I put on my base layer. Patagonia long johns and a matching top. Repurposed to me, long ago. Haven’t worn them since I was mushing with Scott Smith in 2016. Socks. Double layer, it’s finally getting cold. Buff. Fleece pocketed pants, with an extra headlamp battery in one pocket and my iPod Nano in the other. A fleece top layer. I pull out my snowpants and mid weight parka and bundle them downstairs to get everything else ready. And between clothing items, I am getting more and more sniffly.
It’s been a long week. A long month, actually. Maybe a long two months.
I have 12 sled dogs, soon to be 14. I have been working full time at my regular job, mushing, working on two different side projects which could each, themselves, constitute another full time job, and trying desperately to keep the house kind of clean and keep the gears turning. Plus, I’ve driven down to Anchorage for the last three weekends in a row– a 5 – 7 hour drive through the Alaska range which has been quickly losing its charm. Now it’s time, on my mushing schedule, for miles to go up. I have a run to get on.
My partner is sitting on the couch watching videos on YouTube while I gather my gear together, and I become irrationally frustrated. Oh. Did I mention I’m PMSing hard core? I’m super good at that.
Why am I telling you this story, which– let me spoil it for you– just degrades in its level of dignity?
Because, for one thing, it’s the truth, and for another thing, this is part of what I came here to talk about. When I decided to start ATAO, a big part of it has been intended to be talking candidly about mental illness. And ho boy… This past month has really given me some grist for the mill.
Stressors happen. It’s part of the gig. I knew when I signed on to take care of a passel of other creatures it would entail a lot of work. I don’t mind work. In fact, I really like work. And yes, I tend to sometimes spread myself very very thin. I’d call this particular example a good lesson for myself. Sometimes that’s how life works. You do something dumb and you gain valuable education. Rafiki hits you with a stick and tells you to learn from it. So, this month gets to be a glorious, painful lesson about time management and what I can say “yes” to.
The thing is, all of that stuff is… Ultimately pretty manageable. The problem is when depression hitches a ride, too.
I have depression. I have had depression since I was a kid. Sometimes it’s worse, sometimes it’s better. It’s always lurking. It is part of who I am in the world. That’s a hard pill to swallow. But it’s also real.
When we first got here, and I was setting things up, throwing money at building platforms and play pens for puppies, at doing everything I could to get the dogs lined out… That all made me feel satisfied and peaceful, and dare I say… Happy? I was in nature and with some new best friends, and I felt absolutely like I was in the right place. The stars had aligned to get me here, to this kennel, at this time. I still think that, actually.
But a good month ago, depression popped up and said, “Oh hey! I’m still here! How’s it going? Let’s hang out.”
And we did.
Depression is like that friend who comes along to every event and complains the whole time. Or maybe slowly poisons you while you’re all laughing together. Something like that. It’s always there. Sometimes it just acts up more.
So here I am, putting on more and more winter gear, and talking to poor Shawn.
“I feel invisible!” I am wailing. Yes. Me in full glory.
Shawn is trying to calmly and logically walk me through what I need, but I don’t know the answer. I continue to step through the process of donning my cold weather gear. The temperature has dropped. On my late night run yesterday, I was colder than I expected to be. I need to be better prepared tonight. I pull my hat on over my headphones, but pull the earbuds out so I can continue the conversation.
“What do you need, though?” asks Shawn, patiently. Shawn, who has been nothing but supportive. Who scoops poop and cuddles puppies. Who is a true partner, a great teammate.
I still don’t know exactly what I need (at this point, probably sleep… it’s been a few days), and when my second to last layer, a giant purple puffy coat is on, I put my head on the kitchen table and bawl, “I’M ALOOOOOOONE!”
This, on its own, is so patently ridiculous that even though I’m crying, I can’t help but laugh at myself. My depression, kindly, usually does leave my sense of humor in tact. I let myself sob for another dramatic minute and grab a paper towel to mop up my face. It’s unfortunate no one took video of this whole thing.
Shawn gives me a look and finally says, “Maybe you don’t need to mush tonight.”
I chew this over.
This is a really hard concept for me to think about. It’s almost 9pm now. I’ve been up since 5 and I haven’t slept more than a couple hours a night for the past… week at least. But my exhaustion is laughable. In races, mushers sleep far less. In races *I* have slept far less. I am being weak!
If I skip a run, am I letting the dogs down? Shawn points out: you did a big run yesterday. You can adjust your schedule and run them tomorrow. Again, this is difficult to grasp. I made my schedule, changing it feels like failing. Another part of my brain says: that’s ridiculous. You have to be able to change, to adjust. Also, you’re not a handler any more. You make the plan. The dogs are okay. They are getting plenty of exercise. In fact, I have them on an Iditarod-level training schedule, which is kind of silly since we’re not running Iditarod this year.
