From touching the emotional void to re-ascending summits of Joy

1st October 2007

Author: Lorraine Nicholson
Published: 01 October 2007

This article has been reproduced with kind permission from The Mountaineering Council of Scotland’s Membership Magazine, The Scottish Mountaineer. Published in September 2007, the article charts Lorraine Nicholson’s personal recovery journey in relation to her passion for mountaineering and incorporates her original poetry, artwork and photographs.

There’s a great gulf between dangling on a rope in an emotional void and climbing my first Alpine summit. In terms of time it took 4 years. In emotional terms it took what seemed a lifetime. This is the tracing of a journey of survival. I have made many journeys in this life of mountains and valleys entirely on my own. Recovery from severe depression is not one of them…….

It’s a tough call leading an extreme climb without the security of a top rope. Faith is the huge factor. But what happens when you fall and come adrift from life’s cliff-face, when your confidence, if not your body, hits rock-bottom and you lose the light of day?

Three years of night vision, thinking it would never get light again and then the first miraculous glimmer, like the first green flush of Spring in the trees. The ascent is a climb of many pitches and there are many attempts before progress is felt. But with the postcards I received from the Alps, the Tatras and the encouragement of friends and their vocal ground support, I climbed back to the heights I used to rand beyond, leaving the depths of dark crevassfirmly behind. (Left – Climbing on Skye Cuillins)

Climbing Metaphorical Mountains (Life’s longest climb)

Numbed to the core,
craving the security of a sheltered coire,
I felt tiny and vulnerable in this expanse of fear.
Where was I to go?
What bearing was I on?
I had circled this cairn several times now.
There seemed no end to this climb.
Each lonely step led nowhere.
Familiar features felt unknown to me.
Yet I had been to this summit so many times before in the past.
Would I be left in a constant state of circumnavigation for the rest of my empty days?
My angst grew as I felt exposed to this reality.
I had got myself to this point and there felt like no moving on.
I halted to consider my options.
That was a mistake as I realised that I felt I had none.
It was as though I was on another planet
an alien to myself and my surroundings.
The wonders of maps and the information they provided were lost on me
and indeed I was lost on them.
I needed a guide to lead me home to safety
as the situation was fast becoming a living nightmare.
I closed my eyes and hoped that when I opened them
I might recognize my whereabouts and find a leader at my side.
but a biting wind tore in around my face
and still fear gnawed my lonely being.
An escape route back to the friendship of a familiar glen
and the reeking lum of a bothy had to exist somewhere.
It was my only hope.
My agitated feet led me downhill, now cloaked in a veil of mist.
with only ptarmigan calls for company,
It was a tough call to maintain my faith and carry on.
At the bottom of an endless descent, a miraculous sight awaited.
Gathered there around the bothy fire, all my friends were waiting
to welcome me back after my life’s longest climb.
It was so good to be back home…….
It had taken three years to find that bothy door and the warmth of welcome within……
Numbed and unfeeling, longing for the thaw to take place around the warmth of the fire,
I have so appreciated my raw feelings again, the reconnection with self that depression takes away so cruelly.

Undoubtedly the singularly most important thing you can do for someone suffering mental distress is to be there for them.

Mountaineering friends support each other when they go out in the mountains because of their remote setting should anything go wrong and additional help is needed. They stick together when the going gets tough. On a solo expedition for three years due to depression and remote from me, my true friends were never far from my side and when I was ready to enter their group shelter the welcome was uniformly huge which is more than can be said for the shelter!

It was back in Spring 2002 when I first felt detached from myself and my emotional tapestry. Friends tried to encourage me out into the hills but my heart simply wasn’t in it and for the first time in my life I was turning back on hill expeditions, feeling emotionally numb. Before, if I had turned back it was due to external factors such as blizzard conditions or lack of daylight, but now I had something holding me back big time coming from deep within me, a force I could not understand as it was so alien to my essential being. The joy I had always known of reaching summits had vanished as I fell victim to…

“A Tsunami of the Mind”

A gathering storm, a dark horizon,
a tidal wave, an avalanche,
a gargantuan force which engulfs you,
swallowing you whole,
showing no mercy.
Disappearing into its jaws,
devoid of light, a prison cell,
a feeling of being punished.
No way out, no chink of light.
Time has no meaning in this dark world.
The hands of the clock have stopped.
It’s like a living death.

Another poem, entitled “Lost” vividly describes my turmoil in those early days of darkness:

Lost

A hill fog like no other, descended on me,
leaving a featureless mindscape.
No points of reference, an emotional detachment,
I circled cairns on mountains with no names.
I had no maps to plot their locations,
no means of making sense of this blank parchment.
My orientation felt uphill all the way.
exhausted by a fruitless quest,
I collapsed by the trackside of life,
left on the margins merely to exist.

