Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
by Jennifer Haddow | January 11, 2016
When I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis 12 years ago, at the age of 28, it felt like my life was sent spinning downhill.
My fear of how this disease would weigh on me, drag me down into inevitable disability, was echoed by the concerned family and friends who cautioned me to be careful, not to take risks, to take drugs, consider experimental surgeries, to abandon my dream of having children. How would I cope with one day being in a wheelchair and not being able to work? Who would take care of me?
The regular MS attacks were terrifying, as I felt my limbs go numb and weak and simple tasks such as writing my name or washing my hair became a struggle.
At the time, I was a longtime heavy smoker, in a toxic relationship, and my feeble attempts at exercise consisted of the occasional yoga class or a once in a blue moon visit to the gym where I’d putter around on the machines, uninspired and ignorant of how my body actually worked.
The MS diagnosis was a lightning bolt, propelling me into instant action. Leaving the doctor’s office that day, I made a decision to change my life, to embrace a path of healing and empowerment.
I quit smoking on the spot (and have never smoked since), which was surprisingly easy to do cold turkey, once I got really honest with myself that it was truly what I wanted, not something I “should” do. I radically changed my diet – making the organic farmer’s market my regular pick up joint for goodies, not the pizza place – and I started to actually learn about my body.
I visited acupuncturists and massage therapists, chiropractors and colonists; I got a personal trainer and went to the gym regularly and started running. The next evolution of my newfound body awareness was to take my growing yoga practice to the next level and I attended a yearlong yoga teacher training program and became a certified Kundalini yoga teacher. Sat Nam!
Yet something was missing. I still thought of myself as a victim, someone struggling, resisting the decline that was “my Disease”, and resigned that there was no way to stop from sliding downhill, getting closer every day to becoming disabled and wheelchair bound.
I thought of myself as a sick person, at best just slowing down the train that was going to smack me into submission, someday. I clung to the crutch of the interferon drugs that were supposed to save me from steady decline, despite feeling horribly sick and sad after every self-injection, and waking up in a cold sweat almost every night crying out from nightmares.
Then, after a long meditation one day, I got an inspiration, asking myself: what does a strong, fit, powerful, healthy person do? Who did I believe I could be, in my wildest dreams? At the top of my brainstorm list was “climb Mount Everest”! Well, I was sane enough to know that wasn’t a short term option, so I instead I decided on a modified plan – I would spend a month trekking in the Himalayas in Nepal, to get myself to the basecamp of the tallest mountain on Earth. That certainly didn’t seem like something a “sick person” would do!
Soon after I found myself climbing steadily uphill, rising everyday step by step towards “Chomolungma”, the sacred mountain the Nepalese call “Mother Goddess of the World”. At 15,500 feet above sea level, life takes on a different perspective.
The oxygen levels were 40% lower, yet every breath was deep and pure, as I appreciated the pristine mountain air. After three weeks of hiking from dawn to dusk every day, I felt blessed by a new awareness and appreciation of my body, the rhythm of my own power to move my life, upwards, higher and higher, into what seemed like heaven on earth.
One morning, I woke at sunrise and watched the day light fan across the top of Mount Everest and I knew I was connected to a light that would rise for me every day if I woke to greet it.
After that journey, I realized the healing power that I was seeking could be found in immersing myself in nature. I began to explore the wilderness in my own backyard, in Canada. I grew up on the ocean, and went back to my watery roots to learn how to kayak, enjoying extended kayak trips for my summer vacations.
I began to hike regularly and practice yoga outdoors, in the mountains, on the beach, in remote fields of wildflowers. I paddled canoes along backcountry lakes, swam nude in secluded rivers under the moon, and drank herbal teas by the campfire. I felt more alive than I ever had before the day I was diagnosed. In fact, I felt healthier and more vibrant than I ever had in my entire life!
So much so, that I decided to dedicate my energy to helping other women discover their wild side and natural vitality, changing my job from an urban office worker to becoming the Director of Wild Women Expeditions, an outdoor adventure travel company, and moving from the city to living on the edge of a National Park surrounded by forest, mountains and ocean.
The medicine I needed more than anything was to fall (rise!) in love with life again. To love my body and trust its infinite resilience. To love and cherish the land and the water, and let it hold me and wash over me, like a nurturing mother. To love the purpose that I was called to, in my work and creativity.
Synchronicity would have it that the love of my life, who is now my husband, is a holistic life coach and personal fitness trainer, as well as a wilderness guide. His support and confidence in my power to be healthy and strong has been an amazing blessing. We now have a beautiful son, I am wonderfully healthy, and have been 100% drug free for almost a decade, and have not experienced a single ‘MS attack’ in 8 years. I trust my body again.
There have been so many lessons in the adventure of moving through the healing path, and in every way I am more alive because of the disease I chose to make a tool, not an obstacle. I have found that living more naturally is not just an intellectual exercise and is not submitting your power to ‘alternative medicine’, it is about deeply engaging in the world around you, actually getting to know and developing an intimate relationship with nature. It is more than eating organic food; it is connecting with the land and the lifecycles that bring us nourishment, getting our hands dirty and our feet wet.
Many scientific studies have been conducted to validate that physically and psychologically, getting outdoors and being active in nature is beneficial for our health. And intuitively, we know this to be true.
Spend an afternoon walking in the woods, swim bare breasted under a waterfall, push yourself through waves in the ocean or sing your heart out around a campfire. Feel yourself wild and powerful and a precious part of the life that grows all around you.
I am continually inspired and reinforced by the words of the poet Mary Oliver, who wrote the compelling challenge to us all: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”