It's Mental Health Awareness Month in May of 2023 and I wanted to share this story about how The High Plains Drifters and the sport of fly fishing came through when it really mattered.
While brushing my teeth on the night of January 2, 2022 something really uncomfortable occurred. My hands started shaking, the muscles in my legs were contracting and I couldn't seem to control it. The only thing I could think to do was to try laying down. From bed I tried to manage my body but my mind started racing and my breathing was abnormal. It started to become a full body experience.
Imagine shivering from having a fever when you're sick, except there is no fever in this case.
My thoughts started to go down a darker path, quickly: What is wrong with me? Am I going to be like this forever? How will my son have a father who can be present? What will my loving partner think of me?
Needless to say, sleep wasn't going to be easy. The next morning, I was shaken up. I was worried that this would happen again - spoiler alert it was like this on and off for a week. Not knowing what else to do, I decided to make an appointment at my primary care physician who could see me the next day.
After another night of restless sleep, I was off to the doctor. The first thing the doctor wanted to do after hearing what happened was prescribe me with some version of an antidepressant/anxiety medication. As someone who had not experienced any of this in the past, I was hesitant that it was the correct "solution". I left the appointment shocked about the apparent ease of getting a prescription for something that impacts your brain chemistry. I didn’t quite trust the doctor at all let alone trust them to handle future dosages and get me through whatever was happening. Instead of starting with medication, we ran through a panel of tests to make sure there wasn't anything blatantly wrong.
The next obvious step was to find a therapist. Everyone kept telling me that what I was experiencing was panic or anxiety attacks. That was a hard thing to acknowledge and accept; it made me think something was "wrong" with me. One thing was for sure: my body was on high alert.
As if the lack of control over my body wasn’t enough, I also developed tinnitus in my ears. Certain sounds would send an electric "shock" through my body. I still couldn't get my mind to slow down. I could feel a tightness in my chest and the constant lightheadedness was somewhat disorienting at times.
At the advice of my therapist, I began creating routines. I started by going for a walk 2-3 times a day where I would try to just focus on the steps. I began to meditate to learn how to accept and cope with the unwavering uncertainty and accept that I might not know what the single trigger was.
On the positive side, riding the Peloton with anxiety helped me smash personal records. I would be riding to a 90s rock song and just start crying out of nowhere. This was so foreign to me.
By now you might be thinking "Alright, alright, I get it. When is this going to get to fly fishing?"
I kept hearing from others about getting outside more. I had friends over the years ask me to go fly fishing. My immediate answer was always "I don't have any gear or a license". Welp, all you need is a strong desire to fix something sometimes, so I went down to Discount Fishing since it was close to home and got geared up! Rod & reel, flies, waders, boots, bag, net, accessories. $1200 in a flash! I went home and watched hours of YouTube videos on knots, casting, river geography and drove up to Deckers the next day with no clue about what I was doing.
I didn't catch anything, but I had a moment of zen there on the river, where I wasn't thinking about the stuff that had been clogging my mind for 2 months at that point.
The guy at Discount mentioned some "fishing club" that's been around Denver forever. I registered as a member for that too (and FFI). Fortunately there was a monthly member meeting shortly after I signed up. I walked upstairs feeling like a complete imposter and the members welcomed me with open arms. I expressed my challenges and these strangers were more than willing to offer help with tips, techniques, and even offers of going fishing together. I was shocked! In hindsight, the community around HPD is critical to its long running success. At the time it just felt refreshing.
Through the High Plains Drifters members Facebook group, I was able to get hooked up with Tom C from 5280 Anglers who took my friend and I out to the Williams Fork. It was hog heaven there that day. I couldn't believe what I was seeing eat our flies.
Pardon the pun, but after that day, I was hooked. The serenity of the water, the complete and utter focus on the indicator floating on the surface of the river, it's nearly impossible to think about anything else. Shoot, I had to stop and remind myself to look around and take it all in.
Two weeks later, the HPD trip to Salida was where the deal was sealed. I showed up just before dark in my van and parked next to the creek near Jeff, the Club President, and a few others I didn't know at the time: Dwyne, Ed E, Rich, Ed W. In the morning, Jeff invited me in to his 5th wheel and help teach me about knots. What a relief! I spent 15 minutes tying up my rig the week before on Bear Creek. In a matter of a quick lesson and practicing over a coffee the confidence of going out with the group was clear to me. The fishing was tough that weekend for all HPD members, but the memory and time spent with the group was memorable and really helped set the tone for the rest of the year.
Shortly after this trip, I did end up on Lexapro. It messed with me a bit. And it helped a bit too. Sometimes you need to find out by trying something you're not comfortable with. , It turns out I was only on medication for 8 months and that was all I needed.
Fly Fishing didn't "fix" my anxiety and sometimes the struggle is real. The High Plains Drifters Club didn't fix my anxiety either. But both having a community and a place to go when it’s all too much has been a critical way I can fill my cup when I'm feeling depleted, or have too much on my mind. I am extraordinarily grateful I found HPD at the moment I needed it most.
-- written by Phil Lucks