It is thought that 1 in 4 adults in the UK experience mental health problems. I would guess the true figure is even higher – many people expertly hide it and no-one would have any idea of their inner turmoil. This was the case for me during my first experience of depression. No-one had any idea, and didn’t until years later when I chose to share my experiences.
Typical story: life and soul of the party, always smiling and laughing. But what people didn’t know was how I contemplated suicide daily, spending a lot of time considering the best plan, driving around thinking, “I could crash there”.
Thankfully I had a moment of clarity. It suddenly dawned on me that this really wasn’t right, and I scared myself. I had a fantastic doctor who made me realise that I’m not crazy and these thoughts don’t necessarily mean I will do it. I was given anti-depressants and things improved greatly. The “black dog” has come to visit a few more times since in the form of post-natal depression and anxiety, but I have learned to recognise the signs and stay on top of things.
My happy place was always in nature, usually by the sea, or in forests. I always admired the mountains from afar but never considered that I could ever get there.
Having kids changed my priorities. I always suffered “mum guilt”, even at the thought of prioritising myself.
Our second child changed everything more than we could imagine. Autism was on our radar from a very early age so the diagnosis wasn’t a shock. Dealing with the associated difficulties, however, was one shock after the other. One phase after another, endless sleepless nights, appointments, meetings, school refusals, meltdowns, shutdown… you name it, we’ve been through it. The mum guilt grew and grew. What had I done wrong? Why can’t I handle this? I wanted to do everything I could to make things easier for both kids – they are both truly amazing little people and the notion of prioritising myself seemed unthinkable.
In between obsessively scrolling through Autism support groups on Facebook, I started noticing friends’ photos from the Mournes. It looked so peaceful and beautiful. Eventually, I was looking at more Mournes-related groups than Autism parenting groups. A form of escapism.
I spent hours researching routes and the kit I needed, how to be safe, car parks, starting points and so on.
For Christmas 2019, my husband and I treated each other to hiking boots. Our first outing was the Glen River path. We got to the first bridge (not far) and I felt like I had reached the summit. Exhausted already and a bit scared of getting lost, we called it a day, but from that short experience, I knew I had found “my spark” (wee Disney Soul reference there).
I couldn’t wait for my next adventure. I persuaded a few friends to climb Hen Mountain with me, a recommended beginner’s hike. My friends, like mountain goats, skipped to the top with ease while I thought I was going to die halfway up. But I had caught the bug: I felt amazing, I felt alive, properly alive, not just existing, surviving a day at a time.
I became a school time hiker, expertly and precisely timing my adventures to be back in time for pick up. I felt less stressed, happier and more relaxed about everything. Then lockdown hit.
My mental health spiralled rapidly, experiencing panic attacks for the first time in my life. I had five weeks off work and beat myself up about that too. I was a key worker. I should have been there, front line, but I needed to prioritise myself. My short few months of hiking taught me that I must balance my priorities or I am useless to everyone else. I am the best mum, wife and friend that I can be, when I look after myself.
So I picked myself up, and walked, and walked, every back road and every hill I could find locally to keep my fitness up for my return to the Mournes.
I returned to work on reduced hours. I can’t do everything: work, parent, carer, no childcare, working opposite shifts to my husband and something had to give. My time in the mountains is as important to my mind as eating and drinking is to my body. It keeps my soul alive.
The kids went back to school, after a few post-lockdown hikes of their own, but I am not sure they are the biggest fans. School hours were reduced and so my hiking time was also reduced. Pierce’s Castle became my go-to quick fix as it is 30 minutes from home. An hour to the top, sit there for about 30 minutes, and home again. I do enjoy company on a hike, but nothing quite hits the reset button like a solo trek. I soak in every tiny detail, observe bugs, birds, the changing landscape with the seasons, the clouds, the shadows, and light, saying hello to the ponies. Everything adds to the experience.
When I get to the top, it looks like layers and layers of mountains. You can see the Mourne wall snaking over the peaks in the distance. The mountains are immense and I feel so small, and suddenly all my worries and problems don’t seem like such a big deal anymore. Nature is a force greater than any of us. The seasons keep coming, life goes on. You can either exist or you can live. The mountains have taught me to live, without always being in mum mode, and free from guilt and pressures I previously inflicted on myself.
“Me time” isn’t selfish – it’s vital to you and everyone around you. As is coffee.