One of my major aspirations in life came to fruition a few years back when I finally stepped foot on the summit of Mount Everest. It was an expedition I embarked on along with my father, mother, brother and sister; and it challenged the limits of our entire beings. We had navigated a lot of complex challenges over the nearly two months we had been climbing up until that point: harrowing environmental conditions, hundreds of seemingly bottomless crevasses, oxygen deprivation, avalanches, ice slides, sicknesses, inclement weather, extreme fatigue and a plethora of others.
The area above 26,000 feet (8,000 metres) on Everest is known as the death zone, and for good reason. The available oxygen is so limited at that altitude that human cells die at an accelerated rate and the natural regeneration of cells stops. Strength and motor function deteriorate rapidly, neurological dysfunction impairs judgment to the point of delirium, blood circulation to extremities decreases, digestion slows almost to a halt, and minute by minute the human body degenerates towards unconsciousness. In a desperate attempt to endure, our body’s natural survival mechanisms suppress non-essential bodily functions in favor of diverting blood to vital organs.
These survival efforts may temporarily delay the inevitable, but if you stay too long in the death zone, you will die. The year my family and I were attempting Everest, three people had already passed away in the death zone before we got that far. Hearing about their deaths was a chilling reminder of the fragility of human life and the importance of taking such an expedition very seriously.
Climbing a mountain is rarely, if ever, a straight path. There are many ups and downs, twists and turns along the way. In the Valley of Silence above Everest Camp 1, for example, we had to climb down into deep crevasses, often spanning dark chasms below by balancing across ribs of ice and finally clambering our way up the near-vertical ice walls on the other side.
Life is like this. We are continually faced with ups and downs. But we need the valleys to be able to appreciate the peaks along the way. In a sense, we are ever ascending and descending as we prepare for and navigate the many peaks and valleys that we find ourselves traversing throughout our lives.
Some mountains we have little choice but to climb; the consequences of remaining in the valleys are beyond what we can bear, so we must clamber our way out. Other mountains, however, are our choice to scale. There is often a deep feeling of curiosity or a self-provocation making us want to confront such challenges.
I have been through a lot of exciting and hair-raising adventures throughout my life, and I’ve also been through my share of inner challenges of the mind and spirit. Although our inner challenges are a different sort of journey, they are no less challenging and important to confront and learn from.
I’ve come to realize that to be able to partake in significant adventures and make the most of life, we need to be in a healthy place psychologically. Our inner and outer mountains are very much interconnected.
When I was in high school, I developed a social phobia which eventually morphed into generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a persistent and ever-present state of worry and anxiety. I was experiencing anxiety almost all the time in those days. My anxious state had become my new baseline, fluctuating from minimally anxious on good days to horribly anxious on bad days.
Eventually, I didn’t even need a visual trigger at all in my mind. The feelings of anxiety themselves were what caused more anxiety, and this cycle continued day after day. It was truly a self-fulfilling prophecy; my symptoms themselves perpetuated the ever-present stream of additional symptoms. I hated the anxious feeling inside me, and I hated that part of me. On the outside, I became a good actor, you might say, and adopted the persona of a calm, cool and collected individual.
Most of my family and friends hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on in my life—and I wasn’t about to let them in on it for fear of having them look down on me. It’s hard to say exactly when my high levels of anxiety morphed into depression, but at one point I just started losing hope that I would ever recover, and the sadness associated with that perceived reality sank my spirits to a whole new low. I felt, almost continuously, a deep sense of sadness and hopelessness. Things that would normally cause me joy did not, or at least not nearly to the same degree. They were replaced with a dull sentiment of self-pity, a constant feeling of being sorry for myself and the dismal internal life I was struggling through.
In the end, I was more fortunate than some others who get stuck in the feedback loop indefinitely. I had the access to information, the time, the cognitive ability, and the persistence to do something about my situation. Perhaps I stumbled upon the right books at the right time, or perhaps I was just stubborn enough to refuse to give up. I think this stubbornness, which also had an element of persistence and resilience fused with it, was an important factor in my recovery. It also took a lot of courage to face internal challenges, and I am proud of myself for being willing and able to take the necessary steps.
I’m not sure exactly when and why I made the decision to start taking a deep dive into psychology. I had a career in engineering! But I recall that at a certain point, years into the disorder, I decided that enough was enough. Rather than continuing along the path that I had been on for many years, I was going to devote my energy to self-education, figuring out what was at the root of my anxiety and depression, and finding effective cognitive strategies where I could see results. I also decided that I was willing to go through whatever frightening or uncomfortable situations presented themselves along the way, and I wasn’t going to let anyone or anything get in the way of my doing so.
For me, my path to recovery from depression took me on an extraordinary journey. With the volunteer speaking engagements I was doing, ironically, I began to start to enjoy public speaking. That which I feared most became a true passion of mine, and now I travel all over the world delivering presentations and workshops to groups of sometimes over a thousand people at a time. I found my deeper passion, decided to pursue it, and have found a fulfilling path that I truly enjoy.
If you are embarking on a similar mental-health journey, I commend you for your own resolution and I want to encourage you to persevere. You may still feel like you are frozen at the base of your mountain and are being knocked back down with every step you attempt, but even the wrong steps tell you something: what paths to avoid. You will find a foothold eventually, and in the meantime, you can feel good about your own courage and determination.
This is an edited excerpt from the book, “Summits of Self: The Seven Peaks of Personal Growth” by Alan Mallory.