Close to Death

This is how I have been feeling for the past 8 weeks. It feels like I have used up my lifetime supply of energy and am now approaching my death. I have become so depleted of energy that I have become completely unfunctional and essentially bedridden. I remember leaving a yin yoga class on July 9 (this type of yoga is where you sit and hold poses for 3 minutes- it is not active). I felt so tired that I could not speak, which greatly worried me. I could tell that something was very wrong with me physically. In the previous few weeks, I would feel so tired before class began that I didn’t know if I could actually do anything. Before my last class, I told my teacher that “something is really wrong with me.” I started to sleep until 1pm. The following week, I was too tired to drive into Boston. I stopped doing yoga. I didn’t even want to do it because I was too tired. I had a hard time even walking into the building I had to give my talk in during the third week of July. I started sleeping more and more deeply and for more hours. I was even sleeping through construction that was going on next door to me! When I went for a walk, I would press my fingernails into my arm to see if I could feel anything. It felt like there was nothing alive in me. And I felt unbearably alone. I questioned the meaning of being alive if I could not make a living for myself because I had no energy to do so and if I had no people in my life. I couldn’t get the thought that it would be weeks before anyone would even start looking for me if I died out of my head. By the time my surgery came, I thought I might not wake up from the anesthesia.
My surgery was not a pleasant experience. The one goal the nurses had was to get me out of there as quickly as possible for a reason I don’t know. I was the only afternoon patient. Immediately upon getting into the cot, a nurse was unsuccessfully jabbing a needle into my hand while the anesthesiologist was reading the list of dangers and wanting me to sign forms. The nurse went right through my vein. I wanted to ask the anesthesiologist if he could do it. The nurse came around behind me and without warning, stuck another needle into my right arm. It hurt SO badly! I finally complained. The anesthesiologist said there was no needle in there (that it was the tape that was hurting!). The tube was hurting me, likely because she didn’t place it correctly! My surgeon came in and told me that I looked anxious. I wondered what the rush was. I told her that something else was causing the depth of fatigue I was experiencing. She said I should see an endocrinologist, but this would be step one.
I woke up crying and curled up to one side. Deep into several layers of dreams, three people were yelling at me to wake up. Why couldn’t anyone relax for a moment? I was asked to transfer to the chair, my ride was called, and I was told to get dressed. As I ate my toast, a nurse looked at me and asked, “Are you crying again?”. No other patients were there. At home, I kept taking pain medicine and went to sleep. I never received a call from the nurses or from my surgeons office for a follow-up.
Over the next few weeks, I did not regain any energy. A week after my surgery, it took me 3 entire days to gather enough energy to go grocery shopping. That is the only thing I did in those 3 days and I had to go right back to bed after I put the groceries away. I have been sleeping 15-20 hours per day. I don’t have energy to write or even to read. I have tried doing a little bit of yoga at home (up to 2 hours per week), but have found that even that amount completely depletes me for the following few days to the point where I can’t do anything. This is terrifying to me. I’ve always had low energy, but I was able to access some strength in yoga classes and hiking. I used to be able to take two 90 minute vinyasa classes back to back. Now, I can’t imagine even being able to do one 90 minute class. Two years ago, I was hiking over 20 miles a day for 5 months in a very sick state. Now, I can’t imagine being able to climb a single mountain. I have lost a great deal of strength and flexibility in these last two months. This illness is not psychological. It is not depression (although that is a part of it). I have suffered from severe, prolonged depression several times during my life, and although that also depletes you, it comes with a very distinct, awful feeling. This is also not a lack of motivation. It is not laziness. It is not an attitude problem. It is physical illness. I am unable to do the things that make me feel better.
I finally collected enough energy to call and get to my PCP. She was extremely unhelpful. All she seems able to do is make me answer questions about how depressed I am, tells me I must call an ambulance and get to an ER if I am suicidal (not helpful!), and tries to scare me into thinking I have breast cancer! When I asked her what the point of me being alive is if I can’t do anything and can’t earn any income, she just stared at her computer screen. She refused to test me for the thyroid antibodies that I asked for. Next, I saw an endocrinologist. After having seven vials of blood taken and visiting a full array of hospitals in my area, the doctors have nothing to offer me. All they say is that my numbers are normal. Not only are they unhelpful, but they lack compassion, as well. I don’t understand this. I left that office in tears.
It has now been 8 weeks of being constantly depleted and essentially bedridden. I have the symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which means that no amount of sleep replenishes me and any energy that I expend further depletes me in the following days. A fellow hiker wrote to me and told me her own experience of going through this illness and urged me not to attempt to do any exercise (even short walks or stretching) for the next six months. She said I will never be the same. I have already gained a good 8-9 pounds in these last months (at least three following my surgery), and it is not stopping. I fear I will turn into a giant blob if I can no longer move.
I have no idea what the future holds for me. I don’t know how I will be able to support myself, or if I will ever get to hike again. Some people never recover from this illness. Others recover to a certain degree after a long period of time (years), but often relapse or get sick in other ways.
Right now, I am trying to view this as a spiritual exercise.

