Thursday, December 17, 2009

Winter Snapshot - Mental Health Through Skiing

We might have been any two women on cross country skis, but if you could hear our conversation, you would you would have witnessed the transformational power outdoor recreation can have in the lives of people with disabilities.

"I used to be incredibly phobic," offered Ginny, as we shushed through the soft snow. "The Universal Access Program has helped me so much. I couldn't have recovered anywhere near as much as I have without it. I've spent years in outpatient clinics. Would you believe I used to weigh 210 pounds?"

We skied along a frozen pond with a beaver lodge and entered the snow covered forest. She took in my look of amazement and continued. " A lot of people on medication are overweight. So much of it is depression you know? And the drugs. You can't feel your feelings or any drive to get out and do things. But one day, I came with a group to kayak. At first I was terrified. Then, I had a great time! I was so isolated in my life I couldn't make connections with people very well, until I started coming to Universal Access programs. I got to know the staff and soon was talking to more people than just those with psychiatric disabilities."

As we passed under towering white pines, Ginny freely shared her story. I realized I was getting a rare view into a life experience few people get to see unless it is their own. She spoke of her misdiagnosis as a child, how the adult stresses of making ends meet led to a clearer psychiatric diagnosis, followed by years of poor treatment in an over-medicated fog. Somehow the tranquil beauty of the forest with its blanket of snow offered her easy access through her story.

"I was fortunate to have my own car. I kept coming. The exercise felt so good. The fresh air. Everything. I tried cycling, hiking, winter activities....each time I struggled through being around more new people, yet there were always the familiar friendly staff and volunteers to help me. I got to know some of the other participants who came regularly. Some of us even talk on the phone now between programs. Gradually I acclimated to people. I still have trouble being in rooms with people talking loudly or in crowds."

I found common ground with Ginny in this last comment, and we skied silently down a series of curving hills. "I really love speed!", she continued when we caught up with each other. "It makes me feel so alive. The release of endorphins actually breaks through the flat line of my emotional life. My medications prevent me from feeling much range."

Ginny had moved beyond the limitations of others managing her disability and was clearly finding her own methods of blazing new trails. We stopped to admire some tracks where a bobcat had crossed the ski trail, then swapped wild animal stories all the way back to the lodge.

Still I wonder, for every Ginny finding a new way in life, how many people are still caught in the fog of medication? Who else out there has improved their mental health through recreation?

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