Looking back to when I was in hospital and gradually rebuilding my physical strength after dropping to just five stones in weight, the first thing I reconnected with was walking and appreciating the trees in the hospital grounds. I had felt totally detached and in a mindspace where appreciation of anything was barred but then I began to reach for my camera when I went out on walks of increasing length, revisiting favourite places. I was, in effect, coming home to myself as I began to emerge from the fog of depression.

Further along the road to recovery, I began to write poetry which I found very cathartic. One of my earliest ones was called “A Scottish Romance” which was written on a bus journey up the A9 admiring the hills:

A Scottish Romance

To fall in love with a landscape
is to caress the gentle folds of the hills,
to gaze at the purple haze of the moors,
to stand and admire the elegant pebbled meanders of rivers,
to feel small and insignificant beside the tall, dark and handsome pines,
to waltz into the dappled light of forest leaves.
What a canvas to behold….
Nature’s art is one of beauty, has the power to heal.
my heart beats with a wondrous passion, so enthralled am I.
I’ll get back to these glens, these hills, these friends
as my love for them will never die.

In the first autumn of getting out of hospital, I went with the An Teallach club up to their hut, Strawberry Cottage in Glen Affric…

A Gift of Gold

Silhouettes of twisted pines and darkened shapes of Affric hills
a star-spangled night canopy with a moon of gold
set the scene for entry into this “other” world.
Out of the cold and into the heat of the fire,
warm greetings, much storytelling, a nightcap and finally bed.
Awakening to hillsides ablaze with bracken, rowan and birch,
fibrous, textured tweed of tawny hues,
waterfalls cascading down rocky ravines,
the lively gushing sound of water bringing the canvas to life.
Emerging then into sun-filled corries,
the beating heart of the mountain scene .
With roars of stags reverberating off rock-strewn expanses.
Suddenly a bubbling stream to refresh our senses,
dulled by sweat and toil of strenuous ascent.
The sky behind the col of azure blue beckoning us to climb higher.
Breathing the fresh air only to be found in rocky heights,
we finally reached the summit cairn.
The reward we there found, a vast arena of hills and an enormous sense of space.
We sat to take in the many rich tones of this veritable Jacob’s coat
Nature’s tapestry on a grand scale lay before us.
Hills forever, forever hills.
A friend remembered, her presence felt.
This was her favourite playground.
Vast horizons lure the gaze.
I steal some spiritual time.
Reluctantly we fly the eyrie
to downward glen swoop from bealach to glen.
Our spirits had soared like an eagle’s flight.
Inside our hearts were singing.
Uplifted by colours, sounds and sights.
Friends forever, forever friends….

I also climbed my first Munros after a gap of three years, including my friend, Alison’s last one. For me that summit presence had huge significance in the celebration of my recovery and the sheer appreciation of being there amongst friends. At my lowest ebb I never thought I would ever experience that shared enjoyment so unique to the hills again.

Another cause for celebration was the fact that Norma had taken up the reins of organising the MCofS mountaineering course for visually-impaired people at Glenmore Lodge which I set up following a visit to India in 2000. She was determined, when I became ill, that the course did not go down the tubes so wholly to her credit, the course is now in its 8th year. I now take a backseat as a pair of eyes on the course. I am proud of her achievement and the opportunities she has enabled for others like herself, to enjoy the adrenaline-filled outdoors. The course was featured on BBC’s “Landward” programme in October 2006 and through it Norma already has enough bookings for two courses.

In February 2006 Norma and I flew out to Kolkata together to re-visit Darjeeling and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute where the inspiration for the course came from. We went trekking along the Singaliridge between India and Nepal with one of the mountain guides called Pasang I had met back in 1999. We reached 12,000ft at Sandakhpu with tears filling my eyes as we watched sunrise over Everest and Kanchenjunga. It was something I had never imagined being able to do again.

Yet another mountaineering milestone was my first ever Alpine meet in August 2006 to Saas Grund in Switzerland with the Ladies Scottish Climbing Club.  Thanks to the financial support of the Scottish Mountaineering Trust I was able to take an Alpine training course from Robin Beadle for 3 days before the start of the meet to learn how to move safely across Alpine terrain with a view to organising an Alpine expedition for visually-impaired people in the future.

During my time out there I climbed three Alpine 4000m peaks including the Allalinhorn, Lagginhorn and the unforgettable traverse of the Weissmies, thanks to Kate and Jerry.It was the icing on my recovery cake.

I was, like you, I imagine, under the impression that I would never experience depression to the extent that it almost claimed my life but there are fortunately two ends to every tunnel and if you are lucky in the extreme to have the sort of friends I have had around me, your journey toward recovery will be eased greatly…

If you know anyone going through a similar “Tsunami” please just be there for them and have faith in them. In their own time they too will recover…

If you’d like to share your own experiences or read more recovery stories please visit SRN’s story-sharing website Write to Recovery: www.writetorecovery.net.