Daydreams and Nightmares, Mental Illness and the Outdoors


“They’ve promised that dreams can come true – but forgot to mention that nightmares are dreams, too.” – Oscar Wilde

I often daydream of learning how to multipitch big walls, to one day become a speck on the face of an enormous mountain. I daydream of the mud streaks that might appear on my calves and shins while hiking incredible distances, alone among still trees. I daydream of sitting in total darkness, with the only illumination coming from the millions of fiery stars above. I daydream of reading a book by the light of a headlamp late into the night while snuggled in a sleeping bag and waking up the next morning to the smell of a still smoldering campfire.

Simultaneously, as these images flood me with passion, aspiration, and drive, pieces of me grow agitated, apprehensive, and dark.

How do I expect to enjoy climbing up a big wall while having vivid visions of my head getting smashed by a loose rock or of a bolt coming out of the wall? Or how do I expect to sit or sleep serenely in the night when my mind paints pictures of ill-willed monsters looming just beyond my sight?

Fear and doubts start to settle deep in my belly, overwhelming me with a strong sense of eminent doom. Daydreams turn into nightmares and I lose the desire to venture out.

I have General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). My baseline level of anxiety is higher than the average person. I have a near-constant belief that something is going to go wrong. On a shallow level I can understand when I am told that my worries are excessive and irrational, but to fully accept those statements takes a lot thought and work, and I rarely succeed in convincing myself of their validity.

A side effect of GAD is depression. I feel dejected by my inability and lack of courage to pursue my dreams.

Mental illness and the outdoors; the two do not play nice, are paradoxical even.

Outdoor activities are inherently scary, even adventurous people struggle to acclimate to the level of risk demanded. Outcomes are never certain.  GAD on the other hand attempts to steer life away from all possible forms of risk. GAD prefers structure and routine. When depression becomes part of the equation, any or all energy and motivation to go outside is lost.

My heart and my mind constantly pull in two different directions.

I try to consider myself lucky though. In this situation I know that it is my mind that is erring. My brain just has faulty wiring. GAD is a biological slipup cemented by environment and conditioning. When I’m outside, rock climbing, it might feel like I’ll fall off and die, but realistically I’m tied into a rope and fairly safe. Feelings and thoughts are perceptions, not reality. And unlike reality, I can change my perceptions.

This weekend, I took a step towards closing the gap between my life and my daydreams. I bought a tent and a sleeping bag. It doesn’t sound like much, but I made a financial investment in my dreams. With such a purchase I am telling myself, and the world, that believe in my ability to reach my goals despite the challenges of anxiety.


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