I recently went on a backpacking trip that included portions of the Appalachian Trail. The white blaze seen in the picture above is the marking that hikers use to follow the trail and make sure they don't get lost. At one point on my trip, I was daydreaming and realized I hadn't seen a white blaze in some time. I started taking stock of my surroundings and decided to keep on going for a little bit to see if I could see a white blaze up ahead. I finally came upon a trail marking and I was able to take out my trail map and figure out that I had been hiking the wrong way. Frustrated, I turned around and backtracked until I found the correct turnoff that I should have taken.
Later on, as I was hiking, I started to think about how my experience with going down the wrong trail in the wrong direction is very similar to the experience that many of us go through in our journey in life and our mental health. Oftentimes we start going down the wrong path and we don't even realize it. Sometimes it's because we are overextending ourselves and neglecting to prioritize taking care of our needs, like getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, and exercising. Sometimes it's because we have had a really stressful event in our life, like a death of someone we love or a traumatic event like a car accident or an injury. Sometimes it's because we simply aren't paying attention to our own signals that we need to stop and reevaluate our route to make sure we are heading in the right direction. Whatever the reason may be, we start heading down the wrong path.
The wrong path looks different for each of us. For some, the wrong path is using substances such as alcohol or other substances to cope. For some of us, the wrong path is spiraling down into a deep depression or dealing with crippling anxiety. For some of us, the wrong path is abusing others or allowing ourselves to be abused by others. For some, the wrong path is overeating or self-harm, or another addictive behavior like gambling. For others, the wrong path is neglecting to take needed medication or avoiding seeking help for problems too large to handle on their own.
Regardless of which wrong path we are taking, there are always signals that we are heading down that way. It can take effort and practice to learn your own signals so that you can recognize that you are heading that way and you can stop and change direction. These 'signals' are different and it takes insight and self-introspection to discern your own signals. Some common signals are: feeling tired all of the time, feeling aggressive towards others, a desire to self-isolate, drinking too much alcohol, snapping at friends or family members, not being able to sleep, sleeping too much, crying easily or frequently, eating too much, not eating enough, and many others. Often these signals start out little and gradually and progressively increase in strength. Sometimes we are able to notice our own signals and take action to turn ourselves around and head the other way. Sometimes we don't notice our signals, or we do notice our signals and for whatever reason we aren't able to turn ourselves around on the correct path. When this happens, we often end up in situations where outside forces cause us to change direction, such as legal problems, loss of relationships, addiction, hospitalizations, financial problems, etc.
The important thing to realize is that it's never too late to change your direction and choose a new path, no matter how far down the wrong path you've travelled. It's also very important to give yourself empathy when you realize you are heading down the wrong path. Just as I got frustrated when I realized I had been heading the wrong way down the hiking trail and had to backtrack for some time in order to get on the right trail, we often get frustrated with ourselves when we head down the wrong path. We may have knowingly chosen to head down the wrong path time and time again, and find ourselves very frustrated and upset. We may feel as though we have disappointed others or ourselves. We may have hurt others or ourselves. We can choose to use this experience of heading down the wrong path as a learning opportunity. We can reflect on the signals that we may have missed along the way or chose to ignore. We can resolve to pay more attention next time to the signals so that we can turn ourselves around on the right path sooner. When I was frustrated with myself for having to backtrack and use more time and energy to get back on the right path, I was also making sure that I started paying more attention to noticing the signs and signals around me to make sure that I was staying on the right trail. Adversity can be an opportunity to learn how to do it better the next time around.
Sometimes we need help to get back on the right trail or to turn around and head in the right direction. When I was heading down the wrong way on the Appalachian Trail, I used my map and the signs that others had put on the trail. I would not have been able to simply figure out the correct way to go without those tools. Similarly, sometimes in life we need outside help to get on the right path, and that's ok. I always tell my clients that knowing you need help and asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. Sometimes there is a stigma associated with seeking help for your mental health. It takes strength to admit weakness. Only in being vulnerable in our weakness can we reach out and grow and change. If you or someone you love is struggling with their mental health and needs some help getting back on the right path, please do not hesitate to reach out to myself or another licensed therapist. We are here to help you get back on the right path, to help provide the trail map so that you can flourish.
Cyrena is a licensed clinical mental health counselor. For more information about booking a therapy appointment, visit her website at: www.greyferncounseling.com