Wellness: The Dark Ride — Mental Health in our Mountain Community

A life of happiness is what we are all after.

And the easy way to fulfill this dream is to constantly find the fun. That’s why most people move to the Mountains—they magnetize the thrill-seekers and attract the anti-conformists; these landscapes sing to people who want to stay young forever. The mountains don’t abide by societal expectations, and we want that. They offer the freedom to live our reveries to the end of time.

 

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By Taylor Godber

There are tangible benefits associated with less work and all play, science even backs it up. The emotional high felt when sending it down a mountain is actually part brain chemistry. Nature’s positive influences on the human psyche have been studied and proven and the limited amounts of oxygen at high altitude have been found to increase dopamine [the feel-good hormone] levels. There is a sense of identity and purpose that comes with following your passions that helps us to get up the morning and seize the proverbial day. It’s a no-brainer, really—move to the mountains, never grow-up.And it works! Mountain living truly is a Never Neverland of gravity-fuelled fun and games. Until it’s not. In a culture that perpetuates a theory of #goodvibesonly, it’s taboo to admit that a substandard day exists, but Whistler and other resort towns are real places with real people whose dreams and aspirations are accompanied by emotions and feelings, relationships and struggles. We get parking tickets, have our hearts broken, make mistakes, step in dog shit, break bones, lose jobs and deal with disappointment from a myriad of expectations. Just like everyone else.

“Often in life, things will not go as planned,” says Greg McDonnell, Registered Clinical Counsellor and Somatic Experiencing Practioner who has been working in Whistler since 1997. “The sooner we can accept this, the sooner we can work on our adaptability and resiliency to all of this chaos.”

The words ‘mental health’ are not easily spoken in mainstream society, but they’re even more taboo in the segment of chasing eternal youth. In a culture attuned to reading the natural cycles of the weather, the mountains, the snowpack, and the lightboard, dips in our mental condition often go unnoticed, and that has to change. It’s time for real talk.

“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” —John Lennon

A True Story
Jon Rocker (not his real name) is an unknown, ex-snowboarder who moved to Whistler in 1994 as a 17-year-old kid with the same dreams as many — ride hard, turn pro, and play in the snow forever.

Like the majority of his peers — spirited youths suddenly cut from the shackles of living with their parents — Jon enjoyed the debauchery of Whistler’s party scene; depraved antics with copious amounts of hard liquor, loud music, late nights and no shortage of partners in crime.

“Upper Insanity!” is how he refers to it, a joking nod to the popular run on Whistler mountain, but Jon was also very committed to meeting his shred goals as well. “I had already been drinking a lot back home, I was afraid to open up or be myself for fear of not being accepted or being judged,” he says. “But in Whistler, working hard was how I dug myself out. I adopted an attitude that I could, and would, do what they [established pro riders] were doing, but better. And I’d do it without the big money, big contract and big sponsors. It wasn’t so much about succeeding or being the best, but I made a conscious decision out loud and I had to follow through.”

Things went well for Jon. With a strong work ethic and the support of a new family of friends— including an aspiring photographer—he began to see some of his snowboard dreams come to life.

“We made it into a few mags and things just started developing. Photos, filming, snowcats, helicopters, catalogues, stoke. I met and rode with some of my idols. Hype kept growing, dreams came true.” In total Whistler fashion, Jon was also holding down two jobs to make ends meet—a full-time chef position at a popular restaurant and a close-to-full-time job at a local distribution company. With a truck he loved, a snowmobile, and a new girlfriend he lived with in a great log home with good people, Jon was achieving the goals he had set, but he says it never felt like enough.

“Maybe I was overwhelmed,” Jon says, “but to be honest, I think I was egotistically compensating for something, and it just wasn’t good enough for me. I had to be bigger and better than everyone and when I wasn’t, I just started letting go.”

This kicked off a series of unfortunate events that took place within a very close timeframe—financial stress, injury, career loss, the loss of a child during pregnancy , relationship breakdown, over-partying, trouble with the law . . . shit was going sideways quick.

“I had no family around for support,” Jon recalls. “Friends were going in their own directions. With great highs there’s always the risk of equal lows. I experienced the sadness of it all falling down.” Around this time, Jon was diagnosed with symptoms of Bipolar Disorder, a condition where people experience extreme highs and devastating lows. The turmoil of all of this, and the realization that his lifestyle was built around seeking peer validation, brought Jon to his limit and caused him to break away from his life in the mountains. Like so many before him, he packed up, bought a bus ticket, and went home….