One musher I used to work with said, now and then, “If you are in a bad place, don’t bring that to the dogs. Take a day off. Your attitude is the most important thing.” On the other hand, that musher was very compulsive and I’m often thinking of their level of expectation when I set my schedule and hang onto that plan. I feel this pressure not to disappoint the many years of mentorship I have behind me. I am terrified to let down any of the mushers I’ve worked with. In some way, I’m still handling for them all in my mind.
But that is ridiculous. I’m not handling. I have to make the choices myself now, and I have to take care of myself the way I would take care of any team member of ATAO. I realize, as I’m breaking down in the kitchen, that I’ve been doing a pretty bad job of that in the last few weeks. I believe, and still believe, that the dogs come first. But I haven’t been putting myself or my own “self-care” on any kind of equal or near-equal footing with that, and that’s a bad plan. If I can’t hold my own shit together, I can’t do anything good for the dogs. Enjoying mental breakdowns in the kitchen, while wearing full winter gear, does nothing for anyone… Except I do think it makes a retrospectively entertaining picture.
I make a really difficult choice. I feed the dogs. I drink a glass of water. I go to bed.
I think. I need to make a change in how I’m doing this.
I talk to another musher the next day, who laughs– What happened to the plan of having fun? She asks me.
Oh yeah. I totally forgot about that plan.
That’s what I said this year would be. Me and my six dogs, just going out, exploring trails. Having fun.
I realize, in that moment, that I have actually no idea how to “have fun” that way with a dog team. Don’t mistake me. I think mushing is really the most fun you can have. But the way I enjoy it is in that “type 2 fun” way. Where you don’t really enjoy it at the time. There are moments, of course. When the team clicks and the sun is rising and you’re cresting the summit of of some high trail. Those are glorious times. But like… Enjoying it the whole time? Mushing purely to… Have fun. Do I even know how to “have fun” in my normal life? When I try to “have fun” I mostly end up eating a lot and watching or reading a lot. In other words I binge / indulge in something. Or some things. And that ends up with… Type -1 fun. Like it feels good at the time but then later I “regretti” as Shawn and I say (after I eat too much spaghetti… it’s a thing). How do I do… just normal fun? That feels good the whole time and is not regrettable afterwards?
I have no idea.
But, it’s my new project. I’m trying. I scrapped my crazy training schedule. Shawn points out that it makes a lot more sense for me to run dogs on the weekends and do short runs on week days when I have work. This had not occurred to me at all and I consider it with some shock. “Oh yeah,” I think. “I guess I could do that.”
This is why Shawn is the “Logistics Manager” of the kennel.
I go to the dogs, who are always a comfort. I try to remember to be in the moment with them. When we take off on a run, I set no expectations for myself, not for the length of the run, not for the things we will accomplish, except that it’s fun. That the dogs are smiling and wagging their tales, and that I, proverbially, am too.
The day after my meltdown, there’s enough snow on the ground that I say: Screw it. I have five dogs. That’s a small team. They’re very good girls– they’ll listen to me while we go. I’m taking a sled.
It’s probably not the best plan to take a sled. Certainly with a bigger team it would be a very bad plan– I’d have no way to control their speed with so little snow to brake into.
I start with only four dogs. I leave Ophelia behind, because she’s a horse and I want to see how the trail goes. My girls Hooch, Bonnie, Annie, and Nala and I start down the trail.
There’s always something perfect about being on a sled again. Something that clicks and feels incredibly right. Even when the trail is fast and rocky. I have no plan for the run. We go. We go two miles, and stop back in at the kennel. I feel confident about putting Ophelia in the team, so I set up for a second round and hook her in. She is a horse, still! When we take off, it’s with a lot more power. We’re flying.
I’m not a pro at it. I couldn’t just pull “having fun” out of my back pocket. But as we coast along over the new snow with the sunset making alpenglow on the mountains, I take a breath, and feel being in the moment, as much as the dogs are, as much as I can be. I let go of all the expectations I formed for myself. Just as I did 17 years ago on my very first race, when I remembered the whole point of mushing is to have fun. To be in the moment. To smile back at your grinning dog (because dogs always know how to have fun) and know you’re a unit, a team. I call out to my good girls, and we mush.
For the moment, onward is now. For the moment, we get to go back to the plan of having fun.
*Addendum: Just to note. Choosing to “have fun” will not cure my depression. I still have depression. This is about my realization that I can alter some of my choices and specifically some of the expectations I put on myself that increase pressure and make coping a far off dream. Remembering to be in the moment is imperative for my mental health. Having fun is something I’m allowed to do, even with depression.