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Pregnant Backpacking: How I fought Prenatal Depression and Anxiety by Solo Backpacking

On April 6th, in the 33rd week of my third pregnancy, I pulled over on a completely deserted road, grabbed a loaded pack out of my trunk, stepped into the cold of 20˚F and set off on my first ever, completely solo backpacking trip.

This year had been heavy, emotionally. Pregnancy is a hugely taxing journey that for me that results in depression and anxiety. My second pregnancy resulted in over eighteen months of postpartum depression and anxiety. This pregnancy I had made the choice to start on antidepressants, which was a major step forward in my advocating for my mental health. Medication was one factor in my new mental health plan. Additionally, I took stock of my current life trajectory and determined that a major factor that was missing from my personal and professional life was growth and challenge.

I needed a challenge. I needed to do something I’d never done before. I wanted to do it alone. I wanted to see if I could. I needed some exploration.

For me, as a mom of three, I am rarely alone. And those occasions where I am unattended by family, I am surrounded by friends and society. Even when I travel, I usually opt to travel with a companion. Lately, that had me feeling confined and pent up. Noise felt like it was physically assaulting me.

Becoming a mother has emphasized for me the need for space. I need and crave solitude.

In challenging myself this year, I decided I should do a solo backpacking trip. The trip would provide me with much needed respite before plunging into newborn sleeplessness. It would allow me to ponder how to approach schooling with my eldest (a topic that has been very stressful this year). I also hoped to work a bit on my writing career, something I’ve been working on since getting out of PPD/A.

Being alone….

That was my challenge. Would I like the me I had become? Would I even know the woman (who wouldn’t see a mirror during that trip) I was post-carrying two children and in the midst of the third? Liking myself prior to children was hard enough. Having gone through the reincarnation of myself twice before I knew it was coming again. Once again I would be required to adapt and change who I was and my life to accommodate the additional person I was carrying. But amidst all that, there was still me. Somehow I had to find a way to be enough for myself.

Why can’t you just go to a hotel? While going to a hotel would certainly give me the alone time I craved, it wouldn’t provide me with a sense of solitude, exploration or challenge. It didn’t require me to change myself in any way. Going backpacking, on the other hand, necessitated that I prepare my food, my route, my shelter. It meant that I would have to provide those for myself, and that whatever challenges I faced, I would be accomplishing them.

I had planned this trip in early February with hopes that the weather in April would cooperate with me. My doctor had cleared me up to the 36th week, though I could tell she’d appreciate if I went sooner rather than later. Between that and shelter availability, I didn’t have a lot of options. So into the cold, I went. I had planned for a 7 mile long segment of the Ice Age Scenic Trail. As part of the Southern Kettle Unit of the Wisconsin State Park system, I knew there would be a ranger nearby and that while “alone” I wouldn’t be stranded if I needed help. I picked this segment because it had geographical challenge and interest while also being flexible in terms of route. I was able to park close to where I would be camping at night. Then I could make a “loop” that would allow me to hike the whole of the segment.  I also originally was hoping to do a two night trip but when temperatures dropped, I scaled back to a one nighter. There would be no rescheduling.

I almost chickened out. I almost changed my mind. The cold is my personal nemesis. A quick panicky text to my sister (my personal backpacking hero and guru) resulted in this gem.

“Go. It’ll probably suck while you do it. But you’ll never regret having gone. Also, bring fluffy socks.”

And there it was. Often motherhood is like that. It sometimes sucks while you do it. There are meltdowns, whining, crying and injuries (and some of that from the kids too!). There are the moments when you think it’s the worst idea you ever had was to be a mom. But I’ll never regret having these three kids. Backpacking solo: it was going to be hard for me. I was going to miss my kids and my husband. And I’d also be really, really cold and most likely uncomfortable. But I wasn’t going to regret going.

So along with all my other gear, I threw in two extra pairs of socks and a down vest. I set up my tent and responded with humor when the ranger who checked in at the shelter looked shocked that I was due so soon. I made myself a dinner that did not stay hot despite my best efforts. Walking around the campsite I allowed myself to think about all those worries that had pent up over the last year. Sitting at the table alone and drinking my tea and not talking to anyone gave me a lot of peace that I desperately needed.

It was a bit sucky. Sleeping at 33 weeks pregnant wasn’t going to be great at home and was definitely more challenging in a one woman tent. Getting into and out of a one person tent while feeling approximately the size of an elephant was hysterical. I’m so happy there was no one there to watch. Especially since the first time it took about 5 minutes. But I wasn’t cold thanks to the super fluffy socks and extra down layers. (I never claimed to be an ultralight backpacker, In fact this trip I brought an extra blanket.) In the morning I woke up and I couldn’t get my fingers warm enough to use the lighter for the stove. I managed to drink some very icy coffee substitute and finished a meal bar. I opted not to continue fighting with the stove so I packed up and hiked the short way back to the car. It actually physically hurt to move that morning. It took me all the way home to finally warm up.

However, when asked if I’d go again, I didn’t hesitate. Yes, I would do that again. Those hours, so short, were worth whatever I needed to do to get there. In crossing that bridge I was forced to navigate past anxieties (about leaving my kids, about being alone, about who I was, and if I was good enough). In doing something I had never done before I challenged both my own mental image of me and my depression. Here was proof that I could change and grow and adapt. My depression told me that I couldn’t do anything right. Yet, this trip showed me I had already done it.

However, next time I go into the woods solo it’s going to be warm. And I’m not going to be pregnant.

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