 

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The truth is, stress, depression and mental illness don’t care what brand of goggles you rock, how many medals you have, or if you have a mullet or not.


A Common Story

Jon Rocker is not alone. His saga is one that has played out thousands of times in mountain communities all over the world. “I believe mountain towns attract a certain type of individual who may be fleeing from something,” says Greg McDonnell. “Fleeing some precept of society, some family trauma, some representation of culture that they wish to escape.”

And what better place to escape to than the peaks and valleys of eternal youth, and a life spent out on the edge? But problems exist, even in our dream realities. In fact, living on the edge and pushing ourselves on the mountain could actually be part of the problem.

Altitude and Attitude
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of pleasure and motivation. It’s released naturally when we exercise, drink coffee, have sex, fall in love, or have a mood-boosting day doing something we love, like mountain biking, skiing, or even yoga. New research is investigating the link between oxygen levels at altitudes and mood, dopamine and neurotransmission in the brain.

Studies by Dr. Perry Renshaw, a neurologist and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Utah, suggest that as altitude increases, brain chemistry changes. Lower levels of oxygen in our blood (from the altitude) can reduce brain serotonin (feel-good hormones) and creatine (an energy-containing compound) while increasing levels of brain dopamine (those pleasure/risk-taking neurotransmitters).

The good news is dopamine increases are positive. They provide the rush we feel when outrunning the slough on a big line or executing a perfect trick at the finish line. Dopamine is what keeps us coming back for more.

“Action sports are about being as high and intense as we can get and that is often very euphoric,” Jon Rocker says. “But once you can’t get that high anymore, there is a massive void.”

“Action sports are about being as high and intense as we can get and that is often very euphoric,” Jon Rocker says. “But once you can’t get that high anymore, there is a massive void.”

Dr. Renshaw’s findings heavily emphasize that “but” and attribute it to the dip in serotonin. Dropping levels of serotonin can decrease our desire to engage in the sport or social activities that bring us those dopamine highs. A decrease in serotonin is commonly associated with depression. And in the mountains, depression is a dirty word.

“I think depression is common and avoiding talking about it happens everywhere, not just mountain towns,” says McDonnell. “But I do think we have a culture of revulsion towards depression and this perpetuates the stigma. Perhaps it could be argued that mountain towns have residents (for example young males) who feel compelled to exude a tough guy image and show a shield of armour by not acknowledging feelings.”

 

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The Party Train
First chair to last call. Mountain culture is known for its pedal-to-the-metal attitude both on and off the hill. The thrill-seeking, dopamine-hungry attitudes that lead action sports enthusiasts to push their limits out in the mountains don’t just turn off when the lifts stop turning. There’s après and then there’s après-après, and closing the bar in your snowboard gear once in a while is not only accepted, it’s applauded.

“Partying was the norm,” Jon Rocker recalls. “Even if I didn’t want to, it was just too easy and everywhere . . .  Everywhere.”

There’s après and then there’s après-après, and closing the bar in your snowboard gear once in a while is not only accepted, it’s applauded.

The old saying, ‘everything in moderation,’ is a much harder sell in a town full of young, Type-A go-getters hell-bent on doing things their own way. And excessive late nights with a bottle of Jack Daniels can be part of the elixir that helps avoid whatever hardships do occur. From losing friends in avalanches to welcoming someone back from a surf trip, there’s always a reason to gather the tribe and crack a bottle, or whatever else is available.

“Mental health is often concurrent with addiction,” explains McDonnell. “Whistler also has a culture of acceptance of drug and alcohol use, so when the two collide there is often a ripe playing field for drug/alcohol addiction to blossom here. Often times, this drug/alcohol abuse can kick-start someone into a deeper mental health state as the nervous system struggles over time.”

It Only Hurts When I Move
Statistically speaking, if you spend as much of your life as possible pushing your limits at high speed, it’s only a matter of time until an injury occurs. And when it does, the withdrawal from those dopamine highs can be tricky to come to grips with. So can mustering the patience needed to allow a physical ailment to heal in a town that never stops moving. It can all nudge people towards depression.

