Wholehearted writing (and depression on the Appalachian Trail)

I wrote the bones of this post in the months following the finish of our thru-hike. I returned to it over the ensuing months, adding new insights and understanding to my experience. This is a post that could stay in drafts forever, always polishing what I've written here. But with a new blog and having just talked about my trail journals, it's as good a time as any to publish.

In Pearisburg Virginia, in Sugar Run Gap, there is a hiker hostel about a half a mile off the trail. The hostel is a small organic farm nestled in the mountains with a view of the valley below. I couldn't tell you how to get there from town, but from the trail (if you're hiking north) you take a right when you come to the road crossing at Sugar Run Road, then a left at the Y.

We arrived at Woods Hole Hostel at 4:30 in the afternoon. We were tired, we were always tired that time of day, and when we found the bunkhouse already booked-up, full of other thru-hikers, we considered hiking on. But the kids would have none of it. And for good reason. Our friends were there, and Amish homemade ice cream fruit smoothies were on the menu board.

Virginia was a hard hike for me, for all of us in fact, for various reasons. The Virginia section of the AT is about 1/4 of the entire length of the trail. It took us 6 weeks to hike through Virginia.

We all got sick in Virginia. I was often frustrated in Virginia - at the trail, at my life (being on the trail), and at my husband for taking us on this blasted trail (even though we made the decision mutually). When I wasn't frustrated I was sad, tired, angry, or depressed.

(See trail journals from Marion, VA, Jenny Knob Shelter, Rice Field Shelter, Trout Creek, and Daleville, VA for details.)

I did have good moments but the difficult ones outweighed the happy ones. (Though looking back at the photos I am flooded with good memories of Virginia and see the beauty and joy in that time. Funny how that is.)

It's known as the Virginia Blues, but for me it felt like full-out Virginia Depression, the third bead on a string of emotionally low points experienced over a three year period. I really tried for my family's sake, my husband's sake, to "pull out of it" but it wasn't till many miles further that I started to leave the miserable fog of trail depression behind me.

I arrived at Wood's Hole Hostel worn out from this emotional burden.

With the open air bunkhouse full we pitched camp next to the section hiker parking area out back. Not the most scenic location but we weren't there for the camping.

While my family sat on the wide front porch chatting with old friends and making new ones I ventured into the 134 year old home, so different from the restored New England farmhouses I am used to. The chestnut beam structure invited me into its dark and safe living room with worn leather couches and stacks of books.

After sitting a while and reading trail books and stories, in which I was really hoping to find experiences similar to mine - that thru-hiking was actually a treacherous walk through a minefield of painful personal growth - I meandered back to the dining room. (And no, I didn't find many stories to reflect my own except for a few oblique references to personal challenges and lots of practical how-to information, which by this point I already knew.)

On the dining room table I noticed first the homemade soap sitting out to be wrapped and labeled and then the journals. Handmade soap and personal writing - now here was territory that felt familiar.

The stack of journals were sitting just above the guest computer. Stored next to books, magazines and other public reading material I assumed their accessibility meant they were for public consumption. 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 in black marker was written down their thick spines. I grabbed 2009.

The journals were written by Neville, the hostel's host and owner, and were about the day-to-day tasks in creating the hostel, bed and breakfast, organic farm, massage therapy and yoga center that is now Wood's Hole Hostel and Mountain Retreat.

Each entry was illustrated with a sketch depicting the work or leisure of that day's entry.

The simple sketches were lovely, Neville is an artist in addition to her many other talents, but it was her words that drew me in. My first impression upon reading was that it was like a blog from the good ol' days, when every blog I read was a personal journal, a story of someone's life.

Many people visit Wood's Hole Hostel and feast on Neville's cooking. I did that too the next morning. But on that last night in May, in my frustration and heartache, I savored Neville's words.

I had recently made the decision to stop writing for the summer and the remainder of my hike, there was simply no time in the day for writing and trying to make the time was too difficult, another frustration.

I wondered how I would re-enter the world of writing and blogging. How could I possibly communicate the depth of my hiking experience to a largely non-hiking audience?

And the more pressing question, "how on earth am I going to tell people how hard this is after I've just encouraged them for years to pursue family dreams and interests?" What have I done to lead people so astray? I felt like such a fraud.

Everything I had written before the hike seemed hollow to me during that time. False, trite, saccharine.

Encouraging people to live with purpose and intention, sharing the beauty of our family life, and the passion I feel for freedom education and helping others along that path, it all felt like drivel to me in the fog of Virginia Depression.

My writing felt like bullshit. I felt like bullshit.

In that place of being so emotionally and physically worn down I felt broken in my spirit and not resilient enough to withstand the storms of shame battering me.

You're not a good partner for Damien.
You need to change.
You are not enough.
Who do you think you are writing about joy and beauty?
You liar.
You suck at this.

Thru-hiking is hard on many levels. It took me a while to recognize that this is why it garners such respect from people. When you do something amazing you can lose awe for the magnitude of your accomplishment. Thru-hiking is a difficult undertaking. Going in, I knew it would be hard, I had no idea how hard.

But I'm not special in this regard. Life is hard.

