bandaging a heart

Editor's Note: Vanessa's essay tracing her heart's journey out of an abusive marriage by way of the Appalachian Trail landed in my inbox and on my heart with a fierce softness and familiar echo that, for me, is a decade old now. It is somewhat longer than what we tend to publish here on luciajournal, but we wanted it here. I am grateful to Vanessa for sharing her story. If you or someone you know is trying to leave an abusive relationship, it is my hope you find inspiration, courage, and the recognition that you are not alone, in her words. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE. xo -laura

Bandaging a Heart by Vanessa Ball

{1,650 words}

The rain isn't coming down hard, but it isn't letting up either. My pack digs into my shoulders as I heave my legs up the slippery incline. The Appalachians aren't supposed to be this steep. Soggy boots, soggy pack, soggy me. A trail junction offers welcome reprieve, with several large logs to collapse onto. I watch warily as two men descend toward me. “Weeeeell, looky here! You’re an awful little lady for such a big pack. Pretty girls like you shouldn’t be out here by never know what could happen...” the younger one leers. Shouldering my heavy load, I stand to go. “One of these days, somebody’s going to start telling you what to do. You best listen, when they do.” The older one drawls his words out, enjoying every syllable. “What are you rushing off for? Like you’ve got anyone else to talk to!” Burning thighs, stinging tears, ragged breath, each step carries me away from their raucous laughter. The cruel tone is familiar, every waking moment at home was spent in fear of jagged words. The forest is supposed to offer escape.  

“It’s a bridge. Seriously. Why are you sucking wind? You’re never going to lose weight at this rate. I’m not taking the stroller. You need it. Not me.” Our weekend run was shaping up like usual. The double stroller of crying kids, the humidity, my insides rising to my throat. No weakness allowed though. He wanted to run his pace, my feelings be damned. I looked on enviously as we passed laughing couples walking the rising curve of the giant blue bridge stretching out towards downtown Charleston. He grew impatient, “I’m running ahead. This pace is pointless.” I wanted to slow down as he sprinted away, but knew he would be timing me. Better to keep going, better to dissolve into the midmorning sun than give him the satisfaction of collapse.

It is nearly dusk as I slowly walk the final few yards to the shelter nestled just off the ridge line. Several other backpackers are just beginning to unpack their sleeping bags, and the smell of food wafting toward me has me instantly famished. The weight of the pack gone, dry socks on my feet, and hot cocoa warming my hands at last lifts my mood. I finally smile at the people I’ll share the shelter with for the night. A father-son duo builds a roaring fire, and two thru-hikers produce a 30 year-old bottle of wine to pass around as darkness collapses around us. The wind roars over the knife edge of the mountain ridge, amplifying the security of our half-cabin and campfire. We pull in close to one another to talk, sharing sleeping bags over bumping knees and long glances in the flickering light until one by one we creep off to sleep. Lying on the hard wooden slats of the rough-hewn bunks, I watch the dying fire flicker out. At last, I sleep.

The landlord promised the a/c would be fixed by Monday. It was Tuesday, and the kids still dripped, shirtless, on the living room floor. As the clock ticked closer towards evening, the edginess returned. No more toys brought out. Only the easiest snacks to clean up for the kids. I dragged out the cookbook and the week’s menu to begin preparing dinner. He would be home soon. Did I still have time to pick up the last of the day’s toys in the living room? I was pulling out salad ingredients from the fridge when the front door slammed open. “Goddamnit! This place is filthy! You know I can’t come home to a messy house. What the hell do you DO all day?” I set the lettuce and tomatoes on the counter silently. “If you expect me to be in a good mood when I get home, I expect a clean house. This, this is disgusting.” He threw his bag across the room and stomped upstairs. I slowly chopped the vegetables. “Dinner is ready. Are you hungry?" I asked.

I hike away from the shelter alone in the early morning. Dense fog has settled in after the evening’s wild storm. The ridge stretches out before me, hidden in the mist. I take my time with the rolling hills. The thru-hikers pass me by. Alone in the woods, I settle into a rhythm of walking. The vibrant fall colors make for dizzying trail, and I am spellbound by the multitude of oranges and yellows and reds at my feet. No sound except for rustling branches touched by breathy wind, no thought except for the next step, and the next. The miles slip away as I move closer to my next campsite, another shelter. Hearty laughter echoes through the trees on my approach. I recognize the voices of the thru-hikers. I am greeted with a cheer and bear hugs.  They take my pack and insist I join them for a nip of whiskey. We settle in to talk about the smells and views, the bear scat, and colors of our day. 

