PTSD Hiking & Healing: Rocky Mountain National Park Style
When you live in the desert—summer vacay is essential for your sanity.
In my first YouTube video, I mention how my husband and I have a life goal of hiking in every National Park in America. Well, we brought our toddler to Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado in the hopes of, among other things, spotting moose!
It’s OK that I forgot to bring my National Park Passport because I got that park stamp 9 months ago when my husband and I came to celebrate our 10-year dating anniversary.
We saw zero moose on this trip in the Fall of 2013.
We had 15 moose sightings this time in the summer of 2014.
Every single time we saw moose, the hairs on my arms stood up, I got goosebumps, my heart would beat so fast and I would smile HUGE, much bigger than usual. Dream come true.
But I still have PTSD and I was a little nervous because the last time we were in Colorado, my PTSD was triggered, resulting in cyclical vomiting that lead to dehydration and a sexy anniversary out-of-State Emergency Room visit so that I could hook up to an IV, rehydrate and calm down my intestines. Cha Ching. (I am currently in the appeal process with my Insurance Company who decided that visit was not an emergency…it’s hard not to take personal that dehydration leads to death but whatever insurance company, whatever).
I don’t know why that happened to me last time I was in Colorado, but I was determined to not let it happen again. I have come SO far in my recovery process and the idea of bringing my toddler to the ER is anxiety provoking in itself.
Having my son along on this trip was a very different experience. He did not take a nap one day that whole week. He was so excited he fought sleep the entire time actually; waking at 6 a.m. every day like a rooster and succumbing to exhaustion around 10 p.m. after hours of “it’s bed time, Jackson.”
It shouldn’t matter, but the fact that the area we stayed in had no internet or cell phone reception threw me for a loop. In my first YouTube video, PTSD RECOVERY, I describe a myriad of Mind, Body & Heart exercises that I do to heal from my injury. Well, a lot of what I mention involves accessing the internet (Research, my nightly Meditation, my Yoga podcast, etc.!!) and taking that away was kind of devastating to me emotionally.
You see, I got triggered.
One of the symptoms that my PTSD presents is an exaggerated startle response. I have managed it for decades. Sometimes it is worse than others. Basically it means, I am WAY more startled biologically than the situation warrants.
So I’m sitting on the porch of our cabin and it’s after 10 p.m. but I’m still waiting for my husband to join me (meaning my son is still awake and it’s my husband’s turn to make him lay in the bed by staying there cuddling with him until he falls asleep).
I hear a noise behind me that seems like 3 adults very carelessly tramping through the forest in the dark. Not talking. Before I turn around, in a matter of seconds, I feel and think a million emotions and thoughts.
Terror. Calm down. Don’t scare them by screaming, calm down. Confusion. Yeah but why are they in my back yard? It’s a rental. I don’t know. Oppression. Why would 3 grown people walk so quickly and brashly toward your back porch in the dark at night without talking? Oh no. What can be used as a weapon…nonchalantly…so they don’t get mad in case they weren’t trying to rape you, just talk to you…in the dark…at night…in the woods…alone…no phones…so aggressively…
All of that and more in a matter of seconds…it was sickening. So I turn my head slowly to see what’s behind me moving so quickly and it’s a huge moose walking the length of our cabin.
My thoughts at this point are so erratic, I can’t describe them well enough to do it justice but I can tell you that I had an overwhelming VERY PRIMAL feeling that I was in the presence of a dinosaur.
“Dinosaur”…I whispered in my own head dramatically as I realized that, without thinking, I was already standing at the back door trying desperately to get in the cabin, get away from the 10 foot moose that was 10 feet away from me.
The doorknob betrayed me and WHY?!
LIKE A HORROR MOVIE, SOMEONE IS STANDING THERE IN THE DARK ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR HOLDING THE KNOB!!!!!!!!!
Yeah, it’s my husband coming to join me, finally.
