The next instalment in my guest blog series is from Alex at Alex Loveless. You can read more of his blog and check out his awesome artwork at the website, and follow him on Twitter here and Facebook here. Alex’s story tells of an amazing physical and mental accomplishment through the eyes of ADHD.
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What Makes Us Stronger – Alex Loveless
It was a flippant decision when it came down to it. Some friends from Australia had planned hiking trip around Scandinavia, and I asked if I could join one of their hikes. They suggested that I might like to join them in scaling Snøhetta, a medium sized mountain in Norway. I thought it sounded fun, I love mountains, although I usually sit on the way up and slide all the way down. I did precisely no research, since they’d already done all the planning, I just booked my flights. A few months later, at the base of the mountain, my compatriots informed me that their guidebook rated this as an easy hike. It would need to be, since I have almost no hiking experience. In my head, I had imagined skipping and tumbling through Alpine meadows, accompanied by Heidi and Julie Andrews. But there were no meadows, mainly just rocks, big ones, and other bad things. This was a holiday, but as it turns out, it wasn’t relaxing.
We set off on day one of a two day hike in glorious sunshine. The plan was to scale the mountain, have lunch at the top then descend the other side to a remote hiker’s hut. I felt positive and excited. The rocks appeared about an hour later. I’d never seen the like of it. Fridge sized boulders as far as the eye could see, thousands of them, between me and the top of the mountain. But the weather was fine, perfect it could be said, and I was full of beans, and Nordic reindeer sausage to boot. The climb was gruelling, but the scenery unfolding and emerging around us as we got higher more than made up for it. We reached the peak in good time. I was tired but happy. The vista was mind-blowing. Stunning Norwegian glacial valleys, and stark, snow tipped mountains. And here, atop Snøhetta, in late June, we were stood on snow. It felt great. Elated and triumphant we took some stunning photos and took in the views, delighted with ourselves. However, nestled among the these ancient peaks, we observed something quite ominous – a storm. The type that menacingly burps its rumbles after visibly smiting a mountain. This was not a good development.
What happened next is a bit of a blur. Somehow the decision was made to carry on, rather than go back the way we came. I think the logic was, since it would take us the same amount of time to go back as to go on, and we had no idea which direction the storms (there was more than one) were going, we might as well just forge onward and complete the hike we’d planned. It was not a bad decision as such, just a little unfortunate, for 30 minutes into the already painful descent, a storm found us. We were dangerously exposed, on the side of a mountain, poking out like a Viking’s horns (Vikings didn’t actually wear horned helmets, but I think I can permit myself a little poetic license on this occasion, right?) with boulders far as the eye could see in every direction. The first we knew of our predicament was when the hail started, and we scrambled to adorn our waterproofs. No big deal, we thought, just a bit of water. When the lightening touched ground close enough for its report to follow it in less than a second, we realised we were in a spot of bother.
“What the hell are we supposed to do now?!” I asked, panicked and confused. A genuine question – what should a hiker do when posed with such a predicament? Having no experience, I genuinely didn’t know. The worried glances of my friends did nothing to calm me. They knew this was bad.
“Get the hell off the mountain,” one of them said, and we immediately began our frantic, stumbling descent, across boulders now slippery from the melting hail.
“Take care,” someone said, “you don’t want to break an ankle up here, cos then we’ll be in real trouble”.
Real trouble? What the hell was this if not real trouble? As the adrenaline started flowing The happy spell cast by the first half of the day was broken and smashed, and I was dragged writhing, to the the dark side of my brain.
Here’s a quick fact for you: Adrenaline is made of dopamine. I have ADHD which means I lack dopamine. Do the maths.
As I stumbled down the 45 degree boulder field trying not to break an ankle on slippery rock, terrified of being instantaneously snuffed out by a bolt of lightning, leaving my family with no husband/dad, the adrenaline chomped gleefully away at my already depleted dopamine reserves. Nestled among my mortal fears was the dread knowledge that if I made it off the mountain alive, the comedown I would experience would be brutal, crippling and last for days.