 Photo by Vanessa Ball

Photo by Vanessa Ball

I retreated upstairs to fold laundry. The mound on our bed had to be folded and there was no putting it off any longer. To drown out the slamming doors and swearing from below, I turned on a documentary. The Dalai Lama’s calm voice soon filled the room. His gentle laughter and easy manner of speaking loosened the tightness in my chest. My hands moved more slowly as his words silenced the violence of the evening. Heavy eyelids, I sank back in the pillows to listen, the delicious warmth of his speech pulling me towards sleep. Sleep was a refuge I experienced only fleetingly, too wrought from the day to close my eyes. As I slipped into momentary escape, the bed shook suddenly. His work bag and boots scattered the remaining clothes. “What the hell?! You’re sleeping?? You have one job to do. One! Fold the damn clothes.” The remnant pile flew to the floor in one sweeping gesture. 

On the third day, a sullen rain comes down heavily. The thru-hikers leave before me, and I feel a sinking in my chest as I watch them go. With no shelter ahead of me and only a thoroughly waterlogged tent on my back, I must make a decision. Rather than push on for another wet night, I choose to hike out early. With no more dry socks, and nothing but rain clouds for miles, I want to be warm. I want to be dry. I want shelter. Slipping on the muddy track, I slide off the ridge. I’ll have to hitchhike. But in that moment, I don't care. No snacks, no lunch break. Barely pausing for water, I race to the parking lot. On the road, It doesn't take long to find someone with an empty seat. A couple with a minivan and cooler of cold beer pick me up and ferry me over the winding highway toward my car. The buzz of cheap Bud Light fills my head with giddy words, and I feel light as I talk of my adventure. 

The tightness seized my chest. Pulling at my ribcage and allowing only shallow breaths, the muscles refused to relax. I couldn’t calm down. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Everything tingled and my vision felt shadowy around the edges. “If you think it’s so bad, do something about it. But I’m not driving you anywhere. I have to be up early in the morning for work.” Was I having a heart attack? Early thirties seemed way too young for that. But still...what was this? What was happening to me? I shakily pulled out of the drive alone. The hospital was only four miles away, but it felt like one hundred. I was immediately brought back and given a battery of different tests, all inconclusive. “How are things at home? Are you having any unusual stress?” Everything was normal at home. At least, it was how it had always been. I shook my head, and the nurses exchanged eyebrow-raised glances. I was released with an appointment for my primary care doctor first thing the next morning. When I arrived, he entered the room and sat down, looking at me hard. “I’ve cleared my next two appointments. I think we need to have a’re going to start taking antidepressants. And I think a good anxiety medication is in order. I need you to say yes to this...”

Back in my car, I drive to my hostel in Asheville. I stand under the scalding hot shower for a very long time. The blisters on my feet bleed out onto the tile floor, pink water swirling around the drain. I limp back to the cool sheets of my bunk and pull the covers over my head. In the morning the hostel is quiet when I pad out to the living room. I sip hot tea and begin to change the bandages on my feet. Another guest wanders sleepily out. He watches silently as I peel the sticking gauze from the bright red wounds. I feel the pain, but in the night it had somehow lost its edge. I swab on antiseptic, letting it sting. Cutting fresh bandages, and gently taping them, I ease thick soft socks on at last, pulling my legs up to curl underneath me. “You must be tough.” I glance over. “Those are huge blisters and you didn’t even flinch. I wouldn’t know the first thing about taking care of something raw like that.” I smile at him, “I’ve had a lot of practice.” 

I take a long slow inhale of the chamomile steam rising from my cup, filling my lungs. In the morning, I will return home, but only briefly. I will leave my husband at last, limping away with our two kids and a car full of taped up cardboard boxes. In bandaging my feet, I finally begin to bandage my shattered heart.

Vanessa Ball is a writer, mother, veteran, and outdoor enthusiast based out of Portland, Oregon. She writes about environmental conservation issues for Outdoor Project, and about her many wilderness adventures with her two young children at