Backpacking Through Intrusive Thoughts

California, 2021

For as long as I can remember, I have always had intrusive imagery and thoughts. Sometimes it’s just a thought and no image to go along with it, but other times a graphic image will lend itself to the thought I am having. If you’re wondering, no, it is not delightful imagery. So, maybe you have no idea what I am talking about because you have never had this experience. Let’s talk a little about what these terms are. Intrusive thoughts or intrusive imagery are “mental pictures that interrupt ongoing mentation. They are unselected, unexpected, uninvited, often unwelcome, and can cause distress” (Rachman, 2007). My intrusive thoughts are a memory of my past or an unlikely future. I take a painful plunge into my past, or I leap into a frightening glimpse of what could be.

So why am I talking about this on my backpacking blog? I hike and backpack alone, which means that I spend a lot of time with my thoughts. Some days my thoughts can get wildly inappropriate and scary, and some days they are mild. For example, on my hike in Eagle Creek last week, the river and the waterfalls were so full. It was beautiful, and I was so excited to be there! About a mile in, the only thought was what would happen if I fell into the river. Having a brain that subjects you to intrusive thoughts is that they are never just what if. My intrusive thoughts are always vivid and in a DO IT voice. The intrusive thoughts sometimes go like this: I’d fall in the river. I would hit my head. I would float downstream and get lodged on a log or a rock, stuck there for months before someone found me. An image of my cold blue body would flash to my head before I would scream, “That’s not real.”

The unfortunate part of having such an anxious brain is that it can take my thoughts into the darkest of places. It wouldn’t just stop there; the image of my cold naked body would flash through my head for the next couple of miles. I would think of Falling off the side of a cliff, breaking my ankle, my bone snapping out of my skin. I would also have my thoughts trail to a very skilled mountain serial rapist, or maybe it would just be a serial killer living in the mountains, he had several corps of women who passed through the trails, and he wouldn’t want to rape me at all. He would walk up behind me, knock me over the head with a rock, and carry my limp body back to his camp.

Now, I know what you must be thinking “what the fuck Kristen, this sounds exhausting; how in the hell do you enjoy this?” I do not enjoy the intrusive thoughts, and they scare me, but I enjoy backpacking and hiking. Spending that time alone, finding out what I am capable of both in my mind and my physical body brings me so much happiness. Would I much rather do without the intrusive imagery and intrusive thoughts? Yeah, of course, I would. I had to decide if fear and an anxious brain were taking something away from me that brings me so much empowerment and strength? That answer was fuck no; I am not. I want to share something with you from a book that I have been reading, Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Like me, Cheryl was addicted to drugs, married to the wrong person, and looking for strength in healing and facing ourselves by ourselves. Before she began her months-long journey on the Pacific Crest Trail, she told herself she would not let fear overcome her. “It was a deal I made with myself months before and the only thing that allowed me to hike alone. I knew that If I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed.” A promise that I am also making to myself. I will not let fear overtake me. Fear leads to fear. I want to commence more power in my life, and so I shall.

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