Many of us think of mental illness as binary. You’re either mentally ill, or you’re not. But mental health has similarities to physical health. There’s no switch, no on or off position. It’s a continuum. Some people are really mentally healthy. Others are very mentally ill. And in between are the rest of us, moving back and forth along the bell curve between the two extremes. Acknowledging this continuum, and the fact that most of us progress back and forth along it, helps to reduce stigma.
This column is an account of how I navigated from one side of the bell curve, to the other. Recently I was feeling down. It’s something I go through sometimes. Travel, a heavy work week with evening events, not enough sleep. My low point came the week before I was scheduled to travel to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to participate in the Mountain Man Memorial March, which amounts to a marathon’s worth of hiking with weighted ruck sacks through the Great Smoky Mountains.
I thought about cancelling. But the MMMM is an event created to honour the sacrifices of fallen servicemen and -women in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in conflicts all around the world. My flirting with burnout was nothing compared to the situations confronted by the people being honoured, let alone the people doing the event, some of them missing arms or legs after being wounded during their service. Others were active servicemembers accustomed to conducting operations in deserts, encumbered by 50-75 pounds of battle armour and other equipment. Plus, I was conducting the event with my son, RJ, and his reserve officer training corps (ROTC) unit.
Gatlinburg feels like the city of Niagara Falls crossed with a ski town. It’s set in a valley surrounded by green hills. There’s a space needle not unlike the CN Tower, and an aerial cable-car system throughout the town. On the morning of the march, I woke up early, laced on a pair of hiking boots and headed out to join RJ and his fellow ROTC cadets at the start.
RJ is in his sophomore year of college at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. As a participant in the U.S. Army’s ROTC program, he’ll graduate from this civilian school with a four-year college degree, then serve four years as an active-duty commissioned officer, starting as a second-lieutenant commanding a platoon of approximately 30 servicemembers. After that, he’ll serve another four years as a reserve officer.
I learned a lot about my son on the trip. RJ’s friends in his ROTC unit are about the same age he is. They’re 19 and 20 years old, but they feel like they’re 25, perhaps because of the confidence that they’ve developed from their military training.
Many kids RJ’s age are preoccupied with keg parties and the rituals of the Greek social calendar. But my conversations with RJ and his friends revealed that they were preoccupied by the prospect of leading men and women into dangerous situations.
The route ascended and descended through beautiful green hills. We trudged through towns, past rural settlements. Around mile 20, during a steep ascent, my energy level was flagging. Every step was painful.
I passed a man carrying a pack on which was pinned a picture of Major Doug Zembiec, who was at the U.S. Naval Academy at the same time that I was, and became known as the Lion of Fallujah for his heroic service in Iraq. He was killed in action leading a raid in Baghdad in 2007. I thought a lot about the Canadian men and women I knew from my leadership at True Patriot Love, who had so inspired me with their sacrifices. And I thought about RJ and his fellow ROTC cadets, trudging along in full combat fatigues with rucksacks heavier than mine, struggling like I was and pushing ahead just the same.
Sometimes when we focus on the finish line we don’t experience the journey and the thought of hiking or running over 26 miles can become overwhelming. But I found the power to endure through the example set by my son, and the people all around me. Being part of a group with a common goal was tremendously empowering.
Mindfulness techniques also helped. Rather than thinking about the six miles ahead of me, I tried to stay in the moment, to focus on the single step I happened to be taking. Then the next one. Before too long, the intense pain passed, and an hour later I trudged over the finish line with RJ and his friends. That night I slept great. On the Monday after, rather than depleted, I felt energized.
Life is a series of highs and lows. Like the Smoky Mountain trek. To minimize the lows I try to exercise daily, eat well, and get enough sleep—at least seven hours. But sometimes such wellness routines aren’t enough. Life gets you down. In the end, I was glad I had gone to the Smoky Mountains. The challenge was just what I needed. It reminded me to be grateful—for my life, for the sacrifices military men and women had made for me, and for this event, which allowed me to see how my oldest son was already a man.