“Six times, I broke my wrist skateboarding,” Rocker says. “Sometimes I didn’t even know if it was broken and would be at work in the restaurant using the knives and wincing in pain. Another time, I messed up my knee so bad it would completely collapse when I tried to bend it. I’d be at work.”

You can’t afford to miss work in a town with some of the highest cost of living numbers in the country. And no one wants to miss out on the fun either. “I think many people’s personas are defined by their sports,” says McDonnell. “I think it would be the same with careers in a larger city, but for many up here their worthiness as a person is attached to their successes on snow/dirt and that is something that can contribute to mental health.”

“I think many people’s personas are defined by their sports,” says McDonnell. “I think it would be the same with careers in a larger city, but for many up here their worthiness as a person is attached to their successes on snow/dirt and that is something that can contribute to mental health.”

A head injury only compounds the problem. As more people ‘go big or go home,’ head injuries are becoming more prevalent, in a number of sports. Whistler local Jessy Braidwood suffered a severe concussion while skiing and says the crash, and long recovery, had a huge impact on her mental state.

“I went from being this very emotionally calm, passionate and mentally stable person to the complete opposite,” she says. “For the first two years of my injury I was incredibly emotional and in a very dark space mentally. I had zero patience, was so irritable and would get really angry or cry every day over the silliest things. Anxiety and insomnia were constant friends. At the time, I was too stubborn and confused to realize or admit I was depressed. I had always been a glass-half-full kind of girl.”

The long recovery time, while appearing outwardly healthy, can also contribute to a loss of compassion or understanding from peers that leads to feelings of alienation and depression. “Looking fine but feeling like a disaster was no easy feat,” says three-time Olympian, Mercedes Nicoll, who suffered a concussion riding halfpipe at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. “Physically, I was strong last year, but overcoming the mental struggle of starting slowly and progressing gradually was not easy.”

“One of the hardest things I see with clients battling mental health issues is their own shame that compounds their struggles,” says Christine Clark, a Registered Clinical Counsellor and action sports enthusiast based out of Tofino, BC. “People really judge themselves and believe that they are in it alone.”

mlcm_earlywinter16-17_magzterThe Shadow and the Light
The probability of injury comes hand-in-hand with risk, this is well understood in any mountain town. While a broken ankle or torn knee are easy to identify, and the repercussions of not taking care of our bodies are easy to understand, the beginning stages of depression and other mental illnesses, however, are far less tangible. They also have a less noticeable effect on our everyday lives, especially in a culture conditioned to hide them.

“One of the hardest things I see with clients battling mental health issues is their own shame that compounds their struggles,” says Christine Clark, a Registered Clinical Counsellor and action sports enthusiast based out of Tofino, BC. “People really judge themselves and believe that they are in it alone.”

But they aren’t alone. The World Health Organization reports that, globally, 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression. And their stories are being told.

“I think there is a shift happening,” says Greg McDonnell. “More and more people are willing to discuss their emotions and we are seeing the noose of stigma loosening.”

We just have to take care of ourselves and each other. Because there’s no sense in calling ourselves a mountain community if we can’t make people feel safe, loved, and at home.

Because the truth is, stress, depression and mental illness don’t care what brand of goggles you rock, how many medals you have, or if you have a mullet or not. They are indiscriminate and hard to discuss, but we can change this with a dedication to keeping our minds as well maintained as the bases of our boards and a courage as strong as our peak-to-creek quads. If we are brave enough to create a dialogue around mental health that’s as powerful as our appetite for adventure, then we might be able to help each other ride out the darkness and navigate the ups and downs of real life in the mountains.

Because there will always be great reasons to live our dreams. To carve the well-manicured mountain playground, ride the high-speed six-pack chairlifts with our homies, and tap into the flow-state that comes from action and nature and belonging. We just have to take care of ourselves and each other. Because there’s no sense in calling ourselves a mountain community if we can’t make people feel safe, loved, and at home.

“I’m a firm believer in home,” says Jon Rocker, who continues to battle Bipolar Disorder and never returned to the mountains. “Home is where the heart is. It’s where you come back to centre. The world can be rough, wild, disturbing, up, down, and all over the place, but for me, a good home to come back to is most important. Times in my life that have been most difficult are when I haven’t felt at home in the world. You know you’re doing okay when you can feel at home everywhere you go. I always really felt that in nature, in Whistler, deep in the forests, in the quiet beauty of it all. Left alone but not ‘alone.’”

