Friday, August 22, 2014

Foot injury- Depressive spirals

The PCT has a way of bringing you face to face with your demons.  You know, those things you’ve spend your whole life trying to escape, trying not to face.  It’s one of the best and most difficult things about long-distance hiking, and about the journey that has continued for me as I’ve been off the trail healing for the past few month from a stress fracture.

A week out of the CAM boot, I was still trying to tell if my foot was fully healed.  In the parking lot at Donner Pass, walking towards the PCT trailhead about to go on another short dayhike to test my foot, I felt a shooting pain in my foot at the stress fracture site.  Fuck!  What was happening?  Was the bone not healed?  Did I reinjure it?  It was clear and intense pain.    
This pain was off the charts. -from Hyperbole and a Half
As I hobbled back to the car, that pain let loose something inside of me.  Sorrow I didn’t know I still carried exploded.  It was as if all the inner peace I’d been feeling had evaporated, and all that was left inside me was emptiness and despair:

I was a failure.  The one thing I loved the most, I was an utter failure at.   I was mad that my friends were still on the trail and I wasn't.  I was pissed off that I still couldn't find something to blame for the stress fracture.  The entire universe was unfair and I hated everyone and everything.  I was fed up at myself for waiting around months thinking I would get back on the trail.  Why couldn't I give up and find something else to do?  My life was meaningless. 

I sat in the car for a while while the sky opened up and the rain fell hard.

I was mad at myself for being so narrowly focused that I had nothing else in my life besides hiking the PCT.   Here was the awful demon I had to face:  I didn’t have another single goal to focus my life on after the PCT.  The PCT was everything.  Hiking was everything.  My life was unbalanced and limited.  It felt like I had lost interest in everything in my pursuit of the PCT, neglected my career, pushed aside other interests like trapeze, botany, books, movies, and other areas like family, relationships, community.  Now I had nothing.
Ripples on the pond.
I'd had a plan to camp at the trailhead at the PCT after the hike.  But I was too upset.  For the past 8 weeks I'd been longing for the trail, homesick for it because the trail felt like home.  But feeling that pain, the trail didn't feel like home anymore.  Nowhere felt like home.  I was totally adrift.

The next few days sucked.  I had to stay off my foot again as I waited for my appointment with the physical therapist.  No more walking.  My foot kept feeling tight.  I became convinced that the random twinges in my foot meant it was all over.  That I wasn’t getting back on the PCT.  That maybe I would never hike again.  I could feel my heart fracturing too.  My big dream that I’d been working towards for the past 5 years- hiking the PCT- that dream was over.  This injury that I thought I was slowly recovering from, this huge major hurdle that I thought I was making headway on, because of this setback, it was showing me that I had nothing.  No purpose, no passion, no home.  That I was nothing.  I wasn’t a hiker.  I would never make it to Canada.  I started looking at one way flights out of California.  I wanted to run away from everything and be far away from the PCT.

How many mental pits of despair was I gonna fall into and then have to drag myself out of on this frickin’ journey?  A journey that was suppose to be traveled on the PCT but which now taking me WAY beyond that.

I swam more circles around in the pond and looked at the sky.   There were clouds high up.  Birds.  I felt the cool resistance of the water against my skin.  I had never done much swimming before the stress fracture, but as I did circles, day after day, I noticed I was get stronger.  I thought that maybe I was even sort of starting to like swimming.
Ah clouds.
I went to yoga.  The people in my class were friendly and I liked chatting with them before class.  I started to loosen up and feel flexible.  I breathed, stretched, balanced.  I was doing poses I’d never done before.

Then, because I am a planner even when I don’t feel like I have anything in life I want to plan, I started to make lists.  I began with a list of everything I’ve always wanted to do that I could still do if my foot never healed: kayaking, biking, travel, climbing.  I listed classes I’d wanted to take but never had enough time: master naturalist, LNT master educator, wilderness first responder, native plant certificates.  I read job postings that sounded exciting and meaningful.  Things that were different but still used my skills.  Things that I wanted to learn to do.  Steph encouraged me to work on my resume.  Now, ‘After the PCT’ is not a big black hole of nothingness.  I wasn’t just a hiker after all, there was so much more to my life.  The world is my home, not just the PCT or any trail for that matter.  Wherever I go, that can be home if I want.  I’d just lost sight.
Seeing the possibility of balance.
Then, because I am an eternal optimist at heart even in my most darkest moments, I allowed that someday I might hike again, and if so, I looked at all the trails I wanted to do besides the PCT.  I dug out an old lists of winter hikes I’d started to plan: the Florida Trail, the Benton Mackaye Trail, the Pinhoti Trail.   I even got out my big spreadsheet I’ve been keeping over the years of all the long trails I wanted to do and the best seasons to do each section of them in.  I started it back when I wanted to section hike each long trail piece by piece and do each section according to best season for wildflowers and fall leaf peak.  I realized the PCT wasn’t the end.  It never was.


