Out of the Darkness

by JAKE NORTON

July 2021
Emerging from the fog of...Depression? Lack of self-confidence and self-respect? All of the above? Some thoughts, quotes, and determination to move forward.

I’m trying to dig myself out. Out of the hole. Out of the dark confinement, the barred prison of my own thoughts, self-imposed if I’m being honest, but easier to blame on the light twinkling beyond the imaginary bars, casting warmth in someone else’s room, someone else’s life.

A lone tent perched at Turner’s Bivvy on the slopes of Mount Madeline, New Zealand. In the distance, a full moon rises over Mount Tutoko, the highest peak in the Darran Mountains.

Depression, in all its nuance and variety, is certainly a thing in my family. It runs deep like a river, its mud splattering the picket fences of generations, carving canyons into faces and psyches and relationships. I’ve long wondered if I have it, too; if the darkness will get me, creep into my being, haunt the recesses of my every thought and every action.

I definitely have some of it, a profound melancholy which heaps up on itself, making the world - or rather my place and validity in the world - seem valueless, pointless, devoid of meaning. But, perhaps I’m not too good at depression, for I’ve never had the real bad bits, the crippling pain emanating from within, the inability to get up, get out, do something. (My family loves pedestals, punctuating life with the bests, the superlatives, the hyperbolic arête of any endeavor - good, bad, or indifferent. In my own twisted mind, since mine is not the stuff of movies or books or poetry, it must not be real, good depression.)

But, I digress.

The real thing I’m writing about - the catharsis untangling itself through my fingers as I write - is what I think is going on deeply in my head, in my heart and soul. If it stems from, starts from, has roots in depression, then good - it has a name. But, what I know it as is a crippling inability to find confidence, self-respect. It’s been there a long time: on the baseball field as a kid praying the ball wouldn’t come my way; in bike races and classrooms, the certainty of failure sucking all life from the attempt like a psychological Dyson; at parties and gatherings in college as I faded myself into the shadows, hiding from the possibility (certainty?) of failure. The list goes on.

I’m not looking for sympathy, mind you; there’s far too many who suffer far more, far deeper than I. No, I’m writing to some degree for myself, a physical attempt at untangling the intangible, tracing the mental sinew to discover its stubborn roots and connections. I’m also writing this as a form of mea culpa, a feeble-but-genuine explanation for my silence these past five weeks. And, I guess I’m writing all this because I’m betting some of you - maybe lots of you - experience the same; if you do, I’d love to talk about it - leave a comment below, or shoot me a note.

Footsteps at sunrise mark the red dunes of Erg Chigaga, 56 kilometers from the village of M'hamid, Morocco, near the Algerian border.

The questioning is incessant, the answers insistent. Why are you doing this? You’re not good enough. Does anybody read this, or care? Of course they don’t. Who are you to think you have a voice, a platform, a point? No one, period.

Self-confidence. Self-respect.

For much of my life, I haven’t given those things much thought. Through pure stubbornness coupled with a love for the satiating aloneness of the mountains, I’ve long been able to cover my mental tracks, compensate for insecurity with hard work, self-disrespect with simply pushing harder, wielding the cudgel of self-loathing to get myself to do more, more, more. But, like any bad habit, my patterns eventually catch up with me, leading to the eventual, inevitable crash.

In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion writes:

To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.

- Joan Didion, "On Self-Respect" from Slouching Towards Bethlehem

The one we make ourselves, as we all do. Reflecting on it all, I see my lack of confidence, my dearth of self-respect, emanates from a perverted expectation of perfection in myself, a deep-seated belief that all I do must be the best (remember those pedestals) or there’s no use in trying. Failure is not an option. Mediocrity perhaps worse.

Of course, this leads to a bad cul de sac, a Sartre-esque path from which I can’t possibly escape, for failure is always a possibility, mediocrity at times a given, and the nature of life (as social media reminds us ad infinitum) is that there is always someone, somewhere, doing just what I’m doing, but doing it better, having more fun, and meeting more success. As Didion wrote of the warped mental games when we lack self-respect, self-confidence: “To do without self-respect…is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that details one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there’s the hurt on X’s face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one.

It’s a hilarious-but-true depiction, a truism of my oft-repeated experience. She continues:

If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out—since our self-image is untenable—their false notions of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course I will play Francesca to your Paolo, Helen Keller to anyone’s Annie Sullivan: no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.

It is the phenomenon sometimes called “alienation from self.” In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.

- Joan Didion, "On Self-Respect" from Slouching Towards Bethlehem
A full moon rises in the mist over Peak 6815 on the Rapiu La (Pass) as viewed from Advanced Basecamp on Mount Everest, Tibet.

So, how to continue? Head down, I reckon, and keep moving forward, but also find, cherish, embrace the opportunities to be alone. For years, decades, my time alone, far away in the hills, was my solace. Away from people, just me and the trees and rocks, mountains and rivers, I could find myself and find that someone was indeed home. The tonic of wilderness coupled with solitude would at once feed my soul and nourish my confidence, allowing me to come back refreshed, rejuvinated, ready to dive once more into the world.

