Panic in the Peaceful Forest

Ignorance is bliss, they say, and I believe this to be true sometimes. My husband and I were ignorant about this trail we were about to embark upon. The brochure and the sign at the head of the trail said it was 2 1/2 miles. From what I read and interpreted this meant 2 1/2 miles…total. Roundtrip. I thought this trail would be a walk in the park.

 

We began walking on the trail with the adrenaline, energy, enthusiasm, and excitement that awaits hikers as they begin their adventure. A new path…a new forest. A beautiful array of trees covered in moss that our eyes had never beheld, a vast emerald canopy above our heads. Ferns that felt like feathers as that lightly brushed against us as we passed beside them. We didn’t know where this trail would lead us. Would it lead us to the sea?

 

I was ready to accomplish something. I was seeking a challenge – for me, that’s part of what hiking is about. Little did I know, I was certainly about to have my mind and my body challenged.

 

As we walked along in the early morning hours, the cold rain dripped down on us and we could see our frosty breath. The cold air was invigorating. We didn’t see a soul on the trail; we had it to ourselves, something I long for. It was just my husband and I….and the tall, towering trees. It felt magical and I imagined I was in the fairy tale world of Mirkwood where the elves dwell and sing tales of old and have great feasts in the forest. We began to hear a rushing river and finally caught a glimpse of it through an opening in the trees, flowing down below us. We were excited. We were having fun. Every few steps, we would stop to take pictures or use our GoPro. The going was long, but I was okay with this, thinking to myself that we were already about halfway there. The going was also tough, as we dodged tree roots, and thousands of puddles of mud.

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My husband Josh had downloaded an app that tracked our distance. We were hoping this was going to be a loop trail; to see new sights on our way back to the car park, and to not have to retrace our steps.

 

We then heard a sound that made our hearts skip a beat…the sound of the sea. Our pace naturally quickened as we were eager to hopefully catch a glimpse of the roaring waves of the Pacific.

 

At last, we rounded a bend and saw the thundering ocean. The view was breathtaking as the sun had peaked out from behind the clouds and was in its full glory…a rarity for this time of year on the Oregon coast. We paused for a moment to take it all in. There were surfers waiting in the water for the next wave to ride and we could hear their enthusiastic shouts even from where we stood, hundreds of feet above their bobbing heads.

 

All the hiking we had done this beautiful morning had been worth it for this wonderful moment – this view and to feel the warm sun upon our faces.

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But we still weren’t at the end of the trail! I’m not a wildnerness or hiking expert, but I was pretty sure that we had already gone at least two miles and I was beginning to think that this was no loop trail at all, but that we’d have to go the way we had come. This was starting to get to me a little bit, and I was already feeling quite tired. Each step further that we took meant we would have to turn back and take that step back. I love hiking with all of my heart, but today I wasn’t feeling my best physically and something I am quite familiar with was starting to creep in.

 

We were about to turn back, as we looked at the map on our hiking app, and thinking that perhaps we had already made it to the end point of the Cape Falcon trail, and that now we were on the Oregon Coast Trail (which leads north up the Pacific Northwestern coast to Canada).

 

Just as I turned to walk back, we finally saw a couple of other people headed our way on the trail. They informed us that “yes, you are still on the Cape Falcon trail, and yes, you must keep going … just 10 more minutes until you reach the amazing viewpoint.”

 

Ok. Keep going.

 

That gave us a little push to continue onwards. It lit a fire, albeit a small one, within me. At this point, for me it was a bit of pride to be able to say that we had completed the trail, and, of course, we had come this far, so we had to keep going, even though I was starting to feel physically taxed. We finally made it to the lookout point of the trail, and the view of the expansive sea thousands of feet below us was phenomenal. It was unnerving to see a massive drop off and only a few bushes that served as a barrier between us. We continued on to another viewing point, which was a steep path downwards in order to get to the spot. I felt vertigo start to settle in somewhere within me and I was beginning to feel a little bit of fear. The waves thundered angrily, slamming against the massive rocks and boulders with such loud force, sending foamy waves raging down onto the other side of the rocks. I was amazed and in awe by the strength of the ocean. I was intimidated by its power.