Several hours later, perhaps the longest hours of my life, we arrived at our destination (little more than a hut) exhausted, damp, beleaguered, but all alive. We all made perilous slips during our descent, and any one of us could have been stranded on that rockpile masquerading as a mountain. Neither the rain, nor the lightening had abated and the mountain side turned into a lattice of frothing torrents. I was bruised and aching. I should have felt relieved, and somewhere, buried below the surging feelings of doom – the effect of my neurochemical homeostasis being battered like a seaside village in a hurricane – I probably was. But I couldn’t feel anything happy or upbeat. No sense of achievement at having conquered the elements. Any attempt at positive thinking was muffled under the oafish hollering of the angry trolls in my head, before finally struck down fatally at the realisation that I had to repeat the trauma the next day, since we were 17 kilometres from basecamp, with no access possible by vehicle. I was distraught, miserable and psychologically descending, at pace. Some holiday!
The sun made an appearance again the next day, and my spirits were lifted a little when we discovered an alternative route back, (mostly) skirting the mountain. Longer but easier going. Except that my emotional state was ship wreckage. At such times as these I would usually rely on my amazing wife to provide an emotional crutch, but we were miles from mobile signal, and she was probably worried sick at not having heard from me for nearly a day, which only made me feel worse. To say that the journey back was a struggle would be a gross understatement. More boulder stumbling, upwards and downwards, and it was too hot making staying hydrated a constant battle. The landslide that we witnessed wasn’t close enough to be seriously concerned, and there were more storms, mercifully too far away to be a real danger. But every step was an immense effort. Not just physically, my muscles were quivering, worn out and weak for sure, but the psychologically strain was intense. My brain was working against me, trying to make me give up, to break my spirit. It failed. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Given we were navigating boulder fields, that’s all I could do, the only thing I could think about. All that mattered was getting home to my family. Despite being the hiking novice of the group, I arrived back at base camp 5 minutes before everyone else! I found a surge of energy and willpower a couple of kilometres from basecamp as my desperation to be off the mountain kicked me into a higher gear.
On reflection, there were moments on genuine peril during those two long, stressful days, but many more moments of imagined, or exaggerated threat. In the darker moments, my brain was not playing tricks on me, it was earnestly trying to manage an unpleasant and genuinely dangerous situation. “The things you are doing right now are bad,” it was saying, “here’s a bunch of signals that will hopefully make you stop.” This in itself is unpleasant enough, but I have an ADHD brain, and ADHD brains overreact. A lot, and profoundly so. That chatter that everyone gets, the angry, afraid, accusing voices that assert themselves from time to time, are ever present and unrelentingly talkative for me, and they are very, very loud. The real strain I experienced while descending that mountain was from fighting back against those voices, telling them to sod off.
What occurs to me is that any healthy human being would find that situation stressful to the point of harrowing. I was pushed to my breaking point, and I learned something of where that point lies. Indeed, my friends, experienced hikers, admitted it was the hardest trek they’d ever done. This was my first hike! But the psychological challenges I faced – anxiety, acute depression, panic – were nothing that I don’t experience on a day to day basis. It was not even the worst I’ve ever experienced (that was while on an all-inclusive holiday in Crete some years earlier. There was no threat at all, no discernible reason for my state, my brain had just gone to war with itself, and crippled me in the process). Putting one foot in front of the other on that mountain was literally all I could do, but I was in control of that. My brain, however, was out of control, but then, it always is. I challenge any mentally healthy, neurotypical person to have experienced just a few seconds of my emotional state on that mountain, and not just have given up on the spot, reduced to a withering mess. But coping is what I do, it’s what I’m good at, I just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
I’m as guilty as anyone else at viewing mental illness (I’m referring to the depression and anxiety that are common bedfellows of ADHD) as weakness, or perhaps that, when I am suffering these, I am weakened. But I learned on that mountain that my lifelong struggles with mental illness have given me almost superhuman strength of will. When your own brain is telling you you’re not up to it, that you’ve failed, that you might as well give up, it takes herculean willpower to ignore it and keep forging ahead. I am not thankful that a mountain in Norway tried to kill me, but I am grateful to have learned from her that I possess real strength.