Please, please be grateful if you have your health, if you have energy, and if you have a support system. Many people do not.

There is another part to this story, which I have been wanting to write about for five weeks, but have been too depleted to do so. (Right now, I am forcing myself to write this, even though I feel awful!). On the other side of the country in Arizona, at the same time of my last surgery, a fellow 2013 PCT thruhiker (27 years old) was preparing for his own death…

I don’t have enough energy to write about this now, but I will add to this entry in the coming days when I can collect a little pocket of energy or two.

Okay… Here is the story. Two days after my last surgery, on Friday, July 31, I saw a post from a fellow thru-hiker who I had not communicated at all with since the PCT. It said, “Please don’t blame anyone. It was no one’s fault.” I read this and didn’t know what to make of it. It didn’t make any sense to me. As I thought about it later that day, I thought it could possibly be referring to the killer of Cecil the lion, as at that time, a lot of people in the yoga world were imploring others not to put all of the blame on one person. I assumed it was either about that or was a cryptic message that I could not understand. The next afternoon, a missing poster of this hiker appeared in my feed. I read through it and noticed that it said he was missing from the Grand Canyon area for one day. I had a hard time understanding how someone could be reported missing from one day ago. He could have been out camping or out of reception range. As the day progressed (I was in a state of complete fatigue and mere days out of surgery), I started thinking about it more and more and realized there must be a good reason why this missing sign had been posted by those who knew him. I started going back through his “timeline” and came across his cryptic post again. By this time, it seemed like I had read that weeks ago! I had lost all concept of time. And this time, I read it completely differently. Oh my God!!! That was his last message to everyone! No!!!! I immediately wrote to his friend that he had hiked the majority of the PCT with (who I had also not communicated with since) and asked him what was going on. “Was he depressed?!” He of all people must have known, I thought. While I waited for an answer, I read through his timeline again and again to see what people were saying. It didn’t seem like much at all, which was very upsetting to me. Why weren’t more people showing concern? [I had been in a similar state myself and had been thinking about asking people if they cared about me or what they liked about me, but I did not. The lack of people responding to him was mirroring how I thought people thought about me]. I wanted to contact his family and ask them to let me know what was happening. I NEEDED to know. I was going crazy. This information hit me extremely hard for several reasons. One was simply because of who he was. This was an EXTREMELY kind and VERY talented YOUNG person who (in my opinion) had every possibility in front of him. I quickly recalled every time that I saw him on the PCT. (At the Anderson’s, much later on a switchback below me, pausing to take in the surroundings with a calm smile on his face, him in the back of the car on the way to Trout Lake, talking to the little girl about her art). NO!! There was NO way that we were all going to lose HIM of all people. I could not face that possibility. It also hit me hard because I suffered from my first intense (-ly long and severe) period of depression my senior year of college and my plan was to buy a one way ticket to the Grand Canyon when the semester was over and jump off. I thought about it a lot that year. It was my way out. The fact that this person that I knew was now in the same situation was overwhelming to me. I posted the missing sign on my timeline thinking that he was already dead by then. And I was incredulous that no one was responding to my post! At this point, I needed comfort! Maybe they didn’t realize the severity of the situation. I wondered why he and I only had 5 “friends” in common in the first place! Why weren’t any PCT people responding and why weren’t my yoga people responding for me? I was mad. And I was going crazy that no one was doing anything. Finally, Connie (the section hiker in Oregon) responded! She said he was so