While it Feels Like the World is Crashing Around You: Lessons from Death and the PCT
I’ve been thinking about 2015 a lot since the coronavirus hit. Most recently because it’s the year Angel and I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, and this week I’ve been reading Carrot Quinn’s excellent PCT book Thru-hiking Will Break Your Heart.
Less pleasantly, and more so, though, because 2015 was the last time I felt the type of existential dread we’ve all been waking up with since waves of hospitalizations and deaths started hitting all over the world, threatening lives and livelihoods for years to come. It’s the same feeling that was triggered for me a month before Angel and I were set to start the PCT, when my dad was diagnosed suddenly and unexpectedly with glioblastoma, a terminal form of brain cancer.
I made the connection early on between the events, because I instantly recognized the feeling I’ve been feeling. The uncertainty and sense of impending doom, and the sense that the future is out of my control. Similarly, the sense that I’ll likely be fine through this personally, but that people I care about deeply will not. The sense that really, I want to hope for a positive outcome, but that actually isn’t realistic. Too much is already in motion that’s determined that my dread is well-founded. Bad shit will happen, and life will never be the same again. The sense of being blindsided by mother nature. The sense that there’s no real way I could have prepared for this emotionally. And the sense that I actually have no idea how any of this will shake out, or what will come afterwards.
I'm guessing that's familiar to a lot of you.
In 2015, it was a real, but small scale, crisis, of the type that happens to thousands of people every day, and really impacted primarily my family and our friends, This time around the whole world has been catapulted into this situation. All of us are threatened in some way or another - from losing our life to losing friends to losing jobs to losing our way of life. None of us are coming out of this the same as we entered. Some of us will literally die. Others will survive but be changed in ways that we can’t really predict or control. None of us know how long this will last or how it will all shake out. Existential dread is the name of our collective diary entry about 2020.
While I made the connection between the events early on, the way certain smells trigger certain memories involuntarily, for some reason it just hit that maybe the things I learned during my dad’s illness and death might be valuable now. For myself, and for everyone who’s going through this. So like, everyone. The experience didn’t provide answers, but it did teach me that there are strategies to get through.
So what do you do?
The rest of my story is that 2015 was also a year that my life changed in positive ways. What were the positives? I came to a stronger sense of what I value, and what direction I want to point my life. I developed a stronger sense of connection to my community of people (even if Angel and I have been largely drifting around ever since). It was the year I made the decision to get serious about lifelong goals to write some books, to travel more. I also decided to stick with some things I was already doing - to keep nursing, and keep something in my life that feels like a directly positive impact on others, to keep immersing myself in the outdoors as a way to experience the fundamentals of human existence. I don’t look back on 2015 as a positive year. I wouldn’t repeat it by choice and I don’t really know that I’d say the costs were worth the benefits. But I do look back on it as formative in positive ways, and full of experiences that I draw on constantly.
I’m pretty confident lots of us will look back on 2020 in this way. But it helps to have a strategy to be sure that's the case. I don't have all the answers, but I did learn some things. So…
What do you need to do to stay sane and move forward while it seems the world is crashing down around you?
Based on my experience, the first step to getting through an extended period of dread and uncertainty is admitting that you have a problem - you have to radically accept the negative aspects of the situation that are out of your control. There's nothing wrong with hoping for the best, unless there is no realistic chance of "the best" happening. This hurts at first, then it releases some of the anxiety of uncertainty.
In 2015, very shortly after he was initially diagnosed following a seizure, we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that my Dad was dying. His cancer was going to take him no matter what we did. He was rushed into surgery, and after a biopsy of his tumor, the first thing his surgeon told us was that his cancer was a glioblastoma and “not generally survivable”, and average prognosis was about a year. While they initially put a rosy spin on what his recovery would look like from the surgery, we also realized that in many ways brain surgery had taken my dad's personality. A thumb sized chunk of his brain was gone, and along with it many aspects of what made him who he was. He was there, but not there, and we didn't know how long he'd survive. That was the reality.
While there is plenty of over-optimism spreading nowadays, our Covid-19 reality is that disease is here, with millions of confirmed cases, spreading everywhere around the world, and there’s no quick or easy fix. Even in the few places that seem to have some measure of control, their economy will be massively impacted by this for years, and the average person's ability to function as they had been has been interrupted for at least as long. A vaccine is not coming tomorrow. There's currently no treatment. All of our lives are, and will continue to be, different. Maybe we’ll get the disease, maybe not. The prognosis at an individual level is of course much better than glioblastoma, but at a population level this is a crippling illness. We all live in communities, and no community is getting out unaffected - we’re not going back to normal. We should be thinking about the impacts of this in terms of years, not weeks or months. Take a deep breath - it’s scary, but if you believe the experts and the experience around the world, this is what's happening.