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By this time, I was ready to go back. I wanted to be off this trail. I wanted to be back in town, back to Cannon Beach, where all the people were. I was beginning to feel that we were isolated, and I wasn’t liking the thought of that.

 

I had barely stopped for a moment’s breath the entire hike, as I was just in the mode of “Go, go, go!” We had to hike back up the steep paths and my heart was racing and pounding. Josh was a little behind me, and I was a girl on a mission: “Just make it back to the car.”

 

It was happening. I was starting to panic.

 

I became aware of the fact that I had been holding my breath most of the hike. I had a cold, too, making it hard to breathe through my nose. I was thinking to myself, “I feel so weird. I feel so weird.” I began to feel lightheaded and dizzy. I felt weak.

 

I think the panic and anxiety had started to set in once I found out that we had to go back the way we had come – I was finally certain this was no loop trail. The app said we had walked four miles. That meant four miles back the way we had come. As I said, ignorance had been our bliss, but when reality set in that this was going to be an 8 miler as opposed to the 2 miles we had originally thought, I immediately felt disheartened and discouraged. I didn’t feel prepared for this.

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My mind was two steps ahead of me and I walked as fast as I could, knowing each step I made would get me closer to where I wanted to be. Just back at that car park. I was envisioning and replaying what lay before us. And I knew how long it had taken to get to the viewing point, and that it would take us that long to get back to the car. The roaring of the ocean could still be heard, and I wanted to get away from it.

 

It didn’t take long. You see, it didn’t take long at all for the panic to set in. I was aware of everything and fear was overtaking me. These were some of my thoughts: I’d only seen about five people on this whole trail; where was everybody? We were so far away from our car, and away from civilization. What if I needed medical attention? How would they get to me? Why was my heart beating so fast? Why do I feel so weak? Why am I so exhausted? What if I can’t make it back to the car?

 

I finally stopped, turned around and told Josh that I felt weird. That I felt scared. I was feeling emotional and wanting to cry.

 

I told him all my symptoms. He was like, “Just stop baby. Stop and take a break. Breathe.”

 

No. I didn’t want to stop. I felt this urgency that we had to get back to the car. I wanted to be in our lodge, in our cozy room, away from the elements, and just sitting by the warm fire. I imagined this scene and this was my beacon of light to press onward, was thinking of the comforts of our “home away from home”. I realized how ravenous I was, and I dreamed up a feast waiting for me.

 

Josh, being the practical one, and me not being levelheaded at that moment, said, “Baby, you need to drink some water! You’re probably dehydrated.” Maybe he was right. Had I drank any water this entire time? Maybe a couple sips now that I thought about it. I said I was hungry, too, but I didn’t think we had packed any snacks. I felt like I was going to pass out.

 

Those moments were scary. Those moments of panic. I wanted so desperately to be out of that forest. “Get me out of here!” I felt like screaming, if I had had the strength. I couldn’t remember any of the “tools” I’ve learned along the way of how to deal with a panic attack. I grabbed the water bottle and guzzled down what I could, which helped me focus on trying to breathe through my nose. I had to calm myself down. I had some anxiety medicine in my backpack, but that didn’t even cross my mind at that moment. We did thankfully have some snacks in our packs, (thanks to Southwest Airlines for the peanuts and crackers) which I inhaled and I found an old protein bar. I said to Josh, “Let’s keep going.” The panic was still there and my only hope of escaping it was escaping this quiet, peaceful forest.

 

I started focusing on my breathing as we walked along and I continued eating my protein bar. My pace started to slow. I thought of how I would breathe in yoga, and focused as hard as I could on trying to have rhythmic breath and breathing slowly in and out through my nose. My breath deepened.

 

As we continued at a slower pace along the trail, the sound of the ocean subsided and was replaced by the quiet of the forest, and I felt a calm finally wash over my mind and body. I became suddenly aware of the beauty around me. The sun rays shining down into the forest around us, making the ferns and moss-covered trees an even more vibrant green than when we had seen them earlier that morning. The light and warmth from the sun brought me peace and comfort. I heard a bird singing for the first time I’d heard on the entire hike. The sound of quiet streams filled my ears. Strength was being renewed to my body.

 

I had gained some confidence in myself and felt proud that I didn’t need medicine to get through those moments. I was thankful that it had passed, those moments of panic. It wasn’t a full-on panic attack like I’ve had before, but it got pretty close.

