I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of phoenixes (phoeni??). According to Greek mythology, they acquire new life by rising from their own ashes. They’re often used as a metaphor for surviving a setback, and moving on in life– rising triumphantly like a phoenix from the ashes. How wonderful it would be if we as humans could so as easily as this mythical creature.
Except… what if, try as we might, we can’t? What if one particular setback hits us much harder than it should and we can’t get over the mental hurdle that is our own negativity? How can we cope and move on?
*Note: I want to clarify that the purpose of this post isn’t to discuss hugely traumatic life events (ie, loss of a loved one, illness, etc). I’m certainly not qualified to discuss how to cope with events like that. More importantly, I am not implying at all that my experiences in this post are all that terrible, or comparable to such traumatic events – I know that in the grand scheme of things, I don’t have it all that bad at all. But our emotions are a funny thing, and sometimes, a fairly minor event can affect us; that’s what I’d like to discuss here.
Back in May, I decided to book the trip of a lifetime to Everest Base Camp. I certainly was not/am not the most fit person, but from all my research, including speaking with 2 people who have done it, the physical challenges would be manageable. I was told to get used to walking for a few hours, ideally with a loaded-up backpack to simulate the weight I’d be carrying during the trek. I was also advised to get in “good” cardio shape (though this is a frustratingly subjective term) and to balance out the cardio exercise with some strength training, particularly for leg muscles. Overall, I wasn’t too concerned about dealing with the physical aspects, because I would just take it slow, and if 60 years olds could do it, surely I could as well!
I spent the next few months going for hikes; but admittedly, on fairly flat terrain, as that was the only option in the concrete jungle I live in. It was nice to be able to explore more of my city, discover green spaces that I didn’t know existed, and I found that hiking was a beautiful, relaxing outlet for me. I tried to balance hiking out with gym sessions (though truth be told, after a few months I started to lose steam and got lazy about the gym). I can’t say that over those months, I felt myself getting particularly stronger or fitter – but I did what I could and tried to make it enjoyable for myself.
But one thing that nagged at me throughout my training was the problem posed by the altitude – a problem that unfortunately, had no solution. Coming from a city that’s basically at sea level, I had no experience in a high-altitude climate, had never done a trek even close to this before, and was worried about how I’d be able to handle it. I read about the warning signs of Acute Mountain Sickness, got the Diamox altitude sickness pills, and prayed that I’d be able to finish the trek. I hoped against all hope that if I wasn’t able to make it to base camp, I would at least not be the only one in the tour group; the only thing worse than not completing something is being the only one to not complete something. No one likes being on the bottom.
Of course, the exact thing that I was worried about happening is what happened; isn’t that always the way?
A few days into the trek, I started experiencing a headache in the back of my head; according to the tour guides, that was problematic. A headache in the front of your head is normal, and can be alleviated with ibuprofen. Headaches in the back of one’s head are more serious and caused by altitude. Aside from taking diamox and going slowly, the only “cure” was to descend. My original prescription for diamox was half a tablet, twice a day. My tour guide started giving me full tablets which I dutifully took. I did our daily treks at a super slow pace, drank tons of water and despite my loss of appetite, tried to eat as much as I could to keep up my strength (usually just half a portion of plain rice and potatoes).
Things didn’t seem to improve. The damn headache in the back of my head wouldn’t go away, and I got weaker and weaker. I couldn’t walk up more than a few stairs without getting winded and needing to catch my breath. Even walking on flat terrain started getting difficult, and I couldn’t believe how tired I would get after the smallest of movements. One of my rooms had an in-room bathroom, and one of the fun side effects of the diamox is you have to go to the washroom ALL. THE. DAMN. TIME (I think one night was a record 6 times). I’d wake up, walk the 5 steps to the washroom, and the 5 steps back, and literally be huffing and puffing as I sat back in my bed, because that tiny bit of walking tired me out so much. We were at 55% oxygen, and breathing became difficult. I found it hard to take deep breaths, as I’d get this pain in my chest, so I was stuck with shallow breaths to steady myself.
And to top it all off, I started getting a cold, and could barely sleep through the night because of incessant coughing. It was a grand old time.
I feel superrr dramatic and over the top writing all this out, because quite frankly, it’s only base camp. People do the full SUMMIT ffs and don’t have such harrowing tales! (well, maybe they do, I don’t actually know. I’ve never known anyone who did the summit, but even if they were this dramatic, it would be much more well deserved).
Finally, in the morning with 1 more day to go, my tour guide suggested that I descend a few hundred metres. If the only issue had been how weak and tired I was, there might have been options, but the fact that the headache at the back of my head wasn’t going away was problematic. At that point, all was not lost though; he said that if I felt better the next day, I could still make the trek to base camp. Because that option was still on the table, I didn’t put up much of an argument, and make the descent with an assistant guide.
Looking back on this trip as a whole, this is the part I’m most angry at myself for – I wish I hadn’t listened and had at least attempted to do the trek of that day.
