Trail Angels and the Trail of Life

By Deborah Westervelt

Backpacking is walking towards something.  The route could be thru, in and out, or circular.  The Appalachian Trail is a thru hike that includes some of the steepest gradients in the United States. It is often called “The Long Green Tunnel” due to the density of the foliage. In Northern Georgia, approaching Blood Mountain, helicopters rescues are impossible.  There is no deliverance.

A late February blizzard in 2009 caught many of us. I made my way over Blood Mountain to a hostel in the gap below where a raucous group of survivors were filling up on white beans, ham and whisky.  Search and rescue dragged people in off the mountain all night long.  Teeth chattering and wide-eyed, they joined in. It was warm and close in the bunkhouse and the beans didn’t help.  I spent my time culling my gear: Packing and repacking. I did not need what I thought I needed a week ago. 

Pirate, the hostel manager

“Ya’ll gotta leave first thing!” hooted Pirate, the hostel manager, “A work crew from the penitentiary will be staying here tomorrow!” The snow and sleet had stopped.  In the South, we have ice storms that break 100-year-old trees in half and turn walking into skating; this thankfully, was mostly snow. Each of us was dispensed into the white. Snow came up to my knees and was deeper in the drifts. I scooped snow from the pine boughs all day for water and was thankful for it. Water did not have to be filtered and packed while this lasted.

I remember this like a dream, trying to get my hands to work after sleeping in a tent at 11 degrees that night: The frozen boot leather. A hiker lost part of his heel to frost bite. The mind gets weird in these extremes, I remember thinking, “Don’t we lose our toes first?”  All this didn’t stop the endless packing and unpacking.

I think about this now looking at my old hound, June Carter. I have been promising her one more backpack as a retirement from her backpacking days. We only chance a night or two. After a trek to 12,000 feet, we just chill and I work on this essay on suicide survival.

My dogs and I used to go in the fall and winter in the Ozarks when there was no Lyme disease, snakes, or insects to bother with. In life, there is this packing and unpacking: A time for all things.  Some of us know when, and some don’t know when, to lighten the load.

It is a lifetime of learning out there. Mostly, I am a cold weather backpacker. I learned early on, to put my feet up on an empty backpack to keep them warm enough in a solo tent to avoid frost bite. I learned this from someone else. We need people more than we know.  here is no true “solo” anything.

I did the Appalachian trail during a time of transition. Where would it lead? The stock market crashed in 2008. Many folks found themselves uprooted and unrooted. Where would this all lead?  Truly, many of us were down and out, or so it seemed.

Deborah's Dog, June Carter

In 2008 my business and my 20-year relationship went poof! I had been trying to balance caregiving for my sister. Now it seemed she was having another remission from illness and going back to what she loved: being a nurse. I saw an opening and hit the trail that winter of 2009. I had planned and worked toward an extended backpack for years.  It was to be a celebration of my 50th year. Now it took on a different meaning – a reason to continue living.

I am a clinician.  here are lots of statistics about depression, suicidal ideation (thoughts), attempts, and death by suicide. Yes, we are walking this trail today. Let me skip most of the stats and just say a lot of people suffer: many. We all need to be concerned about everyone, regardless of the demographic group deemed at risk: race, religion, creed, culture, age, economic status, education, sexual orientation, gender or gender identification, or we might miss the forest for the trees. Knowing statistics just isn’t the same as being present. Right now, in the middle of COVID isolation and the loss of connection it creates or exacerbates, more folks are going to be at risk.

That said, I am in one of those traditionally marginalized communities that has high risk folks, which is likely why I will write about this so frankly. Colorado One, a LGBTQ+ advocacy organization in our state, is currently focused on health equity. They recently noted that the LGBTQ+ community has a 50% higher rate of anxiety and a 55% higher rate of depression than the general population. Higher depression rates will correlate with higher suicide risk especially for our youth. I will posit this holds true for marginalized groups in general. This is not because there is something wrong with marginalized people, but because the population faces greater safety risks than the general population.

For example, since I prefer to talk about human beings rather than numbers: I was a young female bodied person (pronouns are they, them, she, her) in Tennessee who made my way into college after getting a place to live in a room at the YWC (an upgrade from sleeping in a Toyota).  I eventually left my job at the Signal Knitting Mill and graduated to cleaning the offices at the South Central Bell Telephone Building. I received the support of my undergraduate social work professors, all Black women, who nominated me to compete for a national scholarship. They knew my sexual orientation, yet supported me. This was a great intersection in my life and again illustrates that there are no solo hikes.  These amazing Black women at the University of Tennessee also negotiated several public service internships or practicums for me, including a Congressional internship. I competed and received that scholarship they had nominated me for, and was offered entry into a number of prestigious law schools and schools of social work. My sense of self was becoming solid and I felt hope for a future of service.  I was set to see the world!  