 

MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES
At Mountain Life we feel these are important issues that don’t get talked about enough. We’ve lost friends and seen others travel dark and dangerous paths because they couldn’t or wouldn’t find the support they needed. We feel that by bringing the conversation about mental health to our pages we can help erase some of the stigma around these issues and hopefully help someone. Here are some local resources worth checking out:

Sea to Sky Mental Health and Addiction Services
http://www.vch.ca/locations-and-services/find-health-services/?program_id=11034

Sea to Sky Community Services
https://www.sscs.ca/

McDonnell Counselling
http://www.mcdonnellcounselling.ca/

Sarah Jeffrey, counselling based in Squamish
http://sarahjeffreycounselling.com/

24-Hour Crisis Hotline 1-866-661-3311
http://crisiscentrechat.ca/

 

 

As a supplement to “The Dark Ride”, writer Taylor Godber has assembled these bits of advice from the people featured in that story.

Out of the Shadows   
There has always been a cone of silence, a stigma, around mental health issues and the easiest first step to helping ourselves and others is to share our stories, feelings and thoughts. Here are some words of wisdom from the professionals of mental health and those who have been brave enough to talk about their journey to recovery.

Don’t Brush It Off
“We tend to normalize the initial signs of depression and mental illness and accept the symptoms as ‘part and parcel’ of the stresses of everyday life, so again we’re mislead in our need to find resolution.” – Zoey Ann Stimpson, Health and Wellness Expert at The Nook Yoga and Wellness Studio

Stay Positive
“I realized that I had to celebrate every single tiny progress or good moment — there’s just no room to think negatively. That doesn’t mean that depression and negative emotions aren’t there, but rather that you try to accept them and sort of think, ‘hey, I see you, you little bastards, and you’re coming along for this ride and that’s okay.” – Jessy Braidwood, skier

Get Outside
“Find a way to stay active and connected to the outdoors. There is so much research showing the benefits of nature on mental health from being in nature, views of nature, to simply thinking about nature. Similarly, even if you can’t do the sport you’re passionate about, doing something active is always better than nothing.” – Christine Clark, Mental Health Counsellor

Shit Happens
“Nothing in life goes as planned, life is not a Disney movie. Get up, get moving, fail at a lot of things and keep smiling!” – Mercedes Nicoll, Snowboarder, 3-time Olympian

Find Something to be Grateful For
“Every day I’d try and be grateful about something even if my head was on fire. Staring at the mountains around here always helped keep me stable when things were real bad.” – Jessy Braidwood

Talk
“I think most people don’t talk about it because it’s different and deemed ‘not normal,’ but the more you actually talk about it, the more others open up and you realize it is normal!” –Mercedes Nicoll

Keeping Sending It
“I believe many of the things that athletes endure contribute to making them more adaptable and resilient to life challenges. As we know, sport is a microcosm of life and if we can ‘survive’ within it, perhaps it can help us thrive at the challenges of life.” – Greg McDonnell, Counsellor

Be Patient
“Patience was key through my recovery, though not always easy. I had to learn countless times that I couldn’t run before I walked; in my world that meant I couldn’t snowboard before I could walk.” – Mercedes Nicoll

Believe In Each Other
“Believing in one another is key. Letting anyone down hurts, especially ourselves, but that doesn’t mean it’s over. It could be a day, a week, or a decade, there will always be an opportunity to fix our mistakes or make things right if we don’t give up.” – Jon Rocker

Seek Help
“About mental health support, I often hear people say things like ‘I saw a counsellor one time and it didn’t work’. I find myself comparing this to car trouble. We wouldn’t stop trying to fix our car, we’d just find a different mechanic that knew more about our car’s symptoms. There is great variety in counselling theory and practice and of course personalities, not everyone is a going to be a good fit.” – Christine Clark

Support Each Other

“Concussions and related mental health issues are really isolating and confusing. A big part of healing is feeling supported and understood. So when people understand these issues better, there is just so much more room for both them and yourself to accept your situation and move into healing from a healthy place.” — Jessy Braidwood

 

 

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