I had high hopes that my headache would go away, and like the revered phoenix, I’d rise from the depths of this challenge and finish the trek. Except, that’s not how it played out. The next morning, I *thought* my head felt better, and we gingerly set out to hike. If I was going to make it, it would going to be a hell of a long day – at least 9 hours of hiking, but likely more, given how slowly I was going and how many breaks I needed to take. I tried and tried to push onwards, but the headache was getting worse and worse. I tried to ignore it at first, but a little voice kept nagging at me. I started getting visions of swelling of the brain and horrible medical things happening to me.
I also started remembering scenes from the 2015 movie “Everest” (fantastic movie, side note, highly recommend), and thinking to myself that a trip like this isn’t worth something bad happening. And then the CRAZY dramatic side of me started thinking that if something did happen, my family would never be able to move on or forgive themselves, etc etc. With those paranoid, dramatic thoughts running through my head, I decided to call it and turn back. There were still almost 6 hours left to hike that day alone, not to mention the 5 or so hours I’d still have left to do the next day to continue onto base camp. At the time, I just didn’t think I had the stamina to do it without compromising my health.
And not only did I not make it, but in my group of 20 people, including 3 much older people, I was the only one who didn’t make it.
It was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make in my life, and although I’ve been back for a few weeks now, I still haven’t been able to shake off my feelings of failure and disappointment. This is where I start to feel ridiculously emo, because there’s really no reason why I should be THIS down and depressed about it, especially so many weeks after the fact. But I just can’t help it – and every time I come across another damn photo of my tour group at base camp, or even the cooler scenery shots that I didn’t get to experience on the way up, it upsets me all over again.
It’s gotten me thinking about *why* it’s bothered me so much. Of course, it’s a disappointing end that would get to anyone. But I recognize that it’s probably not normal for it to be upsetting me to the degree it has been. I suspect it’s because of the following…
I have generally felt stagnant in my life and feeling like I haven’t accomplished anything in the past 5 years or so. Maybe that’s normal once people finish school; school provides an easy way to receive tangible “accomplishments”. Simply going to work every day doesn’t leave me with that same return, and I don’t regularly speak at conferences, publish papers or get awards, or get those other accolades that make it easier to say “I achieved this”. And without getting too specific, the path my career took is not what I envisioned. Despite multiple attempts over the years to steer it towards what I am aiming for, it simply hasn’t worked out. Don’t get me wrong; objectively, I’ve done and accomplished things that I could certainly list that would sound great on paper. But it just doesn’t feel like enough, and I still feel unsatisfied. One notable thing I did last year was complete my first race, a half-marathon. However, that was done with a ton of help from my then-boyfriend, who really guided me through the whole training process. As happy as I am to have done it, I don’t particularly feel as though it was something I can say I achieved on my own. And to be frank, it still doesn’t even feel like a real success – it just doesn’t feel like enough.
So in short, I wanted to do base camp to be able to say that I achieved something big, completely on my own. And I timed it so that it would have happened before my 30th birthday.
With so much riding on this trip, I guess it makes sense that it upset me so much to not make it to base camp. Not only did I not achieve my goal, but it just feels like yet another failure, marking another ho-hum year with no accomplishments. Like the straw that broke the camel’s back, if the camel was feeling dejected and unaccomplished in life.
It’s been no secret that not making it to base camp has gotten me down. I’ve been given all of the correct advice, and been told the same reasonable, rational things I’d tell a friend in the same situation, including:
- Most people wouldn’t even attempt something this difficult, so kudos for even trying
- It’s not worth the potential risk of endangering your health
- Don’t think you gave up lightly, it was the right thing to do given what was going on
- You still make it for most of the trek and had a cool experience
All of the above is absolutely right. But there’s something inside of me that just won’t accept it and move on. I just continue to wallow and be depressed about it, and I can’t even get myself to post pictures from my trip.
I think I need to find some way to cope with all of this so that, as the great Oasis put it, I don’t look back in anger on my Nepal experience. I need to find a way to be at peace with the outcome, find the positives in the experience and get to a point where I’m not filled with bitterness and resentment about my perceived failure. Where I don’t curse myself and regret the day I descended, instead of pushing onwards.
And more importantly, I need to find a way to be at peace with my life and appreciate my successes on the whole. This trip has clearly highlighted that there is a void that I’m feeling, and I shouldn’t ignore it any longer.
I write this on the last day of my twenties. Tomorrow, I turn 30 and begin a new decade and chapter in my life. My spirits were lifted this weekend by a party with dear friends, and I know I have a lot to be thankful for. Not many people can say they have their health, the love of family and friends, a job they don’t hate and the personal and financial freedom to travel and enjoy life. But somehow…it just doesn’t feel like enough.
It may well be that all these feelings are now heightened by my 30th birthday. Birthdays have a weird way of making us weirdly introspective, dark and moody as we reflect on our lives. It may be that in a few weeks, this cloud will lift and I won’t be so glum. Only time will tell. But the fact that it’s even possible for me to feel this way tells me I should take action, and I’m oddly excited at the prospect of a self-improvement journey, and being my own phoenix.
If anyone has any thoughts or coping mechanisms, or even a story they’d feel comfortable sharing, I’d love to hear it!