That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone…

- May Sarton

Years ago, I would climb without caring, for I figured no one was watching. I used to write what I believed, for I thought no one was reading. It’s time for me to re-embrace those attitudes, free myself from the interminable documentary of my own missteps and mistakes. As May Sarton wrote:

So much of my life here is precarious. I cannot always believe even in my work. But I have come in these last days to feel again the validity of my struggle here, that it is meaningful whether I ever “succeed” as a writer or not, and that even its failures, failures of nerve, failures due to a difficult temperament, can be meaningful.

Thanks for reading, supporting, and being patient with me on this journey.

31 comments on “Out of the Darkness”

  1. Once again an insightful and brave look deep inside yourself. How generous to be willing to share this exploration with so so many others who suffer the same doubts and fears. I commend you.

  2. Absolutely. I have often pondered why otherwise brilliant people fail themselves.
    James Taylor had a line in a song years ago, “what do I do when my dream comes true?”

    Man, that one burned.

    So I’d self sabotage. I was great at going just so far and no further. I was in the outskirts when I wanted to be in the middle of it all.

    Enter Rosie, a delightful bay mare with a generous heart and a mind of her own. Finally, my partner in dressage. We not only ride down the center line, we owned it.

    We owned Intro level for sIx years. Yep, stuck again. I’m not worthy, I’m too old, I hate myself, I’m never good enough, I’m depressed. All this time, she’s been waiting. She doesn’t hate me, she tries her damndest to motivate me, to inspire me, to lighten me.

    We’re done being intro, we’re skipping training level and going right into first level now. We’re going to show. This is a complicated test, the test that gets you a seat at the adult table.

    A friend said, “but what if you don’t get a ribbon?” Obviously she thinks we will fail. I said, “You don’t know me very well.”

    I grew up a depressed kid, fathered by a conflicted man and a confused mother. Next door to a child molester. I have pulled myself out of more black pits than anyone I know.

    A ribbon? Shit. That’s nothing.

    Depression come from the belief that you aren’t worthy. Not like them. But if you hold a dream in your hands, it’s easier to keep the monsters at bay. It’s when you give up that they win.

    Don’t let them win.

    Thanks for writing and for listening. -Jenny

    1. Wow, Jenny, thank you for your powerful words and story. So true, and so similar to my path and thoughts and ways of being, despite the different vehicles - horses vs mountains.

      I especially loved this: "But if you hold a dream in your hands, it’s easier to keep the monsters at bay. It’s when you give up that they win." I think that's so true: When we have a dream - not a goal per se, but a dream - to hold on to, we can indeed keep the monsters in their respective caves, out of our heads. The perennial challenge, I guess, is to keep finding the dreams to move toward, the new objectives on which to set our sights, and our minds.

      Thank you for writing, listening, caring, and climbing onward. Best to you and yours!

  3. Jake — I’m with you. I feel it too. As a writer. As a man. An explorer. A mountaineer. A philanthropist. No need to apologize. Ever. We just are. Beings. Human beings. Love to you and your family —

    1. Thank you, Pete. I know we share a lot in common, both inwardly and outwardly. We're long overdue for a coffee or beer or - better yet - a hike and catch up. Let's get something together once I'm back. Love to you and yours as well, and see you soon I hope.

    1. Thank you, Denisa; sometimes the raw truth is the best medicine, I guess. Hope you are well, and let's all reconnect when I'm back from Kili. Safe travels to you!

  4. There is so much in this that I can relate to, echo, and nod with understanding - as so much of it is what I've been dealing with over the past 30 years. It confirms what I always knew: Whenever I feel I can relate to someone, sooner or later I will discover similarities in life on a very deep level. So here's one more reason why I could relate to you on a very personal level ever since that 1999 expedition. That feeling got stronger in 2001 and eventually got reignited when we met again in 2019. This continues to be a basis for deep connection. Glad to call you a friend.

    1. Jochen, my friend, despite living across a big pond from one another, and years-to-decades of time passing between our personal visits, you've always been and continue to be a true friend and kindred spirit in myriad ways. Thank you for all you are and all you do, and your words of shared experience. Sending you a big huge through the ether, and looking forward to our next Skype chat. In the meantime, I owe you some satellite images...

  5. Hi Jake, get plenty of sunlight, that helps banish the blues, a long hot bath helps too. It's Friday 8am and I'm heading back to Edinburgh on the Orkney to Gills Bay ferry after a week of working at the radio mast sites. Have a good weekend bud.

    1. Thanks, Alan - wise words and advice indeed! I'm jealous of where you live - and love your photos on Picfair! I've only spent a little time in that neck of the woods, and never climbed much in the high country of Scotland, but hopefully I can change that one of these days. Take good care, and thanks again!

  6. Not sure if it'll help, but please know what an inspiration you've been.

    I loved the iFit Kilimanjaro series you did, and am taking that to the next step by planning a Kili climb. In fact would love to do it with you if a possibility.