generous to her. I immediately wrote her back and asked her what he did. I needed to hear how he had affected other people. (I still hadn’t heard back from his friend). I told her I was going to meditate for a few minutes so that I could sit and be with him for a bit. When I did, tears just streamed down my face. I was deeply, deeply upset. I thought that if was now gone, I would probably go, too, and be with him and my brother. Before I went to sleep, I asked him to visit me to let me know if he was okay. (Sometimes, I ask my brother or another presence to let me know they are there by touching a part of me and I feel a tingling in my hand or foot). This time, I didn’t feel anything so I couldn’t tell if he was in spirit form or not…
The next day, there was still no news. I did read that someone had said he had turned on his cell phone twice in the last day, but I did not know what to make of that. I told a girl I thought would empathize with me at the coffee shop. She asked if I was close to him and only said, “Well, at least he is in peace”. That made me even more mad. People in our society don’t know how to respond to a person who is suffering from depression and they don’t know how to respond to someone who has lost someone to suicide. (At this point, I needed comfort myself). These are both huge problems!!
After I returned to my apartment, I felt like I needed to DO something. I still hadn’t heard back from anyone that I had messaged. I decided to write him a message directly in the event he was still alive (knowing that his spirit could read it if he was not). I asked him to please reach out to me or anyone else who loved him, told him that we can help each other, and said that I loved him.
Then, for the first time in weeks, I did a little bit of yoga. Immediately after I finished, I saw that his friend had written me back saying that he hadn’t known anything was happening until I told him, that he was scared, and still was. It also said something about him being found!
News was slow to come after that. It was an emotional few days. His mother posted a picture with him several days later that made me cry and cry whenever I thought about it. It is clear that she loves him so much and I can’t imagine what his loss would do to her. That Thursday, he finally posted something himself. I consider it one of the bravest acts I have ever witnessed. He wrote, “As many of you are aware I attempted to end my life last weekend on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I was both literally and figuratively on the edge. In the literal sense I was nestled on the Canyons edge waiting for the perfect sunset. There was a darkness that wouldn’t subside and I thought the only way to end it was to be amongst the stars. In a figurative sense I had already fallen, and happened to fall amongst the love and support of all of you. It is difficult for me to express my thanks to everyone involved. I am incredibly grateful and fortunate to have all of you in my life, for it is my life that you have saved. I’m uncertain what the future has in store, but I am hopeful for new adventures, lots of laughs and many perfect sunsets. So thank you all for reminding me that life is worth it, and to wake up everyday with a smile.”
This post also made me cry a lot.
Several days later, he responded to my message and I wrote him this entire story, letting him know how much it had affected me (a person who had briefly crossed paths with him two years ago). His experience allowed me to be on the other side of this situation and helped me understand how much we are all so connected to one another, even though it often does not feel that way. Finally, people started responding to his post. Over three hundred of his friends “liked” it and over one hundred responded. I felt like they were supporting me, as well.
He later openly and honestly shared his story with me, explaining where his depression was coming from, how long he had been suffering from it, his detailed plan to exit the world (it had nothing to do with jumping), and how he was found and his plan thwarted. He told me he has experienced days where he is grateful to be alive, and others where he still wishes he was on the ledge with only hours to go, which I completely understand. I haven’t heard from him in over a month, despite several attempts at trying to contact him. I hope he is doing okay.