In the same vein though, it’s important not to catastrophize. Don’t even catastrophize death. For some reason in the midst of crisis it's reassuring to remember that the worst case scenario is death, and that's happening anyway - some day we’re all going to die. So the worst case scenario is that something that is inevitable will happen sooner rather than later. When you accept that, you can recognize that your response to the current situation has analogies to every situation. What do you do? You take the situation you’re given and you try to make the best decisions you can. Is this hope? I’m not sure - but it’s a commitment to being the person you think you should be, doing the best you can, and contributing something good to the world in an unfamiliar context. It's also, I should note, a commitment to making it through this. That may just mean living the best life you can with what time you’re given, but for most of us it means steeling yourself to push through a hard time that you'll eventually emerge from a different, and maybe even better, person.
For dad personally, doing the best he could with the time he had is what it meant. And in that time, after surgery, he pulled off a cross-country move to Las Vegas to spend the last months with his grandkids (which was a move he and mom had been talking about for years). That was a hard process - transferring healthcare providers across the country was a huge additional pain to coordinate, and he didn't need the extra exhaustion. But he was exhausted anyway, and no intervention was going to get rid of his cancer so who cares? It meant leaving behind his home of more than 60 years and the rest of his family, but that was going to happen anyway soon, so it wasn’t something he could change. We knew in his situation that lots of bad things would happen, but we also wanted to make sure that some good things happened.
Our reality now is maybe less dire, but there are analogies. Things suck, and more bad things are definitely coming. But keep perspective - like death, disease is a thing that happens in nature, and always has. Pandemics (and, ahem... terrible government management of them) are as normal as wildfires and tides and childbirth. We’re not unique in our situation - we just aren’t used to it. We need to make the best decisions we can with the information we’re given. Most actually will make it through. Some bad things will happen. But we can also make sure some good things happen if we don’t get defeatist, and don’t catastrophize.
Okay, but how do you decide what to actually do?
It’s okay to recognize that you may be trying to choose the best of several bad options. It’s normal to feel paralyzed or defeated in those situations. But it’s important to keep moving towards your values and goals the best way you can figure out. Because change and life will come, whether or not you decide to have your say in the situation. You'll feel much better about it if you decide to have your say.
Angel and I knew my dad had terminal cancer. And we knew that we wanted to spend as much quality time with him as we could with the time we had left. We also had a massive life goal we’d been preparing for a year which we'd already quit jobs to pursue, and post-surgery, after we had him settled in Vegas, my dad insisted we go. Angel and I had to make a decision, and we hedged our bets. He'd had surgery that was ‘mostly’ successful. Doctors said he’d likely have a good amount of time - a year, two possibly. Maybe even 5 if his cancer wasn't fast growing. We decided to go on with the PCT, monitor the situation, and integrate Dad and Mom into the experience as best we could. The last road trip I ever took with my Dad, they drove from Vegas to the Southern Terminus in California and dropped us off, taking the first steps North with us. It's the last really positive memory I have with my Dad. Our plan was to see them along the way at Big Bear and maybe a couple of other points, and then to move to Las Vegas afterwards to spend however long the rest of my Dad’s life would be with them.
In the Covid-19 crisis, we know that there’s a pandemic still spreading and taking lives. That’s not negotiable. There’s plenty of uncertainty, but we do know that jobs, family, travel, life choices, and finances have been dramatically impacted for most of us and will be for years. The only thing to do is to take the options you have and make the best decisions you can. Recognize that just because some options have been taken off the table, it doesn’t mean there are no options. There are always options until you’re dead, and you have to choose the best ones you can. Now, that might mean using the destabilization of a pandemic to fight for a better world. It might mean figuring out how you can contribute to your friends and neighbors. It might mean working to make sure your business or government retools for the new situation. It might just mean supporting your friends and family as we weather this long winter together. You have the options that you have, if you choose consciously which ones to take, you'll feel better about it.
Having said that...
Remember that in the midst of this uncertainty, you’re going to make some bad decisions. The lights just went out, and we’re all flailing in the dark to some degree. There’s no way to get everything right in such an uncertain context. Give yourself some grace for this, recognize that no choice is perfect and all choices involve costs and benefits. Some days you may be too exhausted to make any choices. That’s fine too. Take a day off.