Oh yeah, about the pain in my foot.

When I talked to my hiking mentor, she told me that thing I felt in my foot might be a "pop" that can be the foot readjusting after being immobile for so long.  So it all clicked- this has been part of the (very long) healing process.

This was confirmed by the physical therapists- he did not think I needed to go back into the boot or that I had re-injured my foot.  He recommended I rest a few more days, and then try hiking again.  When I got back on the trail for a short dayhike, an amazing thing happened- I didn't feel any pain.  On the next few dayhikes, the twinges and nerves were gone.  It still feels weak, there is a loss in flexibility, and there is muscle-soreness after only a few miles, but I also felt some of this in my non-injured foot.

Basically, that "pop" I felt that sent me into a depressive spiral was really something that just needed to happen to set everything back in place again.  Phew!!! I feel like I’m on the slow road back to recovery once again.
Resting the feet on a dayhike.


  1. Joan, a similar thing happened with my ankle when I broke it. I had broken just my fibula ... the bone you can feel on the outside of your ankle, just above the "ankle bone". And I had to be in a boot for 8 weeks.

    When I got out of the boot, I was aghast to find I'd lost just about ALL range of motion in my ankle. It was stiff, sore, and walking was super awkward without that ankle's normal ROM.

    So, being a hiker, I figured getting out on the trails would be best for it (sound familiar??? ... that's called hiker logic !!) Honestly ... I figured the uneven, irregular surface of the trails, combined with their softer/dirt surface would be just what was needed.

    Well, I hadn't gotten more than 1/2 mile, and just like you described, I felt a POP and a sharp stabbing pain, and the ankle really hurt. But hey ... I was a half mile out, and had to get back to the car, so I hobbled back the way I came, and the more I walked, the better the ankle felt!! By the time I was back to the car, just about all the soreness was gone, and I definitely had more ROM!!

    Now, granted, I wasn't in the middle of a life long dream on the PCT or anything ... just off work for 8 weeks (which wasn't so bad!). But just wanted to share that this may be "normal" for a limb that has been kept immobile for weeks on end.

    Hang in there!!

    BTW .. did you see that 25 miles of the PCT in Oregon had to be closed due to fire? Story here:

    1. Thank you so much, Brenda, for sharing your experience with your own "POP" after being in the boot. I sure hope other people can read these accounts and know this type of thing is normal.

      I laughed so much when I read your term "hiker logic" because I totally know what you mean. Our brains do get wired certain ways after being on the trail. :)

      Thanks for passing the fire closure info on. I'm still not sure I'll make it that far, but I'm watching the reports.

      Hope all is going well with you!

  2. Joan, I think you are doing awesome. It seems like everyone has a different journey on the PCT, and as agonizing and frustrating as your recovery has been, it sounds like you are still on the path towards what you are journeying for. I think it takes a very strong and wise person to be able to take a deep breath, feel your emotions, and identify what they are telling you, like you did. Very inspiring! I am very glad your foot is feeling better!

    1. Thanks, Chantal! This was a tough post to write and I almost didn't publish it cause it felt so raw and I was worried about what you all would think of me. But this makes me glad I shared it all with you.

  3. Awwwwww. I remember after my knee surgery in 2007, and realizing I *should* probably never run a marathon again. My choice was this: try to get under four hours and qualify for Boston, or still be running/hiking at 80. I was always focused on running...and then I became a long distance hiker. I actually love it MORE than I ever loved running. So...not saying you won't return to hiking because I know you will. But I am glad to see you are looking at other options. You have a great attitude. Maybe next year we can meet up and hike a few miles. I'm going to try the Tolumne to Sierra City section.

    1. OMG I'm so glad its not just me that struggles to make these choices. It's so difficult to shift perspective from 'what do I want to do right now' to 'what is best for long term health and for my body.' I just wish I didn't get so overwhelmed with all the gear for kayaking because otherwise I think I could totally get into that. New skills to learn and probably a chance to meet some cool people too.

      Would love to meet up next year- keep me in mind!!!

  4. You are so so human! I just loved this post!
    Thank you for sharing such passion.

  5. I really love this post, so insightful.

    Any chance in getting a copy of your spreadsheet? I too love wildflowers and fall foliage.