Having a panic attack on the trail (0/10, do not recommend)

Remember when I tried to hike Elk Mountain/King’s Mountain Loop back in May and didn’t finish? That’s because I had a panic attack—3,000 feet atop exposed trail in inclement weather while hiking with someone I barely knew. DIZAZZ.

Photo of Tillamook State Forest taken from about 2,500 feet atop Elk Mountain Trail. The sky is gray with heavy, low clouds. The trees are various shades of green.

I feel like the weather had a lot to do with it. I’m not really afraid of heights—not when my feet are literally on the ground, anyway. I don’t like flying, and I don’t like driving on elevated roadways (bridges, windy sides of mountains, etc.). But if my literal feet are on the literal ground, I’m usually okay with height. Unless, apparently, there’s weather involved.

For the week prior to this hike, my hiking partner and I checked the weather daily. We knew this was going to be a tough hike (it’s rated “hard” on AllTrails, which we presumed, from the comments, was due to the elevation gain), and neither of us wanted to hike in pouring rain or super cold temps. We were prepared to delay the hike if we felt the weather called for it. It was chilly the day we attempted this hike, and a bit overcast when we began, but overall, the forecast seemed okay. Remember, we were under the impression the elevation gain would be the most difficult/technical thing we’d encounter.

Reader: We were wrong.

There were several stretches of incredibly narrow and steep trail that was exposed and required scrambling. I’m not saying this is the most technical or challenging trail on the planet. I’m saying it wasn’t what we expected, and personally, I wasn’t prepared for it. I think if the weather had been dry and warmer, this would be a non-story because we would’ve finished the hike. That’s not what happened.

Right as we reached what felt like the most technical part of the trail (steep grade, steep drop-offs, steep scramble), the fog rolled in and the rain started coming down. And with the change in weather and terrain, I felt the panic attack coming on. It’s an unmistakable, alarming feeling, especially when it presents with derealization, like it did that day.

A lot of resources describe derealization as feeling like “a dream.” To me, derealization feels less like living in a dream (“dream” has too positive of a connotation to me for what the actual experience feels like) and more like being stuck or suspended in a liminal space. When it’s happening, the more aware of it I become, the worse it gets—the further away from reality and outside of myself I feel, which freaks me the fuck out, and the more I begin to worry (panic) that I’m going to break with reality and that if I do, I might not ever make it back.

But wait, there’s more!

As the psychological pieces of the panic attack become more pronounced, the physical aspects of it kick in. Often, I start shaking uncontrollably, as adrenaline and cortisol start pumping through my body. My field of vision narrows, and can become unclear and spotty. Sometimes, my hearing becomes impaired—voices and other noises around me can sound diffuse and garbled, my ears might start ringing with a piercing sound.

On this particular day, my Raynaud’s decided to join the party, too. Raynaud’s is a condition in which certain areas of the body—often the fingers and the toes—become cold and go numb. The affected area usually turns white or blue. Cold temps and stress both activate and exacerbate it. Here’s what it looks like on/for me.

Photo of my left hand, showing the effects of Raynaud's. The top 2/3 of my fingers is white, while the color in the rest of my hand is normal.

My Raynaud’s joining the party that day is significant because it meant that on top of intrusive thoughts, uncontrollable shaking, and impaired vision, my grip was shot, too. On their own and even though I was wearing very warm, waterproof gloves, the cold made closing my fingers challenging, and the rain made it difficult to get a grip on the scramble and tree roots, which I’d been trying to hold onto for stability. The numbness from the Raynaud’s meant I couldn’t feel my fingers.

So there I was, on the precipice of a mountain, about 3,000 feet above the ground in inclement weather, having intrusive thoughts, shaking uncontrollably, with literal tunnel vision, and unable to get a decent grip on the steep terrain around me thanks to (1) wet and cold weather that made gripping the scramble and tree roots I’d been gripping for stability up to this point incredibly difficult, and (2) my numb fingers that I couldn’t feel or properly close around the slippery scramble and roots. Also: wind. AND THEN: my trash-ass proprioception.

Proprioception refers to our ability to sense our body’s movement and location in space. It also plays a role in balance and coordination. I talk more about my proprioceptive differences in this post. Basically: Even in the best of times when there are no complicating factors, I have difficulty knowing where my body is in space, coordinating my movements, and balancing.

On top of all the regular panic attack-y things I was experiencing, I was trying to literally navigate this particular section of trail with proprioception that’s Not Great even when I’m not having a small personal crisis on top of a mountain in the wind and rain. At one point, I had three points of contact at all times, and eventually began scooting around the trail on my ass, trying to grip whatever I could—when there was something-ish to grip. Problem was, most of what was available to grip was roots, and because it was currently, and had for days prior been, raining, the roots weren’t exactly sturdy.

I knew that I needed my full attention on the trail. I also knew that wasn’t going to happen. I was putting so much of my energy and attention into trying to mitigate my panic attack. Ultimately, given all the variables—the panic attack + the Raynaud’s + my trash-ass proprioception + the elevation + the narrowness of the trail + the low visibility/density of the fog + the rain (the slipperiness of the trail and the scramble)—I didn’t trust myself to not accidentally fuck up in a situation that allowed zero room for error.

So I removed myself from the situation.

I looked back at my hiking partner and said, “I need to turn back.” With no questions asked and no shade thrown, she agreed. Which: THANK FUCK for a hiking buddy who isn’t a dick. Also, I’m proud of myself for making the decision I did. It wasn’t easy. It was the right call.

Learning I’m autistic has been such a game-changer (for the better) in so many ways. For example, it’s given me context for understanding my experiences, and more self-knowledge about how my brain and body do (and don’t) work together. And that context for my experiences and better understanding of myself has empowered me to make better decisions. Had this situation happened and I didn’t know I was autistic and how being autistic affects my proprioception (a word I didn’t even know before I learned I’m autistic), I almost certainly wouldn’t have made the same decision. I would’ve believed that turning back was weak and unforgivable—I would’ve tried to power through, and honestly, who the fuck knows what might’ve happened (autistic people are significantly more likely to die from injuries and accidents, and I’ve already passed the average life expectancy for autistic people, which is a whopping 36 years old).

I know that a lot of people think an autism diagnosis is a tragic thing. That it’s the end of the world. That’s because they’re uninformed. An autism diagnosis isn’t either of those things. In many, many ways, it’s life-changing (in a good way), and even life-saving, both directly and in-.

Anyway.

The panic attack was an all-around 0/10 experience—hard pass, return to sender, do not recommend. It taught me a lot about myself, though, and that’s 10/10 valuable information to have.

*

If something like this happens to you on the trail (or anywhere, really), you’re not crazy for it happening and you’re not stupid or weak if you decide to turn around and go back instead of trying to push through.

If this happens to someone you’re with (on the trail or not), don’t be a dick about it. Don’t push them to “face their fear” or “get over it” or “just finish” because y’all “came all this way” or “made it this far.” Be kind. Be willing to turn back/leave with them. Don’t make any shitty, judgmental comments. You don’t have to “agree with” or understand it, you absolutely should respect it. I promise you, a person having a panic attack doesn’t want to be having a panic attack (especially in public), and isn’t “acting crazy” “on purpose” “for attention.”

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