Day 6, Deboche 4,410m above sea level
One aspect I really enjoy about trekking and communal lodges is the connections you form with people along the way. There is something about a group of people having an external common goal to unite them and to break down the awkward social niceties and boundaries that can sometimes separate us. Hiking Everest Base Camp takes on different meanings for different people, for some it is something to be conquered just because it is there, for others it’s the embodiment of their own person struggles to be reckoned with.
For me Everest Base Camp is the latter, in my mind it’s almost taken on a pilgrimage-esque aura and I’m not quite sure what I’ll find in myself when I reach our destination and I’m almost nervous to find out.
About three years ago a few big things happened in my life. Through extensive partying and gaslighting during this period I wasn’t able to trust my emotions and what they meant to me. I also unexpectedly had a bad medical mishap in Vietnam where I truly believed I was going to die, or perhaps it was just a panic attack from an adverse reaction to the antibiotics I was given through a dangerous misdiagnosis, but regardless the events of that night shattered the youthful illusion of invincibility. I’ll never forget the morning following a physical collapse and potential seizure, when I blearily opened my eyes to the sound of birds out the window of the sterile hospital room and I cried at the sheer enormity of still being alive. But instead of embracing this perceived chance at a second life, I turned my back on its beauty and I also turned my back on myself. Instead, I let the knowledge of death and the specter of the grim reaper haunt my days and so I turned inwards towards fear and isolation.
I returned to hard partying, burying anything of meaning in a rock and roll lifestyle until, at seemingly random times, my emotions and fear would take control of my body and I would have debilitating panic attacks. I felt rudderless and vulnerable to a world I didn’t understand, and it made me angry and confused as I tried to navigate strong waves of emotions that would knock me over. I looked at them as the enemy – these emotions of mine were hurting me and the relationship with my supposedly loving partner, and so I did my best to silence them or to repress them. A depressive episode soon followed, and I had intrusive suicidal thoughts that I felt weren’t mine and I had no interest in carrying out, yet they wouldn’t stop gruesomely popping into my head.
I remember looking into the mirror and hating who I saw staring back. The silver lining was that I had fallen so low in my own estimation, had hated my own actions so much, that there was only one path left to take, and that was up. I had reached the bottom of what I thought was a bottomless pit and I could either lay curled in a corner whimpering or I could stand up, shake the dust off my crumpled body and try my best to hold my shoulders straight. We’re all made of good and bad, and to ignore the bad parts of us puts us in danger of not understanding who we truly are. Carl Jung famously said, “No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”
Well, I told myself, I have firmly planted my roots and now it is time to reach towards the heavens. I started with therapy. I felt isolated, alone, and I also felt as if the burden of my pain was too heavy to place on a friend and that I didn’t have the maturity to handle a friend’s rejection of my need for unconditional understanding (which is a big ask of anyone). But a therapist? Something about the exchange of money for someone to have to sit and listen to you moan about you you you somehow felt better. It removed this level of guilt of unloading on someone because it was transactional and because of the nature of the profession everything I said was confidential.
I can’t recommend Betterhelp enough. It was affordable for me and allowed me to change therapists when the first one didn’t suit. I didn’t need someone who was an echo chamber for my dark thoughts or who took pity on my lack of direction and inability to articulate. I needed someone who had firm boundaries, allowed me to take the time to express myself, called me out on my whiney bullshit, and encourage my creativity. And that’s how I met Dr. Elena, my spirit guide who was my lantern in dark times – I did the walking but she lit the way. My pain was buried so deep that I fought with her every step of the way in the beginning but then she told me to write stories, to write anything that came to mind, it didn’t matter if it was good or bad, just write. And so I did. I wrote gruesome dark stories of girls who’d cut off body parts in order to fit in with the approval of society, of a girl who had to read a book to tell her how to act in the world, girls who after being brutally attacked would lay themselves down in the soft earth to die but would then become a beautiful blooming fruit tree that would offer shade and comfort to a friend.
It’s interesting because none of my stories were true, and yet they were more than true. They were true to the soul and they offered that part of me I had repressed for so long a space to have a voice. Sometimes taking an amorphous darkness and putting it in the written word is like shining a light on a monster you once thought was huge and instead to find out it’s just a piece of you that needs a helping hand.
Little by little the panic attacks subsided, and I learned to befriend my emotions instead of seeing them as the enemy. I slowly learned to foster the parts of myself that I love and let them bloom while trying my best to integrate the darker aspects of myself and to see their protective benefits. My emotions at the time were going haywire for a reason – I was refusing to face the stark reality of the beauty of a finite life and I was turning a blind eye to the asphyxiations of a dysfunctional relationship, choosing instead to throw my own soul to the wolves instead of finding the courage to face growing up.
The harder part of my life’s journey has been to look the specter of death squarely in the eye and say, I know you are there and will be my constant companion in life, but why don’t we come together as friends instead of enemies. I still shy away in terror and this Everest Base Camp trek has brought to focus how much I still fear my body betraying me and shutting down as it did in Vietnam, putting my mind in hyper alert to my heart rate and physical state. Every night so far, I have woken up with a pounding heart thinking it’s the end and I’ve had to calm myself down. Even if it is the end, is it such a bad way to go, setting out to accomplish something I never thought I could do where just three years ago I was too scared to be alone for even a minute?
So, every step I take I am not only shedding my own destructive self-blame, but I am also showing myself that I have the courage to keep going up the mountain even in the face of my own fear. I can feel my courage building; the first suspension bridge, I squealed in panic and held on to my guide’s backpack refusing to look down, yesterday I managed to look down and walk calmly onwards. The first night I slept horribly in panic at the pounding in my chest, while last night I calmly talked myself down from the panic ledge and fell back into weird altitude-induced dreaming.
Who knows, maybe what I’ll find at the top of Base Camp is the courage I’ve been looking for all along to honour the knowledge of death that allows one to live life to the fullest.