And here's what happens in life, from time to time.

We go through experiences that wear us down to our core, and break our shell. And these experiences, like my long distance hike, will show us what's operating below the surface of our lives.

Difficult things provoke all your irritations and bring your habitual patterns to the surface. And that becomes the moment of truth. You have the choice to launch into your lousy habitual patterns, or to stay with the rawness and discomfort of the situation and let it transform you.

Pema Chodron

The hike revealed my anxiety-driven patterns of behavior and thought, rooted in a trap of false identity and value. It revealed that I hadn't been honest with myself or my husband, that I had made compromises and concessions in marriage that I actually wasn't ok with. I had made those with the best of intentions, which is what derailed and confused me the most. It felt like the best of my tendencies: my loyalty, sense of responsibility, the desire to do right, my personality even, had become twisted into a weapon of self-sabotage.

I couldn't name any of this on the trail, instead what I felt was hot shame, anger, blame, and depression.

I didn't understand the feeling of shame before the trail. Sure, I'd felt shame, but never to this degree. And I had never before experienced self-loathing.

When I got off the trail I bought Daring Greatly and started to connect the dots.

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.

Shame, for women, is this web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we're supposed to be.

Shame enters for those of us who experience anxiety because not only are we feeling fearful, out of control, and incapable of managing our increasingly demanding lives, but eventually our anxiety is compounded and made unbearable by our belief that if we were just smarter, stronger, or better, we'd be able to handle everything.

Brene Brown

I didn't have Daring Greatly on the trail. But I had Neville's journals for that night.

Neville and her former thru-hiker husband Michael, inherited Wood's Hole Hostel from her grandmother who opened the barn, and then home, to hikers nearly thirty years ago.

Neville's journals were a record of building Wood's Hole Hostel to what it is today. A refuge for hikers and seekers in the Virginia woods, a beautifully renovated home and bountiful organic garden. A mountain retreat with yoga and farm grown food.

Reading her journal I became privy to the struggles of creating the beauty I now sat in. The marital strain, financial burdens, bureaucratic runaround, sickness, and setbacks. The everyday frustrations and disappointments of creative and adventurous living.

I also read about the joys in the process. A day spent sewing curtains, another garden dug, a backyard oven built, money in the bank, the unexpected and welcomed late season hikers.

Her accounts were more than beautiful and honest, they were simple. They didn't have conclusions or take-aways, they were journal entries, and yet I took away so much from reading them.

To be honest, I didn't come across any similar experiences of gut-wrenching shame, like I was feeling, in reading her journals but I only flipped through 2009. But the message I read, written between the lines of her diary and illustrated by her simple sketches, was "you are not alone in either your joy or sadness, there is place for both."

No matter what I had written in the past, or how insignificant and loathsome it seemed in the Virginia fog, I knew the kind of writing I needed to come back to, and move forward in, after our hike.

Writing that is honest and wholehearted in all parts of the story.

Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That's why it loves perfectionists - it's so easy to keep us quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we're basically cutting it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither. Just the way exposure to light was deadly for the gremlins, language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.

When we hiked the Appalachian Trail we made one of our family dreams become reality and parts of it were heart wrenching, depression-causing (for me), and so much hard work, that I thought something must be inherently wrong with me because life shouldn't be this hard, should it?

But sometimes it is.

Shame resiliency is the ability to say, "This hurts. This is disappointing, maybe even devastating. But success and recognition and approval are not the values that drive me. My value is courage and I was just courageous. You can move on, shame."

The summer of my Virginia Depression I realized I needed to give myself permission to embrace the full range range of my emotions and the full range of our thru-hike experience. The full range was going to happen anyway, why not accept that?

There were moments I was on top of the world. And moments I was in a valley of despair. There were moments of deep connection and friendship and then later in our journey, heartbreak, loneliness and grief in my injury.

There was such deep gratitude in my heart for all the help we received from friends and strangers and also angst about the next uncertain step and unknown experience. There was joy in my children's health and vitality and worry for their safety.

A wholehearted experience has both. A wholehearted life has both.

I am wholehearted person. I have opened myself to joy and beauty, and I seek those, unapologetically, with my heart and my time. On the flip side I am vulnerable, as is every living soul, to the inevitable pain and suffering of living.

How can I write about one without the other?

What I've come to appreciate is that writing through the more difficult experiences, as hard as it is to find the words, helps to heal those hurts and disappointments, because I'm proving to myself that my value as a human is not rooted in right-ness (righteousness), being good, or making the best decisions.

You can make all the best decisions in life, you can have "right" living up your wazoo and shit will still happen to you. And it won't be your goodness that will help light the path through the dark night of your soul but your courage. Your courage to speak up, to seek help, to accept help, to keep trusting, to say, "I was wrong" or "I've changed my mind", to find a shred of hope in the face of adversity. The courage to find beauty and desire truth. The courage to "speaks one’s mind by telling all one’s heart" (see Brene Brown).

The writing I need to do is courageous and vulnerable. It's beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking. It's "yeah, I'm feeling awesome" and "ugh, I feel like such a failure".

This is the writing I need to do because this is what its like to be human.

