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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

Intelligent news and entertainment for lovers of the simple life.

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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Can an agoraphobic, insulin-dependent diabetic hike 2200 miles through the wilderness?


The sunrise that changed everything.

Like most things in life, there’s only one way to find out.

If you told me a few months ago that in March I would begin thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, I would have said you were crazy.  Now that I’ve decided to do it, I realize it was inevitable.

It was the week after Christmas with New Year’s Eve approaching and I was sitting in my father’s living room at the Delaware Shore, watching the sun rise over the Indian River bay.  I had traveled to Delaware from upstate New York to spend Christmas with family, my first true vacation longer than 36 hours in almost two years.  (Recently, my breaks were confined to times I was out of cell phone range, and this occurred only during my occasional treks into the Adirondacks to hike or camp out for the night).  My plans were simple: see family that I had gone too long without seeing, sleep as late as possible, and read a half dozen books in all this spare time I would have.  Most of all, I was going to take a desperately needed break.

Some of these things did happen.  I did get to see family, share meals, and catch up.  I slept until six or six-thirty instead of the quarter to five to which I had become more accustomed.  I even read for about 15 minutes each night before passing out.  But the band played on: I continued my normal work routine, stuffing my car to the brim with inventory for over 90 products so I could keep my new ecommerce startup running over the holidays, and I had a lot of catching up with school to do because of the assignments I had failed to finish on time because (you guessed it) I was working and just didn’t have the time.

Stack of booksThis particular morning, however, I had decided to focus on making sure my father’s condo was clean and re-stocked with the essentials.  He had returned to DC for a few days to work before coming back to the beach before New Year’s, and has even more of a penchant than I do for a clean, uncluttered living space.  Having little to do and things already being relatively clean, this left me in no particular rush and I began to do something dangerous, something I hadn’t done in a long time: I began to think.

Several realizations began to hit me.  Hard.

Revelation #1: I was about to graduate summa cum laude with my undergraduate degree in psychology, with most of my professors toward the end strongly suggesting, nay demanding, that I simply must go to graduate school.  I was pleased they thought I had a “knack” for psychology and research and academic writing, but I was earning this degree online.  Graduate school meant dealing with real people.  For almost 8 years agoraphobia, panic attacks, and social anxiety had turned my life upside-down, and while I sometimes felt like I was getting better, my trial run involving 15 hours of part-time work in a mental health clinic a year ago lasted only a few months and nearly caused a nervous breakdown (ironically, not really a psychological term).fear agoraphobia

Revelation #2: My small work-from-home business had grown into a monster.  After several failed attempts to re-enter the “normal” working world, I decided that the best I could hope for was to start my own business or work for myself somehow.  So I started an eBay account, first selling odds and ends from around the house before nervously forking over $50 for a couple cases of popsicle sticks, and before I knew it I was a craft supply corporation selling almost 200 products and shipping more than 300 orders a month.  The problem?  I had worked myself into “normal” job as the unpaid President and CEO of a yet-to-be-profitable business, and my agoraphobia and inability to conduct business offline were preventing me from moving to the next level.  I got an 800 number and quickly canceled it because my heart stopped every time it rang, and half the time I couldn’t bring myself to answer it.  I paid higher prices for inventory because I couldn’t pick up the phone and negotiate better ones with distributors.  Perhaps worst of all, I was living in a region where everyone did some type of crafts or DIY projects, and I couldn’t engage in the real world.

Revelation #3: I was not happy.  GivenKevin McCourt working late. my anxiety issues, my goal had been to keep life simple, but slowly things were becoming very, very complicated.  I am the guy who would rather work six months for half the pay and take six months off, and I had just spent the last two days working 12 hours a day on vacation.  Despite all of the normal overindulgence in food typical to the holidays, I had actually lost 5 pounds out of sheer stress.  I was convinced that taking five days off to spend the holidays with my family was going to put me out of business.  At home, I was in such a constant rush convinced that one 15 minute break was going to cause the end of the world that I wasn’t managing my diabetes as well as I should.  Perhaps most distressing, I was beginning to feel as I did when the panic attacks first began, working at the time as an IT supervisor for a defense contractor in DC.

