How Skiing Saved My Life After a Silent Battle
This article originally appeared on Ski Mag
At 33, I skied for the first time and it changed my life forever. That afternoon of March 27, 2005, sparked a life-changing transformation that would alter my career path for the following decade. As a kid from New England, skiing was so foreign to me that I could never have pictured how it would become such a great source of healing and connection in my life. I can say with certainty that it was Stratton Mountain, a well-known ski resort in Vermont, and its ski run Upper Wanderer, where I truly began to heal from the severe anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that had ruled my life since early childhood.
Before that, I spent almost three decades living in silence about my struggles, without a voice, and afraid to remove the mask behind which I had been hiding since I was 7. Years of crippling anxiety had left me feeling unsafe and insecure, overwhelmed and exhausted from my daily battles with OCD. The intrusive thoughts with me during most of my waking hours and the countless rituals I performed to keep me "safe" from the boogeymen left me little time to be a kid. I felt different from everyone else; I thought I was broken and the only one. If I had only known the truth.
I was not open about my struggles for a very long time. I hid my daily battles well. I wasn't "ok," "good," or "fine," like I said. I was struggling. Sometimes a little and other times a lot, but always in silence. At the time, I thought I'd never share the details of my journey so openly with my family, let alone in any public forum.
A few months before I skied for the first time, I began seeing a therapist and unpacking some of the challenges plaguing me. I was in my therapist's office in New York City, having embarked on what has turned into an 18-year mental health journey. During one of our conversations, he softly suggested that I give skiing a try. Stubborn and defiant, as I often was back in those days, I blurted out, "But I hate skiing," a comment that makes me laugh now. With a wry smile, he looked at me through those deeply caring eyes and asked, "How do you know if you've never tried it?" As was often the case with Dr. K, he paused, letting the silence hang in the room like snow falling softly.
Fresh waffles were wafting through the Vermont air on that sunny, warm Sunday afternoon. After a relatively unsuccessful group lesson Saturday morning, a "collision" with a condo in the afternoon, and a slightly more productive private lesson Sunday morning, I was ready to board the gondola with my wife, a life-long skier, and tackle my first top-to-bottom run. At that moment, standing atop the highest point in Southern Vermont, with the snow turning to perfect "corn" (a term I'd come to learn and love almost a decade later), I marveled at the view that lay before me.
That day opened a new approach to living in the moment, appreciating nature, and sharing adventures with like-minded people. Upon reflection, I now recognize that Dr. K had seen before him an anxiety-riddled former high school and college athlete who might calm his racing mind by undertaking an entirely new experience filled with dopamine and pure joy.
In the 18 years since, skiing has brought me to many magical places. From Switzerland to New Zealand to Chile and back home to the Colorado Rockies, each journey and each ski run teaches me to embrace my inner child and let the joys the mountain has to offer take hold. It has shown me how to push through boundaries I once found impenetrable, share personal experiences I once thought unspeakable, and become part of a community that has welcomed me with open arms and never once judged me for my past struggles.
Fast forward to spring 2023, sitting in my home in Snowmass Village, Colorado, where I have just completed my twelfth season as a ski instructor for the Aspen Skiing Company. During these moments, during the off-season lull, I fully embrace my December 2021 post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis and the personal growth that has come from it. It's also a time when I give tremendous thanks to Dr. K, who, all those years before, gave me the keys to unlock a sport and lifestyle that has made me a better person, a better husband, and a believer in the healing power of nature.
I thank everyone who has taken this journey with me and invite you to continue exploring and growing for yourself with each skin or chairlift ride up and each run down.
Erik DaRosa is the Founder and Co-host of the mental health podcast “From Survivor to Thriver.”
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