What does wholehearted living look like for you? Where are you practicing courage?

« Spring Fever
A journey of evangelical faith: An introduction »
  • Beth West

    Beth West on April 17, 2017, 4:48 p.m.

    Thanks for this Renee. It is a real encouragement to know others experience deep feelings of shame and failure at times. I think sometimes we feel ashamed of our shame! Your writing has grown more powerful as the years have passed.


  • Karen Toews

    Karen Toews on April 17, 2017, 6:34 p.m.

    Thanks for writing it all. For writing about wholehearted living. For having courage. For sharing photos and comments about Wood’s Hole Hostel, that I was able to share with you on our small part of the AT hike with you.


  • Aimee Kollmansberger

    Aimee Kollmansberger on April 17, 2017, 7:48 p.m.

    I really loved this post so dang much.

    "You can make all the best decisions in life, you can have "right" living up your wazoo and shit will still happen to you. And it won't be your goodness that will help light the path through the dark night of your soul but your courage. Your courage to speak up, to seek help, to accept help, to keep trusting, to say, "I was wrong" or "I've changed my mind", to find a shred of hope in the face of adversity. "

    Yes, COURAGE. I love that. So true. And I really appreciated the "I've changed my mind". I changed my mind last year about a lot of things and it took tremendous courage and fortitude in the face of loss and misunderstanding. It's challenging to live wholeheartedly when very real loss and judgment is involved from people you care about.


  • Sarah M

    Sarah M on April 17, 2017, 10:01 p.m.

    I so agree...what a hard but beautiful post. This part" And these experiences, like my long distance hike, will show us what's operating below the surface of our lives." , especially that 'below the surface' bit...just, yes. It's not something I've heard articulated well before, but...wow. That's the ticker.


  • Derryl Toews

    Derryl Toews on April 17, 2017, 11:32 p.m.

    Renee, I love the way you so aptly put into words how many of us feel as we journey through life. You have been intrusted with a gift of sharing your life experiences, the good along with the not so good, that gives us the encouragement that we are not alone on this journey and we can share our failures and acomplisments. You have awakend in me areas of my life that I can totally relate to your journey. Woods Hole has many GOOD memories for me with you, Damien and my grand kids. Dad


  • Sandra

    Sandra on May 13, 2017, 11:52 a.m.

    Hi Renee, Did your kids and husband notice that you were walking through all these emotions? Could they see your struggles, or was this all mostly interior? I find it amazing how we women can snap into mother-role while at the same time, wrestling with tremendous interior pain.

    Also, the AT is such an epic hike. Did any of your children experience similar upheaval as they walked the same path as you, or were their challenges more based on the physical task in hand? I am curious about the mental challenges for kids on the trail? Thank you.


  • Renee

    Renee on Jan. 5, 2018, 5:31 p.m.

    Hi Sandra, My apologies it's taken me so long to respond to this.

    Responding to this comment has been in my inbox since May, and now that it's a full 7 months later its time clear it off the decks. (New Year and all that!) Good grief.

    "Did your kids and husband notice that you were walking through all these emotions? Could they see your struggles, or was this all mostly interior?"

    I'm an external processor so yes, my family was well aware that I was struggling. We're a close family and we know when one of us is hurting. But I also wanted to spare my family, kids especially, from the extent of my struggles so I didn't share everything with them, obviously. But I did withdraw emotionally in ways from them, that I haven't done before, because I just didn't have it in me to bear their struggles and mine. So it all fell on Damien.

    Also, I shared way more of my stuff with Damien than I did with the kids. So he was bearing my stuff, and the emotional stuff of the kids that I couldn't deal with in my own depths. (Also, a lot of how I expressed my suffering with Damien was in anger. Something not typical in me or our marriage.)

    "Did any of your children experience similar upheaval as they walked the same path as you, or were their challenges more based on the physical task in hand? I am curious about the mental challenges for kids on the trail?"

    Yes, Brienne experienced an emotional upheaval mirroring mine (though less wrapped up in marital strain, without the midlife disillusionment, etc.) Both Brienne and I hit a mental wall on the trail that we couldn't get through. We kept hiking, because that's who we are, but there were some things about the trail that we just couldn't accept or surrender to, mostly that we couldn't change our circumstances. We had committed to do something, we were going to see it through, but we fought the changes that had to happen inside ourselves to fully embrace the experience.

    All the kids faced mental, physical, emotional struggles on the trail. But by far, Brienne struggled the most. And you'd hear the same thing if you asked our kids in person :)

    The trail changed us, as individuals, as a family. It revealed things about ourselves we never knew existed, or that we knew existed, but not to that extent.

    We were just interviewed for a AT podcast and we talk about our struggles as a family, and Brienne's journey, in that recording.

    I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. It was so hard. It was so amazing. We came out different than we went in. But we came out together, and we've healed together also. And we have released our children, and ourselves, post-hike, into greater self-awareness and self-acceptance. And loving each other through all of it.

    The experience is part of who we are as individuals and as a family, for better or worse (but mostly I think for the better).


You can subscribe to comments on this article using this form.

If you have already commented on this article, you do not need to do this, as you were automatically subscribed.