I tell everyone that the hardest part of a thru-hike is returning home. If you know a thru-hiker (or anyone who suffers from depression in general), please look after them closely and keep checking in with them. We need to know that we are loved.
Thank you.

#thestruggleisreal

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5 thoughts on “Close to Death

  1. Wendy, sorry to her you are feeling like this. Please hang in and do not give up. You have done tremendous physical activities long distance hiking and the yoga, driving to give the talks. The operations and physical problems cause the body to recover. It used energy to recover. So feeling very tired is ok, it is natural. The body wants to heal and rest.
    Also energy does diminish with age. So we have to adjust. But it will come back. I am 71 and this has happened to me many times. The body is amazing and has to adjust. Just trust it. Your energy will return. The problem of earning a living, loneliness and support can change also. This is the problem with society, earning a living is brought with problems and way overdone in our society. But there are those who understand and care. I found the feeling of dying sometimes had to do with psychological change, the strong part of our being getting rid of the weak part, it can feel like death, but it is not. Feeling very tired is quite natural. I know how hard it is in the summer. Our society supports work, money. This not right. There are people who understand creative people, who are often artists and love nature. Please hang in. It can get better. You are an amazing, non superficial creative person who has experienced more nature than most people do in a lifetime. This is more valuable than there money and jobs that do not bring satisfaction and meaning. Think about life, not death, the wonder of nature the earth, the universe, our own being, strength and power to love and experience nature that is all powerful. You can do this. Many people are automated, cold and cannot.

  2. Hi Wendy, try to think about life. Make the thought about death dissapear. you have seen it in al its glory in the Sierras. Your energy will return. Earning a living, support and loneliness is an epidemic in our society. It is not your fault. It just takes experience to find the right relationships for support and friendship. There are support groups. Finding natural support that can last is the best. Go into your inner resources. I suspect are considerable, along with your strength and intelligence. Our society is not for people, it is for work, money, and consumerism. You stand for life. I also respect your writing about real life. Most people do not. It is difficult to earn a living in what we love.That is a problem with most of our society. I have struggled with this and many people try to find a way. Please do not give up on life. I have thought I was going to die with depression, no energy, and hopelessness many times. My job provided money, nothing, and people, but the relationships were superficial, based on or. My joy and meaning came from composing music and sea kayaking the Maine coast, not work.

  3. Hi Wendy, I know of a wonderful art gallery in Amesbury Ma. It is called the Blue Wave Gallery, 58 Main Street, Phone 978 834 6070. She does have events there. There is big screen tv to hook a computer into. It is a very supportive place for artists who love nature. I will ask her today if she would be interested in having you talk there. It is an apple TV. A very supportive place fro artists and counter-culture people. There are many people here who struggle with the same issues you do. Do not feel alone. More and more people struggle with this. I have all of my life.
    Kairos earth also is in NH, spiritual place to become close with nature.
    It is not all cold and heartless.

  4. Hi Wendy, Two thoughts about the fatigue. Lyme disease can cause it. Also Something called EMF, a controversial area of research claiming health effects from electromagnetic radiation from cell phones and other wireless devices. WHO, World Health Organization has a department about it. There is a lot of misinformation on it, but little consensus. Needs more research. I have a friend who says it affects her and uses a meter to measure it. But there is not enough info yet about it. I hope you find out what causes the fatigue. Perhaps the body is still reacting to the hiking trip and adjusting. Try to have hope. You are still young and the body is amazing in its resilience. Perhaps there is to much yoga. Even thinking can make one tired.

  5. Wendy,
    I saw your first presentation at the Beverly Library last year and was very moved.
    And I have read many of your blogs in the past months chronicling your painful attempts to regain your health,
    I do not have any advice, but if you ever need some help, please feel free to contact me.
    I would be happy to give you a ride or go food shopping for you or whatever.
    Just let me know.
    Stan

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