Sydney Williams: “Choose love over fear”

When we start looking at the root of these issues, instead of just addressing the symptoms, we are able to get clarity and context for the ways our lives have unfolded. As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview […]

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When we start looking at the root of these issues, instead of just addressing the symptoms, we are able to get clarity and context for the ways our lives have unfolded.

As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Sydney Williams, founder of Hiking My Feelings. Sydney is a diabetic adventurer, sexual assault survivor, motivational speaker, and writer. This year, she and her husband are touring the country in their van, sharing the story of how two hikes across Catalina Island (off the coast of Los Angeles) helped her heal her body and mind. Through a series of talks, workshops, and local hikes in each town she visits, she is encouraging folks to get outside and find the power in their own stories.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes in September 2017. This was a wakeup call for me; something severe enough to get me to pay attention, but not something as devastating as say, a cancer diagnosis. As such, I learned about the four factors that affect my blood sugar: food, exercise, medications, and stress. I took to the first three right away; I cleaned up my diet, started walking around my neighborhood 30–45 minutes per day, and took my medications as prescribed. Very quickly, I saw some progress in my physical body, but my blood sugar was still elevated. I had to take a look at that fourth bucket: stress. My job was the most significant source of stress in my life, and after advocating for myself more at work in an attempt to change my workload and reduce my anxiety, I was unable to get my blood sugar down. On the side, I had been helping a friend with branding/marketing for her startup, and when I had the opportunity to join her team full-time, I thought maybe if I was doing work that was more aligned with what I care about, perhaps that could help. Not surprisingly, leaving a stressful agency career to join a new startup was not the best way to reduce my stress. In fact, I started having panic attacks near-daily, and I was at risk of reversing the progress I had made in managing the disease thus far, as my blood sugar readings were elevated back to levels that I hadn’t seen since my diagnosis. I quit the startup after 95 days on the job as CMO/Co-Founder, and I didn’t have a backup plan.

I realized after quitting both jobs that my standard coping mechanisms in time of stress (eating and drinking my feelings) were off the table if I wanted to manage this disease effectively. Thanks to Diabetes, I couldn’t keep seeking comfort in a pint of ice cream or at the bottom of a wine bottle. I was fortunate that I was diagnosed before the disease had advanced to include more severe complications (heart disease, stroke, etc.), and had all the resources necessary to tackle this head-on. The walks around my neighborhood had graduated to hikes on local trails, and on a training hike, after I quit the startup, I realized that instead of eating and drinking my feelings, I had been hiking my feelings.

That was great, and I could have stopped there, but I wanted to know WHY I had been resorting to those coping mechanisms. It was ingrained in me, so much a part of my routine, I didn’t even question it.

Two weeks after I quit the startup, I hiked 40+ miles across Catalina Island. It was on the trail that I realized that all of the chaos in my mind and body was tied to the rape I survived 12 years ago. Suddenly, my life came into context. It was after the sexual assault that I developed the coping mechanisms of eating and drinking my feelings instead of feeling my feelings.

Before my assault, I was in the best shape of my life — I was a D1 athlete at the University of Kansas on the Women’s Rowing team. My grades were the best they had ever been, my social circle was healthy, and in general, I had finally found a place where I was happy, supported, and not just surviving, but thriving. It was clear to me that my diabetes diagnosis was a physical manifestation of the unresolved trauma from the sexual assault.

After I got off the trail, I was connected with the woman who leads programming for REI in southern California. They were looking for someone to share their story of hiking across Catalina Island and shortly after that, we had booked a speaking tour in the LA market. In 2019, we’re taking this talk on the road all around the country, sharing the story of how these hikes helped me heal my mind and body.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

We spend a lot of resources addressing the symptoms of disease in this country. We very rarely talk about the root of the issue. In general, as a society, we are not emotionally intelligent. We aren’t taught how to feel emotions such as anger and sadness properly, and we condition folks to suppress those emotions. When we do that, our trauma manifests as disease in our minds and bodies.

