"Mountain walking is free therapy and, as far as I'm concerned, the best therapy" says artist, Munroist and blogger Sarah Jane Douglas, author of a new book Just Another Mountain.
"I don't have to wait weeks for an appointment with a counsellor, or pop a pill. I just yank on my boots and put one foot in front of the other. It's not to say I'm fixed in one trip, but it's a step in the right direction and every hill makes me that little bit more mentally strong. I would recommend to anyone who is struggling with mental health issues to give hillwalking a go."
In her blog SmashingCancerInTheFace Sarah has written about the Edges of Depression. We've reproduced the piece here:
Mel and I are journeying to the Cairngorms. I avoid answering her question about what it is that's triggered this latest episode of feeling on the edge of depression. I don't want to talk at all, but know Mel will have none of it so instead I make the conversation about her. The little laugh noise she makes is her way of letting me know she knows exactly what I'm doing – the girl knows this girl all too well, and before the day is out we both know I'll have spilled my guts. She understands I'm just not quite ready to do so yet.
The engine thrums, the wheels on my car go round and round and miles of grey road pass beneath. Though it's barely audible, the radio is on. Mel chats away. She tells me how she is having a hideously busy time at work and how full her head is – I know how that feels.
I notice my headache again – it has come and gone in greater and lesser degrees for the last five days. Heaviness continues to weigh on my chest, my stomach has a knot in it and I could cry readily. I think about Mel's question: these terrible feelings of doom I'm experiencing have been caused by layers of different pressures; waiting for results of a biopsy on my womb, keeping on top of work, fear and excitement of having to speak publicly at my first book festival and a forthcoming appearance on live TV are causing constant adrenaline making me feel like I'm perpetually hungover, and on top of all that there's been another almighty clash between me and my youngest son which in turn is causing problems with me and my boyfriend Paul. It's all too much.
But I'm en route to the mountains. And I know that by immersing myself in the great Cairngorm wilderness, of its whaleback hills and shattered cliffs, some perspective will be restored and I hope I will find the better version of 'me' again and grab her back. I don't like this tetchy, troubled, uncommunicative Sarah.
Mel and I walk out on a gravelly path, away from the busy carpark and ski centre – away from everyday life. We gain height and views open up into Coire an Lochain. I admire the intricate architecture of vertical, dark, rocky walls under a cloudy sky and remember the last time I passed this way – the roar of an avalanche, its plumes of white powder billowing upwards like giant cauliflower florets. All lively. A different scene now. Quiet. Subdued. I draw a comparison between it and myself.
I think over the last ten days or so; how asleep my inside self has felt, how my mind has been dallying with dark, unhelpful thoughts. Thoughts aren't fact, but in these states of deep doom I can't rationalise this. Instead, my thoughts become monsters; scaring me into believing my cancer is probably back, telling me I'm a shit-useless parent/girlfriend, taunting that I'm an epic fail and undeserving. What I see as my shortcomings play on an incessant loop in my head and I become my own worst critic. At my lowest ebb the blackness had such a hold over me I couldn't even get out of bed – it was like some supernatural force was pulling me down and there was nothing I could do to help myself. 'It' controls 'me'. Cancer was, in ways, so much easier to understand than the fringes of depression I get. But I do have some knowledge, and I'm not completely powerless; I've been here before and know the grimness will eventually pass, and as hard as it is I make myself carry on, robotically pushing through.
Mel and I push upwards on a gentle gradient as we contour the mountainside. And then revealing itself, a familiar sight, the Lairig Ghru – a great trench that cuts through some of the wildest area in the country, and which stretches from Speyside all the way to Deeside. Turning around I take in the view north in steely grey, blue and rusty hues. I can see the highest point of the low lying distant hills.
'That'll be Clava, don't you think?' I say to Mel, pointing.
'Yeah. Reckon so.' Mel nods.
I picture myself standing at the summit on Clava looking south at the Lairig Ghru. In my mind's eye I now see the views north from Clava. I know every inch of that landscape, and the connection I feel to it makes a warmth grow inside me. Mel and I are walking on when I spontaneously give her a hug. It takes me by surprise as much as it does her.
'I feel the surge of mountain joy in me!' I announce, as a big genuine smile virtually cracks my face for the first time in what seems to have been ages.
Deteriorating weather changes the mood and character of the mountain, but I embrace it too. The wind is bracing and I enjoy the cold sensation on my exposed skin; it's like it's cleaning up the guddle I feel inside and carrying it away. Low cloud now blows across the tops of Braeriach and Cairn Toul, it fills into the plunging depths of the Lairig Ghru and is obscuring the top of Ben Macdui. Visibility reduces further as we trek over what is often described as a 'stony Tundra'. To me the landscape is lunar, it's rocky, vast and featureless. Its emptiness is simple and pure, evocative and inspiring: and I think this is how I want to be – emptied of worries and insecurities, to feel pureness and clarity of thought, and to feel inspired by all the good things I do have going on.
Through dense mists we finally see Ben Macdui's summit cairn and, like it's a magnet, we are drawn to its rocky top before taking shelter in one of the many cairns dotted about up here. I notice my hunger and want to eat. I also want to throw on all my extra layers – it's baltic, and it feels good to be driven by these basic needs.
Mel and I retrace our steps. I answer her questions now. 'It's no wonder you're feeling overwhelmed and stressed!' she says. 'You've a lot on your plate. I suppose there's not much you can do except wait for your biopsy results, but hopefully they're gonna come back clear.' We discuss the home issues that are preying heavily on my mind. 'But maybe you'll have more clarity on these things once you've got your book talk and TV thing out of the way?' Mel suggests.
'I bloody hope so,' I say. 'You know, I should be well looking forward to going on Lorraine, it's an amazing opportunity, but I can't help feeling I'm just not worthy enough to have been invited onto her show.' A sense of gloom builds inside. Mel clocks it, and while I feel I deserve her exasperation what she gives is support and encouragement.
'You need to remember you are no less worthy than anyone else that appears on TV. Some of them may have done something you consider more worthy of recognition. Some of them have definitely not. It doesn't matter. They're all just people with their own story to tell. You have written a book. The fact you wrote it for you and your boys to begin with is irrelevant. You are going to be a published author and that is a great achievement.'
'Yeah, and that's another thing! I'm terrified of what people will make of my story.'
Mel continues to be the voice of reason and as she talks I spy, nestled between rocks on the ground, this:
'You are Amazing' it says.
'Look,' I say, showing Mel the painted stone. 'It's like I was meant to find it.'
'It is,' she says, 'now you just have to believe it!'
After a day on the hills with my friend I returned home feeling stress levels had lowered, and it must've shown. My boyfriend Paul came in; after studying me for a moment, he said, 'It's good to see you looking happy again.' I smiled back.
Just Another Mountain
Sarah Jane Douglas
In 1997, at the age of 24, Sarah lost her mother to breast cancer. Alone and adrift in the world, she very nearly gave up hope - but she'd made a promise to her mother that she would keep going no matter what. So she turned to the beautiful, dangerous, forbidding mountains of her native Scotland.
By walking in her mother's footsteps, she learns to accept her own troubled past, finding the strength to overcome her grief - and, ultimately, to carry on in the face of her own diagnosis twenty years later. Searingly honest and utterly relatable, bringing the exhilarating triumphs and challenges of mountain walking to life with wit, charm and raw candour, Just Another Mountain is a story of hope and redemption, of a mother and a daughter, and of how we can learn both to live and to love. Sometimes all you can do is put one foot in front of the other... and just keep walking.
Publisher: Elliott & Thompson Limited
Publication Date: 20/06/2019