On March 20, 2018 I set out into the wilderness of Georgia on an adventure that took me through snow, sleet, extreme heat, and countless days of rain. Day after day I pushed myself to the limit, hiking eight hours or more with a 30-pound pack on my back. Nature became my home and stinky hikers became family and much needed support.
After five and a half months and 2,189 miles I completed my 2018 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Standing atop Mt. Kathadin, the end of this epic adventure, I felt so proud of how far I have come physically, and more importantly how far I have come mentally. It seems like yesterday that depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress from my military service would never again allow me to attempt, enjoy, or complete many things, and definitely not a voyage that spanned 14 states from the woods of Georgia to the mountains of Maine, all on foot. Nature, thru-hiking, and the communities that surround trails have given me the ability to better manage my mental health, allowing me to be more social, joyful, and confident.
November 11, 2018 is Veterans Day. As a veteran I constantly think about my military service. The great people I served with, the places I saw, and the things that I learned. I also think a lot about the sacrifice, struggles and the loss that occurs in our community. The veterans out in the world looking for any way to get a grasp on their mental health while searching for the person they feel they once were are never far from my mind.
My hope is that my brothers and sisters in arms will hear my story and see what one of their own has accomplished despite PTSD and see that their own personal struggles with mental health can be overcome. Anger, frustration, fear, and pain do not have to be permanent barriers keeping you from accomplishing all you want in life. They are simply road blocks that may slow you down a little on your path to happiness. On this date, the guarantee that I will be joined by people all over the country in thanking, honoring, and remembering the great members of our armed forces will be paired with knowledge that sharing some of my personal struggles and triumphs on a large platform will inspire some much-needed healing.
For those of you who have loved ones suffering from PTSD and other mental health problems, I offer these suggestions that helped me. Keep in mind these are just a few things that helped me, not a medical treatment plan.
Encourage them to speak to a mental healthcare professional – From medication to counseling the VA mental health department has many treatment plans that may help manage the symptoms of PTSD.
Learn about PTSD – Just a quick Google search will generate many results. You can read about PTSD, its symptoms and even testaments from other veterans dealing with mental health conditions. This will give a better understanding of what your veteran is going through. Many of times I hid what I was going through out of fear of being labeled as crazy due to the fact that a lot of people lacked the knowledge of what PTSD is.
Help erase the feeling of isolation – This can be done by talking and listening to them often. Sports, movies, new shows or whatever that comes to mind that can be seen as stress/drama free. These talks do not need to be military-related unless the veteran wants to talk about what they have gone through. The important thing is just keeping your loved one engaged, socially warding off the feeling of isolation.
Give them space and time when needed – Days of frustration become so much worse when someone is constantly asking you what is bothering you. When these days occur show them that you are there for them but then allow them to calm down and engage you with their problem at their own time.
Encourage Exercise – Hiking has provided me with a way to work out my daily frustration while offering me a safe place that is distraction free, giving me the ability to think important things out. I have met many veterans that do things like going on walks, going to the gym, or like me, hiking in nature.
For more information on conditions that affect mental health, resources, and research, visit www.mentalhealth.gov, and to find a VA Hospital for information on PTSD visit https://www.va.gov/directory/guide/PTSD.asp.
-Will ‘Akuna’ Robinson