 

It doesn’t take long for our minds to get ahead of us. For our thoughts to start racing. For the fear to take over all rational.

 

When you are in a state of panic, you can’t think clearly.

 

But I had made it through. And now, the forest was peaceful again, and I was calm.

 

As Josh and I continued walking at a slow pace back to the car, I found an energy I can’t explain take over. I was relieved and elated that the panic and anxiety had left me. I began thinking about what had just happened and all the reasons why I had gotten to that point.

 

When you’re hiking, there’s something about knowing you have to go back the way you came. You know the trail . . . you know what it looked like – you know all the obstacles that you encountered. A mighty tree that had fallen across our path before we came upon it, blocking our way. The lengths we had to go through to get past the tree. The river we had to cross – the feeling I had holding my breath walking steadily and cautiously on a fallen tree that was a bridge to cross the river. I knew the methodical steps I had to take as I stepped carefully around the deep, sloshy puddles of mud and the care I had to take to not trip over the endless tree roots springing up across the path.

 

I knew how long it had taken. That it had not been easy. That some parts of it had been challenging and made me want to give up and just turn back and not finish the trail.

 

And so, as I walked back, I thought about my moments of panic, and how it related to life. I thought to myself, “Don’t look too far ahead into the future.” For one thing, it can overwhelm you. Take one step at a time. Focus on the here and now. Don’t get ahead of the game. Be present in this moment.

 

You see, I had the whole journey back played out in my head, and in my head I remembered every little obstacle. Life is sometimes about perspective, to dwell on the puddles of mud and the steep and challenging parts, instead of thinking about the gentle sound of the streams as we passed beside them. I forgot about the magnificent tree at the start of the trail that was completely covered in soft moss that felt like a cloud to the touch of my hand.

 

And, then, I thought of something else.

 

I thought back to a dark time in my life. I thought about a journey that I had taken. A long and difficult one. I reflected back to when my daughter was first born, and I suffered from postpartum depression/anxiety. It reminded me of the “out and back” trail that we were currently on. I already knew what that journey (or, more rather, “battle”) looked like. I know that trail now, because I’ve walked down it. I remember every obstacle that stood in my way from reaching recovery – from getting to the end of my journey and back to where I wanted to be -which was to be healed. I know how long it took, and how hard it was; that it nearly took me down. I don’t ever want to walk that dark path again.

 

I have that fear. Why would one want to go back down the same path again, when they know how treacherous it had been? There are some days when that fear is very real and present, of having to go back there.

 

Perhaps we all have our times in life that we would not want to re-live and that we’d do just about anything to not have to go through it again. For we know what it looks like; what it felt like. What it did.

 

For us, on this particular trail called Cape Falcon, there wasn’t a new trail that suddenly or miraculously appeared on our way back to the car park. We took the same trail. But, I found that the way back wasn’t so bad after all. The obstacles I remembered from before weren’t as threatening. Maybe it was divine intervention, but the steps back to our car seemed to be quicker, thus getting us to the car park quicker. The path leveled out and we soon were in sight of our destination, where we had started from.

 

I know that I can’t live in fear, captive to the thought of having to go down that path of postpartum depression again. We cannot live in fear. For, maybe, if I do have to go down it again, I pray that the path will be easier than the one I’ve already seen and been on. That there will be a bridge across the puddles of mud. That there will be a railing along the tree that crosses the river, to bring me comfort and to keep me safe. That the trees blocking my way, causing me to want to give up, will have been removed from my way. That God will have straightened my path.

 

Or, maybe He will provide a fork in the road; a new path entirely – one in which I will not have to know that darkness again.

 

No, we can’t live in fear. We have to keep on going. We can’t turn back. It is worth every step you take, even if you have to drag yourself through the mud to get there to your destination.

 

And so it was for me.

 

We finally saw the moss-covered tree that we had seen earlier that morning and I felt rejoicing in my heart, as this beautiful tree meant we had made it! I was thankful to see this majestic tower reaching high up to the sky.

 

I then wrapped my arms around its trunk as far as they would go, and I hugged that tree with all of my might.

 

I was smiling and laughing.

 

I had made it.

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This picture is from a photoshoot we had done at the beginning of the hike.