Sometimes being great at something you hate can be a terrible curse.  I was never supposed to work in IT; I was going to become a writer.  In early high school, I saw two possible career paths: going to school for journalism and becoming a big-time reporter, or going to school for creative writing and maybe teaching high school English as I wrote the great American novel.  By high school graduation (in 1999, the year of the geek), the allure of IT money was too much to ignore, and I slowly forced my way in, even after dropping out of George Mason University in my first year in my impatience to start making the big bucks.  In a moneyway, I suppose I was successful, and I made pretty good money for a 25-year-old college drop out.  But I didn’t know how to manage the money, and a townhouse on a golf course and $90 bar tabs did little to make me happy anyway.  Like Springsteen sang, I lost my money and I lost my wife, and indeed neither of those things seem to matter much to me now.  Yet here I was, once again on autopilot focusing not on what would make me happy, but simply moving on to the next step every time it seemed appropriate.  Just like fixing computers in high school turned into a career I never wanted, selling popsicle sticks on eBay had turned into a business that was much different than my initial vision.

These revelations hit me like a ton of bricks – it’s amazing what happens when you slow down and actually contemplate the direction your life is heading in.  I decided to spend the day doing something I promised myself I would do on this trip: sit in a comfortable chair with a gorgeous view and read all day.  I had several half-finished books in my suitcase, but today called for something new, something I would read from start to finish in a day or two.  As I fired up my laptop to check out my kindle “wish list,” I remembered I had been wanting to read about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.  A long-distance hike is something I wanted to do long before I knew what the Appalachian Trail was, and hiking the AT specifically had been a dream for several years since my own refuge had become short trips into the Adirondacks.  At 14, when I watched Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump walk from one coast to the other, I remember telling myself I’m going to do that someday.  When I read Stephen King’s The Long Walk, I wondered where I could sign up (without all of the executions, of course).  I was fascinated by going long distance under one’s own steam in a world where we seem to jump in and out of cars and airplanes as if they were teleporters, ignoring all that is happening in between.

Kevin McCourt hiking in Glimmerglass State ParkBefore my computer even had a chance to boot, I knew: I wasn’t going to read about hiking the Appalachian Trail, I was going to hike the Appalachian Trail, all 2200 miles from Georgia to Maine.  I tend to make these types of life-altering decisions in an instant, and this one was no different.  My mind was racing, calculating, working out the logistics.  It was perfect.  I would be graduating just around the time the first hikers of the season usually began the northbound trek, I had two days previously fired the company who built and hosted my website after a string of expensive bugs and other problems, making it easier for the business to keep running in my absence, and camping gear was one of the primary product lines I had hoped to sell.  Supplies for crafts and DIY projects were an affordable niche for me to begin my company and even in line with my business’s mission to provide products and services that promoted a simple, minimalist, DIY lifestyle, but camping gear and self-sustainability – this is what really excited me.  What better way to get a true understanding for the business than to take on an endeavor that pushes hiking and camping equipment to the limits like no other type of trip?  Most importantly, I needed my world to slow down.  I needed the phones to stop ringing, the email and chat alerts to stop making me cringe, and the sprint to slow down to a steady pace so I could make sure I was sprinting in the right direction.

insulin logInsulin Dependent Diabetes?  The thought of this stopping me never once crossed my mind, and one of my goals is to show others that insulin dependence should never stand in the way of anything you wish to accomplish.  In addition to raising awareness, I’m hoping this blog – which will chronicle my entire journey, starting now as I begin to prepare for the trek and continuing along the entire trail – will also allow me to raise money for diabetes so that research can continue to make life for diabetics more manageable.  Panic attacks? Agoraphobia? Constant anxiety and fear?  I have always tried to tackle my panic head-on – it’s the only way to beat it – and if walking 2200 miles alone through the wilderness can’t help take away at least some of this fear, if not finally cure me, then I don’t know what can.  Here, too, I hope I can inspire others with agoraphobia or anxiety to take their own next step.

open trailSeveral surprising and wonderful things have happened since I made the decision to walk the big trail.  I have become calmer and less frenzied about both work and school.  I received my first A-, losing my 4.0 just 6 credits shy of graduation, and I didn’t blink an eye.  I have spent less time on my business, setting aside time to excitedly prepare for my thru-hike and count down the days, and surprisingly sales have not gone down despite my lack of pacing.  Probably most shocking: I heard my father, always the voice of reason in my life and one who would swim through a sea of sharks to avoid sleeping on the ground in the middle of the woods, utter the words: “You should do this.  It will change your life.”  Mind. Blown.

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About Kevin McCourt

Kevin McCourt is an entrepreneur, writer, and reformed geek who challenged agoraphobia and insulin-dependent diabetes by thru-hiking the entire 2200-mile Appalachian Trail in 2016. He is currently working on his first non-fiction book, a philosophical and scientific look at how modern life became so complicated and the persuasive influences that created the world we live in today. He currently lives in Ocean View, DE and wherever his tent is set up.

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