I never dreamed I could hike more than 200 miles with a 30-plus pound pack on my back. I didn't really want to, either. I always admired my husband, Jeff, for the energy and drive he showed by completing a 2,000-plus mile hike, but I never felt the same desire to step out of the box of life and carry my life on my back for an extended period of time. When I was younger, my family went on outings in our pop-up camper, but it wasn't something that interested me as an adult. After all, a hot shower did wonders after a great workout, and that would not be an option on the trail. My outlook shifted, however, when I lost my big brother Mike to suicide in 2002. Everything changed in an instant. Mike's death crumbled our hopes and shattered our dreams. It was the unthinkable. I went through all of the denial and blame, and sometimes I still wonder if there was something I could have done to save him.
Mike was a great guy. He was a genuine, caring, loving man. I looked up to him. I was the maid of honor at his wedding. I helped him move several times, and he helped me move to Cincinnati after I decided to go back to school. He set up my stereo and computer in minutes when it would have taken me hours. He had a lot of gifts, especially the ability to make other people smile. Unfortunately, he was not smiling on the inside, and we didn't know that until after he was gone. You don't know how good you have it until tragedy strikes. Mike was supposed to grow old with me and be an uncle to my daughter. He was meant to be an awesome father. His life seemed great, but it was not perfect. Mike was suffering from depression. He did not know it, or, if he did, he did not know what to do about it.
I am a speech language pathologist. In my job, I teach kids to communicate better. Ironically, the missing link in death by suicide turned out to be communication. I never knew the weight of despair my brother carried on his back. Suddenly, the idea of taking a long hike with a heavy pack on my back seemed attainable, even appropriate. I saw some pictures of the John Muir Trail from Jeff's hiking buddy, and afterward, I decided that I wanted to hike for Mike. It was too late to help my brother, but I knew that many other people might be contemplating actions like Mike's. I wanted to help them. So Jeff and I decided to do an awareness campaign for depression to link what now is obvious to me: depression can lead to suicide. I never really put the two together, but I found out that the majority of suicides happen because of untreated depression. Awareness is the first step in prevention, so my husband, the avid hiker, and I, the novice, decided to embark on a journey to increase depression awareness.
I did the unthinkable. I went for weeks without a shower. I relieved myself outdoors, came within a few feet of a bear and slept in a tent night after night. It definitely was an out-of-the-box experience for me, but sharing it with my husband was both healing and inspiring. The journey made me appreciate my husband, my physical endurance, the beauty of nature and my family all the more. In the end, we accomplished what we set out to do. We finished the hike and took our message across the country through the media. Iknow Mike would be proud of me, and maybe he was smiling down from heaven when we met my mom and dad and aunt at the end of our journey.
Mike was supposed to grow old with me and be an uncle to my daughter. His life seemed great, but it was not perfect. Mike was suffering from depression. He did not know it, or, if he did, he did not know what to do about it."
Thanks to all of our family and friends who supported us on this journey; to our gear and financial sponsors; to the media that wrote and ran stories that helped our awareness goal; to our webmaster, who helped us to keep everyone abreast of our journey; and to everyone who prayed for our safe journey. With this team of helpers, we were able to raise awareness of depression. We received many emails, some thanking us for what we were doing for depression and suicide, some that shared personal or family battles with depression. We were touched by many. We feel like we made a difference, but it's not enough. We can do more.
In this country, someone dies by suicide every 16 minutes. Every 16 minutes. And yet people continue to joke about "jumping off a bridge" or saying they'll "kill themselves" if this or that happens, like it means nothing. Since I lost my brother to suicide, I find that kind of thing terribly unfunny. People aren't trying to be mean or insensitive, but this is no joking matter. It's time to shed the stigma that's attached to depression. It is not a character flaw. It is not a condition to be ashamed of or a fate to blame on your family. It is a chemical imbalance. It can be diagnosed medically. And if it's left untreated, it can lead to death. We must bring down the walls and end the shame and the stigma that are attached to depression and start treating it like the illness that it is.
Our journey was one of hope. We hope to prevent suicides, and we want to instill hope in those with depression, so that they know that treatments exist and that one does not have to face the demons of depression alone. When we reached the top of Mount Whitney, I felt a sadness, but also a rush of satisfaction, joy and exuberance. Energy and good feelings come from exercise and fresh air. Many people with depression can benefit from daily exercise and light therapy, in addition to prescribed medication, counseling, group therapy and other treatments. My best thoughts happen during a run, a walk, a hike, or a spinning class. My husband's best thoughts occur during a hike. Maybe that's because we force away all the weight and stress in our daily lives. It allows us to refocus on what's important.
It comes down to this: you don't have to be perfect. Just do the best that you can. That's a mantra that my sister-in-law shared with me when I asked how she did it all, how she managed to be a good mom, a good wife, a good employee, everything. She said, "Just do the best you can, and you may need to redefine your definition of 'good.'" That is so simple, but so profound. My husbandsays, "Life is as simple or complicated as you make it." Do we make life too complicated by trying to juggle everything and not just sitting back and enjoying the ride? Maybe people with depression don't know that they don't have to be perfect, that there is hope, that if they just hold onto their loved ones, there can be light at the end of the tunnel. We don't know how long we are on this earth, so we have to live life wholeheartedly. We need to live in the moment, relax, enjoy family and friends, and tell them how much they mean to us. We can't say it enough. If nothing else, I know that the last time I spoke with Mike, I told him that I loved him. At least I have that.
Besides lugging a heavy backpack down a very long trail, I've done something else I didn't think was possible: I became a mom. We have been so blessed with the birth of our daughter, Madison. She is the best thing that has ever happened to us. I know Mike wouldhave loved to hold her and kiss her kissable cheeks. I know he is smiling down on her and our other nieces and nephews. I am grateful to my husband for being a great father to our daughter, but also for giving me the strength and confidence to do what I thought impossible: to hike for Mike.
Beth lives in Cincinnati with her husband and daughter. They are expecting their second child in July.