Emily Ellis, 41
“Pressure. Beating yourself up. Burnout. It’s a common trait with chronic fatigue”
Emily Ellis lived and breathed the hills and moorlands of Britain until she developed chronic fatigue symptoms – and discovered that mountain therapy isn’t always about getting to the top.
I force myself to carry on: chest full of lead and head screaming. Gravity disagrees, trying to drag me down with it. I fight for air.
It’s not a new feeling. I’ve scaled 4,000 metre peaks on another continent, endured bitter winter days, and made a living from long distance walks. But I’ve never had to fight a hill thishard. I sink broken into the mud.
I’m halfway up the 30-metre slope to Kendal Castle.
Something happened in my life. It wasn’t major, but it triggered a spell of poor mental health which left me with a sole purpose of getting through the day to go home and cry all night. I thought time would heal, but time dragged on and on. So I fought it.
Standing solo on a mountaintop physically and psychologically gives me space to breathe. It’s not a distraction; if anything, getting outside gives my head more space to whirr and whizz, but I grew up in the hills and without them I’m not me. In that respect they are vital to my mental wellbeing.
So, when the lethargy kicked in, I gave myself goals; signing up for races in search of some kind of focus. I know this works for many people – if it does for you, keep going! But for me, it got harder. I was a runner, but would struggle walking to the shop. On hills, it wasn’t a lung-busting cardio wheeze; it was a deep, deep heaviness that threatened to implode. But I told myself I’d just slacked off and got unfit.
I worked outdoors too. I had a reputation to live up to, and an example to set – and that example as far as I could see was that the more adventure you sought, the better you’d feel. All around were stories of people overcoming challenges to become stronger people. If they could do it, why couldn’t I?
So, what happens when your lifelong therapy just isn’t an option any more?
I made it to the castle, eventually, but it wasn’t easy. At the top, dying light glinting off the rooftops was so irrationally beautiful that it shattered me completely and let in a fresh wave of grief. I didn’t go back to my hostel that night sustained by the outdoors; I’d told myself off for not going outside enough and when I did, it triggered a massive setback.
This is a problem that leads to so many mental health conditions. Pressure. Beating yourself up. Burnout. I’m told it’s a common trait in people with chronic fatigue type symptoms, as I had. The same applies to anxiety, and unknown to me for months was the notion of physical anxiety.
We’ve all heard of the ‘fight or flight’ stress response. A shot of adrenaline jolts the heart into action, making a good run or gym session so therapeutic for so many people. But the phrase ‘fight or flight’ isn’t accurate: it forgets ‘freeze’, ‘flop’ and ‘faint’. My brain likes to freeze and hide, and so the adrenaline isn’t processed. Prolonged anxiety is a constant stress response, even if the threat is just something in your mind, that leaves you on relentless high alert. And boy, is that exhausting. There’s no wonder my body tried to shut down, in a desperate attempt to make up for the energy my brain was burning.
In the outdoor world, mountains are the perfect helping hand to those of us who think we need to keep pushing: harder, faster, higher and stronger. But there’s more to a mountain than its summit, and other ways to enjoy it. The minutiae of detail in its flora and fauna. The landscape’s history: human and natural. The view from a boat or bus. Creative works it’s inspired. The waterbodies nestled at its feet. The communities settled around it.
There is as much strength in recognising your mind and body’s limits, and knowing where to stop, as there is in battling on blindly through. When I allowed myself to do what I’d thought would feel like failure, it gave my head space to recover, and my body could cope with more again.
I know now that I have a naturally low fatigue threshold from which I’ll never be completely free, but the moral of the story is this: I just had to learn to give myself a break. There’s no such thing as failure and the mountains need not be your curse.
Accessibility, inclusivity and mental health
There are many ways to love the mountains. While most Trail readers will understand the lure of the summit, any of us could be affected at any time by temporary, permanent, mental or physical illness or injury; as well as other constraints such as geography, poverty, family, gender or culture.
Inclusivity is a fundamental part of mental health, and while this piece features a recovery, not all people can. For anyone who can’t get out of the house much, or at all, for any reason, promotion of the outdoors as a cure of sorts can, understandably, actually contribute to poor mental health; especially when no alternative options are promoted alongside it. Disabled access to the outdoors is greatly improving, but the term ‘disabled access’ itself may be misinterpreted only as access for people who can’t walk.
Chronic fatigue and related illnesses don’t always have ‘fixable’ emotional roots. Hidden illnesses or disabilities can affect the body and mind in a myriad of ways, informing how people prefer to interact with nature, of which there is so much more than only that which must be accessed on bike or foot. As part of important campaigns like Mountains for the Mind which are doing a great job of getting mental health out in the open, it would be great to hear stories from people who have found alternative ways of enjoying the landscape – or ways to look after themselves when they can’t.
Emily Ellis is a hillwalker, blogger and former runner focusing on the relationships between rural landscape, community, inclusivity and mental health.
Julia Bradbury’s The Outdoor Guide also has lots of links to disabled access walks and sensory walks etc. https://theoutdoorguide.co.uk