While we planned to spend the months after our PCT trip with my dad, after they came to visit in Big Bear (only a few hundred miles into the PCT) I never saw him walk under his own strength again. He collapsed the day we hit the midway point on the trail. His cancer was back, the tumor larger than it had been at his initial diagnosis, and with glioblastoma this means there are no further meaningful interventions that can be done. In the span of 10 minutes after getting the message, we abruptly made the decision to quit the trail. We worked our way to Vegas and arranged an apartment, expecting to spend the last months of his life with him. But his health fell off a cliff. He was never really back cognitively, he declined rapidly and passed away within two weeks - about 4 months after his initial diagnosis, and well less than the average prognosis. In retrospect I’m not sure that I feel we made the right initial choice to start the PCT, because we spent the only semblance of healthy existence he experienced in the couple of months after his surgery wandering in the literal desert. But we made the best choice we could with the data we had, which is all we could have done.
The world is going to be in flux. Trust the data, trust the experts, look at your skills and options and goals and do what seems best. Because…
When you make a bad decision, it just means that you have given yourself a new set of options. After Dad died we debated staying in Vegas, working, hanging out with my mom and generally grieving. We were on the edge of buying a car and taking jobs to this end. (Angel already had accepted an offer.) But we had an honest conversation with ourselves, and with my mom, and we changed our minds. We decided to go back and finish the trail. Because of the hiatus, that meant taking on a challenge that a few months ago would’ve seemed impossible - hiking 25 miles a day until the snow flew in October, aiming to beat the weather and finish the trail. Mom drove us back to the trail and took the second set of first steps with us North again. She also made a decision, trained for months, borrowed gear, got advice from some supportive friends, and met us at the end on the trail on her first overnight backpacking trip. It would be the first of several more trips we’d take together the next few years, and it seemed from an outside perspective to give her a sense of purpose and independence - pursing a dream my dad never would have taken on himself. In this case we all made the right decision, I think. We were guided by the same values and relationships as when we'd decided to leave initially. We took a different risk, but this time it panned out. We finished the trail, and with my mom spread some of my dad’s ashes at the Northern Terminus . We were emotionally exhausted but there was no more meaningful way to experience some degree of closure on my dad’s life, with my mom. All that physical and emotional suffering culminated with a moment where we could say we were done. (Not done, of course). That wouldn’t have been an option if we hadn’t taken the first steps earlier when we found out the bad news.
In a situation that’s in flux, options will be continually opening and closing. Keep moving along the path.
Even if you commit to making decisions and moving forward, maybe the hardest bit can be the uncertainty. The emotional weight of it all. The bad news hits, then you just sit with it and wait for doom to come without really knowing what that doom entails. When you’ve radically accepted a hard reality, it’s normal to wake up every day with a vague sense of sadness and dread. That’s what happened for me in 2015, and that’s what’s happening for me now. Some of you I'd guess are experiencing the same.
What helps? How do you manage those emotions?
When my dad got sick, I was lucky to be thru-hiking because exercise actually impacts your feelings. The type of anxiety that you feel in the midst of crisis, I think, is there to get you doing something. And if you don’t do anything, the feelings don’t improve. If you do, they do. Running a lot would’ve been better because it produces positive emotions. Hiking was therapeutic because it exhausts you and dulls your emotions. And being on trail I didn’t have that much choice over whether to keep going. A good diet also helps, though less immediately. Thru-hiking encourages the opposite of that. But at home, you should really get some exercise and eat as best you can.
It was also helpful to be on trail in the face of the uncertainty of what came after my dad’s death because thru-hiking is an exercise in figuring out the minimum that it takes to be happy. Just the stuff on your back, relationships, food and shelter. Thru hiking teaches you that you can not just survive, but be happy with this. As with accepting death, there's something therapeutic about this. Even if most of what you have is taken away, it's still possible to live a meaningful life you enjoy.
When thinking particularly about the economic fallouts of this, this is reassuring. If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you actually have significantly more material wealth than you need to be happy. If you’ve ever had to be happy with almost no material possessions, you know you can handle this. You may not have had to before, but it’s worth knowing that this is true. Much is uncertain. It’s unlikely that you won’t have what you need to survive and figure out ways to live a fulfilling life. Go with that. Even if the worst happens, you can find ways to have a meaningful life.
Thru-hiking is also an exercise in the experience of the world as a beautiful place. I really do think humans are made to be outside. When you’re fully immersed in it, you just don’t feel the same way you do when you’re inside, out of the elements. It sucks to get rained on for days at a time, but otherwise I’m not sure there could’ve been a better way to put things in perspective and remember that we’re all part of something bigger than to live outside in the western United States for 5 months.
Similarly, you really do need to get outside in the midst of this. Seriously, watch the birds, who don’t give an eff about coronavirus, or jump in a lake, or just let yourself get rained on for a bit. It’ll release a lot of that malaise you’re living under naturally. The truth is, this is all just one small part of the grand evolutionary history of the universe. Go experience that for a minute or two. It's safe, and it helps.
Another thing we learned is that in this type of crisis, relationships get you through. This means several things.
