Wellness: The Dark Ride — Mental Health in our Mountain Community
Illustration: Dave Barnes
A life of happiness is what we are all after.
And the easy way to fulfill this dream is to constantly find the fun. That’s why most people move to the Mountains—they magnetize the thrill-seekers and attract the anti-conformists; these landscapes sing to people who want to stay young forever. The mountains don’t abide by societal expectations, and we want that. They offer the freedom to live our reveries to the end of time.
There are tangible benefits associated with less work and all play, science even backs it up. The emotional high felt when sending it down a mountain is actually part brain chemistry. Nature’s positive influences on the human psyche have been studied and proven and the limited amounts of oxygen at high altitude have been found to increase dopamine [the feel-good hormone] levels. There is a sense of identity and purpose that comes with following your passions that helps us to get up the morning and seize the proverbial day. It’s a no-brainer, really—move to the mountains, never grow-up. And it works! Mountain living truly is a Never Neverland of gravity-fuelled fun and games. Until it’s not. In a culture that perpetuates a theory of #goodvibesonly, it’s taboo to admit that a substandard day exists, but Whistler and other resort towns are real places with real people whose dreams and aspirations are accompanied by emotions and feelings, relationships and struggles. We get parking tickets, have our hearts broken, make mistakes, step in dog shit, break bones, lose jobs and deal with disappointment from a myriad of expectations. Just like everyone else.
“Often in life, things will not go as planned,” says Greg McDonnell, Registered Clinical Counsellor and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner who has been working in Whistler since 1997. “The sooner we can accept this, the sooner we can work on our adaptability and resiliency to all of this chaos.”
The words ‘mental health’ are not easily spoken in mainstream society, but they’re even more taboo in the segment of chasing eternal youth. In a culture attuned to reading the natural cycles of the weather, the mountains, the snowpack, and the light-board, dips in our mental condition often go unnoticed, and that has to change. It’s time for real talk.
“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” —John Lennon
A True Story Jon Rocker (not his real name) is an unknown, ex-snowboarder who moved to Whistler in 1994 as a 17-year-old kid with the same dreams as many — ride hard, turn pro, and play in the snow forever.
Like the majority of his peers — spirited youths suddenly cut from the shackles of living with their parents — Jon enjoyed the debauchery of Whistler’s party scene; depraved antics with copious amounts of hard liquor, loud music, late nights and no shortage of partners in crime.
“Upper Insanity!” is how he refers to it, a joking nod to the popular run on Whistler mountain, but Jon was also very committed to meeting his shred goals as well. “I had already been drinking a lot back home, I was afraid to open up or be myself for fear of not being accepted or being judged,” he says. “But in Whistler, working hard was how I dug myself out. I adopted an attitude that I could, and would, do what they [established pro riders] were doing, but better. And I’d do it without the big money, big contract and big sponsors. It wasn’t so much about succeeding or being the best, but I made a conscious decision out loud and I had to follow through.”
Things went well for Jon. With a strong work ethic and the support of a new family of friends— including an aspiring photographer—he began to see some of his snowboard dreams come to life.
“We made it into a few mags and things just started developing. Photos, filming, snowcats, helicopters, catalogues, stoke. I met and rode with some of my idols. Hype kept growing, dreams came true.” In total Whistler fashion, Jon was also holding down two jobs to make ends meet—a full-time chef position at a popular restaurant and a close-to-full-time job at a local distribution company. With a truck he loved, a snowmobile, and a new girlfriend he lived with in a great log home with good people, Jon was achieving the goals he had set, but he says it never felt like enough.
“Maybe I was overwhelmed,” Jon says, “but to be honest, I think I was egotistically compensating for something, and it just wasn’t good enough for me. I had to be bigger and better than everyone and when I wasn’t, I just started letting go.”
This kicked off a series of unfortunate events that took place within a very close timeframe—financial stress, injury, career loss, the loss of a child during pregnancy , relationship breakdown, over-partying, trouble with the law . . . shit was going sideways quick.
“I had no family around for support,” Jon recalls. “Friends were going in their own directions. With great highs there’s always the risk of equal lows. I experienced the sadness of it all falling down.” Around this time, Jon was diagnosed with symptoms of Bipolar Disorder, a condition where people experience extreme highs and devastating lows. The turmoil of all of this, and the realization that his lifestyle was built around seeking peer validation, brought Jon to his limit and caused him to break away from his life in the mountains. Like so many before him, he packed up, bought a bus ticket, and went home….
A Common Story Jon Rocker is not alone. His saga is one that has played out thousands of times in mountain communities all over the world. “I believe mountain towns attract a certain type of individual who may be fleeing from something,” says Greg McDonnell. “Fleeing some precept of society, some family trauma, some representation of culture that they wish to escape.”
And what better place to escape to than the peaks and valleys of eternal youth, and a life spent out on the edge? But problems exist, even in our dream realities. In fact, living on the edge and pushing ourselves on the mountain could actually be part of the problem.
Altitude and Attitude Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of pleasure and motivation. It’s released naturally when we exercise, drink coffee, have sex, fall in love, or have a mood-boosting day doing something we love, like mountain biking, skiing, or even yoga. New research is investigating the link between oxygen levels at altitudes and mood, dopamine and neurotransmission in the brain.
Studies by Dr. Perry Renshaw, a neurologist and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Utah, suggest that as altitude increases, brain chemistry changes. Lower levels of oxygen in our blood (from the altitude) can reduce brain serotonin (feel-good hormones) and creatine (an energy-containing compound) while increasing levels of brain dopamine (those pleasure/risk-taking neurotransmitters).
The good news is dopamine increases are positive. They provide the rush we feel when outrunning the slough on a big line or executing a perfect trick at the finish line. Dopamine is what keeps us coming back for more.
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