I’m the kind of person that has an unquenchable thirst for places with few people. I’m not just talking about being alone. I like that a lot too, but being alone in my apartment or car or even in a small corner of a library isn’t really the same. Those places, while they are all cool in their own ways, still have an outside structure imposed on them, one invented by people and policed by social norms. They have artificial light and man and machine made sound. Being alone in them just lacks something, ignores a need I have that can’t be met by neat cul-de-sacs or the manicured crushed gravel trails of city parks. I need variety, organic shapes, natural light, obstacles in my path and the kind of silence where your voice, if you had reason to use it at all, would be heard by no one and would cause the air around you to seemingly break, those natural sounds pausing and disappearing in response to the intrusion.
I like a certain untamed yet purposeful chaos in my settings. That’s why, I think, I’m so drawn to the wild.
I’ve never lived in an actual “city” until last year, at least not one with a downtown of skyscrapers and with public transit. Mostly I’ve lived in homogeneous, boring suburbs or the edge of the country somewhere, with just enough space to rarely see your neighbors and make a riding mower a necessity. Here, I’m scrounging out a new chapter in my life in more ways than one and (mostly) love it. It’s nice to not have to drive a half an hour to get toilet paper when you run out, for starters, ad museums and libraries help support the habit of my inner culture junkie. But the longer I’m here, the more I’ve noticed how PLACE affects me. Especially since I have been here, I’ve noticed a bigger change in my moods, the quality of my sleep, my relationships, and even my health.
Every weekend, if not more often, I feel this overwhelming sense of being disconnected and lost , almost like I fell asleep and woke up in some clinical white rat maze in an undisclosed location. What’s more, I already come prepackaged with a mental illness, so that disorienting sense of being boxed in and yet somehow isolated while in the midst of the noise and bustle of hundreds makes for some pretty rough moments. It also makes me question my decision making skills and why I ever came here.
(Oh yeah. Love. But more on that later…)
When those moments hit me, I kind of panic and begin to break inside. The lights, the sounds, and even the smells intensify to a raging crescendo. And then… I cry. Ugly cry. Uncontrollable fucking sobbing. No matter where I am or who I am with, it happens. I can’t even really tell yet if it WHAT I am doing before seems to matter at all. If I can’t exit immediately and be alone somewhere quiet, everything just gets worse (because it is embarrassing as fuck to cry for no reason in public). Worst of all, I can’t calm myself down. That’s pretty depressing because it means that I just have to wait things out, feel powerless. All the while I know it will probably happen again eventually and be equally mortifying, because it is just another part of who I am, like my less-than-perfect teeth, my lack of a Y chromosome or my queerness. Despite how I might want this particular trait to be different, it kind of just…well…is.
I’ve tried pretty much everything you can imagine for my anxiety, from mantras and carrying stones in my pockets, to therapy and meditation (which I still do), and even alcohol and drugs (most of them prescribed to me). Exercise was the closest thing that helped, but if you’ve ever been depressed, you know that moving leaden limbs is an uphill battle that’s hard to remember is worth it. Not a damn thing has made any of it better for more than a couple of weeks at a time and of every single thing I tried, not one made it stop.
Living in a city and working in a cubicle makes this a challenge for me. Where’s a girl to go for some privacy during her bi-weekly meltdown? Where the hell can I escape to when there are all these people and constructions barrels and this noise and all the damn expectations and lights and social norms I don’t fit or can’t figure out that make me feel like a freak show? As it turns out, the answer is inside me, an instinct that in my panic I would fail to notice over and over again, yet it was always there: quiet, safe, stable, sacred.
When I need to run, I run to the forest. My saviors are trees.
There’s trees in cities, but I’m still new here, so it took me a while to notice that when I’d leave work in a panic or my partner and I were in a rocky place, I’d drive back to the country where I used to live, to the parks I had been going to since before I let myself actually be myself. I thought I was just going there because I didn’t know my way around yet or because I was scared to be alone in a more urban setting. I didn’t realize it was because I felt safe in the silence.
It may sound like I dislike and avoid people, but nothing could be further from the truth. To me, the real purpose we feel in our lives comes from our interactions with each other and the world around us. It’s how we live and how we give of ourselves freely to help others that makes life worthwhile. But there’s something that makes that difficult to approach or remember at times, for all of us, even those without mental illness. It’s just modern life.
Everything that happens in the forest (and really any other naturally created ecosystem) is purposeful, deliberate and very basic. Being there makes me slow down. It quickly brings my anxiety to a halt when I see the animals and the water and even the fallen leaves and the bugs underneath doing what they do. You know what that is? They survive. That one goal- to do what they were born for, to survive themselves and collectively as a species- informs every single action they take.
What if I could live like that? Does a bird or a squirrel feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of places it could get food or the trees around it? Does a tree feel insecure when its leaves fall because of the change of seasons and mourn that loss? Does the stream get tired of flowing in the same direction, day after endless day? They just don’t. They do one thing and do it without all the complications of emotion: they endure.
In the woods, I’m learning to do that too. I can sit in stillness and be reminded by the wild about what’s really important, that if all I can do is take care of my immediate needs and help my species grow and survive in whatever way I can, that’s enough. When I get out into nature, I come home. When I live with a simple focus like other wild things do, I feel connected, grounded and safe. But when I move my body, when I am purposeful in using that connection to support me until I feel strong, then, there, I am free.
We can do this no matter where we live. What we think of as nature is just a matter of degrees. What part of you is fed by the wild? Maybe for you, like me, it’s how the trees use their roots to steady them and make them stay when everything else around them seems like chaos.