When something like this happens, it makes you realize (if you didn’t already) that for the most part, if you’re an average human being, your life ultimately centers on relationships with people you care about. For me that meant things drilled down rapidly to relationships with family - helping my dad live out his life as best he could. Helping my mom get through this. Figuring out how myself and siblings could make these things happen. Figuring out how to continue to be a husband when I felt like I couldn’t manage any more emotional energy.
We’re not all in the same boat, but we are in the same ocean. It’s a good analogy. In my family, obviously my dad got hit way harder by the waves of brain cancer than the rest of us. But we were all impacted, and we went through it together. We go through things together.
One of the biggest anxieties with uncertainty is that you'll be left on your own to cope with a situation you can't manage. But in this particular crisis that's unlikely. While the challenge is not the same for everyone, it is impacting all of us and we’re all going to figure it out together (whether we like it or not). That’s a positive thing. It’s reassuring somehow, we’re all confronted by change and uncertainty. We all have to sort it out together. We’re all going to have to rely on each other. Play your part, but also recognize that others will also be playing theirs and you’re not in this alone.
Because people help. Maybe in ways you never expected. When my Dad got sick and died, friends reached out who had gone through similar experiences, and established the connections we needed - even if we didn’t know we needed them. Angel was a major crutch I needed. She let me be a mess, even though she loved my Dad and was a mess too. Siblings could commiserate in that they were having a similar experience. I was very happy to have someone to occasionally grab a drink and decompress with who was as emotionally exhausted as I was and experiencing the loss in a very similar way - they’d lost the same relationship I had. Back on trail people joined in the effort and kept us going - physically and emotionally. We have friends who were so supportive, and rallied around not just us, but also jumped in to make sure my mom got something out of this too - to make sure she didn’t lose hope, had something to work towards, had what she needed emotionally and financially. It felt both possible and meaningful to keep moving forward because it wasn’t just us trying to make it through.
In Covid, whether we’re voicing it or not, we’re all experiencing this crisis and struggling. We’ll help each other through. It's impossible to predict what that will look like. Some will be more helpful than others, but we're all swimming in the same ocean.
Even having said all of that, to conclude on a point of realism, it’s important to recognize that even with all of your coping skills perfectly executed, in the midst of crisis most times you won’t feel good, but that doesn’t mean the plan isn’t working and you should stop moving.
After we got back on the PCT, for two months of hiking I felt numb, angry, depressed, sad, and physically and emotionally exhausted. There was plenty that happened that was meaningful, but I wouldn’t say that I have many memories that I would describe as positive. I’d cry regularly, curse more regularly, and push forward in an emotionless void most of the rest of the time. That lasted for months. But it was a process that transformed me. Completing the trail was getting closure on the whole experience. It gave me time to think about what’s important and what I’d be afterwards. I didn’t even exactly realize it was happening, but it was. Afterwards there were just some things I knew I wouldn’t go back to. I was totally ruined for the rat race and centering career goals. I felt unmoored by the loss of my father, but somehow also freed by the experience of the PCT. I had a better sense of who I wanted to be in life (if not necessarily how I wanted to get there), and I felt like a real adult for the first time. I can't point to a time when any major changes happened - I just went in one person, and came out a different one.
We’re all still in the midst of the hard part, but I think that lesson will be directly applicable here. When you push through, experiences that you wouldn’t choose can have consequences that you will appreciate and draw on later. You'll come out of this a different person, and we'll come out of this a different society. If we're intentional about sticking to values through this, in many ways we will be glad about the changes that happen, even if we aren't glad about the process. That's not a reassurance that everything will be okay, but it is an important final point - humans - including yourself and the people you love - are resilient.
I would guess that 2020 is a worse year for most people than 2015 was, but for me it feels similar. And the things I learned in 2015, I think, are things that I hope will help you get through 2020. The world feels like it’s crashing down around us. Don’t catastrophize. It isn’t. But actually yeah, in a lot of ways maybe it is. But it is what it is, and you can’t control that. Keep to your values and pursue your goals, focus on maintaining supportive and healthy relationships, do what you can to make yourself feel better and manage your emotions healthily, and keep moving even if it doesn’t work. It won’t make the situation go away, but it will get you through. Eventually we’ll all change because of this, and some of those changes will be for the better. Stay sane and keep moving even if the world is crashing around us.
If you found this helpful, you’ll also probably find this article on coping skills for managing during lockdown helpful as well: https://www.boldlywentadventures.com/bloglywent/mental-health-outdoors-covid-19
You’ll also probably like the book I wrote, The Dirtbag’s Guide to Life, which is pretty much just more stuff I learned on the PCT that is applicable to life more generally.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.