    Either way, wouldn't have known that it's a possibility without you. So thanks!!

    Andy

    1. Thank you, Andy - it means a lot! And, so happy to hear you did and liked the iFit climb on Kili! It was a lot of fun to do, and I would love to be a part of your climb of Kili in person! Shoot me a note when you have a chance and we can talk more about it all. I'm actually heading to Kili in a week with my family, so we'll push through updates as we climb. Thanks again, and all the best to you!

  7. The pandemic has produced a good deal of "reflection" by most folks, I reckon. What is quite likely is thinking that going back to normal times, if there ever were any "normal times", will happen quickly. It's always been hard word to try and live and appreciate each moment, from my experience. Thanks for sharing your well-written thoughts, Jake.

  8. Jake, you are an inspiration. You come up in many conversations and I am quick to say you are the most humble, incredibly talented and kindest soul that I have ever known. You are able to put into words how so many of us feel and that is truly an amazing gift. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Anna, and the same right back at you! Missing seeing you and the family, and hopefully we can all connect again sometime soon. Until then, give everyone big hugs from me (and us), and thank you again!

  9. Hi Jake,
    Thank you for sharing your unique perspective on depression and your journey. It’s refreshing to hear a human be so honest about the real stuff, and really open up the conversation for people who may otherwise feel unable to do so. On days that you question it, let me remind you that your writing is meaningful and your presence purposeful. I look forward to seeing you soon.
    Love,
    Kendall

    1. Hi Kendall,

      Thank you for your sweet note and thoughts and support. I really appreciate it, and really appreciate you and the light and love and compassion you bring daily to our world. Thank you, dear cousin, and sending big hugs from afar to you and the whole family.

      Love, Jake

  10. Your writing so eloquently speaks to the challenges of being human, the layers of our acquired mind and our attachment to our identity. We are manifest here on Earth and our minds acquire the layers of our experience starting with our connections, values, expectations and beliefs within the family that we are born in and so on through our greater connection to others and their influence upon our consciousness…all of these projections whether internal or external become what we identify with. I believe the key lies in freeing our minds from our connection to identity and expectations and looking for that which is within. This helps us to slowly drop the layers and find our true nature hidden beneath. I think why it is easier to connect with that part of ourselves when we are in solitude or in retreat as we are not distracted by all that is going on in our busy lives. The goal is to be able to connect with that stiller part of our consciousness when we are in the midst of our everyday experience. For me finding that stillness has been through self cultivation and personal inquiry through my internal art training in Nei Gong and meditation. I highly recommend it. This work on self awareness is messy at times but it is essential to unraveling and freeing ourselves; made harder when we are in the depths of despair and depression. I am in no way living in perfect balance and don’t mean to sound here as if I am; I have learned so much about our human experience and how we can better master our experience with the outer world and sometimes I just want to share that. Your writing is important to balancing that which is happening internally for you. You have so much going on inside your head it is good to get it out with your writing which is a real talent for you.

    The world needs more people being vulnerable and taking the scary step to express their struggles and having a gentle man do that is exceptionally powerful. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Mary, for your kind words, insights, and the work you do to help so many with this journey! I love what you said, and the importance of allowing us to be free of distractions to focus on the within rather than the static that so consumes much of daily life. Thank you again, and I'll keep updating here on my journey - among myriad other things - and hopefully find/create more time to truly focus.

      Be well!

  11. Great work again Jake.

    Something different from everest sleuthing.

    It can be difficult to appreciate the struggles of others when we don't really understand them, we have an idealistic picture of them or we have our own issues. I have seen it within my own family (mental health issues) and obviously it has touched you too.

    Take care
    Alex

    1. Thanks, Alex. Definitely different than the Everest history and mystery, but maybe tied together in some distant way. Thanks again, my friend, and hope all is well with you.

      Best regards,

      Jake

  12. Hi Bud……….
    Sorry to hear you are working thru another bout of black hole…….I’m too aware of your pain and its crushing power.
    I sense and hope your upcoming adventure will help chace the the symtoms away…..movement always seems to work for you:the higher the better……..!
    Love Babu/Dad

  13. Depression can haunt when one feels or identifies with being “one down” from others. Banish that either with the dream of or quest for love. Love conquers all! This is one possible way out of darkness…

  14. Jake,
    Your reflection is so real and revealing of what so many will relate to. And the comments above show the universal nature and shared journey we are all on. As one with gray hair, I only have the word 'gratitude' to add. It is a powerful lifejacket when inward reflection seems so heavy. We are so appreciate of the stories, the memories and reflections you have given us, and I know from your writing and your smile, you have so many for whom you feel gratitude. That is our survival space ... we are all in this together.
    Best,
    Steve

    1. Steve, my deep thanks not only for your words, but for the kindness, love, and generosity you bring to our world. I remember so well our time in Upper Mustang, and your selflessness in giving, helping, and sharing with all you met. Indeed, we are all in this together, and the more we can recognize and embrace this, the better we all are.

      Sending a big hug to you from afar, and hope to connect in person sometime sooner than later.

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