Pain is an old friend to me at this point. Pain is always there, not constant, but like the friend you hear from every day without fail. Maybe just a note on Facebook. Maybe a memory in the back of your head. And sometimes a choice that brings them back to your life.
For me, emotional pain and physical pain aren’t that different. Depression is a series of physical and mental conditions that affect my behavior. An aversion to people. A desire for junk food. Knowing how to achieve my goals, but moving like I’m wearing a bodysuit made of wet denim. The emotional effects are there, but I could never fight them. I could never ignore them. I could never outwit them, so I stopped trying.
Since I changed my focus, it has been much easier to deal with. Fast music makes gives me the energy to fight back. Scheduling events makes it harder for me to isolate. Being busy keeps me from eating as much as I once did. I don’t always win, but pain is a friend. You can’t always win against friends without them resenting you.
In Buddhism, I learned to step back from the pain and label it. Depression is a doctor’s word, and I am not a doctor. A series of symptoms written on paper to make it easy to categorize a disorder so it can be treated. It’s about the treatment, not the source. Depression. What it means to me isn’t what it means to anyone else. It’s not even what it meant to me a couple years ago, much less ten, or twenty. Identifying exactly how it feels allows me to adapt to survive, and even better, to thrive.
Climbing Beichantianshan, North Sky Piercing Mountain, in Taiwan is an entirely different kind of pain. It is almost an opposite, distinctly physical, and yet joyful. I don’t know that I would make it alone, or that I would even want to try, but the people really make the difference. Sarcasm, bad jokes, nicknames, and lies filled the air. It was beautiful.
As soon as I began I wondered if it would even be possible. Kung fu has made me stronger, but I have been training for forms and combat, not endurance trials. It wasn’t long before I had to trick myself into continuing. I would walk up eleven steps, then stop to breath. If I took one step, I took eleven. That kept me going as much as my friends did. The thing that bothered me is that I wanted to be asked about it. That fragment of ego still crying out for attention. There is nothing like overcoming pain to make someone look for praise.
The Swing Dancer and 10 Minutes took the lead. I was fine on the straightaways, but my lungs couldn’t keep up with them on the climb. Any time anyone, usually me, asked how far something was, the answer was 10 minutes. That answer continued for two days, like a one hit wonder that cycles between glorious and unbearable.
Guard and I stayed back, with me plodding along and him casually taking pictures and keeping me going. The stairs were hard, broken by landslides and relatively flat trails. It was hard to look up, but the good thing about stopping so often is that there is time to see the world around me. I didn’t get as many pictures as I would have liked, but that is good in its own way.
We camped 10 minutes from the main camp site. By that I mean about 30 minutes. The ground was wet, and I was not well prepared, but I slept well enough. We ate chorizo, fresh mozzarella, and Ritz. We played a few games and watched 10 Minutes stalk a black, blue, red, and white pheasant with his camera. We went our own ways and relaxed, but pain is always there.
I didn’t drink enough water, and the muscles in my legs kept spasming. I drank what I had then, rested as much as I could, then hobbled out to dinner. We ate, laughed, and found a leech wandering around for food. I talked to the Swing Dancer about music and comedy, always fascinating with people from different cultures. Then they went for a night hike to hunt for animals and I went to sleep.
So much pain, but it never really stood a chance of holding me back. Depression and anxiety are like walls, but this was just a friendly warning that my body might die if I keep it up. When I woke up and the spasms were gone, I never even considered holding back. The rest of the mountain was handmade ladders, roots, rope, and mud. Finding out I might have to work on a Saturday was far more detrimental than any of it, and I don’t really know why.
It’s not choice, because I choose to work at the places I do. It’s not the people, because there are always people you like and people you don’t. It’s not the work, or the atmosphere. Something about the pain is different, something that affects me differently. The stabbing, twisting, tearing pain of muscle cramps hurts, but I know I just have to wait it out.
I’ve been anxious lately, and I made a few jokes about dying on the mountain or getting injured so I could avoid my responsibilities. Every joke has some truth. The mountain might kill me, but only once. Anxiety always feels like I’m dying. I’m better at stepping back, and at adapting, but I still don’t understand the way I want to.
When we got to the top, it wasn’t anything glorious. I rarely feel that kind of euphoria that some people get when they meet their goals. It might pass through, but it’s never a consuming joy, or a runner’s high. The people are always what make it great. There were half a dozen people already on top of the mountain when we arrived, all of them middle-aged men. They shared their food with us, and laughed, and we talked using as much English and Mandarin as we knew.
The weird part began when a man in orange came up behind me and hugged me. It was strange, but in a way that didn’t set off my Kung Fu. Normally when someone touches me unexpectedly I at least begin to protect myself, or attack. Maybe it was the exhaustion, maybe it was the place. They took pictures with us, like we were all old friends. Maybe that kind of pain creates friends. One of them asked if I weighed a hundred kilos, I told them two hundred. I’m actually closer to 130, but it was worth hearing them laugh.
Whatever else happens in life, there will always be weird pictures of the four of us with a bunch of Taiwanese strangers on top of a mountain. Pain comes and goes, but the weirdness of life makes it worthwhile for me. I don’t care about the mountain, but people will always amaze me.
I still hurt, three days later. I hurt the last two days when I practiced Kung Fu. I’ll still hurt for a few more, I’m sure. But pain is a good friend, just trying to keep me from dying. I just wish he understood that the mountain was far more dangerous than anything he is anxious or depressed about.