1/3rd, 740 Miles In, Depression and Addiction, Finding Light as Matt Would

1/3rd, 740 Miles In, Depression and Addiction, Finding Light as Matt Would
June 7, 2018 Heather Starbuck

When you pass through the waters,

I will be with you,

and when you pass through the rivers,

they will not sweep over you.

When you walk through the fire,

you will not be burned,

the flames will not set you ablaze.

– Isaiah 43:2

Yesterday the world lost an incredible visionary. Here in the woods I’m so often removed from the news and happenings of the world but I happened to be running around town like a mad woman… resupplying, getting long over due new shoes, slamming down calories via a last bender of bbq before I exit the south…. when I checked the web and was inundated with the news that Kate Spade had lost her battle with depression. Floods of social media posts sharing suicide hotlines and the common plea for compassion with the message that mental illness does not discriminate flowed through my feeds.

Over my coffee this morning I heard from a newscaster that Kate’s sister had tried to get her into rehab/treatment but Kate declined due to the potential harm such a stigma could bring her brand. Immediately I realized how similar this was to the opioid epidemic. Depression and addiction, both mental health issues, both medical yet highly stigmatized, striking people in all walks of life. I sadly pondered how dismal our world is, in that Kate was unable to get the help that she needed for fear of judgement, shame, and losing her life’s work and legacy. Another striking example of why we need to change the conversation on mental health, depression and addiction included. So often they go hand in hand, yet in many cases there lacks access for coordinated care.

Gina Allgaier, who I met with back in Arkansas, recently gave a talk (see video HERE) about how challenging it was to get her son Tristan the help he needed for both his addiction and mental health needs which fed off each other. She discusses the back and forth and helplessness she experienced trying to navigate the system and resources available. She and Tristan were referred to one counselor and treatment center after another while getting discharged or turned away over and over. It’s alarming that for a mother who was on it and doing everything in her power to help her son, the resources and coordinated care simply were not there.

“We didn’t get the help that I felt like we needed… I honestly think that had Tristan had cancer, or had he had diabetes, I think he would still be alive today and he’d be getting the care that he needed…. It is incumbent upon us to create a coordinated care system, to create strategic pathways of healing, for all the social determinates of health so that no one is ever lost again in the system”

Matt also suffered depression, and had for many years. The week before we lost him, I’d moved him over to my insurance so he could have access to more affordable counseling as he finally wanted to personally address these deep struggles he’d had for most of his life. I know his addiction, his using and his depression all were so entangled, and he’d occasionally tell me how his dark thoughts scared him. Unfortunately, Matt did not live long enough to begin working through his healing with a consistent counselor and support. But just like Tristan, had our system for mental health issues and addiction been consistent, and attainable from the start for him, perhaps there never would have been a lapse in counseling/treatment after he finished rehab a few years prior. Perhaps if these issues had less stigma, and more coordinated care, rather than slipping through our fingers, these young men would still be here today. I’ll never know, but I do know it’s all tied together and deeply related.

This past week brought a major milestone for the trail – I reached MacAfee Knob and the third way point on the AT. It’s almost surreal… I feel like time is still motionless, just as it has been since the day I lost Matt… yet at the same time I’m somehow getting out of bed, and even putting more miles in than the day before. I felt a sense of relief, long due, in that I’ve survived this long, and not only that, but I’ve also been able to get up each day and walk through it during that time.

I’ve been feeling him all around me these days. One afternoon, a newborn doe wobbled out of the bushes behind Theo. His knees were shaky and he kept tipping over to rest in a curled up ball only to get back up and try to hike in our little caravan again. Panicked, not wanting to take Bambi too far from his mother, I frantically asked my friend Katherine over the phone what I should do. She told me to look for his nest, where the mother must have left him while she went off for a bit. And after a small hunt, I found it, inside another little baby deer already curled up asleep. I tried to coax the little wanderer in there and told him, unsuccessfully, to stay. The next thing I know he’s back waddling in between Theo and me trying to hike with us again. Finally, when a brief downpour ensued, I was able to get the little guy to actually stay put. As much as I’d love a new pet deer… I knew he had to get back to where his momma put him to have any chance of surviving out here. Before this little visitor, I’d been really dark in my head, sometimes the hopelessness creeps in and takes over and our minds go to awful places in grief. The timing of our deer friend seemed too perfect. I believe it was a little gift from Matt to cheer me up and put a smile on my face when I needed it most.

A few days later, I sat upon the tinker cliffs where I’d set up my tent. Through the crystal clear sky, I could see for miles as the golden hour painted everything it touched a beautiful warm hue. I tried to meditate – to clear my mind and feel just the beauty of the moment. Well, I failed at that and of course instantly starting thinking about Matt instead. Looking out at the beautiful horizon, I wondered if he was seeing it too and how entranced he’d be. Matt was an explorer. When we’d hike I’d often have to reel him back onto trail after he’d gone off following some animal tracks or gone a mission to find deer antlers and other treasures through the trees. I’ll never forget a hike we took up in Leadville through the snow. Matt had fashioned a makeshift backpack out of a grocery bag to carry our little picnic and nicknamed himself Matthew the Explorer (as in Dora the explorer) while kicking his heels up to the right side as he laughed “look what I can do!”. He was so blissful and light when he was in nature. Like a kid deeply fascinated and enchanted by every little creature and plant he passed. I think often how much he would have loved and grown from an experience like this. The healing power of nature is so real… it even lifts me out of my depression some of these days which is a harrowing task given my current state of being. I felt grateful for being able to feel him around me, for getting a day or two of calm after a stormy week filled with anger, tears and unrelenting sadness. Of course, the waves of grief are sure to strike again and send me back flat on my face, but reaching this milestone, honoring Matt in the way Theo and I have so far, embracing his spiritual presence has lifted my spirits, at least for these 48 hours. Though I’ve certainly still streamed tears, it’s been the longest period I’ve yet without full breakdowns and gives me a glimmer of hope and confirmation that I’m where he wants me to be right now, healing, sharing and learning one day at a time.



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