When we start looking at the root of these issues, instead of just addressing the symptoms, we are able to get clarity and context for the ways our lives have unfolded. More importantly, we realize we aren’t the only ones with these issues. I know for me, I didn’t feel comfortable speaking up about this for 11 years because I thought I brought this upon myself. I thought it was my fault, and I didn’t want people to think less of me. I didn’t rape myself. I didn’t ask for it. The culture around sexual assault survivors is toxic at best, and I slut-shamed myself into submission for more than a decade. I was ashamed that this happened to me, and I didn’t seek help. As a result, the trauma turned into a mental and physical disease.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

I genuinely believe that the only way we can beat the stigma is to share our stories. Not everyone will feel comfortable standing on stages around the country doing so, and I’m not suggesting that a speaking tour is the only path to healing. For me, I had to share my story with myself first. I had been in denial for so long that once I was able to see it for what it was, not what I was conditioned to believe, only then could I really start healing.

Folks who have been through trauma and are still here living and breathing, are survivors, not victims. I’m a survivor of sexual assault, and I’m the victim of a crime. For years, I felt like a victim, and it’s tough to feel empowered from that place. Shifting the language around mental illness (and the root causes of it) helps us reframe the disease in our minds and bodies.

By sharing my story of surviving sexual assault and connecting the dots between that violent incident and how the suppression of my story manifested in disease, it provides a different lens for folks to see themselves through. When we own what has happened to us, we can find power in some of the darkest things we’ve experienced as humans. When we do that, we give other folks permission to do the same, and at the very least, provide them with some perspective that may change the way they see themselves.

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

I realized on the first tour in October 2018 that as much as I do this to help others, sharing my story is incredibly healing for me as well. I decided to go all-in on building Hiking My Feelings because every time I stand up and speak my truth, I heal a little bit more.

Also, when I was on the trail last year, my blood sugar readings were the best they’ve ever been. I knew I wanted to build a life that included ample time for hiking. As such, I turned the speaking tour into a speaking and hiking tour. I only get a short period for Q&A after the talks, and I wanted to create an opportunity for continued conversation, and for folks to experience what I experienced on the trail. I speak on weekdays, and on the following Saturday, my husband and I go for a hike. We invite folks who came to see me talk to join us, and we create a safe space for them to share their story on the trail if they desire. I genuinely believe there is power in sharing our stories with folks who don’t know us — frequently their reactions provide a new way of seeing ourselves. I’m happy to say that I’m off of all my medications, and hiking is now my primary method of managing Type 2 Diabetes and my mental health.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

Circling back to how we currently prioritize treating the symptoms, very rarely the root of our disease, I want to talk about the source of my trauma as it pertains to how we can better support folks living with mental illness.

I can only speak to my personal experience, so I want first to point out that my experience with mental illness is a result of the environment around me and does not account for diseases that are genetic. I would say the first step is that we need to start facilitating spaces and activities that prioritize healing. At an individual level, it wasn’t until I had been with my husband for seven years that I felt comfortable facing my trauma, and he was the first person I felt comfortable sharing the whole story with. I held onto this for 11 years — I didn’t feel safe sharing it with my family or friends. My husband created the space for me to unpack what I had been through. As individuals, we need to choose love for ourselves over the fear of the stigma that our trauma carries. In my case, mental illness is/was a symptom of trauma — and I wasn’t able to start healing until I could identify mine.

On a societal level, we really need to start believing folks when they come to us with their stories. My trauma and yours may be different, but we all have these wounds, and we all have a story. Particularly in the case of survivors of sexual assault, we need to start connecting the dots here. Every 98 seconds in this country, someone is sexually assaulted (RAINN). How does that relate to the 44 million Americans who are living with mental illness?

Additionally, this society is quick to blame the victim and protect the accused. Look at what happens when a survivor comes forward — they’re mocked, ridiculed, and shamed. We’ve got to start shifting the dialogue to having the default understanding be that folks who dare to speak up are telling the truth, not trying to ruin someone’s life, as is the current narrative around survivors of sexual assault in this country. Until we make it safe for folks to come forward and feel heard and seen, we will continue the cycles of trauma. The trauma we don’t resolve within ourselves gets passed down, generation after generation. Every instance of someone speaking up is interrupting that cycle.