I guess at this point I am very much like John Candy in the end of the movie The Great Outdoors when he’s all “big bear chase me…”
And seriously, I don’t even go in the house; I am already intellectually ready to get my moose spotting on (though my physical and emotional needs have not yet been totally understood let alone been met) because I know how rare and special this is. And I’m trying…
Ah…PTSD. You bastard. Taking my moments and making them…difficult.
Honestly, this startling experience really set the tone for the rest of the vacay.
It seems so bratty, why can’t you just enjoy your dream vacation?
Impromptu pony ride in our pajamas? Why not.
Visiting with my lifelong friends who came up for one night of AMAZING memories:
But it wasn’t just the lack of internet or phone. No potted plants, no fancy bubble baths, no Jillian Michaels DVD’s, no vision board…limited to only one book and one journal (!?). Tough. Especially when my other PTSD symptom resurfaced: rage. Yup, I have it. RAGE. It came upon me suddenly, as it always does.
I try to manage my symptoms as best I can and rage is the easiest for me to spot because it’s so…not me. It’s not logical. It’s not kind. It’s not loving. It’s not what I want to be doing or feeling at all. So what I do in those moments is take a walk (a healing exercise that was, thankfully, still very much available to me on vacation).
I mentioned in a really kind, calm, casual way in my first YouTube video that I like to hike or take walks around the block—as a healing exercise. Please allow me to add this caveat: I am not kind, calm or casual when I am walking as a healing exercise. I am furious. When I am done walking (my body knows when it’s over) I am not furious anymore, I feel better.
Luckily, when the rage bubbling up finally surfaced, my husband and son were riding a huge horse together into the Rocky Mountain National Park and I was given 2 hours to do what I wanted without a toddler in tow. Perfect time to freak out. I don’t drive when this happens because it’s not safe. So I left the car keys with my husband and walked (stomped) 6 miles back to our cabin from “town.”
If I knew it was 6 miles I probably wouldn’t have done it, we had plenty more hiking we were going to do as a family later that day. But I am glad I did. I needed it.
I know now why Rambo walks alone. I mention in an earlier Blog post that Rambo First Blood is the greatest PTSD story ever told. In the beginning of that movie he is shown walking alone for what seems to be miles. Whenever he meets up with someone in that movie, the loneliness only seems to become more evident and it also intensifies. Me and Rambo have a lot to think about while we walk.
Was I doing positive mantras while I walked? Oh hell no. It was ugly…
Yes, I was looking at the Rocky Mountains thinking very dark thoughts. Until I heard an old truck slowing down behind me. I look briefly behind me to see a beat up truck approaching me with the passenger window down.
How tough is Rambo now? My first thought was: go ahead and try to murder me, stranger, I’m in the mood to fight right now. Very quickly, my second thought was much more intense: he’s not going to kill you Rachel, it’ll be worse…then my brain imagined all the scenarios that are worse…so when he said:
“It puts the lotion in the basket”
I was like: excuse me?
“I’m going to the Windy River Ranch, you want a lift?” Literally in the same deep terrifying voice as the killer (Buffalo Bob) from the movie Silence of the Lambs.
No thank you, I am super close to my destination (not true) and really enjoying the exercise but thank you for asking!
I smile and look him right in the eyes as if to say: don’t hurt me. He keeps driving. I realize now that I am 3 miles from my destination and it bothers me that I have seen so many R rated movies but also that we do live in a country where women are blamed for their rape. I looked down at my American Flag tee shirt like, do I look like a whore? Wedding ring is on. Check. Ok. Replay the movie Silence of the Lambs in my mind for the rest of the walk…think about how it sucks that women get kidnapped for the weirdest reasons.
Finally made it to my cabin and now have blisters on the balls of both feet. I cry. Hard. I begrudgingly drink water but feel way too upset to ingest food. I shower, I journal, I nap and when I wake up, my husband takes us out for ice cream.
I’m overcome with emotion as I watch my son’s face jumping off of a dock holding his Dada’s hand.
Over and over again.
It was here in this moment that I began to find myself. My mantras started to flow: this is your family, your family is beautiful, you belong here with your family, I love you, Rachel, stay here with your family who loves you.
The journey is not always pretty. Be kind to yourself along the way.