I called friends and went out to the gay dance club in town to celebrate. At this time, unknown to many of us, a serial rapist was stalking women who frequented this club. He did follow me that night, break in, and sexually assault me. I was made aware later that he had done this to several women. I did not call the police, because the police liked to harass people who frequented this club. I witnessed the police beat up a male friend in the club parking lot. It was 1986, Chattanooga, Tennessee and raids by the police at the bar were frequent. So, no police.  I did call my sister who stated, “This is what you get because of your lifestyle.” She was my only family connection. The serial rapist continued victimizing the community. We don’t need official statistics to know information about crime in our LGBTQ+ communities. Just like the AIDS pandemic, crime in our community was mostly ignored by government statistics for years. 

Hate crimes did not officially exist. (Editors note: hate crime legislation was enacted in 1968, it deliberately omitted sexual orientation).  I went to the local K-Mart and bought a Mossberg shotgun to keep myself safe. 

I moved on to graduate school and law school two weeks later hoping to somehow pray the gay away in order to regain a family connection, and to be invisible to predators. I found a life changing LGBTQ+ therapist while in graduate school. Recently Colorado One addressed the issue: how do we assess who is a competent provider for our community across disciplines?  I experienced this problem as a young adult seeking help the first time in Tennessee. It is very traumatic to have to educate your provider or deal with their assumptions. Above all as practitioners, we need to do no harm.  If you practice beyond your scope of competency, you will hurt people.  

So, my personal disclosure is not for sympathy. Queer folks are some of the strongest souls you will meet. What is important to know is I formed ideas about ending life early on. This is a history of trauma that many marginalized folks deal with. Depression once we have it, will likely show up again and again. It is best to expect it. Depression likes to travel with anxiety who is the trail mate who will worry you to death about every possible obstacle along the way, real and unreal. Suicidal ideation is the hiker that catches up with this crew and starts offering up suggestions to resolve the misery: suicide. 

With depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation as “hikers along the trail of life,” suicidal ideation comes hiking along and makes suggestions that sound damn good when you’re in psychic pain and/or physical pain—even empowering. It becomes a seed of hope in the darkest times when depression decides to walk with you. One can take these life ending ideas out and examine them.  Next thing you know, here comes “planning.” Professionals always ask if you have a “plan.”  Then, they want to know if you will “act on it?”  Professionally I have gone through this many times with folks. I know its most important to help folks understand these thoughts and try to get to the “why”, if there is something they can identify. It’s important for folks to know that many folks live with these ongoing thoughts, and this just is ordinary life.

It is also important to know that some people are very energized when they have made the decision to end their life. That’s why we need to actively discuss suicidal thought with our loved ones even if they “seem alright.” How many times, have we heard, “Well they were doing well…They looked great”?

It is a myth that talking about suicide will increase the likelihood of a suicidal person committing suicide.  But you must absolutely take them seriously.  Do not chide them or accuse them of manipulation. I feel I need to state this as you only get a chance to be dead wrong once here. Do listen and be empathetic. Help them seek professional help.

Also, suicidal thought can be very impulsive. Young folks often engage in driving too fast, drinking too much, waking up in bed with someone they don’t know and other self-injurious behavior like cutting.  In therapy we call this “high risk behavior.”  My non-clinical term is simply “suicide on installments.”  Of course, trying to encourage healthier behavior is great, but it won’t work for a person long term if they feel they don’t have a life worth living.  We have CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and pills for depression and anxiety. However, a life with meaning and worth living is the missing piece here, we need desperately to work toward helping people achieve that.  

Right now, our backpacks are full and we are on a thru hike of a different kind. There are no maps, blazes (colored directional marks on trees), or cairns to guide us. We have our trail wisdom, trail angels (individuals that make an avocation of helping hikers along their journey, by giving comfort) and our sheer grit to guide us. There will be a lot of packing, repacking, and culling of unnecessary things along the way.

Depression and thoughts of suicide have created their own blaze or way signs in our neural pathways. Likely this is a trail loop off our established trail we will travel now and then, until we find that blaze that shows us this is just a loop not a destination. Sometimes these detours just happen while other times there is a trigger. You can be walking along in the rain. You’ve hiked in the rain before. It’s not great and then all of a sudden, you’ve tripped and torn your rain suit and hurt yourself. This could be a trigger.  Physical pain as well as emotional pain can take you toward hiking that loop with depression and anxiety in your ear telling you, “You’re lost!”