On a governmental level, we need to make access to healthcare available to everyone, not just folks who can afford to be insured. A healthy mind and body is our birthright, and in America, we’ve gotten so far away from caring for our citizens. Capitalism drives this country, and when that is the system in place, folks who can’t afford to participate get left behind. And those folks are usually the ones who need the most support. Follow the money — who stands to benefit? More likely than not, a few pockets get lined while millions of folks suffer every single day.

What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

  1. Self-soothing. I wasn’t taught how to feel big feelings as a kid, and I was told to stop crying and was grounded when I acted out, so learning how to self-soothe has been a lifesaver. When I find myself starting to spiral or feeling panicky, I lay down, put one hand on my abdomen, one hand on my heart (skin-to-skin contact is best), and start breathing exercises. I inhale for four seconds, hold it for seven, and take eight seconds to exhale slowly and fully. This gets me out of my head and back into my body.
  2. Unpacking my “trauma pack.” On the Trans-Catalina Trail, I realized that I had been hiking through life with this invisible backpack, full of my trauma. That’s the thing about trauma, we don’t understand how much we’re carrying, and we certainly don’t realize how much of it isn’t ours — circling back to the generational trauma. Once I identified that I had this backpack on that was weighing me down, I was able to take it off, open it up, and start examining what was inside. As I pulled out different pieces of trauma, held them up to the light and studied them, I was able to replace that toxic energy with positivity and healing. Similar to peeling back the layers of an onion, as I picked up one piece of trauma, there was another below it. I kept unpacking and unpacking until I got down to the most substantial piece of trauma in my backpack — the sexual assault. What’s in your trauma pack? Can you take a peek inside and pick out one thing to examine?
  3. Connecting the dots. Hindsight is 20/20, and I feel like more often than not, we dismissively use that phrase. The beauty of the human experience is being able to look back on our lives and connect the dots. What got me here? Why am I feeling this way? Tying this into the trauma pack, is this my trauma or is this someone else’s? Once we’re able to identify where our trauma comes from, we can rapidly connect the dots, put some context into what we’re feeling, and feel much more empowered to change our stories. I have dipped in and out of a journaling practice for most of my life, and now I know that if I’m feeling disconnected from my body, I need to journal. This is also one of the easiest ways to connect the dots. Being able to read back and notice what I was feeling throughout a period can help me wrap my head around where these feelings come from, and what is triggering them. Armed with that information, I can start the healing process.
  4. Get help, treat the wound. When I’ve self-soothed, unpacked it, and connected the dots, if I still feel stuck, I reach out. Trauma is an open wound, and if we aren’t trained on how to soothe ourselves, it is essential that we seek help from someone who can help us treat the wound. We can’t just slap a bandaid on it and call it good — that’s what leads to mental and physical disease.
  5. Spending time outside. It is widely known that physical activity can have mental health benefits as well. Specifically for me, I needed days on end in nature, away from screens, away from societal conditioning that tells me I’m not enough (or too much), to get back into my body and out of my head. I’ve tried to achieve this in a gym and I can’t — gyms are noisy, and the TV and music are a distraction to make exercise less miserable. Hiking is an exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise, and that’s why it works for me. And honestly, it’s just walking, sometimes uphill. The outdoor industry does a poor job of marketing itself as an accessible activity. You don’t have to have all the fancy gear or be an expert in the wilderness to get started. For me, it started with walks around my neighborhood and graduated from local trails. The lessons the trail has taught me also carries over into other areas of my life, so it’s a double-win.
  6. Choose love over fear. When I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, I knew nothing of what was happening in my body, only the stigma that the disease carried. I chose love for myself and my body and my health over the fear of being the butt of diabetes jokes. When we can start to operate from a place of love versus fear, in any situation, we benefit.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

I kind of came into this a little backward, honestly. It wasn’t until I really started diving into the personal development side of things that I had a greater understanding of all the things that were holding me back from reaching my real potential. Plus, personal growth and development can feel a lot less scary for folks who may be wondering why they tick the way they do. That said, I highly recommend the following resources:

Dodging Energy Vampires by Dr. Christiane Northrup

Playing Big by Tara Mohr

The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks

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