Look for the trail angels at a time like this. They are our friends. Those who will be present.  Many of us have sat hurting, feeling ashamed and broken, while that uninvited trail buddy, suicidal thought, is coming up with all kinds of plans for our demise. Not on the trail, but in my home years ago, my uninvited guest counted every medication in the house and offered them and asked me to remember I could turn on the oven and just stick my head in there like the poet Sylvia Plath. I did call someone, a friend, and they answered. I was fortunate.  

Clinical language can distance us too from what is the human condition. This experience is visceral and part of us. We live with it. As someone who has survived, I am less apt to consider rote questions or assessment for risk as what we can rely upon. Yes, I’ll use “best practices,” (established guidelines for therapists) but I am alive myself because I know there is a life worth living and every human needs meaning and connection.  Fortunately, there was a friend for me in my time of need and I have found meaning in my life.  This goes beyond risk assessment, safety plans, learning to challenge negative thoughts and antidepressants.  These are tools, but not enough.

When thru hiking hundreds of miles, you will carry less. The minimal. If you read at night, you will tear a chapter from a book. The rest of your book and supplies will travel ahead general delivery in a “jump box” to a post office. You will likely have to get off the trail and hitchhike to that little town to resupply at the post office. I have torn up many good books this way. We are currently on overload with the unknowns. We don’t know what to send ahead.  What will become of our world if we follow the trail markers? Who can we ask for help when we are quick to label and divide right now as a nation?

On the famous Triple Crown Trails: The Appalachian Trail, The Continental Divide Trail and The Pacific Crest Trail, there are three sided structures with racks where some hikers unroll their bags and sleep. I like my little tent. I have a fear of mice, who will eat your wool underwear right off your body, in those shelters. The shelters for me were a study in human nature.  If there was a snow or blizzard, it was like reading Darwin, because the fastest and strongest would reach those places and the weak would be out of luck. Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus would definitely have to sleep outside. Are we currently headed in a direction where our neighbors are forced into the cold and unknown?

This is why the statistics and demographics really don’t mean much to me in regard to suicide.  Regardless of our tribe, the more we disconnect with others and their needs, the more all of us are at a risk as a species. All this data doesn’t make me more human to you or the next person.; knowing me does. Being present is one of the best gifts we can offer at this time. Walk with someone down that trail. Share your time. Listen. Maybe offer to be with them. If they want help accessing a doctor or counselor, help. Yes, we are in the time of COVID, but we can be creative with video and phones. 

 Remember if suicidal thoughts are a loop in their trail, they may have great skills to manage it.  They may be champion Triple Crown Hikers and all they are trying to do is cut down on isolation. You can ask ‘what helps when they are experiencing this?”  Trust that if they reached out, they will tell you. Maybe social distance in the park and a cup of coffee will be the perfect trail angel act. Remember some folk carry suicidal thoughts in their pack their whole life and they can’t unpack them. It may be part of neuroscience we just don’t understand yet.  However, we can demystify this and reframe how they are surviving as a strength: they’re carrying a bit mor, stuff that just won’t go into the jump box.  For those who can unpack some of that stuff, we can help them pack it up in the jump box and send it away for a while.

This old backpacker, hopes we will find each other along the way and offer comfort, kindness, and even love. We never know who is being sent our way.  The statistics and the demographics won’t matter at that point. How we connect on this trail of life will.

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About the Author

Woman with two hounds
Deborah Westervelt, a 2011 St. Louis Regional Art Commission CAT Institute graduate, a writer, and social justice advocate, has worked in community arts beginning in the 80’s with the St. Louis City Detention Center’s volunteer theatre workshop with Don Ellis. Later projects include co-Producing Peace Out!, a collaborative social justice and arts event that staged poems from around the world. In Tennessee, she worked to pioneer the first agency-based voter registration program. After serving a congressional internship, being awarded a Truman Scholarship, she was able to complete graduate studies at the Brown School of Social Work, Washington University. Missouri highlights include developing a statewide public defender alternative sentencing program funded through a public/private partnership well before such innovations as “drug courts.” Deborah served as past St. Louis Chapter Chair of the Missouri Coalition Against the Death Penalty and Missouri N.A.S.W. PACE. As a practicum instructor, she taught for both Washington and St. Louis Universities graduate schools of Social Work. Currently, semi-retired, Deborah enjoys Colorado life with Sue Westervelt, her partner and their two rescued hound dogs, Emmy Lou and June Carter.